At the risk of boring you to death, I am going to talk a little about what happens “under the hood” when you book a hotel room on a travel site, partly because I like talking about this stuff (I’m weird that way), but mostly because a little inside knowledge can go a long way to help you save money and avoid pitfalls the next time you book a stay somewhere.
I’m going to start with a short history lesson. Long ago (i.e. the 80’s and 90’s) travel agents used to book hotel reservations by typing on green screens which were connected to global distribution systems which were connected to “switches” which were connected to property management systems. The technology was slow and clunky and, because some descriptions were limited to only 35 characters, agents had to decipher crazy abbreviations like “INCL BFST 1D CTY VW” in order to know what they were booking. (A city view double room with breakfast included). That was before anyone knew what “WTF” meant.
When the internet came, the first online travel sites tapped into the same systems and relayed the same info in a similarly confusing way. Then smart companies like Expedia and Booking.com cropped up with lots of money who said “Screw this, we’re going to find a better way”. They built brand new technology from scratch that bypassed most of the legacy systems and, with armies of sales reps across the globe, they began signing up hotels to their new and better way. Relatively speaking, their websites were easy, pretty, and fast. They delighted travelers (and investors) and became so popular that hotels everywhere wanted to offer big discounts in order to get noticed by their growing customer bases.
Fast forward to today and there are still two parallel universes for hotel room sales. Hotels sell rooms through their own websites and through their travel management company partners using aging distribution pipes that require a lot of sausage-making behind the scenes. And separately, they sell rooms through Expedia, Booking, and other consumer websites with newer, modern technology more conducive to selling online.
This might sound like a lot of inside baseball, but the reason you should care is that when you book a hotel on a consumer site like Expedia, Booking.com, Hotels.com, Travelocity, Orbitz, Priceline, or Hotwire there are important differences vs. when you book directly or through a traditional travel management company -- even though on the surface it may look the same. That’s not to say that booking on a consumer site is bad. Sometimes it’s the best way to go. At AmTrav, we offer both kinds of rates and let you compare them side by side. Each has its pros and cons. We really want you to understand the differences.
The Good Things About Consumer Rates
Rates on consumer sites are often, though not always, cheaper. This is especially true if you are a registered, logged-on user on the consumer site because then you’ll qualify for special “Member Only” deals at some hotels. (AmTrav offers these rates and their Member Only versions, too -- see below).
Consumer sites tend to offer more hotels than traditional corporate booking channels, especially independent properties (i.e. ones that are not part of chains) that are outside of North America. Some of these properties simply aren’t shown on traditional travel management company booking tools.
The Thing About Consumer Rates that You Might Find Good and Might Find Bad
Whereas with typical hotel bookings you pay for the room upon checkout, some consumer site hotel rooms have to be prepaid, meaning you pay up front at the time of booking. This is bad because you have to lay cash out sooner; but it’s a huge convenience if you want to pay with a credit card that doesn’t belong to the traveler.
The Drawbacks of Consumer Rates
This is important: if you book on a consumer site, you won’t earn loyalty points in programs like Hilton Honors or Marriott Bonvoy.
In many cases with consumer hotel bookings, the hotel won’t provide a folio at checkout because technically the room was bought from the online travel site and not directly from the hotel. This causes friction for some travelers who need folios for their expense reports.
Some hotels who resent the high commissions that online travel agencies charge (but who can’t live without their business) seem to take their frustration with the model out on the travelers who come through those channels. They assign them the worst rooms or don’t offer an upgrade when they otherwise would. These stories are anecdotal and it's hard to quantify how widespread the problem is, but what is consistently true is that if you’re an elite member in a hotel’s loyalty program, you won’t get your benefits when you book through a leisure-oriented site.
It’s fair to say that all things being equal, it’s generally better to avoid booking a consumer-type rate. But things are not always equal. Often, the savings are really significant. Then what?
Although there is no one-size-fits-all answer, AmTrav tries hard to at least make you aware of all your options. Our searches aggregate standard “direct” rates with those found on the large consumer sites and we even add a third category -- contract rates, where we negotiate a discount either for all AmTrav customers, or specifically on your company’s behalf. Our goal is twofold: to let you book any type of rate from our tool, seamlessly, but also to make sure you know what you’re getting when you make your choice.
On a2b, we designate as “Leisure Rates” ones that come from consumer sites and are subject to the limitations above. We call out the fact that you can’t earn loyalty points with a “No Points” badge.
Here’s a sample of what it looks like:
In fairness, we’re not the only ones who pull together consumer rates and corporate ones for hotel bookings. Some of our best competitors do, too. But showing a lot of rates is only half the battle. The bigger challenge is presenting them in a way that’s clear and sensible and makes it obvious what you’re getting for what you pay. To provide a great user experience, we need to match rates from different content providers which are actually for the same exact room type. In other words, we have to know that that room that comes from one source with the description “1D CTY VW INCL BFST” is the same as the room from another source labeled “City View Double Room with Breakfast Included.” For every room type in the hotel, we want to be able to show all the different rates available, along with an image of what the room looks like and a detailed description of the room. This is a lot harder than it sounds. We’re still working to get better at it, in some cases literally property-by-property and room-by-room.
Our hotel booking engine isn’t perfect, but we think it's the best in the business. As the industry works to modernize the pipes that underpin hotel distribution, we’ll stay on the front lines of that battle. Happily, we’ve reached a point where you don’t need to comparison shop multiple sites -- you can be confident we have all the rates. But you do need to understand what you’re selecting.
With hotel booking being so surprisingly complicated, we try to do the heavy lifting for you to shield you from that complexity. Don’t worry, though, if at times you find all the options too confusing -- you’re not alone. Our team is ready to help so please reach out anytime!Things You Should Know Before Booking Your Next Hotel Stay