3 Things Online Travel Sites Don't Want You to Know

You have a lot of options when booking your next hotel stay. Which hotel? Where to book it? It seems so simple to pull up a familiar travel agency site instead of heading directly to a hotel website—it’s easy to search a lot of properties that way, and you think you’re getting the best deals.

But are you? Do big online travel sites such as Expedia and Booking.com really provide you with the best hotel booking experience? We’ve actually found that travel sites such as these engage in a variety of practices that really don’t have you (or your wallet) in mind. Here’s what we mean…

Beware of Their Aggressive Sales Tactics

Online travel agencies (OTAs) exist to sell you travel, and they are great at doing just that: selling. Picture this: after a long search, you’ve finally found your perfect hotel—the one your spouse and kids will love. But it says they only have two rooms left!  Better book quickly, right?

Unfortunately, this isn’t true. OTAs use this language as a way to get you to buy quickly, but the hotel property may actually have a lot of rooms left though only a few are made available for the OTA to sell. By checking directly with the hotel, you can get the real picture. Travel sites also pressure you into booking by limiting the amount of time a room will be available to you through their website. Sneaky, right?!

They Are Selective with Their Inventory (But Not in a Good Way)

Even if you can ignore the aggressive sales tactics, think again before relying on an OTA to help you find the best hotel for your trip. Those sneaky sales tactics will strike again! They’re not out to sell you the room that works best for you; they’re out to sell you what makes them the most money. Hotels that make the OTA less money (or who may offer cheaper rates if you book with the hotel directly) may not appear in your searches or may appear but be buried deep in your search results.

One of the ways that OTAs have been known to do this was through a practice called “dimming.” In 2016, Expedia was caught deliberately removing photos of some hotels from their listings to make them look less attractive and therefore discourage booking for that property. The speculation was that these hotels made Expedia less money because they had lower commission rates.

The Washington Post wrote: “No one except the travel agency doing the dimming knows why a hotel is chosen for the treatment. ‘From one day to the next, a hotel chain can go from 150 dimmed hotels to 80,’ said Gino Engels, chief commercial officer for OTA Insight, a London hospitality technology company.” After the Washington Post published this spotlight on dimming, Expedia announced that they would be discontinuing the practice. But still… why were they doing it in the first place?

Booking.com’s parent company, Booking Holdings, recently announced that they will increasingly try to sell you pre-paid rooms. Pre-paid rooms often offer lower prices but require up-front payment and are almost always not cancelable, greatly reducing your control over your stay. Sometimes saving with a pre-paid room is the right choice, but they’re not doing this for you.

“This means that Booking gets to hold onto the cash for several months, mostly for free, and can use it to invest in new projects,” says Seth Borko, senior research analyst at Skift Research. The change in commissions “would boost revenue [for Booking.com] by $900 million over the course of a year,” Borko said.

In reality, your perfect stay might be in a room with a rate that doesn’t give the OTA the highest revenue, and they’ll work hard to make that difficult for you to find.

Bottom Line: You’re Less Important to an OTA

If you’ve ever tried to request a certain type of room—away from the elevator, say, or connecting rooms for you and your kids—or if you have special room requests like needing a mini-fridge or a rollaway bed, you’re much more likely to get what you need by working directly with the hotel. By booking your stay on the hotel’s own website, you’re the hotel’s customer, and they’re more eager to make you happy.

In the unlikely event that your reservation is lost, the hotel will be more able to remedy the situation for you if you’ve booked directly. If an OTA has lost your reservation, you’re going to have a much harder time. Many hotels will also guarantee you’ll get the lowest rate when you book directly with them. If you find a lower rate elsewhere for your same stay, they’ll make it right with discounts or additional loyalty points.

Similarly, if your trip plans change last minute, don’t even try to cancel your stay if you booked through an OTA. They won’t want to go out of their way to help you out. Had you booked directly with the hotel though, a simple phone call to their front desk will quickly remedy your travel issues.

Lastly, don’t discount the value of those hotel loyalty plans. These free programs are the best ways to get better rates, better treatment, and to earn credit toward things like free stays for future travel. Hotels’ lowest rates are often exclusively for members of these programs, and are never made available to online travel sites. Join as many as you want—they’re completely free to join—to get the best savings.