All of these opinions are my own. I’m not compensated in any way by any of the companies named herein, and I have received $0 in comps or benefits. This is simply a summary of what I’ve learned after booking hotel stays in about 100 destinations throughout Europe.
Here is an “Executive Summary” of which sites I recommend:
Go!Go!Go! (My Can’t-Live-Without Sites)
- TripAdvisor® (used for research only: review score; reviews; pictures; insight/advice). THE BEST online source for amateur photos of everything, which is what you want to avoid the “it looked better in the pictures” travel nightmare.
- Google (used for research only)
- Google Maps (for location analysis and virtual tours)
- Reviews on Google Maps (for backup review scores)
Go!Go! (My Preferred Sites)
- Third party booking sites (used for actually booking the hotel – which of these sites to use depends on your preference on Membership program, usability, and mobile app. I like Expedia’s points/membership program the best, and I like booking.com usability, app, and way they organize room options the best)
- Expedia – Membership program provides savings even if you don’t travel too often. If you do get status, their customer service is very good.
- Booking.com – Provides the best selection of smaller, independent hotels throughout Europe. I use this site to lock up a bunch of REFUNDABLE hotels as the process to book and cancel is very easy and reliable.
- Hotels.com – An Expedia owned site. Book 10 nights and get 1 free (value is the average of your 10 nights).
2. Book directly with hotel at their website – this is the best way to ensure best customer service and best room location. If I have Membership status with Hilton, Starwood, Marriott, Hyatt, etc., I usually book directly with the site, especially if I only want to book a standard room but hope for an upgrade or better room location.
Go! (These Sites are Only for Certain Situations)
- Bidding/Auction sites (used for booking the best price only and not to be used if there is a risk of having to cancel the room). FORGET all the commercials about Expedia or Hotels.com or Booking or Trivago…NONE of them have consistently cheaper rates than the others. Only bidding/auction sites really offer significantly lower prices.
- AMEX FHR site (used for booking select 5-star hotels in certain situations) – worst usability and navigation of all sites. Only worth using because of the perks that go along with booking through their site with Platinum Card.
No!Go! (I Don’t Use These for Hotels): Kayak, Trivago or TripAdvisor (for actually booking a room) – The main selling point of these sites is that they search all the other websites for you. That is not a service you need.
WHICH CATEGORY OF HOTEL BOOKING WEBSITE ARE YOU?
We are all inundated with travel booking website advertisements, all touting the lowest prices and best selection. What are we to believe? Which site should you use? The truth is that you do not need a website like Trivago, Kayak or TripAdvisor to search all the sites for you. At least for me, searching “all” the sites isn’t a viable option anyway, as I don’t want to set up a new account with a new website or possibly have to deal with a new, unknown website’s customer service. Also, the truth is the prices don’t vary much at all from site to site anyway. Most pricing is pulled from the same database by all resellers/3rd– party websites. Anytime you see a significant savings advertised on one site, it is likely that room has less cancellation flexibility or is a different room category than the others.
In sum, it doesn’t matter which website you use, it matters which CATEGORY of website you use.
With that in mind, I recommend you that you first decide which of the below categories you fall into:
CATEGORY 1: PRICE/VALUE/DEAL SHOPPER – Do you want the lowest possible price on any 4 or 5 star hotel (no preference on which hotel or the type of room)? Or,
CATEGORY 2: LOYAL SHOPPER – Do you want to use your same, trusted brand that you already have points accumulated with from past vacations or work travel and you want to collect or use points? Or,
CATEGORY 3: SHORT ON TIME, SPARE NO EXPENSE SHOPPER – Do you want a reliable, proven to be exceptional, five-star hotel with the most perks and extras and you are not very price sensitive? Or,
CATEGORY 4: BEST OVERALL EXPERIENCE SHOPPER – Do you want to find the absolute best room at the best hotel for the most memorable travel experience? Price and brand can be a factor, but ultimately you want the best room at the best hotel for you.
Once you decide where you land, I can tell you which websites to use when booking your vacation hotels! Depending on how you answered the above, here is what you need to know…
CATEGORY 1: PRICE/VALUE/DEAL SHOPPER
There are only 2 ways to truly get consistently, significantly lower hotel prices. If you truly want the lowest price, you don’t have to search hundreds of sites, or have a metasearch site search hundreds of sites for you, you only need to know two sites: Priceline and Hotwire. In both cases, the main thing to know is that your rooms will be non-refundable, and you won’t know the name of your hotel until after you pay the non-refundable amount. As most people schedule vacations far in advance, having a non-refundable reservation is risky. It’s also risky not knowing the exact hotel until AFTER you are booked! However, if you want to save 40%, 50% or more off the rates on a hotel across all the other sites, including the actual hotel’s website, you have to use one of these approaches:
- BIDDING: Bid on a hotel, without knowing which hotel you’ll end up being assigned. However, you will know the neighborhood, star rating, amenities, and review score prior to purchasing. The catch, they are non-refundable. Also, what bothers me about these sites and why I prefer option “2” below, is if I bid $100 on a 4-star hotel, for example, and I get it, I immediately wonder if I could’ve gotten it for $95, or $90. If you want to bid, the premier site to book hotels with this method is www.priceline.com.
- MYSTERY HOTEL: Buy a hotel blindly. Very similar to “1” above, in that you won’t know which hotel you book until after you pay for it, but instead of entering the max bid you’ll pay, you’re presented with an exact pricing offer. Similar to the bidding process, you’ll know the hotel’s star rating, neighborhood, amenities, and review score. Again, once you purchase, if you don’t like the hotel choice, too bad, it’s non-refundable. The premier site to book hotels with this method is www.hotwire.com. Expedia also offers the same deal as a “mystery hotel” option on their site. Remember, Expedia owns Hotwire so the deals are the same, so it typically doesn’t matter which one you use. I tend to use Expedia simply because I have signed up for the Expedia points system and earn points with each booking.
One strategy if you really want to try to save every possible dollar is to look at Hotwire first, find out their provided prices for the various star ratings and neighborhoods that you’re looking for, and then bid 10% below that price for the same star rating and neighborhood on Priceline.
What you need to know about these approaches:
- Priceline and Hotwire typically assign you a “base” or “standard” room. Sometimes they will indicate that the room you are booking (at the mystery hotel) is a suite or deluxe room, but a majority of the time you will get the “run of house”, which usually means one of their worst rooms. So, if you want to ensure a view, a suite, a deluxe room, a certain floor, etc., don’t book with these sites. Again, the main, driving factor to these sites is they offer, by FAR, the best discounts/prices on room rates. I’ve consistently saved 35%-60% using Hotwire.
- Hotwire and the Expedia Mystery Hotel option will both offer you multiple hotel options at the same star level, and in the same neighborhood. You have to pay attention to ensure you are getting a great discount. I typically only book the options that show the retail price of the room crossed out and the new price below, or that advertises the %age saved, and I’m careful to double check that I found a discount that is a significant savings.
- If you get assigned the Hyatt, for example, you do NOT get Hyatt points or credit for your stay. Same goes for all other hotel frequent stay membership programs. Again, it’s a no frills option, but it gives you the lowest nightly price compared to other sites.
- The biggest question when booking this way is, obviously, “which hotel will I get”? Well, there are sites dedicated to helping you figure this out. While nothing is 100% guaranteed, using sites like www.betterbidding.com can help you narrow down the probability of which hotel you’ll get based on other user’s recent experiences. It’s an incredibly useful tool, I recommend it!
- Some of these sites are offering insurance or an extra fee to allow your reservation to be refundable. Depending on the cost, this could be worth it, but I’ve never purchased it.
- I didn’t include travel auction sites here as I don’t use them. I find that the fine print on any type of travel auction is too limiting and punitive, so I don’t recommend it.
Despite the limitations and risk, when used properly, Hotwire has served me very well through the years. I’ve probably used it at least 30-40 times, although primarily for work travel, and I’ve only been disappointed once or twice. Back when the US dollar was only worth about half of what the pound was worth in the UK, I used Hotwire to book our hotel in the notoriously expensive city of London. We were able to get a nice room at the Sofitel in Central London for only $250 per night. Other five star hotels on the same night, and the regular price at the Sofitel, started in the mid $400s.
HONORABLE MENTION: LAST MINUTE PURCHASE: Buy a hotel last minute. In this approach, you wait until 24 hours or less before you need a room, and then book. Your procrastination can be rewarded with savings. Also, in this case, you will know the name of the hotel before you book; however, the selection is often very small…limited to just a handful of hotel options. The savings are also, in my experience, not as dramatic as Priceline or Hotwire. Of course, it’s also a risky approach if the rooms are all sold out or if they don’t offer a hotel in the star category you’re looking for. If you want to give this a try, the premier site to book hotels with this method is www.hoteltonight.com.
CATEGORY 2: LOYAL SHOPPER – MEMBERSHIP POINTS
If you have Gold or Platinum status or the equivalent with a specific hotel chain, and you want to keep adding to your obscene point total while basking in all the upgrades and other perks, I totally understand the decision to stick with Marriott, Starwood, Hyatt, Hilton, or the other US hotel companies. They also typically have nice, reliable hotels all over the world. Again, you don’t need to search hundreds of sites, just the one. My only advice and minor caution when going this route is to at least take a look at what the rooms look like before you book. Many of these companies have specific brands in Europe that offer boutique hotels, rooms with character, and an overall hotel experience very different than your last stay in the US. In those cases, you get a unique travel experience while also earning points and getting your membership rewards. However, I’ve also seen US brand hotels in Europe where the hotel rooms feel like almost every other hotel room you’ve already stayed at in the US, which, at least for us, makes the stay notably less exciting and memorable.
If you do want to stick with a particular company in order to earn points, be sure to do a search on that hotel company’s website, and do not use a 3rd party site, so you can get a full list of all the properties they have in the city you’re visiting. You’ll be surprised which hotels in Europe are owned by US companies and available to either use your points or collect points. Then, look through them and see if any of them have a particular view, suite, location, or perhaps have a brand located in a historic building.
Finally, while it’s easiest to book directly with the hotel, and while that will ensure you receive the optimum perks and best customer service if something happens with the booking, some people do like to “double dip” and book through a 3rd party site that also offers membership points. If you go that route, be sure to opt for the “pay later” option when checking out, otherwise you won’t get your points or credit for your stay. That said, I don’t always trust that approach and prefer to book directly with the hotel on their website.
CATEGORY 3: SPARE NO EXPENSE SHOPPER
Let me start with a reminder: I’ve never been paid a single dollar or given a dollar discount on any travel booking as a result of this blog. I have no sponsors, and collect no payment. That said, I have been very pleased, overall, with our use of the Fine Hotels and Resorts (FHR) program provided by American Express for being a Platinum Card holder.
I was a little disappointed with the Maria Cristina hotel in San Sebastian and we didn’t get an upgrade at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Other than those instances, I’ve gotten tremendous value when booking through the Amex Platinum website.
While you’ll typically pay the full, undiscounted room rate, meaning you can often find the same room cheaper on other sites for the same night’s stay, the perks and benefits often outweigh the extra room cost, for us. Further, every once in a while, the room on the Amex FHR site is the same price as it is on other third party sites. In those instances, book it!
When you book through the FHR site and pay with your Platinum Amex, you get free breakfast for two, free wifi, the coveted room upgrade (when available) and $100 credit toward food/drink or the spa. Typically, the breakfast buffets at these hotels are legendary, and would run you, on average, about $40-$75 per day per person. When you add that up along with the $100 credit and the room upgrade, you’ll really end up getting an incredible value at a world-class, five-star property.
Although the room upgrades depend greatly on the season and the night(s) you’re staying, we’ve had some amazing experiences. At the Ritz in Maui, we were upgraded to a $1000/night suite despite paying only $400/night for the room. We received similar upgrades in Madrid, Copenhagen, and Berlin.
Another similar program is the Leading Hotels of the World (LHW). While there is some overlap, we are also members of this luxury travel program. It’s an annual fee of $150, which you more than make up if you use their membership for even a single reservation during the year. We used them in Bern at the lovely Hotel Schweizerhof and received a wonderful room upgrade as well as free breakfast (normally $50 per person per morning). In one stay, we covered the annual cost.
The downside: The only real downside to booking through FHR or LHW is there are a limited number of hotels, and you miss out on considering some of the boutique luxury properties, funky local hotels, or highly reviewed four-star hotels that might have a suite that’s nicer than the room you get at a five-star hotel, and for the same price (or less). What I recommend is this: start out going the CATEGORY 4 route and look at all properties to find your short list of favorites. If you reach the conclusion that a five-star property is your hotel of choice anyway, THEN check these sites to see their prices and availability.
CATEGORY 4: BEST OVERALL EXPERIENCE SHOPPER
I have points and some status with Marriott, Hilton, Starwood and others, and I also have an Amex Platinum Card (see CATEGORY 3 above), but this is the approach I always start with when researching a city or town we’re visiting in Europe. Below is a summary of my 10-step process that has resulted in zero hotel regrets over the past decade of traveling:
Step 1: Go to www.tripadvisor.com, and type in the name of the city or town, and then select “Hotels” to pull up the TripAdvisor® list of best hotels for a given destination.
Step 2: Sort the Hotels. TripAdvisor does this annoying thing where they default their hotel rankings to the “best value” option. I don’t want an algorithm or (even worse) a sponsored listing determining the best value for me. I always make sure to click on “Travel Ranked” option as seen below.
Step 3: Create your shortlist. Go down the list of hotels starting at the #1 ranked hotel and look at the following components of each hotel listing:
- Does it have at least 4.5 out of 5 circles with at least 250 reviews? (Note: smaller towns or newer hotels might not have 100 reviews yet, so make exceptions where it makes sense). Also keep an eye out for TripAdvisor® award logos such a “top luxury” or “top bargain”.
- Price – you’ll see pricing examples for base rooms from 4-5 different sites right there on the same row. Use those prices to decide if the hotel is in your price range.
- Picture – what does the lead picture look like? While it’s not great to use a single picture to make this kind of decision, sometimes you can tell right away from the main picture that the hotel is not right for you.
- Brand/Star rating – Look for brands you know and/or star ratings. Remember 4 star in Europe is usually 3-3.5 star compared to what you’re used to in the US. TripAdvisor® usually has at least a few 2 and 3-star hotels in the top 20-30 hotels in the listings. If you can only afford a 2-3 star hotel, be sure it’s a highly rated one and at the very least it’ll be a clean room and a well-managed facility.
For any hotel that passes the four tests above, right click on the hotel name and select “open in a new tab”. I usually add about 8-15 tabs initially to consider, which I normally get to by hotel #30-#40 overall.
Step 4: Create your finalist list. Go through each tab one-by-one and delete the tabs for hotels that, after further inspection, can be ruled out. This is the point where I start ruling out by location first. On each hotel’s page, you can click on a map link to see where it’s located. Look for proximity to Metros, if it’s in walking distance to areas/attractions you want to visit, and the general neighborhood. Once it passes the location test, move on to the picture evaluation.
Go!Go!Go! The reason TripAdvisor® is so valuable is because star ratings are a very poor way to evaluate a hotel. There are many, many four and five-star hotels that have dated rooms, poor service, or are poorly located. There are many, many three or four-star hotels that are new, or newly renovated, and have much nicer, cleaner facilities that some five-star hotels. Also, I often find that a suite or deluxe room at a new or renovated three or four-star hotel can be vastly superior to a base room at a five-star hotel, for the same or lower price. This is especially true if you don’t need five-star amenities like a spa or a concierge, which we rarely use when traveling in Europe (the US has spas that are just as good and you don’t need a concierge if you do your homework/research). The TripAdvisor® reviews, rankings, and pictures can help you identify both five-star rip-offs and 3-4-star bargains.
What really sets TripAdvisor apart from other travel sites is the incredible volume of traveler pictures and reviews that they have on their site. Other sites have reviews and pictures, but nowhere close to the volume that TripAdvisor® has.
When you go to TripAdvisor® photos, you have 3 options:
- You can look at “management” photos. These are typically the photos approved by the hotel management and that are available on the hotel’s website. For me, these photos are the LEAST useful and the ones I trust the LEAST. I only use them if they have a specific picture of a room and the room type, but I still double check that information.
- TripAdvisor® “professional” photos. These are typically photos from www.oyster.com that are integrated into TripAdvisor®. I love this, and this is the source I trust the MOST when it comes to matching a specific room to a set of photos. In other words, if I’m wondering if the Jr. Suite is worth the extra, say $200 per night over a base room, Oyster.com is where I look because they do the very BEST job of labeling the exact room with each clear, honest picture.
- TripAdvisor® “traveler” photos. These are photos taken by regular, everyday travelers like you and me. It’s true that sometimes regular traveler pictures can be unfair to the hotel and make rooms/amenities look worse than they are, but more often than not they are extremely useful for two reasons:
- They can show pictures of the room in its most recent state. Many hotels take a while to update the photos on their website, but TripAdvisor may show pictures from as recent as that day or the day before, so you can see if a room has been updated, renovated, or changed. You can also see if there is construction out your window or something like that.
- They can help you guard against expecting the glamorously and professionally airbrushed or staged photos on a hotel’s website. Almost everyone has seen a photo of a room or a pool or a spa on a hotel’s website and then become disappointed when arriving in person. These regular people photos on TripAdvisor are the very best way to prevent this disappointment.
To sum up, to help you decide which room at which hotel would be the most memorable for your trip, use TripAdvisor® photos to find out if a potential hotel has recently been renovated, to see what the different types of rooms look like without being photo-shopped, and to help decide which room category is the right room for you.
Step 5: Google Maps: In addition to TripAdvisor® photos, be sure to check hotels you are considering on Google Maps. In addition to a better user experience than the TripAdvisor® maps, you’ll see names of nearby restaurants, bars, and attractions. Best of all, click on the little man to activate the 360 picture view and look for orange circles in your hotel. The orange circles indicate a virtual tour of the hotel is available. If you find one, you’re in luck, as these show 360 view high-def images throughout the property and specific rooms. It’s a great tool to get a good look at a room before you commit.
Step 6: Explore Room Options: Once you’ve narrowed down to 3-6 hotels, take a look at the cost for the upgraded rooms and suites and if there are any specific rooms with great views or special amenities that are worth paying up for. Use TripAdvisor® and the Hotel’s website to confirm that the pictures match the particular rooms or suites correctly. It’s very easy to be misled and think you’re going to walk into a room that matches a picture you really liked, only to walk into a room you’ve never seen. Be sure to use TripAdvisor, the hotel’s website, and Google to confirm the room matches the picture.
I also email the hotel to confirm that the hotel room I want is the one I’m booking. I’ve been amazed at how quickly and reliably European hotels – even small or locally owned hotels – get back to me and how helpful those responses can be. I highly recommend reaching out to the hotel if you have any questions.
Step 7: Book a BUNCH: Almost every trip we take, I book at least 3-5 different hotels as soon as I think they might be a contender. As long as you pay careful attention to the “cancel reservation” policy and make note of the last date you have to cancel without penalty, this approach can be a wonderful way to reserve several rooms at different hotels to buy you some time while you make up your mind. I always use a single booking site so I can simply go to “my trips” and cancel when I need to cancel. Obviously, if you make a bunch of reservations through a bunch of different sites, you run the risk of forgetting to cancel one or more rooms. Booking.com has very clear cancellation policy, almost always allows you to “pay later” with $0 deposit so you aren’t tying up any funds, have an excellent “My” page, and they make cancelling super easy. NOTE: If you’re traveling to a popular destination at a popular time, feel free to reserve a room or two earlier in this process, just to make sure you’ll have something that works, and then do all the research you need to in order to find the best hotel and room for your trip.
Step 8: Quick Check B&B’s and Specialty Hotels: My wife and I are terrified of most B&B’s and avoid them at all costs. We have never stayed at an AirB&B or equivalent, and likely never will, as we get the creeps staying in a stranger’s house. That’s just us. However, sometimes TripAdvisor® has small, luxurious, boutique hotels categorized as a B&B or a Specialty Hotel. Some of these can be wonderful stay experiences, but you won’t find them listed under the default, “hotel” category on TripAdvisor. When you’re on the page that lists all the hotels (in order of ranking) on the left side of the page is where you can select “B&B’s” or “Specialty Lodging”. For these, I only stay somewhere with 5 circles and at least 100 reviews. I usually don’t go below the top 5 for either of these categories, and be sure to look at pictures. Finally, if you go this route, be sure to confirm private, en-suite bathrooms for each room.
Step 9: Make a decision: If you’re having trouble deciding, in addition to looking again at photos and/or virtual tours, I also look at user reviews, as well as taking a closer look at location and value:
- Go!Go!Go! TripAdvisor® reviews. In addition to having the most available (and useful) pictures, TripAdvisor® has the most available (and useful) user reviews. The search engine feature that allows you to look for key words in all reviews is an amazing feature. I always search for “noise” and “clean” to get an idea of how many people complained about those two items in their reviews. You have to keep in mind that there is ALWAYS someone that complains about something, so don’t overreact to a few bad reviews. Look for complaints that show up in more than 15-20% of the total review numbers and discount any complains that show up less often.
Also, just above the review search engine bar, is a list of words that show up most frequently across all reviews. Give this list a quick scan to look for anything exciting or suspicious. For example, if you see the word “view” or “view suite”, then be sure to look for which category of room has the view and try to find a picture of the view. If you see “bugs”, well, cross that one off your list!
- Location: Fine tune previous location research. If you haven’t looked up your potential properties on Google Maps yet, do it, and check the walking/driving distances from the different hotels to the main areas/attractions you want to visit.
- The “Memorability” Factor: This is the point when I compare prices for different precise rooms at different hotels and look for anything that might make that stay special. For us, it might be a view, or it might be a room with historic architecture, or it might just be a room that’s extraordinarily unique or fancy. Again, sometimes a high-end suite at a lesser known hotel with much more room, newly renovated cleanliness, better in-room amenities, and a view will be the same price as a dated, base room with a garden view at a hotel like The Four Seasons or The Ritz. Vacations are meant to be memorable. If you’re down to a few hotels or a few room options, ask yourself which one would be the most memorable and go with it, even if it’s more expensive.
Step 10: Decide which site to book with:
- If the hotel is included on the AMEX FHR list and the FHR price is the same or not much more expensive than on Expedia or Booking, I book with AMEX in order to take advantage of the perks.
- If it’s not an AMEX FHR hotel, or if the AMEX FHR price is unreasonably higher than other sites, I either:
- Book directly with the hotel (sometimes required for certain suites or room types, also typically better service)
- Book on the Third-party site of my choice – usually Expedia.
- If I can’t find any hotel that stands out or looks special at a reasonable price, then I consider using Hotwire and look at their rates for 5-star properties.
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