Best and Worst Hotel Booking Sites

The best and worst hotel booking sites thestocks.im
Two years ago, we challenged the best-known hotel search engines to see which could find the best prices on each of 25 different searches. A lot has changed in the industry since then, so it was time for a rematch—and the results were truly surprising. 
 
We tested the big names, head-to-head, to see which ones yield the best crop of options. There are basically three places to find the best rates for hotels online: OTAs (Online Travel Agencies), through which you can book directly; aggregators, which are meta-search engines that trawl other booking engines and return a compendium of results; and the hotels’ own websites, which may offer deals the first two can’t match.

We threw twice as many scenarios at them this time, 50 tests in all, to determine which site found the most options and the lowest rates in Orlando, Boston, Rome, London, and Hong Kong—both in general and on four specific hotels in varying price brackets in each city. Dictating a $200 ceiling (it’s easy to find pricey hotels, but finding great cheap hotels is far more useful) and requiring results in parts of town that tourists would use, we used an informal scoring model based on five factors: Number and quality of filters and sorting options, number of accommodation types beyond hotels, ability to find the lowest price on our 20 chosen hotels, number of lodgings available in each city center, and number of those that cost under $200. Performance was weighted: For most factors, a site got 2 points for performing at the top of the class down to -2 points for coming out at the bottom. 
 
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Booking direct with a hotel can be cheaper Alan Light/Flickr
First, it pays to know how to use this list. Our tests had to account for the fact that major hotel chains are being more aggressive about competing with third-party bookers so that they can avoid paying commission. Sometimes an OTA will offer you a price lower than the rates coming directly from the hotel, but just as often, the hotel will beat it—and the hotel website will always be the only place to go to find out about specials like weekend packages and seasonal discounts. So once you narrow your choices down using our top 10 list, you should quickly check the hotels’ websites to see if you are, indeed, getting the best rate. (Or go old-tech and give the hotel a call—it’s usually the only way to request a specific room.)
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Hostelz.com Hostelz.com
AGGREGATOR
If you are truly looking for savings, this specializes in low-cost lodgings, canvassing the likes of Hostelworld, Hostelbookers, Gomio, and Hostelsclub. Since it focuses exclusively on budget accommodations—hostels, guest houses, university dorms, B&Bs, campgrounds, some apartments—it is low on our list when it comes to the volume of properties that surface. Its budget niche means it just can't beat the others there. Surprisingly, however, Hostelz.com still beat Trivago (by a lot) in the number of rooms found for under $75 in Rome, and trounced Kayak in the number of Hong Kong lodgings in the budget brackets. What’s more, the site beat everyone on finding Boston lodgings under $125. In fact, no other search engine came up with anything under $75 in Boston, but Hostelz.com found four options, including a cool clipper ship from $60. It didn't rank higher because it excludes so many properties,  so if your budget goes beyond $80, look elsewhere, but if hostel life or oddball budget lodgings are your style, this meta-search engine is worth checking.
 
Pros: Performs well on budget lodgings and smart filters; a grab bag of hints about each destination from users
Cons: A bit slow; far fewer results (usually) than any other engine 
 
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Trivago.com Trivago
AGGREGATOR
We barely know what to say. In 2015, was #2 in the rankings. No longer. Yes, Trivago has a lovely and intuitive interface, speedy refreshes, and a nice set of filters. However, beyond the cosmetics, there was no single search or metric on which it beat the competition. It did manage to match the best price found by several others on the two priciest Rome hotels (and came close on a London one), yet even that was marred by the fact that the prices it initially displayed turned out to be much higher once you clicked through to the booking sites. (We only counted the actual prices, not those initial too-good-to-be-true results.) Embarrassingly, the best price it found on a Quality Inn in Orlando was nearly twice what every other site returned. Most confusingly, although it claims to canvass more than 250 sites, some of the engines it claims to survey beat it when we tested them separately. Perhaps Trivago needs to spend a little less on those incessant commercials and invest more in algorithms.
 
Pros: Lovely user interface; most complete filters; a “distance from…” option that allows you to fill in any address
Cons: Underperforms every other aggregator and OTA; never found the lowest rates on cheaper hotels; at best only tied for lowest price on a few expensive properties
 
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 Hotels.com Hotels.com
OTA
has dropped a few places since 2015. We thought its database merger with Europe specialist Venere.com would help, but Hotels.com still falls behind corporate partner Expedia on international hotel searches. Hotels.com does have arguably the best filters, and is second only to Booking.com in the different types of non-hotel accommodations included—B&Bs, apartments, farm stays, and so on. However, on that all-important price point, Hotels.com ran with the middle of the herd at best, and fell a bit behind when searching Rome. Hotels.com undoubtedly has the most memorable name, but it needs to improve performance if it wants to live up to it.
 
Pros: Full slate of filtering/sort-by options, including by accessibility; lots of lodging types; decent (but never the best) prices
Cons: Not strong internationally, especially in the lower price categories
 
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Kayak.com Kayak.com
AGGREGATOR
The most famous aggregator of them all doesn’t actually perform that well. The only times found the best rates, it did so by showing prices from Booking.com or Agoda, so why wouldn’t customers just go directly to them? Kayak never managed to find the most hotels in any price bracket (though, to be fair, it did come in second for mid-priced lodgings in Orlando), and fared particularly poorly in Hong Kong. Kayak also shared a flaw with the other aggregators: reporting a low lead price that was almost always a bit higher once you clicked through to the booking site—sometimes only by a dollar tor two, but often by $10, $20, or more. Kayak does has a solid set of filters, including a fill-in window for “nearby...” so you can name any landmark. But unless search results can be improved, there seems to be little compelling reason to use Kayak when a competing aggregator (and several direct booking sites) outperform it across the board.
 
Pros: Nice filters
Cons: Not good at finding the most properties or lowest prices; posted rates that are lower than those you can actually book; somehow manages to include fewer lodgings than at the sites it canvasses (which mystifies us)
 
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Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz
OTA
Wisely, among the first things did after acquiring in 2015 and in 2016 was replace those other brands’ notoriously bad hotels database/search engine with Expedia’s own. Now you get precisely the same results at all three sites. That being said, those results remain only mediocre at best—and have slipped a bit since two years ago. The only two times Expedia found the best price, the site either tied the better-performing competition or beat it only by a few bucks. Usually, Expedia had neither good nor bad results, plus a few that were near-worst. Expedia remains in sixth place, solidly in the middle of the pack, and a bit weaker on foreign destinations.

Pros: Rarely found the worst price (except in Rome); offers an “accessibility” filter
Cons: Filters only decent, and missing some handy ones like guest rating or theme, and only has a neighborhood filter for domestic destinations; only major OTA which forces you to choose one filter factor at a time rather than all the ones that suit you; occasionally fails at finding the same low rate as other OTAs
 
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Hotwire.com Hotwire.com
OTA
's hotel search results used to be identical to those of corporate parent Expedia, but while they often hew closely, they no longer mirror one another all the time. Hotwire even found the most lodgings under $200 in Boston of any site we checked, and its prices were solidly middle of the road—never the best, never the worst—even in places where Expedia stumbled, like Rome. Even more usefully, Hotwire offers its “Hot Rate” blind booking service, similar to Priceline’s, in which you can specify a star rating and a neighborhood, but don’t get the hotel’s name until after you pay. In exchange you get savings of up to 60%.
 
Pros: “Hot Rate” blind bookings can offer big savings; never found the worst price, and did a bit better than most in Boston; offers an “accessibility” filter
Cons: Only mediocre on pretty much every measure; filters only decent; still restricts users to one filter factor per search
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HotelsCombined.com HotelsCombined
AGGREGATOR
was at the top of the heap last time we ran our tests, but has since slipped to number four. It remains by far the best meta-search engine, and the best at ferreting out the best prices on specific hotels—so long as it’s able to find those hotels. In our tests, HotelsCombined.com fared only modestly at producing lodgings in city centers, and equally modestly at rounding up hotels under $200. Though it searches 30 top sites, the aggregator often manages to find fewer lodgings than the sites it canvases, which makes little sense. Most disturbingly, in more than half the cases the price shown from a third-party site turned out to be higher once you clicked through—sometimes only a dollar or two, sometimes by $10 or $20, and occasionally by as much as $60 or $100. We don’t imagine this is a purposeful bait-and-switch, but rather a failing in the algorithms’ ability to properly scrape provider sites. HotelsCombined remains by far the best aggregator—but it’s squarely defeated by the top three direct booking engines.

Pros: Searches up to 30 OTAs and booking engines at once; displays competing prices for each property; sometimes finds lower prices direct from the hotel
Cons: Often displays lead prices slightly lower than the actual cost; has removed ability to eliminate individual hotels from search results; lacks some useful location filters 
 
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 Priceline.com Priceline.com
OTA
rules the middle-of-the-road booking engines, and has vastly improved on nearly all metrics since the last time we tested it. In fact, along with Agoda (which it owns), it was the king at finding the most lodgings in city centers, and returns more results in any given city than Expedia, Hotwire, or Hotels.com. Although Priceline’s performance is only solidly average on finding the lowest prices, its patented “blind booking” options (“Express Deals” and “Name Your Price”) can save you anywhere from 18% to 60%—so long as you are willing to know only the neighborhood and star rating (but not the hotel’s name and address) before booking.
 
Pros: Plenty of choices; finds the most hotels in city centers domestically, and second only to our winners overseas; blind booking options offer big savings; often tied with our top two sites in finding the lowest (or nearly lowest) rates
Cons: Only ties for finding lowest rates; sub-par filters—no “accommodation type” filter
 
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Agoda.com Agoda.com
OTA
takes the award for most improved booking site. Two years ago, Thailand-based Agoda was known for being the internet’s top specialist in Asia—but only Asia; the site ranked number seven overall. Since then, this Priceline-owned booking engine has massively increased its offerings around the world. Agoda now even outperforms corporate cousin Booking.com on some metrics, including the number of hotels found in city centers (though Booking.com still boasts a larger stable of downtown options in the less expensive brackets). If only Agoda could improve its middle-of-the-road domestic results and add better filters, it just might take the top spot.

Pros: Consistently finds among the most lodging options and lowest prices, especially internationally
Cons: Only fair results domestically; lacks a “nearby…” filter; can only search by city rather than by region or state as well
 
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 Booking.com Booking.com
OTA
remains the top direct booking site. It smokes all competition when it comes to the sheer number of city-center lodgings for under $200. (If your budget stretches well beyond that, Booking’s corporate cousins Agoda and Priceline edge it out on total number of central lodgings). At first it appeared Booking.com had fallen from grace, as it seemed in our tests to rarely beat the competition on prices for specific hotels in Europe. Then we realized that Booking.com was simply being honest, including taxes on its lead rates (the first ones you see on the results screens), whereas all the others were burying the fees in fine print, disclosed only after users click through and try to book. Once we did the math, Booking.com actually had the best or near-best rates 16 out of 20 times, and performed at least average on a further three (there was only one, a Hong Kong hostel, on which Agoda beat it by a few bucks). These consistent results confirmed why—disclosure unrelated to our discovery in these tests—Frommer’s selected Booking.com for its hotel partner years ago. Best results and no attempt to hide the taxes? Sometimes, the good guys really do come out on top.
 
Pros: Usually finds at least twice the number of properties (if not more) than any other OTA; outperforms all others in the lower price brackets; consistently returns among the lowest rates; great selection of filters and sort-by options
Cons: Lacks a useful “nearby...” filter (it has one, but the only option is “downtown,” which is not useful in some tourist destinations)
 
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