Personal Finance

Why hotel booking sites show the same price, how to find a better deal

Hotel comparison websites used to compete on pricing. But a new report claims most of them now show the exact same price. So what can you do?

Why hotel booking sites show the same price, how to find a better deal
Mark Lennihan/AP

Remember back five or 10 years ago when you could search a half dozen hotel booking sites and find all sorts of rates? Those days are pretty much gone, according to a new report.

Marty Stone is a frequent hotel traveler and says he finds few bargains at comparison sites. When he needs to book a room these days, he goes straight to the hotel site.

"I'm a Marriott guy, so I just went to the website," he told us.

Robin Hoppe uses the same strategy with a different chain.

"I use the Hilton website," she said.

But what about all those discount travel sites, such as Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline, and Hotwire? Kevin Brasler and his team with Consumers' Checkbook made nearly 2,000 searches on 25 travel sites, using 75 different hotel stays.

What they found was surprising.

"Over and over again, for the most part, we were being quoted the same prices from each seller," he said.

How is that possible?

Their investigation says what looks like healthy competition is a bit of an illusion since many sites are now owned by one of two companies.

"One is Expedia," Brasler said, "and the other is Booking Holdings," the investigation says.

"The hotels and these third-party bookers have entered agreements," he explained, "that basically say that for the same stay at the same property for the same dates, they're all going to charge the same prices."

So instead of hopping from site to site for a better deal, Consumers' Checkbook says the savings really come from being flexible.

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How to find a better deal

So what can you do to find lower rates?

Consumers' Checkbook suggests you:

- Shift your travel dates by simply moving from a Saturday to a Sunday night, which can save $100 or more at many hotels.

- Stay in a nearby suburb versus downtown.

- Consider "mystery deals."

Brasler says their researchers found mystery deals can unlock lower prices if you're up for a gamble.

"You don't learn the name of that hotel until you've prepaid and booked your stay," he explained. "And there are no refunds; there's no backing out."

Examples are Hotwire's "Hot Rates" and Priceline's "Express Deals."

Frequent traveler Allison Whipple always starts searching where she wants to go and then says she goes "straight through the hotel website, just directly to the source." After that, she checks around for better deals, just in case she finds any at other sites. Many times, she does not.