Book Your Heart Out, by Joel
On the face of it, reserving accommodation online should be fairly straightforward. But to capitalize on opportunities to snatch up a great room on the cheap, it’s worth understanding the motivations at play. The booking websites act as middlemen angling to grab a slice of your nightly room charge, preferably upfront and non-refundable. As the consumer, your goal is to avoid paying anything in advance, sidestep service fees and reserve the right to cancel as late as possible with no penalty. But with so many websites that seem to offer similar services, it can be a dizzying, time-consuming pain to parse the fine print. So allow me to demystify the process, and hopefully save you some money and time when you next go to book a hotel online.
Tripadvisor is a great place to start for crowdsourced ratings and candid reviews. Using the site as a room search aggregator, Tripadvisor allows you to compare nightly rates across various booking websites and provides links to reserve through them. The drawbacks are in the details: the asterisk next to the price is a red flag that service fees are forthcoming, so you can’t trust the numbers shown. The price matrix also can’t always distinguish between a cheap bed in a hostel dorm and a private room, so cost comparisons get distorted. Try using Tripadvisor as a general search engine to see what hotel and hostel options are out there, how favorably they’re rated and reviewed, and even what ballpark prices run, but do your comparison shopping elsewhere.
Like Tripadvisor, Hostelz.com is an aggregator website, but specializes in hostel booking. Unlike its counterpart, Hostelz shows accurate price comparisons for the same room, and will book your reservation through its partners without leaving the page. However, Hostelz sometimes charges a fee for this service, and often requires a 10-15% deposit on its rooms.
So if Tripadvisor and Hostelz compile and compare prices across different booking websites, these sites themselves vary widely in their terms and conditions. While Hostelbookers prominently advertises “No Booking Fees,” it requires a nonrefundable 12-15% down payment that it keeps for brokering the reservation, which for all intents and purposes amounts to a booking fee. On the upside, they offer a relatively lenient cancellation policy of two days advance notice to get the remainder of your money back.
Likewise, Hostelworld offers a two-day window to modify or cancel your booking, but requires the same steep percentage deposit. Additionally, Hostelworld allows you to insure your down payment with “flexible deposit protection” for an extra $2/night, so in the event of cancellation your money rolls over to a future reservation. For both these sites, the claim of “Fee-Free Booking” is misleading, a mere mantra on their website banners that these companies hope will distract from the reality that a non-refundable down payment is, de-facto, a booking fee.
While offering the same price guarantee as its parent corporation Priceline, Agoda - a booking site that predominantly lists Asian hotels - suffers from the same asterisk syndrome as Tripadvisor. That is, its listed prices consistently fail to include up to 20% in hotel, city, and other taxes. So while the Agoda price might appear on Tripadvisor to be the lowest, it usually turns out to be at the higher end once the taxes are calculated, which its website conveniently waits until the final page to display. Agoda does, however, offer a pay later feature and a variable cancellation policy set by the property - though too often a flat charge of $15 for cancellation or changes to a reservation applies.
With yet another scheme to skim some off the top, Venere.com charges a nominal extra fee if you choose to pay upon arrival rather than in advance, though it often provides free cancellation.
Booking.com is currently the only major booking site that allows you to book a room without a deposit. It offers free cancellation on most rooms, often up until the check-in date. For the traveler wishing to keep their itinerary loose, this feature trumps all, providing unparalleled flexibility in case of delay or change of plans, along with the peace of mind and time-savings of having a confirmed room upon arrival. And where other sites require your credit card information to charge the deposit or booking fee (if not the whole reservation), Booking.com will only request that info if the property requires it. The fewer parties with access to your credit card numbers the better, right?
So Booking.com wins! But of course, there are catches here as well. No-fee booking hasn’t caught on at the same clip uniformly across Asia, so you’ll find almost entirely fee-free booking in China, whereas many Philippine and Thai properties are footnoted with special conditions, ie: non-refundable first night, or even payment of the entire reservation upfront. Also, not all hotels and hostels have signed on with Booking.com, so it’s worth a look elsewhere to see what options you’ve missed.
Even in the same city, cancellation policies will vary wildly for comparable accommodation, so it pays to weigh the features and crunch the numbers. Our approach for this trip has been to err on the side of noncommittal when it comes to reservations, while still shooting for the best value for our money.
words by Joel.