Hotels are big business. In fact, it’s estimated that the hotel industry made around $500 billion dollars in 2014. In recent years, a secondary industry of companies has spawned, all of whom aim to make the hotel reservation process that bit easier.
But how many of them are any good?
I decided to sit down and look for the best hotel booking experience online, with a particular focus on those who are making it cheaper, easier and safer to get a room. Here are my definitive top 10.
Internet Booking Engines
There’s not a lot of room for innovation when it comes to hotel bookings. Despite that, these are some of the most interesting booking engines on the market right now. From killer reviews, to enticing loyalty programs, each of these sites are worth considering for your next stay.
TripAdvisor is perhaps the most quintessentially perfect travel websites ever launched. Since February 2000, they’ve helped travelers avoid bedbugs, food poisoning, and bad neighborhoods with their massive collection of accurate, user-generated restaurant and hotel reviews.
What makes TripAdvisor work is the fact that the integrity of their reviews can’t be faulted. Companies can respond to TripAdvisor reviews — and people have been sued and fined for bad ones — but TripAdvisor doesn’t let companies pay to remove negative reviews, making it a more reliable alternative to Yelp.
TripAdvisor can also be used to book hotel accommodation. Just search for the city or hotel you’re particularly interested in, and it’ll show you the best rates from across the Internet, alongside a collection of frank, honest reviews.
Booking.com is one of the oldest travel websites in the world. Launched in 1996, and recently acquired by US price comparison giant PriceLine, it offers affordable accommodation booking with an emphasis on flexibility and customer service.
Unlike many hotel booking sites, Booking.com lets you reserve your room online, but pay upon your arrival. This is handy for those — like myself — who prefer to use cash over cards.
It’s worth noting that in recent years, Booking.com has attracted a maelstrom of controversy over allegations they were limiting price competition on hotel room sales. Despite that, tens of millions (myself included) still trust them, and have found no fault with their pricing or service.
Hotels.com is one of the oldest travel companies we’re looking at in this article. First launched in 1991 as the Hotel Reservations Network before rebranding in 2002, Hotels.com has been helping people find accommodation for over two decades. So, it should come as no surprise that they’re really good at it.
One of the advantages of using Hotels.com over the competition is its very generous loyalty program that lends itself favorably for frequent travelers. For every 10 nights booked with Hotels.com, you get a free night stay equivalent to the average price of those ten bookings. If the hotel you choose to stay in costs more than that, you simply make up the difference.
People constantly search Google for hotel rooms, only to be directed to the likes of LastMinute and Expedia. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the Mountain View based search giant would eventually launch their own hotel search engine.
In typical Google style, Hotel Finder (which we first reviewed in 2011) is a very subdued affair. There’s none of the visual pizzaz found on other search engines. The form only asks the city and the dates of the stay. Then, it shows you the best deals, with each hotel presented on a map. Hotels can be aggregated based upon location, price, rating, amenities and hotel class.
Google Hotel Finder also highlights rooms it feels are particularly good value.
All things considered, Google Hotel Finder is one of the more compelling accommodation search engines around right now. It eschews gimmicks and visual-overload for a sleek, simple booking experience that works well.
Launched in 2010, Secret Escapes is a membership-based hotel booking website that focuses on the most opulent, high-end luxury hotels money can buy.
Secret Escapes is currently available in the UK, USA and a smattering of European territories. Its raison d’etre, and what differentiates it from the competition, is that it offers steep discounts on a carefully selected range of hotel stays and package holidays. Unlike many of the accommodation sites we’ve looked at, it even differentiates between family stays and solo travel, so you always end up in hotel suited for you.
Admittedly, Secret Escapes doesn’t have the widest selection of accommodation on offer, and price-wise it might be out of reach for money. But if money is no object, and you’ve got expensive tastes, it’s well worth a look.
App-Based Hotel Search Engines
It’s estimated that almost 1 out of every 5 hotel bookings are made from a mobile device. 65% of all same-day hotel bookings are made from a smartphone.
The travel industry, to their credit, have paid close attention to these trends, and have come up with a number of innovative ways to get a room from your mobile or tablet. My colleague, Mark O’Neill, listed some of the best for iOS recently. But here are some I think are worth considering.
Traditionally, the closer to the date you book a hotel room, the more expensive it is. But not with Hotel Tonight. This app bucks that trend by selling unsold rooms at a steep discount. Not just any hotel rooms, mind you. Hotel Tonight is extremely selective with what ends up on their app, and limit access to the best chains — mostly those from Accor Hotels and Holiday Inn — and beautiful boutique hotels and B&Bs.
Once you’ve selected your room, you pay by simply tracing the Hotel Tonight logo with your finger. It’ll then debit your saved credit card, and email you a receipt.
Edinburgh-based SkyScanner is already one of the most popular flight booking sites online. Now, they’re taking their bespoke-booking expertise, and applying it to hotels with SkyScanner Hotels, available online and through a dedicated mobile app.
And boy, is it a looker. SkyScanner Hotels is one of the most gorgeous, intuitive travel apps I’ve ever had the pleasure to use. But it’s more than just a pretty face. It expertly finds and presents a selection of rooms, all from a variety of well-known, trusted comparison sites, so you always get the cheapest offer.
As an added bonus, SkyScanner Hotels doesn’t charge any booking fees or surcharges, making it an even more compelling option for budget-conscious travelers.
Roomlia is, undoubtedly, one of the more obscure travel products on this list. That’s because they only recently launched, and are presently only operating in the American markets.
Much like Hotel Tonight, Roomlia offers those looking for last-minute accommodation the chance to book an affordable room. As an added bonus, it also incorporates a loyalty scheme, where seven bookings earns a free stay. Roomily is available as a free download for iOS and Android.
When a room isn’t sold, the hotel doesn’t make any money from it. As a result, hotels are all too eager to ensure that they run at full capacity, every night.
When demand is low, hotels often sell their rooms for a fraction of what they’d normally go for. This is usually done through partners like LastMinute and Expedia. But while they’re all too happy to sell rooms for a fraction of the cost, they don’t want to advertise that they’re not running at full capacity.
So, they resort to “secret hotels”, These are where customers buy the room, but they never know which particular hotel it is. It’s a win-win for both hotels and consumers.
LastMinute is one of the most popular travel websites in the UK and Europe. In many respects, it’s like a traditional hotel booking site. But with one vital difference — secret hotels.
LastMinute never tell you what hotel you’ll be booking into. They give you some clues though, like the star classification and any amenities. This is, quite often, enough to work out what hotel you’ll be booking into. For example, I was able to discern before booking that one hotel was actually the Hilton London Docklands, purely based upon the location, star classification, and the fact that it came with a pool and a free ferry service to the nearby financial district.
The bonus is that these secret hotels are ludicrously cheap. My stay at the Hilton Docklands ended up costing me £90 for two nights. A bargain anywhere you’d choose to look at it, but especially in London.
Expedia is another well known travel site. In fact, it’s probably the biggest one in the world. Much like LastMinute, Expedia features a number of secret hotels.
Here, the formula is still very much the same. You never find out where you’re booking into, but you’re given enough hints to work out. And yes, the rooms are generally much cheaper than their recommended retail price. Of course, prices and availability varies from site to site, so it’s a good idea to check both Expedia and LateRooms.
Expedia runs two kinds of secret hotel package. There’s Secret Saver, and Unpublished Rate Hotels. Unpublished Rate Hotels are only available in a handful of US markets, and focus more on chain hotels by the likes of Hilton, Accor, and others.
Where Will You Book Your Next Stay?
We’ve looked at 10 incredible hotel booking sites and apps. Maybe, you religiously use one of them. Or not.
Did we miss any? Do you have a personal favorite? Let me know in the comments below.