Two companies control the lion’s share of hotel bookings and are demanding that hotels offer the same room at the same price across all booking platforms. Our researchers looked up more than 3,500 hotel rates on 18 different booking sites (plus hotel company websites) and found very little price variation among most options.

There are fortunately some ways cost-conscious travelers can still save:

  • The only way to consistently save a lot of money on hotel stays is to book a Hotwire Hot Rate or Priceline Express Deal “mystery rate.” Doing so is a slight gamble: For these mystery deals, Hotwire and Priceline don’t reveal hotel names until after you’ve paid, no backing out. It sounds risky, but you get plenty of information and filters to control key criteria and ensure you land at a good spot. Our staff has booked more than 100 mystery rates and seldom had any trouble. In our research, mystery rates saved us on average about 38 percent off the prevailing rates offered by other travel websites and the hotels themselves.
  • If you want to stay at a specific property and don’t want to risk a mystery-rate booking, our shopping tests found websites goSeek and SnapTravel were the next-cheapest options. Also check the hotel’s website—it might offer free upgrades or other perks if you book direct.
  • Hotels and other sites are increasingly promoting “unlockable” pricing to shoppers who join frequent-traveler clubs, supply an email address, connect via Facebook, or take similar steps to offer exclusive pricing that bypasses Expedia and Booking’s rules.
  • If you still have time, give aggregators Kayak or Trivago a shot; every now and then we found one had a good deal.
  • Almost all the travel websites we reviewed hype steep discounts based on “regular” rates hotels seldom actually charge. A common trick: displaying a price that’s crossed out next to a much lower “special” offer or issuing warnings like “Only 2 rooms left!” or “19 other travelers are looking at this deal!” We have a big problem with these sales tactics. Because the advertised higher “list” price doesn’t represent a prevailing rate, we believe these tactics are deceptive. And our research indicates there’s no rush: These terrible deals will still be available later. In fact, in most scenarios hotel-room prices actually go down the longer you wait to book.