The hotel chains have spent a lot of money on marketing to try to get you to book a hotel room directly with them by using their website or app and have gone with the “carrot and stick” approach to achieve that goal. On one hand, they’ve gone out of their way to market special low “Member Exclusive Rates” that are only available to members of their loyalty program and “Best Rate Guarantees” that tell you if you find a cheaper rate after booking with them, they’ll match it and lower the rate even further. At the same time, the hotel chains penalize you for booking anywhere except directly with them. Some of these “sticks” are they don’t give you any recognition of your loyalty status or let you earn any points in their program when staying on externally booked stays. They’ll also only give perks like free Wi-Fi if you’ve booked directly with them.
When I say you need to book direct with the hotel, I mean you use the hotel’s website, the hotel chain’s website, the smartphone app for the hotel chain, or by calling the hotel to make a reservation.
When I mention using an “external” website, that is basically everything else. Websites like Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, Hotels.com, Priceline, Hotels Tonight, Hotwire and Booking.com are just some of them. If you’re completing the booking anywhere but with the hotel, it’s an external website.
Hotel search engines like Trivago, Kayak and TripAdvisor show you prices directly from the hotel as well as from external sites, so it’s best to use something like that to see who has the cheapest price.
So, should you only book your hotel rooms directly with the hotel even if an external site is less expensive?
This is one of the situations where, truly, “Your Mileage May Vary.”
For a frequent traveler who’s trying to get enough stay credits at a hotel chain to achieve an upper level of status, it’s totally worth a few extra dollars to book direct. First of all, they’ll get stay credits and earn points for their stay, which will help them reach the status level requirements (usually a certain number of nights stayed or total number of stays over the year). If you already have status, you’ll also get additional perks at the hotel like upgraded rooms and/or free breakfasts, but only if you book directly with the hotel. Those of you in this category most likely didn’t even get this far into the article of if you did, you answered with a definitive, “Yes, of course it’s worth it.” I’d tend to agree with you.
For an infrequent traveler like me, it’s a different equation. I’ve already said how I love not having to be loyal to a hotel chain (or airline). It lets me book with whatever hotel chain or independent hotel fits my needs without having to worry about not reaching a certain number of stays at any hotel throughout the year. However, I do have status with some hotel chains simply by having certain credit cards. If I don’t book direct, I won’t get any of those benefits and I also won’t get any points (or extra points from promotions) for that stay. How much do I need to save to give up those perks? Well…
What do I have to gain (or lose) by not booking direct?
Access to Member Exclusive Rates
I’ve checked out these “Member Exclusive” rates compared to other rates I’ve found. They’re less than the usually listed rate for the hotel but I can’t remember a time when the AAA/AARP discount rate wasn’t even lower. AAA/AARP rates almost always can be cancelled up until 1-2 days before the stay (depending on the hotel) and only require you to pay at the hotel, not in advance.
Best Rate Guarantees
This is the part where the hotel chains tell you “If you find a lower rate anywhere else, we’ll beat it!” Sound familiar? Sort of like a car dealership or mattress store ad on the radio, right? When you hear those ads, do you really believe it will be that easy to get them to match the price? Of course not. So why should it be any different with hotels?
Actually, when these guarantees first started, the hotels were good about honoring the rate. At least it meant you were looking at the hotel site and comparing prices and that’s what they wanted. It also seemed, at that time, there was more chance the hotel’s listed rate WOULD actually be the same or lower as prices listed on external websites.
As early as 2014, websites started to write about how hotels were “devaluing,” or as the hotels called it “clarifying,” the Best Rate Guarantee programs. Most times this consisted of adding extra hoops to jump through, additional requirements to fulfill and many more restrictions, exceptions and other stuff that made making a successful claim less likely.
Most of the chains (Hilton, Hyatt, Starwood, Marriott and IHG) will now require you to book a room with them first and then put in your claim for a lower rate within a time frame (usually 24-48 hours after booking). Most of them also require the lower rate you have found to “EXACTLY” match the room you booked on the hotel’s website including the room type, number of beds, view and sometimes even the restrictions including cancellation policies and fees. Any website that requires you to log in or download their app to see lower rates are also usually excluded.
Hyatt has changed their guarantee, as of July 31, 2017, to say if you submit a successful claim, they will issue you a $50 credit off a future stay, instead of previously giving you 20% off the lower price you found for that stay.
I just don’t find it worthwhile to argue and chase the hotels down to try and make them honor the guarantee they really don’t stick by. If they wanted me to book direct by making a promise, then honor it and don’t find every way to weasel out of it.
Perks due to loyalty status with hotels
None of my hotel statuses are top tier (where the really good perks like suite upgrades and free breakfasts start to happen). The list of perks I’ll miss out on reads like this:
- Free Internet
- Priority Check-In
- Upgrade to “preferred” room
- Free bottle of water (daily or once per stay depending on the hotel)
- Late check out (maybe, depends on hotel)
Here’s the other thing. If you put your loyalty number on your reservation by calling or emailing the hotel, they’ll still know you have status with the chain. They may, but have no obligation to, give you some or all of the benefits you’re entitled to, even if booking through an external website. That’s all up to the discretion of the hotel management (But a quick search of the interwebs will let you know if a hotel tends to do this or not).
Points in the hotel loyalty program
This one could potentially cost you a great deal of points and could be a reason to book directly with the hotel. If you are eligible for a hotel promotion that will give you bonus points, you need to book directly with the hotel. The loyalty point programs are run by corporate and they most definitely will NOT give you ANY points or promotions for stays not booked directly through them.
Missing out on enough points for a free night isn’t worth saving a few bucks by booking through an external site.
Cash is king. Collecting points and getting perks is nice but there’s a point where saving money is just too tempting to resist. If a price is much lower on an external website, I have to weigh that savings against all the things I am giving up. Some of those are easy to give up. I can tether my iPad to my phone, so not having Wi-Fi in the room isn’t a deal-breaker (thanks, T-Mobile). I can buy a bottle of water myself and an upgraded room is nice but I really don’t need to have it.
On top of possibly having a lower rate, external websites will often post offer codes for additional discounts and pay rebates for using their sites. I’ll check what the best offers are on Cashbackmonitor.com. If you’re interested in getting cash back instead of miles or points, I recommend a site like Ebates. If you’ve never used Ebates before, you can sign up with our link and you’ll get $10 back after a $25 purchase (we also get a referral bonus if you join and would appreciate the support for the website). Just click on the green Ebates button below:
Earning Points with the External Websites
Many of the external travel websites also have their own loyalty programs. While most of them aren’t that great and tend to devalue the points you earn quite frequently, the program from Hotels.com has many fans because it’s easy to use and understand. When you book 10 nights with Hotels.com, you get a credit for a “free night.”
- You choose how you collect 10 nights. Whether it’s a single stay or multiple trips, 10 nights add up fast
- Collect nights in over 297,000 properties around the world
- The value of your free night is the average price of the 10 nights you collect
If you don’t travel much or have no need to collect points, this program is a really easy way to collect 10% off ALL of your hotel stays.
I’ve been so caught up in collecting points and miles that I fell hook, line and sinker for the “Book Direct” pitch. Prices usually were the same on the hotel websites and earning the points and getting the perks was worth a dollar here or there. I’ve recently noticed that when booking stays, external websites are showing rates much lower than the hotel. I’m going to have to investigate to see if this trend continues, and may begin to book my stays wherever I can get the best deal.
Do you book hotels direct or through an external site? What benefits do you value the most? If you have status with one hotel, do you even look at the other hotels in the area when booking a stay? Let us know.
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