Hotels offer perks if you book direct. But should you?

Skip your travel agent and those comparison booking sites. That’s what more hotels want you to do, and they’re pulling out all the stops to persuade you to do it.

But should you?

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Travelers like Tom Harriman want to know. He recently found a hotel in Miami Beach, Fla., that offered to waive its mandatory $25-a-night resort fee and upgrade his room — if he would book direct instead of through an online travel agency.

“I assume booking direct would be the plan,” says Harriman, an attorney from Washington, D.C.

Well, maybe.

Weighing the value of a travel agent — and especially an online travel agency — against the benefits of a direct booking may make the choice look like a no-brainer. But there are risks and some long-term effects you should consider before bidding your agent adieu.

“We’ve certainly seen a trend of hotels increasingly using perks, guarantees, and advertising to encourage more direct booking and wrestle business back from the online travel agencies,” says Daniel Guttentag, the director of the Office of Tourism Analysis at the College of Charleston. The reason is simple. Direct bookings allow a hotel to keep more money because it doesn’t have to pay commissions to an agent.

One of the boldest direct-booking campaigns belongs to Red Roof, which launched a “Type Don’t Click” campaign this summer “to ensure safe, authentic booking.” The company claims it’s protecting its customers from “fraudulent booking websites,” but I’ve received very few complaints of fraudulent hotel reservations. Red Roof, however, is protecting its profits from online agencies, which may take a 15-20% cut of their bookings.

Choice Hotels, like many other hotel chains, offers a lowest rate guarantee for customers who book direct. It also gives its loyalty members Choice Privileges rewards, including points to redeem for a free night, gift cards, airline miles or gas. And if you check in during the week, you can receive a bonus, like a $5 gift card.

Independent hotels are perhaps the quietest, but most aggressive, about drumming up direct bookings. Some even offer to remove junk charges like resort fees — mandatory extras added to your bill after you start the booking process — in exchange for cutting out the middleman. But hotels like the Residences at Biltmore in Asheville, N.C., are taking a more enticing approach, giving direct bookers a better room. “We are offering exclusively to those that book direct with us, a chance at an upgraded room, when available, at no additional charge,” says Carter Sowers, the hotel’s technology director.

If all this looks like a desperate battle for your hotel dollar — well, it is. “It’s a street fight,” says Matt Barba, the general manager for the Deer Path Inn, a hotel on Chicago’s North Shore.

Travelers say they’re going for it, in part because of the perks, but also for other reasons that hotels don’t like to talk about. Because, in addition to the carrot of incentives, hotels have a big stick.

“When I book through a discount middleman, the hotel puts me up in a worse room, next to a machine room, with a bad view, or in a remote corner with no good entrance,” says Aaron Belenky, a software engineer from Overland Park, Kan. If hotels treat their direct-booking guests better, he adds, “I’m interested.”

But here’s the problem with direct booking. If it takes hold, it threatens to asphyxiate a necessary part of the travel ecosystem. Those 15% commissions might seem excessive, but equally scary is a world where there are no agents, and you can’t quickly find and compare hotel rates.

“Online travel agencies provide a valuable distribution channel, especially for travelers looking for a one-stop shop to book air, hotel and ground transportation together,” says John Hach, a senior industry analyst for TravelClick, a loyalty marketing company.

Imagine a world without travel agents, online or offline. Try searching for the best hotel rate by booking direct. Kinda hard, isn’t it? It’s easy to see the end result of this process. At some point in the not-too-distant future, we’ll have no choice but to go directly to a hotel — and pay the rate it desires.

How to book a hotel the smart way

At least for now, the competition for your hotel dollar is intense. Here’s how to make the most of it.

Start with a thorough search. Check an online travel agency like Expedia or Booking.com or call your travel agent. Check the rate against the price your preferred hotel would charge if you book direct.

Review the restrictions. Hotels can impose restrictions for booking through their site, like making their rooms nonrefundable, so read the conditions closely before deciding where to go. You might be better off working with a big agency that has negotiated better terms.

Check the incentives. Ask yourself if you really need the points (unless you’re a frequent guest, you probably don’t) or the upgrade. Remember, you might be forfeiting the services of a seasoned travel advisor who can advocate for you if something goes wrong.

22 thoughts on “Hotels offer perks if you book direct. But should you?

  1. So after telling your readers for years, to avoid middlemen, OTAs, to book directly with the hotels, now we sould go through them to keep alive the travel ecosystem?

  2. Um, I have to disagree almost completely with this. I always book direct now for one major reason: If something goes wrong, I get to deal with the hotel myself, I don’t have to deal with an OTA to relay messages. I don’t have to deal with two sets of terms and conditions. And while I love the Captain Obvious ads for hotels.com, I no longer use them. Two consecutive stays at different hotels had issues with the booking, couldn’t speak with the hotel, got referred to hotels.com and turned what could have been a 5-10 minute conversation at the front desk into a 2 hour ordeal.

    Since then I’ve had issues with the hotels, but since I’m their customer, and they know I specifically chose that property for my stay, the front line staff and managers are much more willing to work with me. I’m not “one of those” customers, but when I find bed bugs I’m not going to stay in that room. And yes, I’ve had a bed bug problem with both hotels.com and booking direct. Same chain, different properties. Guess which one was handled with a 10 minute conversation (5 of which was waiting for the head housekeeper to come to the front desk after being called on the radio) and which one took 3 hours to settle.

  3. Well, a lack of commissions hasn’t seemed to harm airline price comparison engines. (Does Kayak even have a built-in booking engine? Every time I use it, it sends me to the airline to book direct.)

    And of course Google does a lot of this work (they personally run the largest airline price database), and they also have hotel data; they don’t rely on booking commissions ever.

  4. We use OTAs to get an idea of room rates, but always book direct with the hotel to reduce problems.

  5. I went into a travel agency last week – and one of the agents asked me what I was interested in. I told her I was looking to go to the Shetland Islands. She ventured there “might” be a tour of Great Britain that could include them. I didn’t need a tour of much of the UK just to go to the Shetlands and possibly the Orkneys. However, I told her I I did not want to have to take a rental car on the ferry and needed a way to get to see the sights on the Shetland Islands. She suggested “walk”. She obviously knew nothing about the Shetland Islands, nor did she care to look. This is far from the first experience like this. A few years ago, I was “laughed out of the office” of an agency from the same chain for having the audacity to expect a “non smoking” hotel room in the UK without a doctor’s note stating I absolutely couldn’t be around smoke (I don’t have a condition like that). I’ve been to the UK dozens of times since then, and it wasn’t that long ago, yet never once had to stay in a “smoking” room. My mother purchased a family vacation for all of us to DisneyWorld, through her “travel agent” – same chain incidentally. This woman did not know how the Disney Wrist straps and associated online accounts worked, did not make the correct air bookings for at least one of the family (18 year old on a child fare) and numerous other stressful situations as I tried to get people together to book fast passes, but my mother being very insistent that “the travel agent knew best”. She didn’t, as was proved many times over later.. Decades ago, I used to purchase just about all of my travel and tickets through travel agents. But there are too many of them that don’t know or don’t care what they are doing. I realize there are a few that are awesome, but the industry doesn’t weed them out. As long as travel agencies employ these absolutely useless individuals and abel them as “travel agents”, I do not see any point in directing business their way. I will do my own investigation of the Shetland Islands, and pay for things directly. At least I know it will have been thoughtfully done and be right.

    The travel agency example is simple – fix it or get rid of it. Right now, the bad experiences far outweigh the good ones, and it is 100% due to incompetence in the ranks.

    I book direct just about all of the time, and although I do it for the “perks” I also do it because some travel agency does not deserve that 20% plus.

  6. “Start with a thorough search. Check an online travel agency like Expedia or Booking.com or call your travel agent. Check the rate against the price your preferred hotel would charge if you book direct.”

    Amazed this is saying to start with a thorough search without mentioning metasearch sites like Kayak, while will get you prices from Expedia, Priceline, direct, etc, all in one place.

  7. A child’s fare for an airline ticket? That must have been many years ago as they have not been offered domestically for years. I book one of my nieces and her two small children to spend time with me each year. I have tried through the airlines, OTA and my regular agent and all say they have not been offered in well over 10 years. As for the chain agency: Many years ago (24 or so) I called an agent at a big chain agency (as I was a member at the time) and asked about hotels at or near the Grand Canyon. The bright young thing promptly asked me WHAT Grand Canyon I wanted to visit. Cancelled my membership and found a really good agent at a mom/pop company. Still with her after all these years.

  8. The travel agency industry is not the same as it used to be. My mother was a travel agent back in the day and I remember quite fondly being able to go on trips with her as a child as she was being comped (or heavily discounted) by the various travel companies. Yes, it was in the hopes that she could sell, but it was also for education and experience. The various agents at the agency had various specialties; as one person cannot know everything about everywhere.

    Most competent agents have a specialty. Be it cruises, Disney, or business travel. But to walk into a brick and mortar agency and expect them to be fluent in an esoteric location such as the Shetland Islands is a bit much to ask. And would she get paid for that research, as there is no guarantee that you will book the trip with her or her agency?

  9. Indeed correct about child airfares. Unless the child is under 2, airfares are the same in the US for all domestic flights. Even on international flights, the fare is typically the same for all ages — only the taxes and/or fuel surcharges would be different.

  10. Answering the way she did is a 100% guarantee that I won’t. There were no customers in the agency at all, and two agents A response might have been “do you have a few minutes and we can look at some options” rather than what I got which is I don’t have a clue, but I will suggest some things which are not a good idea. The Disney agent booked $40,000 worth of travel and doesn’t have a clue how the Disney experience works. There’s no defense for any of these “agents”. If they don’t have the information, they can find it out. I spend lots of money on travel and I don’t expect people to waste time on me and get no money. Conversely, I do expect to get value for money. I am very fair. I’ve lost confidence in what people call travel agents.

  11. There was some issue with his ticket, I was told that.it was something like that…and it had to be fixed. It was 2-1/2 years ago. I flew separately. The point is, the guy couldn’t get on the plane because the travel agent screwed up.

  12. Why is it so hard to spend a bit of time checking official hotel websites to do comparison price shopping? I do that all the time and never book through a booking website.

    But I do some research to see which hotels look interesting to me and then go their websites to check pricing/room options/cancelation policies, etc – There are ways to find hotel lists without using an online booking website.

    Kind of like how it was to travel maybe 15 years plus ago – I managed then, I manage now. I always book directly with airlines and everything else that is possible to do so.

    There are some places like apartments and small B&Bs that use only booking websites for bookings and for those businesses it is definitely a business saver.

    Booking direct allows for pre-stay communication and if there is an issue, less hassle to resolve it. Never had a problem yet with one.

  13. I booked a trip thru a travel agent using Brendon Tours on a self drive of Scotland. Because it went through Brendon Tours, we were not eligible for either airline miles or hotel points. I will book directly with the hotel and airline from now on.

  14. My husband and I, early retirees, now retired, have travelled extensively in both the US and abroad, always booking our own hotels and airline tickets. We belong to several hotel loyalty programs, and two airline miles programs, all using the appropriate credit cards. We pay off every bill promptly. No credit card interest.. Ever. When things go fine, using a third party booking site may be fine. But. When there are problems, being a loyalty member is very important. When Eurotunnel problems delayed our trip from the Hilton Park Lane in London to the Paris Hilton, the loyalty concierge was able to quickly extend our London stay, using points, and call the Paris Hilton to report we would be a day late, but not to cancel our reservation. Problem solved.

    When weather prevented our flight from Sacramento to JFK, to connect through MSP, Delta was able to reroute us through Cincinnati. No charge.

    I could give other examples, but these two remain in my mind. If a room isn’t up to snuff, being a loyalty member gets one either a better room (sometimes a suite,) a discount off the rate, or thousands of loyalty points. Sometimes, all three. My husband manages our loyalty programs like a stock portfolio. We have flown, on points, Business class, to Moscow, twice. JFK to Tokyo. JFK to Buenos Aires, home from Santiago. To Athens, Nice, Rome, Milan. All Business Class. When flying to Istanbul we booked economy, but got an Operational Upgrade to first class – wonderful for a ten hour flight.

    Sometims, the third party site might be a bit less expensive. For us, the loyalty programs give us peace of mind. And often, perks in the hotels.

  15. American domestic simply means flights within the US and not a foreign country. Does not designate the carrier just simply the country.

  16. I am not sure that I could paint all or even most travel agencies with the same brush. Because one has issues with one chain of travel agencies, I am not certain how that could or would apply to all travel agencies.

  17. Perhaps this shining example of a travel agent mistook 18 years for 18 months? Big for his age, perhaps.

  18. I find that booking direct rather than using an OTA, not only for hotels but for cruise makes sense as if something changes or goes wrong the provider is better placed to contact the buyer directly or negotiate a settlement. Further one can get more accurate information and advice from the supplier than through travel agents, many of whom are motivated primarily by commissions and/or became agents because of a lack of college degree and little qualication for a better job. I think in the future their should be well traveled, educated agents who plan complex trips for a fee, with everything else booked direct.

  19. The point is, it wasn’t within the USA. The second point is, it was referred to as “child” or “children” and what you are apparently referring to, that airline calls “infant”. The third point is that it was about travel agents not earning their keep by creating problems rather than solving them, hence disagreeing with the story about supporting travel agents so they don’t go away. I find them, for the most part. – the ones I have encountered -worse than useless, and I can back it up with multiple examples. To clarify, “useless” being when someone does nothing, and “worse than useless” when they actually create problems. Apologies to the “good” travel agents out there, they are a rarity.

  20. Why preserve OTAs when Google Travel is free? (And doesn’t list commission places first which OTAs do). OTAs are really advertising places that collect money. If something goes wrong they remind you of this-that they’re at the mercy of the original vendor. Basically they make money off someone elses business

  21. Most hotels in ski resorts can’t be booked online but if you can you’ll often pay up to 10 times more for lift tickets. Book your snow holidays through a real live travel agent not sn ota.

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