Which Travel Search Site Is Best? It Depends on Your Goals

Flights are travel sites’ bread and butter, right? Wrong. Hotels are where the money is. A 2013 Forbes article noted that an astounding 97 percent of Priceline’s revenue came from hotel bookings. Booking.com, which is owned by Priceline, is a big revenue driver and is able to do an enormous volume, as the company doesn’t act as the merchant of record. It simply connects guests with hotels and takes a fee.

Let’s get back to our long weekend in Chicago: Hotel selection is a bit more subjective, as more criteria are involved. I searched for a room for two at a four-star property downtown. Travelocity’s first nonsponsored recommendation was a room with a king bed at the Hard Rock Hotel Chicago, a decent choice, for $149 per night. Kayak’s first suggestion was the Hyatt Regency Chicago (also a king room) for $179 per night. Hipmunk’s top result? The Palmer House (with only a double bed) for $184 per night.

All three sites had the Hyatt room for $179. Travelocity had the same deal on the Palmer House, but Kayak shaved off a few bucks, offering the room at $180 per night. As for the Hard Rock Hotel, only Travelocity had the $149 rate; the other sites offered the room at $159.

On their own respective sites, the Hyatt and Palmer House rates were the same as the aggregators’. At the Hard Rock Hotel’s site, though, the lowest rate was $169 — undercut by all three aggregator sites. A good strategy can also be to call hotels directly and ask them to match (or beat) rates that you find online. They won’t always oblige, but it doesn’t hurt to try.

Let’s book the flight and hotel together and save some big money, shall we? I searched the same Chicago weekend on Travelocity, looking for the same flights and hotels as a package for two people. With taxes and fees, the total came to $1,207, saving … negative three dollars. That’s right, it was actually more expensive to buy this particular itinerary as a package instead of booking the flights and hotels separately.

Hipmunk also offered a package with its preferred hotel, the Palmer House, for $1,310 for two people, saving $82. It’s worth noting, however, that the package included a JetBlue flight, not the lowest-priced Spirit flight that it advertised (which some may consider a plus). It’s also worth noting that to purchase the package Hipmunk directs you to Travelocity.

As for Kayak, buying a package that featured its favored hotel, the Hyatt Regency Chicago, wasn’t even available as an option. It did advertise a package at the Palmer House for $1,574, however, a significant markup from Hipmunk’s offering. And while my searches are admittedly a tiny sample relative to Kayak’s vast offerings, I noticed another hiccup on the very next package I selected: the Hyatt Regency O’Hare, advertised at $1,092 total for two people. I clicked on the price and was redirected to JetBlue Vacations, which had the price at $1,306.

That was probably an anomaly. (The very next Kayak package I clicked on actually ended up being cheaper than advertised.) But it was also a lesson learned. If you’re looking to save money, don’t take things at face value; results can vary greatly from site to site. Do your research and inquire directly with travel providers in addition to searching the big travel aggregators. They want your business, certainly, but promises of big savings don’t hold up in all cases.

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