You can expect some new ways to arrange hotel accommodations this year, as well as a few changes in the old ways. And, as usual, along the way you'll have to watch out for gotchas.
The biggest change this year is a new website that allows you to compare hotel prices, side-by-side, posted in terms of what you actually have to pay. Until now, the big metasearch engines have used only the base room rates, as supplied by individual hotels, either directly or through the Global Distribution Systems, in their initial side-by-side Amazon Deal comparisons. They may show taxes and mandatory fees somewhere along the purchase process, but do not include them in the first comparison, and sometimes they state only something to the effect that "taxes and fees may be extra." This approach, of course, greatly distorts price comparisons:
* Taxes can add more than 20 percent to the total cost of a hotel, and they often vary substantially within a single metro area that may encompass many different taxing venues.
* Some (far too many) hotels carve out a part of their real prices, present the carve-outs as mandatory fees with such plausible labels such as "resort" and "housekeeping" fees, and initially post a phony base price reduced by the carve-out. In popular tourist destinations such as Las Vegas and Hawaii, these mandatory fees can understate the true price by up to $50 a night.
Department of Transportation rules prevent airlines from understating their true prices in these ways, but hotels do it routinely. Now, however, a new metasearch website, the Suitest (thesuitest.com), allows you to filter price comparisons to include taxes, mandatory fees, and, if you want, Wi-Fi and parking rates, into the initial price comparison postings. It also assigns a "deal grade" to each posting and other details; it links to the online agency with the best price, where you actually buy the deal. So far, it lists only a limited number of domestic upscale hotels, but it finally breaks the "hidden fee" barrier.
Worried about arranging a hotel reservation in advance, only to find out that the price later dropped? Trip Rebel (triprebel.com), currently alive in beta, makes an intriguing offer: Book through its system, then it tracks your reservation; if the rate drops, it rebooks you at the new rate and refunds 100 percent of the difference to you. The problem here, of course, is that the system does not work with nonrefundable room rates, and with Trip Rebel, you pay the first reservation in advance. Many of you would be better off with a pay-when-you-get-there reservation, which you can rebook yourself. Still, it's an interesting idea.
For some reason, the "flash sale" business model for hotel deals seems to be contracting. Two years ago, I monitored a half dozen such websites, but today, the main survivors seem to be Jetsetter (which combined with Sinqueaway) and Vacationist, along with Groupon and Eversave for discount coupons. Flash sale websites still offer good deals, largely on upscale properties, and the coupons offer some good pricing on budget-class accommodations, as well as more expensive spots. But these days you find fewer places to look.
A reader booking a European driving tour encountered a recent gotcha. He made a "Free Cancellation, pay later" reservation on Booking.com, only to find a notice in the confirmation email calling for a 50 euro fee for cancellation. This seems to be a problem with the hotel rather than with Booking.com, because I couldn't replicate the process. No matter what dates I chose, the site noted that no rooms were available, which I suspect was a way of handling the problem until it could be fixed with the hotel. Still, always check any link to special conditions and details before you make a final buy on any hotel accommodation.
There are fewer places online these days to find flash sales for hotels.