Choosing a hotel has always been something of a shot in the dark. Those will long memories will recall a time when the brochures were full establishments in the Spanish Costas that hadn’t even been built yet.
The internet has made matters easier, but only if you are prepared to put in the spadework. Leaving the choice to one of the web’s hotel comparison sites is as risky as handing your suitcases to someone who claims he’s the porter.
A casual glimpse at some of the best-known of these services may give you the impression that the destination of your choice is dominated by one just or two hotels that stand head and shoulders above the rest. The reality may be that you’re just looking at an advert, even it isn’t marked as such,.
That’s because some sites acknowledge in their small print that they factor the fee that hotel owners have paid them, into their algorithms. The resulting lists are weighted against similar and perhaps better hotels that have paid less.
That’s not the only bear trap. Earlier this year, Booking.com, Ebookers, Expedia, Hotels.com and Trivago were among those made the subject of enforcement action by the Competition and Markets Authority, amid claims of misleading discounts and hidden charges, as well as the effect of commission on the way hotels were listed.
The crackdown wasn’t entirely successful. Seven months after the event, the consumers’ organisation Which? reported that Booking.com was still flouting the rules, often claiming that only one room was left at hotels that had several.
The site says it is implementing all the changes demanded of it, but the fact remains that it is very easy to be misled, no matter which comparison service you use. Unless you look very carefully, it is not even clear which are proper hotels and which are pubs or guest houses. And many of the reviews from past guests deserve to be treated with more salt than there is in all of Cheshire.
Besides, some of the best budget hotel chains choose not to be listed on comparison sites at all.
The issue further muddied by the emergence of so-called Air B&Bs, a term which can be applied to any spare room or even shed let out by its owners.
The website Airbnb is the most popular promoter of these establishments, making it easy for anyone with a few square yards of space to list it. But that is fraught with problems, and following a series of outright frauds by some owners and a fatal shooting at a house party in the US, the site has clamped down.
“We are a platform built on a foundation of trust,” said its boss, sounding like someone who had never seen the internet.
The best advice when booking a hotel here or abroad is to check it out for yourself, at least externally, and that can usually be achieved quite easily with a quick look at Google Maps. Zooming into Street View will give you a very different, and more accurate, perspective than the one presented on the booking site. You will also be able to identify nearby parking space and likely sources of noise that will keep you up all night.
And always check the hotel’s own website. Google makes this difficult because some of the listing sites are designed to look “official”, but it’s worth persevering because you will sometimes get a lower rate, or a discount in the form of free parking or inclusive breakfast, as a reward for not going through a third-party.