By Reid Bramblett
Like it did with so much else, Covid greatly disrupted the travel industry, but that won’t stop Frommer’s from kicking the tires on all the major hotel booking sites to determine which ones can still find the lowest prices and the best options.
Travel might be changing, but our results are still surprising us. In our latest deep dive into the performance of hotel search engines, we've seen some former winners (Hotwire, TravelPony) fall out of the running. At the same time, we've seen some heavy hitters come up from behind to rise higher than before.
It’s time to crown the newest batch of the Frommer’s Top Ten.
Three types of hotel search engines
First, it helps to understand the playing field. There are basically three types of websites we use to find hotels: OTAs (online travel agencies); the hotels’ own websites, which may offer deals OTAs can’t match (and you should always double-check yourself before booking); and aggregators, or meta-search engines, which don’t actually handle reservations—they trawl both OTAs and hotel sites to return a compendium of results, then send you to your choice for booking.
We tested both OTAs and the aggregators that search them. Why include smaller OTAs at all when there are aggregators that check them? Well, some aggregators aren’t nearly as good as they should be at combing through those booking engines. In fact, in our latest survey, the site that found the most hotels was actually an OTA, and not an aggregator that supposedly canvasses it. You’d think their results would be at least as good—but we found they weren’t.
Warning: Many aggregators will discover a number of booking sites that have amazingly low prices—but often sketchy track records. Whenever you find a result for a company you’ve never heard of, do a quick search for its name and the words “review” or “scam,” and also check out its reputation on the Better Business Bureau (BBB.org) before giving them your money.
As a side note, membership sometimes has its privileges, at least at some OTA sites where signing in can often net you 4% to 6% in savings. Aggregator member savings are more sporadically available, and on the order of just 1% to 2%. We used the plain “non-member” rates for all our tests.
How We Determined our Ranking
We threw 60 room reservation scenarios at the major sites to determine which found the cheapest rates and the most options.
To start, we tallied the number of choices each contender could rustle up in seven major tourist cities: Orlando, New Orleans, San Francisco, Rome, London, Bangkok, and Buenos Aires.
Then, for each city, we searched for the lowest rates each site could find at four specific downtown hotels in varying price ranges for a mid-week, shoulder-season stay three months out. By avoiding high-season or holiday spikes as well as last-minute discounts, we aimed for the most normal base prices.
We awarded points for finding the lowest rates on a given hotel—and subtracted points for returning higher prices than other sites—in a complicated weighted system designed to see which site would save you the most money consistently.
So who succeeded and who didn’t measure up? Read on...
Hotels.com returns from the wilderness back into the Top 10 for the first time in five years—possibly because it has added vacation rentals and apartments to its U.S. results. Its resurgence displaces last year’s #10, Hotwire, from our list entirely. However, on that all-important price point, Hotels.com was average at best, and it stumbled in non-U.S. destinations.
Hotels.com does have the best and most robust filters in the business—tied, in fact, with our #2—and using them helps you sort the results in a range of flexible ways. But Hotels.com needs to improve price performance if it wants to rise in the rankings.
Pros: Super-fast refresh; full slate of filtering/sort-by options, including one for accessibility; lots of lodging types; decent (but never the best) prices; honest about the fact it factors its own commissions into ranking the search results (yes, it informs you in teensy fine print you have to click to read, but at least it’s honest)
Cons: Not very strong internationally, especially in the lower price categories
Priceline once ruled the middle-of-the-pack booking engines, but now it can't break out of slot #9, where it lingered last time. It did a decent job on price in the U.S. (and found the most hotels in Orlando), but only a middling job in Europe, and it fell down when it came to Asia and South America.
What keeps Priceline in the running are its three novel ways to save. Blind booking Express Dealsoffer discounts from 18% to 60%, but you don’t learn the hotel’s name and address until you’ve paid. Pricebreakersare similar, with lower savings (up to 50%), but at least you are told it will be one of three specific hotels. VIP Deals are for members, who sign in and save 5% to 15% on named hotels.
Pros:Express Deals blind bookings and Pricebreaker semi-blind options can knock off up to 50% or 60%; fast refresh
Cons:Priceline’s map view only shows 30 hotels per page, not all the results; private rentals are on a separate results list from hotels, which seems pointless; sub-par filters make it trickier to sort; doesn’t disclose taxes and fees until the final booking page; rounds price quotes down (a minor annoyance, but it feels sneaky)
Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz are corporate sister sites that deliver identical results. We went with Expedia, but the outcome will pretty much be the same at all three.
Expedia dropped out of the top 10 entirely the last time we ran tests, but it has since clawed its way back to the #8 spot with a mediocre performance. It was nearly as lackluster as Kayak in turning up large numbers of lodgings—though we think it’s nice that Expedia does now include apartments and other rental units—but Expedia fared a bit better than last time on rates.
Expedia scored equal numbers of best and worst results, but for the most part it was solidly in the middle. Interestingly, it performed slightly better internationally than in the U.S. (for most sites, it’s the other way around).
Pros:Now offers lots of apartments; pretty decent filters; displays total price with taxes and fees from the get-go (in smaller print beneath the lead price used by its filters)
Cons:Prices consistently merely average (except, for some reason, in London); every apartment or condo unit listed separately, even when there are multiple ones in the same building, which artificially inflates results; "The compensation which a property pays us for bookings made through our sites is also a factor for the relative ranking of properties with similar offers" (that’s bad, but kudos for being upfront about it)
The original name-brand aggregator, Kayak, keeps bouncing around our ranking. Last time, it came in third. This time, it settles at #7 for being merely average in pretty much every respect: price, choice, and filters.
The only times Kayak deviated from the norm in pricing was in London (it did well) and Buenos Aires (it did not). Kayak does have a solid set of filters—including a fill-in window for "nearby..." so you can name any landmark or address; very nice. However, it also somehow put a cookie on our browser that apparently recorded travel searches we had performed on the other sites—it auto-filled destinations and dates when we first logged on. That is creepy and we don’t like it.
Pros: Offers option to include taxes and fees (but you have to select it); offers "Price Alerts" deal tracker; searches direct on some hotel sites; nice filters
Cons: Doesn’t always lead with lowest price; often listed fewer lodgings than its corporate sister site, Booking, which it claims to canvass (as always, this gap in results mystifies us)
Booking still smokes the competition when it comes to the sheer number of city-center lodgings it can find, especially for under $200. Where it has slipped over the years (over time, from #1 to #4 to #6) is on price. Booking used to find the best or near-best rate about two-thirds of the time, if not more. This time: never. Its price performance was exceedingly average—and, for the first time in seven years, it actually returned the highest price twice.
We do like to note that it remains one of the more honest sites. Each hotel has lots of user reviews that, unlike at crowdsourced sites, are guaranteed to be from actual guests (you can only post a review if you’ve booked through the site and only after you’ve completed your stay). Although it excludes taxes from North American rates, it does include European VAT and Asian taxes (3% to 20%) in the base prices, and shows them with the first results you see. Most other sites bury the fees in the fine print, behind a sometimes-hidden filter button, or will only show them once you clicked through and tried to book.
Pros: Includes taxes from the start (except in North America); usually finds far more properties than any other site—OTA or aggregator—especially in the lower price brackets; decent selection of filters and sort-by options
Cons:Occasionally returns a below-average price; like its corporate cousin Agoda, it uses annoying and condescending pressure-sales tactics such as results tagged with a red-text "Only 3 rooms left on our site!"
Yes, in addition to cataloguing complaints about weird smells, rude clerks, and spotty Wi-Fi, Tripadvisor now aggregates hotel prices so you can just click to book. Most prices it found were at least average or better—it was particularly strong in London and Orlando—and it was the only site to beat Booking at finding the most places under $75 across the board.
Though Tripadvisor’s selection of filters looks pretty strong, they don’t always work. The site does have "user" reviews, but after all these years, they are still not necessarily trustworthy—some experts estimate that between one-third and one-half of all crowdsourced reviews are false, paid for or written by friends, staff, or competitors. (The company disputes that estimate.)
Pros: Handy user reviews, some of which are real; good at finding the cheapest lodgings; sometimes finds lower prices direct from a hotel’s own site
Cons: Hinky filters; mostly average rates; questionable user reviews
Agoda has slowly climbed the list to become the top-performing OTA in terms of price and selection. It was the only site of any on this list (including the top 3) to never present a price that was worse than the industry average, and it sometimes offered "Secret Deals" of $10–$40 off a mystery hotel—you’re only told the star rating (three to five) and neighborhood until after you’ve paid.
Now for the bad—and it’s very bad. Agoda receives extremely poor marks for service when things go wrong—the terrible word of mouth shared on the Better Business Bureau’s website might be enough to disqualify this site for you. Agoda also doesn’t reveal taxes and fees until the final booking page, and its distance filter often didn’t work for us. Also, its inventory estimates seem to be wildly inflated. It claimed to find 2,130 rooms under $75 in Rome, but we counted an actual number of 235. Finally, some outside aggregators were able to find lower rates on specific hotels at Agoda than searches conducted directly on Agoda by us.
Pros: Consistently finds some of the lowest prices, especially in Asia; decent filters; offers "Member Rates" that seem to shave about 10% off some properties
Cons:Customer complaints; only fair-to-poor results in the United States; you can only search by city (most other sites permit you to search a region or state as well); omits taxes and fees until the last moment, which makes its results look artificially cheaper than competitors that include them; clutters price window with controversial marketing ploys that imply scarcity ("86% off today!" "Only 3 Left!" "Mega Sale!"); sprinkles 4% of the results, carefully placed, with "Just missed it!" hotels that are not available on your dates
Trivago stumbled after its initial success but has regained its footing since the last time we put it through the wringer. It went toe-to-toe with our #2 in digging up great prices, but it was not nearly so successful at finding hotels under $200 (and even less so for rates under $75). In fact, Trivago found fewer hotels than any other site on this list except for Expedia (#8) and Hotels.com (#10). Trivago did sometimes win the pricing game by finding a rate direct from the hotel (but our #1 also knows this trick), and it sometimes rustled up lower rates at an OTA than you could find if you searched it directly.
However, Trivago was far more annoying to use than other top sites. It was the only site on this list that never gave an indication of taxes and fees in results—you have to click over to the booking site for that—which means its "lowest rate" might have hidden fees that actually make it far more expensive. Example: Trivago returned a wow quote of $121 on a hotel in Orlando nearly every other site had at $199, but when we clicked over to the site with the deal, Bedsopia, the total you’d pay was actually $246. Is that helpful, Trivago?
It also has meager filters, a shortcoming that is exacerbated by the fact that it only shows the top 125 results based on any given criteria (price, rating, distance from landmark—and that last one is buggy). The featured price displayed in large type was not always the best price (which was displayed either in smaller print or shown only after clicking the "More deals" tab). Worse, sometimes the price was not actually available once we clicked over to the highlighted booking site. Finally, Trivago has partnered with a third party to provide direct booking on some hotels, but that third party has far too many online complaints for us to recommend it.
Pros: Simple user interface; fast refreshes; does direct searches on hotels’ own sites
Cons: Far fewer choices than most; featured prices are not always available, come with hidden taxes and fees, or are from a sketchy OTA; formerly robust filters have been oversimplified; only shows the top 125 results based on a given criteria
Time and again, HotelsCombined proved its ability to bag the best rates in the business—to be honest, it was barely edged out by our #1. Only once did HotelsCombined return a price below average on our mid-range London hotel (and it had company on that failure; even #1 stumbled and beat it by just $2).
We think HotelsCombined has, hands-down, the best set of filters in the business. They’re all checkboxes, sliders, or fill-in text boxes, not radio buttons, and that distinction allows you to select multiple options within a category. You can even enter any landmark or address to center your search on that area (only sister site Kayak shares that perk).
While HotelsCombined does offer the option to see prices including taxes and fees, for some reason, selecting it can eliminate many results. Another interesting quirk: While the site performed well overall, we noticed it didn’t always canvass as many sites as its rivals. For example, it found only one quote for the Disney Pop Century Resort when Tripadvisor found 13, all of them cheaper.
Pros: Fast refresh; best filters; sometimes finds lower "book direct" rates from hotel; offers "Price alert" tracker; has option to see prices with or without taxes
Cons: Less choice than many competitors; sometimes the price quoted was not actually available once we clicked over to the vendor; has inexplicably removed some small but handy features that made it stand out, such as the ability to eliminate specific hotels from your results
Yes, we expected this spot to belong to some scrappy upstart with its roots in the travel industry, but in Google’s relentless campaign to dominate every form of Web search, it has quietly built the best hotel aggregator in the business. You can always Google a hotel’s name directly to see some rates from various sites, but go to Google.com/travel/hotels and you get its full-fledged aggregator interface. Results are lightning fast, the interface is intuitive, and the results were the best in class. Google was the only site on this year’s list that never turned in the worst price, and only once did it deliver a below-average one. It even knew when to look for a rate directly on the hotel’s own site that beat the OTAs.
That said, sometimes a price in Google’s results turned out to be a bit higher once we clicked over to book it, and the option to view prices inclusive of taxes and fees wasn’t available on first sight: You had to click on a specific lodging rather than on the results list page. Its filters could also be better. The key ones are there, but there is no neighborhood or "distance from" filter—though because the results are based on a map inset, you can game that by centering the map over your preferred area.
One true oddity and downside: Google, the supposed King of Search, never found the most options. It was outpaced by Booking and Kayak nearly every time (except in hotels under $75, where Google beat them). Still, Google found more than enough lodgings—and it reigned supreme on price. So much for the little guy!
Pros: Very fast; great at finding the best prices; decent filters; sometimes finds lower prices direct from the hotel; offers the option to see the rate with taxes and fees
Cons: Smaller set of results than on some other sites; needlessly divides results between hotels and vacation rentals; leads with "Ads • Featured Offers" results from partners—but at least it labels them as sponsored