Do your homework to find the right hotel

The undercover shoppers at Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook did nearly 2,000 searches for hotel room rates and found that most travel-booking sites and hotel websites serve up the same prices. Want a hotel bargain? It will require effort.

Although dozens of travel-booking websites seem to fight one another for our travel dollars, there is scant price competition for hotel bookings. Agoda, Booking.com, Expedia, Hotels.com, Hotwire, Kayak, Momondo, Orbitz, Priceline, Travelocity, Trivago and many others are owned by travel giants Expedia Inc. or Booking Holdings, which together dominate the third-party online hotel-booking business.

The good news? There are some ways to save money — and avoid trouble — when booking hotel rooms.

Shop around a bit.

Despite mostly finding the same hotel room prices across most platforms, shopping around sometimes scored surprising deals. For example, for a three-night stay at the Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek, the best total price (including fees and taxes) for a refundable rate on the hotel’s website for a “1 King Bed” room was $1,137. Most other major websites offered it for $936, but it was available at Booking.com for only $739 and even less — only $508 — for prepaid nonrefundable rate.

To find bargains, be patient and remain flexible.

Compare costs among properties that offer roughly the same amenities. Besides being flexible on hotel selection, consider alternative destinations and dates.

Hotwire Hot Rate and Priceline Express Deals remain the most consistent ways to get sizable discounts, but there’s a catch.

While the agreements between hotels and travel-booking websites don’t allow advertising different prices for the same room and dates, companies are permitted to offer lower rates if they restrict access to certain groups. For example, members of AAA or AARP might qualify for small discounts and, if you sign up for emails or membership with a hotel chain or booking website, you may be able to “unlock” lower prices.

Some companies circumvent hotel-pricing restrictions with “mystery deals,” such as Hotwire’s “Hot Rate” specials and Priceline’s “Express Deals.” When these rates were available, these two booking options consistently provided Checkbook’s shoppers with the lowest prices.

Hotwire’s and Priceline’s mystery deals are a slight gamble: While they do display hotels’ neighborhoods, star levels, average guest ratings, amenities and other features, they don’t provide properties’ names and exact addresses until after you’ve paid — no backing out.

Nonrefundable rates offer savings.

Most hotels now offer lower rates if you pay upfront for a nonrefundable booking; third-party booking sites do the same.

Don’t forget to ask about discounts for students, older adults, military service, teachers, AAA, AARP, etc.

Hotels and booking websites usually list these types of discounts (5 percent or so) on their websites, if available.

Stack savings with cashback shopping portals.

Companies including Rakuten, BeFrugal, Mr. Rebates and others help consumers score cash rebates for all kinds of purchases. These websites work with companies that pay commissions when they send them business; the sites then share a portion of those proceeds with customers.

Want to stay at a specific hotel? See if it offers perks for booking direct.

Because booking websites and hotels mostly offer the same rates for specific stays, consider reserving directly with the hotel company, which might provide better room selection, free upgrades, bonus rewards points or other perks.

Don’t rush.

Hotel room prices tend to get less expensive the longer you wait to book.

Don’t obsess about earning points.

Don’t pass up a great deal just because it doesn’t include staying with your preferred hotel brand for accumulating points. Hotel chains continue to cheapen their rewards programs.

After booking, keep monitoring prices.

Especially if you can cancel or change flights, lodging or car rentals without penalty, keep an eye on rates, and rebook if they plunge.

Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. Through special arrangement, Star Tribune readers can access all of Checkbook’s ratings and advice free through Jan. 5 via Checkbook.org/StarTribune/Hotels.

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