Although many consumers book rooms directly on hotel websites — out of loyalty to a brand or because they think they'll find the best prices that way — such sites don't always have the best deals or make the search easier.
Here are options the next time you're searching for a hotel stay:
Online travel agencies: Easy comparison shopping is the key. You want a good price but don't want to spend hours searching individual hotel websites. TripAdvisor, Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, Hotels.com, Kayak and dozens more will do the comparison for you, allowing you to filter by ratings, price, location and amenities.
Caveat: You may have to pay for the room in advance, although most bookings are usually refundable subject to the individual hotel's policies. Most prices are within a few dollars of one another, but differences can result from changes in availability and rates.
Hotel websites: You've shopped around, or maybe you haven't because you're brand-loyal, and you're going to book directly with the hotel's (or hotel group's) website. Hotels want you to do that, and even if the room rate is the same as on Hotels.com or Expedia, there might be a special perk such as a $100 credit to spend on room service or parking, a special AARP or Auto Club rate, a frequent-guest rate, a stay-four-nights-pay-for-three deal, promo code deals and similar incentives. The biggest incentive for many is that you usually don't have to pay for the room in advance.
Caveat: You won't always get the best price, and the hotel site won't automatically rebook you or notify you if the room rate drops after you've made a reservation. Rates do change often, but how often do you check after booking your room?
Money-back websites: You book a room (usually paying in advance), and if the room rate drops, you get a refund. Tingo.com does this automatically, returning it to your credit card; it has returned almost $1 million to customers. Orbitz.com has a similar perk, but the refund is in the form of an Orbitz credit, not cash.
Caveat: There might be a better deal on the hotel websites, although Tingo and Orbitz usually have the same rates as Hotels.com and other big sites.
Last-minute bookings: You're looking for a room tonight or for a stay in a few days and are flexible with the location. Priceline.com and its bidding function pretty much owns this category, but newcomers worth a look include HotelTonight.com, Lastminutetravel.com and Stayful.com, which also lets you bid on rooms, among others.
Caveat: Rates often are nonrefundable, and you may not get frequent guest points.
Flash sales: You sign up at a hotel's website, and you receive emails offering deeply discounted rates, often for future stays well in advance. This category has become increasingly competitive since the debut of sites such as Jetsetter.com, which has a "today's deals" category, and Tablethotels.com (check "deals"). Search for "hotel flash sales." You'll often find great deals at upscale hotels you might have otherwise overlooked.
Caveat: Rooms may be nonrefundable after booking, so buy with a credit card that offers trip cancellation insurance (but make sure you understand the terms).
Opaque booking: If you don't care where you stay as long as you can specify the city, general location and the star rating of the hotel, Priceline.com and Hotwire.com, leaders in this field, and others can help. You learn the name of the hotel only after payment.
Caveat: You won't know exactly where you're staying until after paying, you may not get frequent stay points and bookings are usually nonrefundable.
Call the hotel: After you find your best price, call the hotel directly (not the 800 number for central reservations but the specific hotel's reservation office or manager). Tell the booking agent what you've found online. Ask for a better rate or perks.
Caveat: No reason not to give this a try, unless you don't like being told "no."