Trying to find the cheapest rate on a hotel isn’t fun. There are now so many sites out there promising discounts and special rates that tracking down the best option can take hours. Every site works a little differently, and even something as simple as comparing prices is a challenge.
Many sites don’t include taxes and fees until you get to the booking screens, some collect them on the hotel’s behalf and others don’t. Star ratings are often provided by either the site or accommodation, rather than any official body. Cancellation and change policies differ wildly.
Having spent an entire day frustratedly searching for accommodation for an upcoming trip, I decided to find out whether there really was a best choice for booking hotels. There are various ways to determine “best”, of course, but I went with the one that matters to most of us: price. My approach was as follows:
- I chose nine hotels and hostels I’ve stayed in around the world. Two were in Europe (Spain and the Netherlands), three in Asia (Thailand, Taiwan and Sri Lanka), two in North America (USA and Mexico) and one each in Australia (Sydney) and New Zealand (Queenstown).
- I decided on thirteen different booking options: nine hotel booking sites, three “meta” sites that search across several different hotel booking sites, and booking direct with the hotel.
- I picked a date exactly two months in the future. This timeframe is in line with when airfares are cheapest, so many people will be booking hotels at the same time.
- I searched for a one night stay for two people, and selected the cheapest double room available. I chose a private bathroom and air-conditioning if they were an option.
- All prices are shown in US dollars, rounded to the nearest dollar. They include all taxes and fees (whether collected by the booking site or not).
- All searches were done in an incognito desktop browser, to prevent cookies and search history from impacting the price.
A few notes before we start:
- I didn’t include vacation rental sites like Airbnb or Roomorama. It’s rare to be able to compare prices on exactly the same accommodation with those sites.
- I also checked out the mobile versions of each booking site, but not apps. They’ll be covered separately, as will last-minute bookings.
If you’re a raw-data kind of person, read on for all the details. If you’d prefer to just cut to the chase, you can do that here!
For those who like numbers, here are the raw results in table form. Cells shown in bold are the lowest price for a given room.
Note for meta-search sites: (A) = Agoda, (B) = Booking.com, (E) = Expedia, (H) = Hotels.com , O = Otel.com, (P) = Priceline, (T) = Travelocity
|Direct with hotel||54||98||24||35||66||65||81|
|Kayak||56 (B)||100 (P)||19 (A)||49 (A)||62 (A)||66 (T)||54 (E)||63 (A)||79 (E)|
|Trivago||56 (E)||100 (B)||21 (E)||50 (A)||Unavailable||67 (H)||54 (E)||63 (A)|
|HotelsCombined||56 (B)||100 (B)||19 (A)||37 (B)||62 (A)||66 (B)||56 (B)||86 (O)|
Just in case those details weren’t enough, here’s a summary of property availability and how frequently each site found the cheapest price. There are also notes on taxes and fees, mobile sites, and rewards programs.
|Properties Listed||Cheapest||Taxes and Fees||Mobile Site||Reward Program||Comments|
|Agoda||100%||44%||Booking page||Good filters and search options. |
Looks better than desktop site.
|Booking.com||100%||0%||Usually upfront||Good filters and search options,|
including by current location.
|No||Free cancellation on most rooms|
|Hostelworld||22%||0%||Upfront||One of the better mobile sites.|
Can search by current location.
|Expedia||89%||13%||Booking page||A little slow to search, otherwise fine||Yes|
|Hotels.com||89%||11%||Booking page||Simple to use.|
Can search by current location.
|Yes||One property listed but shown as unavailable|
|HotelClub||33%||33%||Booking page||Basic search tools, including by current location||Yes|
|Venere||67%||0%||Upfront||Basic search tools||Yes|
|Priceline||89%||38%||Booking page||Very basic search tools, including current location||Yes|
|Yonderbound||56%||40%||Upfront||Good filters, quite slow to search||Yes||The reward program offers credits for referring others|
|Direct With Hotel||78%||43%||Varies||Varies||Varies|
|Kayak||100%||13%||Varies||Basic filters and search, including by current location.|
Includes ads in search results.
|Trivago||89%||13%||Varies||Busy interface. Basic search and filters.||No|
|HotelsCombined||89%||25%||Varies||Can search by current location. Many filters.||No|
So What Does It All Mean?
Ok, so that’s a whole bunch of numbers (and a whole bunch of time spent in front of hotel booking screens)… but what does it all mean? Let’s break it down.
In several cases, prices only varied by around five dollars between the lowest and highest rates. Sometimes, though, there was a big gap — up to $17 per night for the hotel in Leiden. For the exact same room, in the same hotel, on the same night, that’s a surprisingly large difference.
Agoda and Booking.com had the highest availability, at 100% — but it’s a biased result. Those are the two main sites I’ve used for finding hotels in the past, so most places I’ve booked online in the last year or two should appear there.
Of the others, Priceline, Expedia and Hotels.com listed nearly all of the places I tested, as did the meta-search sites. Yonderbound and HotelClub performed poorly, as did Hostelworld (which was expected, as there was only one hostel in my selection).
Overall, Agoda had the cheapest prices. Priceline often had good rates, as did Yonderbound when it listed the hotel in question — but that was only around half the time.
Booking direct with the hotel was also a cost-effective option, at least when looking two months in advance like I was. Booking.com and Venere never offered the best price, while Expedia and Hotels.com only managed it once.
Many sites love to mislead their customers. Only Venere, Hostelworld and Yonderbound consistently included all taxes and fees in the search listings, although Booking.com also did it most of the time. The rest of the sites didn’t show the full price until the booking screen, which is frustrating at best and downright dishonest at worst.
The meta-search sites usually found a competitive rate, but not always. The best of them (Kayak) still only surfaced the cheapest price a third of the time, and the others were worse.
Mobile sites were pretty similar across the board, which isn’t all that surprising. There are only so many ways to search for and display hotel listings on a small screen, after all.
All sites had plenty of photos of the properties in question, and all but Trivago showed customer reviews and ratings. The number of reviews varied — for the same hotel, some sites had over a thousand reviews, while others had less than ten.
Many of the sites had a reward program of some sort, although the details varied widely. If you’re travelling all the time and find a site you like, you’ll get some benefit by consistently booking through it. For everyone else, just tracking down the cheapest rate will leave more money in your pocket than worrying about rewards.
The Final Word
So, which accommodation website is best? Overall, it’s Agoda. It found the cheapest rate most often, and with one exception, was within a few dollars the rest of the time.
The desktop site isn’t particularly attractive (the mobile one is much better), but it’s fast and effective, with plenty of hotels available almost anywhere. The company recently shut down its reward program, which is disappointing, but not enough to knock it off the top spot.
Priceline also has a good mix of availability and low prices, and it might be worth taking a quick look at Yonderbound. They don’t have many hotels listed, but the prices can be reasonable on the rooms that are available.
There’s no particular benefit or harm to using the meta-search sites. You’re unlikely to get ripped off, but you often won’t find the cheapest price either. Trivago doesn’t include customer reviews, though, so you’ll need to go to whichever site it recommends to see what others are saying.
Regardless of which search site you use, it’s also worth checking out the hotel’s own website once you’ve decided where to stay. If you’re booking far enough in advance, there’s a good chance you’ll find a cheaper rate there than anywhere else. If not, you’ve only wasted a minute or two.
If the hotel is part of a chain, it also likely offers rewards of its own that you won’t get by booking through a third-party.
Which sites do you use when searching for accommodation?
PS: Note that some of the links above pay a small commission if you use them to make a booking. To avoid bias, I tested all sites and wrote this article before researching which affiliate programs were available.
Images via Dennis Wong, Priceline and Agoda
Thanks for the effort of comparing the sites.
One thing about prices on Agoda: if you change the language to German it shows the price including tax and fees in the hotel view screen already. I guess because, by law, you are not allowed to show the prices any other way in Germany. Funny that Agoda actually cares as they are not German company.
That’s really interesting — thanks for the info, Chris!
Dave, great to see this sort of analysis!
However, Agoda coming out in front doesn’t make sense – if all the meta search sites already search Agoda (as well as most of the others), wouldn’t they also at least find as cheap prices and have at least the same availability?
You’d really expect so , and in most cases, they did find the lowest non-direct price. Not every time, though — the Agoda rates for the hotel in Valladolid, Mexico were cheapest, but didn’t show up on any of the meta-search sites. I tested it again half an hour later to see if it was a glitch, but it didn’t appear to be.
As you’d expect, the rates for booking direct with the hotel don’t show up on the meta sites either. Like I mentioned, there’s no real benefit or harm to using these sites — you won’t get ripped off, but you won’t necessarily find the best price either.
Solid wrap. A couple of thoughts:
There are regional variations. For instance for properties in Singapore, Agoda does include taxes in the total fee upfront while Booking.com doesn’t.
Also regarding booking directly with the property a few times during this Singapore trip they’ve charged me a percentage for using a credit card, while another charged me a $2 surcharge for paying with PayPal (they only payment method they accepted!) $2 isn’t much, but it actually made Agoda cheaper.
Look forward to the App story!
Thanks for the info, Stuart — sounds like the regional variations add an extra degree of confusion to what is already an overly-complicated experience. Great…. :/
Sorry, meant to add:
I think this later point is one of the bigger challenges with booking direct is they each have their own payment methodology, which is often far more complicated and confusing than using an OTA. One recent hotel for example required me to “become a member” then charge my card to hold the room. I thought I’d paid for the room, so when I showed up, they wanted to charge my card again, apparently too cover damage if I set the room on fire, and then when I went to check out, they actually charged my card for the stay. It was a very confusing checkout process (I’m still not clear what they actually did) and I left the hotel quite annoyed. I shouldn’t have to give a hotel my card three times for a single night stay. I’d prefer not to give them my card at all!
Hotels are forever whining about the commissions OTAs receive for sending them business so it is in the hotel’s interest to make the booking process as seamless and painless as possible. They repeatedly fail at this and I’m just as likely to book with Agoda — even if it does cost a coupla dollars more — solely because I’m familiar with the booking process and I know they’re not going to slap on 2% for using a credit card.
Yep, agreed entirely. What’s even sillier about some of this is that you can sometimes book a cheaper rate on a company’s site without a credit card surcharge, but they’ll then turn around and charge you if you try to pay with a card in person… despite the walk in rate being higher!
And all of the hoops you need to jump through with deposits, memberships and surcharges are definitely a good reason to use a booking site instead — especially if there are only a few bucks price difference in the first place, as usually seems to be the case.
I personally use Booking.com and Agoda as my main resources for a search, but I prefer Booking.com because I can usually cancel my booking for free and because I like the interface and I’m a Graphic Designer.
For a general search or for finding a particular property I research among many sites but again mostly based on my search on those two.
Besides of the difference on the prices, I found that results change according to:
-the country or city: for instance, in India or in some islands I found cheaper places to stay, I mean “Low category” or “low profile” places, than in Booking.com, where there’s usually more “fancy places” available.
-the way on how certain properties work with this websites: I don’t know how this really works yet so my experience is purely empirical. In some cases when I try to book a particular hostel on certain dates and on one of the websites there’s no availability, there’s still availability in the other one… and if there’s no availability in any of them, then there’s usually room available through contacting direct with the hostel. I guess the hostels change their quotas according to what it’s more convenient for them on the different websites…anyway, I don’t care too much about it.
There’s some particular things about Agoda that I hate:
– The fact that taxes are excluded from the price as shown. It happened to me a couple of times that the hostels didn’t charge those taxes at the moment of payment, so it’s kind of annoying not to know exactly how much you’re gonna be paying. It became too random to rely on it.
– When there’s no availability on certain property, Agoda doesn’t show any message saying so…it just reload de page exactly as it was (meaning, showing the rooms but no price) and doesn’t suggest you any other dates like in Booking.com. Not that the last thing it’s gonna make much difference but at least you know that in terms of programming the website is sending the query properly.
Absolutely agree about the interface — Agoda’s desktop site desperately needs a revamp (the mobile site is much better). Booking.com looks great; it’s just a shame its prices are higher.
Agoda does disclose which taxes are included and which aren’t (at least in the countries I’ve tested in), but it’s overly-complicated and in small text that’s not beside the main payment amount. It’s said something like “10% hotel tax included, 5% city tax not included” or something similar. It absolutely needs to be improved, though.
Just a note on Agoda, although they did drop their own rewards program if you’re a member of Virgin Australia’s Velocity Frequent Flyer program you can earn Velocity points through the Virgin Agoda site. Minimum 3 points per dollar spent plus bonuses for members with status.
Agoda will also price match if you can find another site listing the same room at a lower rate, including the hotel’s own site. I took advantage of this not too long ago and it wasn’t too painful.
Thanks Wayne, that’s useful (especially for me personally, since I still have a Velocity membership that I never use… but might start doing now!)
These sites are great as long as things go well but when there are problems then you are on your own.
I booked a room via Agoda in Sapporo over a month before my trip to Japan and then booked flights only to be told later that the hotel was full. Their only response was to offer a refund and they were no help getting other accomodation.
Fortunately JAPANiCAN was able to help with accommmodation.
Booking.com I have never had a problem with so that is my site of choice.
I guess price is a good thing but, as someone who has experienced a few accomodation disasters(inc 2 with AirBnB which I still think is a great option as I have had 18 good experiences), I much prefer the services of a good company just in case something goes bad.
Yeah, the real test with any online company is always when things go wrong. I’ve only had to deal with Agoda customer service once, over a small matter (the number of people staying in the room wasn’t correct) and they fixed it quickly. Airbnb has always been good to deal with for me as well, but there are plenty of news reports suggesting that’s not always the case. I guess your mileage will vary — but if you find a company that you’re happy with, definitely keep using it!
This is fantastic! Thank you for such an analysis… would be interesting to see a similar thing with flight search engines.
I tend to use booking.com but will have to give agoda a try next time.
Ask and ye shall receive — https://toomanyadapters.com/finding-best-flight-search-site/ 🙂
It’s a couple of years old now, so I’ll probably take another look at it later in the year to see if anything has changed, but it’s a good place to start.
Hotels in Europe tend to list on Booking.com rather than Agoda, whereas Asian hotels tend to list on Agoda. Agoda doesn’t have the ability to search by price range (generally the biggest priority for me in narrowing down a property), which I find frustrating.
It is up to the hotel to manage room availability on each site that they list on. If a hotel lists on multiple sites, or through their own website, they may not list ALL available rooms to help prevent over-booking. The problem for a hotel is managing availability when they list on multiple sites as it constantly changes – so they play it safe and list fewer rooms. This is why if there is a hotel that I am particularly interested in, and they show no availability, I always contact the hotel directly. Often the still have rooms.
Sites like booking.com also charge hotels up to 20% commission for each booking, and of course they pay credit card transaction fees too. This is another reason I contact the hotel directly to ask about their cash price. Even though they are not supposed to offer a price lower than what they list on booking.com (according to their contract), they sometimes do.
Yup, the Asia/Agoda and Europe/Booking thing has definitely been the case. I’ve noticed recently that Booking.com inventory is also being shown on Agoda (although not listed as such until you actually make the booking and get an email with a Booking logo). Since they’re both owned by the same company, that’s probably not a huge surprise. It happened with a couple of recent bookings I made in Europe.
Absolutely agree that not all rooms are shown on all sites, so if you’re looking to stay somewhere in particular but your preferred site(s) aren’t showing rooms available, it’s definitely worth looking on the hotel site or mailing them directly.
Agree with this completely. Agoda seems to be better for Asia and Booking.com is where I usually end up booking European hotels (but only after checking with the hotel direct and Trivago, just to make sure!).
I HAD A RECENT ROTTEN EXPERIENCE WITH EXPEDIA WHERE I WAS CHARGED ALMOST 2.5 TIMES THE COST OF A ROOM ( VIA CAIRO WHEN I CALLED – WILSON ETC ) TO STAY IN NEW ORLEANS . WHEN I ACTUALLY CHECKED THAT DAY ON EXPEDIAS SITE – THE ROOM WAS ACTUALLY THE PROPER PRICE AND WHEN I CALLED THE HOTEL IT WAS TOO – AT 274 PER NIGHT – INSTEAD OF THE 1800 FOR THREE NIGHTS EXPEDIA TOOK OFF ME TWO MONTHS IN ADVANCE OF MY STAY .
THEY REFUSED TO FIX THE PROBLEM SO I CANCELLED THE BOOKING AND GOT A DIFFERENT HOTEL – WHO WERE FAMILIAR WITH EXPEDIA ISSUES AND OFFERED ME A REALLY GOOD RATE – BETTER THAN EXPEDIAS .
I AM STILL WAITING TO SEE IF EXPEDIA WILL REMEDY AND GIVE ME MY MONEY BACK . THE PROBLEM IS EGYPTIANS ARE NOT AWARE OF PRICES HERE AND ARE LIKELY RIPPING OFF TOO – JUDGING FROM THEIR ABJECT REFUSAL TO ACKNOWLEDGE MY CONCERNS AT BEING GOUGED ,
I AM SURPRISED – AS PRIOR EXPERIENCES WITH EXPEDIA WERE MORE FAVORABLE . ANY THOUGHTS ?
I usually use booking.com as well as a few other sites (http://www.tablethotels.com/ when I want to splurge a bit).
One of the most important factors for me, because I often travel on my own is how easy it is to find a single room, not a hostel dorm, on the site. Some of the aggregators don’t even give an option for a single person, others you have to skip though pages of hostels before finding a single room.