Reactions have been mixed to the Wall Street Journal’s story revealing that, in some cases, Orbitz shows Mac users higher-priced hotel results than those displayed to people searching with PCs. The practice seems to unfairly target travelers searching with Macs. Yet some have observed that Orbitz isn’t being creepy or predatory but smart and helpful—because data shows that Mac users tend to spend more on hotels and may, in fact, want these higher-priced options. No matter how you view the revelation, the news should clue travelers in to one major guideline when searching for a hotel: Don’t expect any single search to yield the best rates or to be remotely comprehensive.
First off, because there’s so much confusion about what Orbitz is and isn’t doing, let’s clarify. No one is accusing Orbitz of trying to charge Mac users more than PC users for the same hotel room. No matter what type of computer you’re using, an Orbitz search will retrieve the same hotels and the same rates.
But, according to a USA Today story, Orbitz admits that a list of “Recommendations for you” hotels is personalized for each user—and Mac users tend to be recommended pricier hotels and rooms. The Wall Street Journal’s research also indicates that the first page of results from Orbitz yields more expensive hotels when searching via Mac—11% more expensive than in test searches conducted on PCs.
While the WSJ’s test results are interesting, there may be more factors at play than just the type of computer being used. One’s location and any history of previous bookings are also factored into what Orbitz decides to show searchers.
In any event, the moral is that a traveler hunting for the best deal should never accept an initial search’s results as the be-all and end-all. Consider one or more of these strategies before making a reservation:
Rejigger Search Results. Orbitz and every major travel search site allow users to filter, reorder, and otherwise customize searches according to preference. At Orbitz.com, it’s quite easy to find the lowest-price hotel; just click on (duh) “Lowest Price” in the “Sort by” header at the top of the results. You can also quickly customize searches by neighborhood(s), star rating, and other categories. Orbitz is already customizing the results based on what it thinks you want, but don’t you know better what you actually want?
Book Directly. According to contract, hotel websites and travel search engines are both obligated to offer rooms at the exact same rates to consumers. Even so, there’s an argument to be made for booking directly with the hotel. First off, the rates at Orbitz or another search engine won’t be cheaper than the website of a major hotel chain. Secondly, the hotel’s website—or even better, a person working at the front desk at the property in question—is likely to have the most up-to-date information regarding availability and rates. Next, hotels obviously prefer for guests to book directly rather than via some middleman. Doing so nets the hotel more money (no middleman taking a cut), and it also sends the message to the hotel that the guest has sought out this property in particular, rather than stumbling upon it in a search for just any old hotel. Anecdotally, the chances of being upgraded or being given some unexpected perk upon check-in are much better for guests who are members of the hotel’s loyalty program and who book direct. Big hotel companies such as IHG have launched “book direct” initiatives that guarantee the best prices and promise guests that they’ll get the most reward points and have special requests catered to most easily when they reserve directly with the company.
Call and Haggle. While hotels are contractually obligated to display the same rates on websites as partner search engines such as Orbitz, there is nothing stopping a hotel manager from offering a lower rate to a customer who calls and asks. Even if a clerk or manager is unwilling to bend on the room rate, calling up or appearing at the front desk and asking for a deal might net some other bonus, such as free breakfast, free parking, or credits for the property’s restaurants or other facilities. But you have to ask, and you have to ask a real live person.
Use Eligible Discounts. Travelers with membership in clubs such AAA and AARP often get special rates at hotels, as do government workers, active and retired military service members, senior citizens, and others. Expect discounts of 10%, and perhaps more. But don’t expect to get these discounts with any old online hotel search. The default results will typically show standard, non-discounted rates only.
Pay in Advance. Increasingly, hotels knock down room rates to guests booking—and paying in full—for rooms 7, 14, or perhaps 21 days before arrival. Discounts of 15%, maybe 20% are typical, with the tradeoff being that the reservation, once paid for, cannot be changed or cancelled. This tradeoff is often a deal breaker, but for travelers whose plans are set in stone, it’s an easy way to save. The booking site GetARoom reports that while the overall average price for a hotel room is $145, the average for nonrefundable hotels booked in advance is $128. Advanced-booking discounts are most readily apparent with searches at hotel’s direct websites, but (obviously) they’re often available via broader searches as well.
Go Opaque. The idea of “opaque” hotel bookings, in which the traveler pays in full without knowing the exact name or location of the property, is also not for everyone. But it’s not like you’re completely in the dark with an opaque reservation; most likely, at the very least you’ll know of a star rating and neighborhood. And opaque bookings are proven to save serious cash. The most popular opaque search engines are Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” and Hotwire, which can help travelers get rates as much as 50% off, sometimes more.
Go Semi-Opaque. Priceline’s new Express Deals option clues travelers in to more than what’s revealed in its traditional “Name Your Own Price” tool. It also doesn’t bother having customers figure out how much to bid. Instead, customers see a list of discounted rates (upwards of 45% off), and while the name of the property is not stated, much is, including amenities (pool, Wi-Fi, free breakfast, etc.) and a fairly good idea of location (Collins Avenue Oceanfront in Miami‘s South Beach). One of the most interesting new hotel-booking sites, GuestMob, also works on a semi-opaque basis, in which travelers see a handful of hotels and agree to a set (discounted) price, with the idea that they won’t find out where exactly they’ll be staying until a week or so before arrival.
Keep Searching. The truth is that hotel rates can and do change all the time. So, once a reservation is made, it behooves you to occasionally punch in your dates again to see if a better rate has suddenly been offered. Tingo, another cool new booking site, can do the work for you. When you reserve a room through the site, Tingo automatically keeps on searching for a better price. If and when a better rate appears, the customer is immediately rebooked, and Tingo refunds the difference.
Go Beyond the Usual Search. Search engines such as Hotels.com, Travelocity, Kayak, and Orbitz have access to hundreds of thousands of hotels. But that doesn’t mean their searches turn up every lodging option the world has to offer. Hostels, B&Bs, vacation homes, and apartment rentals are often underrepresented or nonexistent on these sites. As are many smaller, independent, and unusual hotels around the world—properties that you’ll have better luck finding via quirky sites such as HotelSweep, Venere (owned by Hotels.com, actually), and (appropriately) UnusualHotelsoftheWorld.