Is It Cheaper to Book Through Travel Sites or Directly Through Hotels?

Craig writes in:

I usually stay at Marriott hotels while traveling because I know what I’m getting when I stay at one and they’re very consistent – a little pricy but I never get a bad surprise. I usually book through hotels.com but a friend told me that it is more cost effective to get into the Marriott Rewards program and book my hotel stays directly with Marriott. I’m trying to do the math and figure out if it’s true.

I want to start off by quickly covering the specific options that Craig is mentioning. Marriott is a hotel chain that offers several different brands of hotels at varying levels of quality, but in general a hotel that has the word “Marriott” somewhere in the logo offers a consistent and reasonably high quality experience. I like to stay at both Residence Inn and Courtyard, both of which are reasonably priced Marriott hotels, and have stayed at both Marriott and JW Marriott (higher priced) at various times. Hotels.com, on the other hand, is one of the most popular hotel booking aggregation sites, and I’ve used them regularly for many years.

So, let’s look at the two options that Craig is considering, in detail.

If you book your hotel stay through Hotels.com, they offer a bonus program in which you earn a free night’s stay at a hotel for every 10 stays you book through them. The value of that free night is equal to the average cost of the 10 nights that earned that free stay. So, let’s say you booked 10 nights at an average cost of $100 per night; you would earn a free night’s stay worth $100. In essence, if you stay at similar hotels all the time, you’ll earn a free stay with every 10 nights of bookings on Hotels.com.

With Hotels.com, you can choose from many, many different hotel chains, which is an advantage for comparing rates and options. This does give you some flexibility that booking directly through a hotel chain does not offer you.

Another advantage of Hotels.com is that they occasionally offer a deal on a particular hotel. If you watch Hotels.com carefully, you’ll sometimes find deep discounts that pop up in the area you want to stay in. Otherwise, I find that their rates are very comparable to what you’d get if you booked directly with the hotel in question.

On the other hand, the Marriott Rewards program offers 10 “points” for every $1 spent at a Marriott hotel, with a few minor variations. These convert into free nights at a variety of different rates depending on the hotel brand and location, as described here. The points rate for a single night at a Marriott hotel varies from 7,500 to 70,000. To put that in perspective, to earn a free night at the lowest end hotel would require you to spend $750 in total at Marriott hotels, while a free night at the high-end hotel would require you to spend $7,000 in total. It’s worth noting that if you book four nights in a block with Marriott points, you get the fifth night free, so if you saved up, say, 30,000 points, you could actually stay for five nights at the low end hotel.

It’s worth noting that Marriott also runs a “PointSavers” program, where many of their hotels are available at a discounted points rate (usually around 10% to 15% fewer points required for a night). However, this lower rate isn’t available at all times and all locations.

Marriott room rates vary widely based on location and brand (JW versus Marriott versus Courtyard versus Residence Inn and so on). I’ve stayed in Marriott hotels for well under $100 a night and other Marriott-owned hotels are as high as $400 a night. It all depends on location and property quality more than anything. Most of the Marriott owned hotels I’ve stayed at in the past are in the medium to lower end of their tier range and I’ve always been satisfied. Rooms at those hotels would be in the 10,000 to 15,000 point range and would cost around $150 a night if booked directly. This would mean that it would take somewhere around eight to nine nights spent at the Marriotts I typically stay at to earn a free night at the level of Marriott that I typically stay at.

It boils down to this: If you’re going to stay at a Marriott hotel and the booking price is the same on Hotels.com and when booking directly from Marriott, you’re going to be slightly ahead booking directly from Marriott if you stay in Marriott hotels frequently. On the other hand, if you are not consistently a patron of Marriott hotels, or if you find a notably lower rate for your booking on Hotels.com, you’re better off booking at Hotels.com.

There are a couple of other things to consider in all of this.

First, this story is similar when comparing most travel aggregation websites and most hotel chains. You’ll find that if you’re a heavy traveler and frequent one hotel chain a lot, then you’ll probably find more value in that hotel’s rewards program, but if those factors don’t apply to you, you’re probably better off booking with the aggregator. This isn’t universal, but it seems to be a pretty consistent pattern.

Second, if you are a heavy traveler and stay at a certain hotel chain frequently, you’re probably going to find that it’s worthwhile to get a rewards credit card that offers perks associated with that chain. For example, the Marriott Rewards card earns you 6 points for every $1 spent at a Marriott property and 2 points for every $1 spent everywhere else. This means that if you book directly with Marriott, you’ll earn 16 points per $1 spent, which means you’ll be getting a free night at a similar hotel with every six to seven nights or so of staying at that type of hotel. You also get a free night’s stay once a year with this card (up to a fairly high tier of hotel – nicer than the ones I often stay at, anyway). However, the card comes with an $89 annual fee, so you definitely need to be a very regular Marriott patron to get real value out of this card compared to other reward credit cards.

So, what’s the overall conclusion?

If you prefer to stay at a specific hotel chain and do so most of the time, you should become a member of that hotel chain’s rewards program book most of your hotel stays directly through that chain. This is slightly more cost effective than the bonuses offered by hotel aggregators.

If you are willing to stay at any hotel chain, you’re better off using a hotel aggregator like Hotels.com and using their bonus program. This is a more cost-effective route. It should be noted that different hotel aggregators (like Expedia or Booking.com) have very different bonus programs, but they all tend to boil down to something in the ballpark of booking 10 nights and being able to get the 11th night free.

Before you book directly with a hotel, you should at least check a hotel aggregator or two to see if you can get a room at that hotel at a highly reduced rate. Let’s say you’re like Craig and you prefer to book at Marriott hotels. Before you book a stay, it’s worth your time to check Hotels.com or other hotel aggregators and see whether that hotel is offering a significant discount through the aggregator. In general, if the discount through the aggregator is 10% or more, it’s probably cheaper to use the aggregator. My experience as of late has been that the vast majority of the time, the rates across all sites are the same for a particular room, with only 1% or 2% difference, unless there’s some kind of flash sale on the room. It’s those flash sales and the occasional price difference that make it worthwhile to check, and those happen often enough to make checking worthwhile.

You’re generally better off sticking with one hotel chain and one aggregator. Why? Unless you travel an absurd amount, you’ll never accumulate enough points or nights within a large number of programs to add up to a free night. You’re better off sticking with the points generated in one or two programs, even if you’re paying a little bit more once in a while. I personally use hotels.com as my aggregator, but I book almost all of my stays directly through them, as I’m pretty price conscious with my stays. I think that if I were a heavy traveler for work purposes, however, I would want a consistent chain to trust.

Used in concert, these strategies will help you find a good price on a room you like and accumulate adequate bonuses over time so that you’ll eventually be able to earn free nights at hotels you enjoy without much additional effort. Good luck!

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