By Rick Steves
Your hotel, and the neighborhood it inhabits, can color your travel experience. Landing in the right place merits a little research.
Guidebooks: A trusted guidebook remains the best place to start your search for a great hotel. Professional guidebook writers take their jobs seriously, offering detailed hotel reviews and their best advice on the sleeping scene. Find and use a guidebook whose travel philosophy matches yours. Get the most current edition possible — but even with the newest editions, don't be surprised if rates have increased slightly since the book was published.
Hotel Websites: If a guidebook's write-up of a particular hotel appeals to you, visit the hotel website to glean additional information, check prices, and view photos of the rooms. Some hotels (especially chain or business hotels) offer discounts only if you book on their website. Here are some tips for getting the best deal online: Midweek prices are generally higher than weekend rates, and Sunday nights can be shockingly cheap. The rates for a particular room for a specific date can change from day to day or week to week (like airline tickets), making it difficult to know when to book. On the hotel's online reservation form, punch in the dates you're considering to see what the going rate is. Look for special offers. For the best deals, book at least three weeks in advance, prepay in full, and hope you don't have to change your plans (since promotional rates are often nonrefundable).
Hotel-Booking Websites: The big hotel-booking websites, such as Travelocity, Expedia, Booking.com, and Venere.com, can provide a wealth of information about the types of hotels available and the range of prices. But what you won't easily find on these sites are links to individual hotels — that's because the big guys want you to book through them (or their partners) for a fee. Using a booking service costs the hotel about 20 percent and logically closes the door on special deals. Instead, once you've identified a promising option, do a Google search to find the hotel's own website. You'll get more complete information, and you may save money by booking direct.
Traveler Reviews: To read reviews from other travelers, check sites such as TripAdvisor. Generally the more individual reviews a place has, the more reliable the information. But don't trust everything you read.
Other Online Sources: Sites such as Mobissimo and Hotelscombined compile prices from travel agencies, consolidators, and hotel websites. (If you find a deal you like, still go to the hotel's website to book direct.) If your travel dates are flexible, consider the deep discounts available on sites such as Priceline.com, Eurocheapo, and Ratestogo.com.