While working for a popular online travel agency, I heard the most incredible – sometimes hilarious – stories and learn everything I could to draft a complete ultimate guide to booking hotels online. From the search to the check-out. Scared of errors or overbooking? Follow my tips to save time and money with complaint-free hotel reservations!
What's in this post?
1.Best websites for booking hotels online
Like Skyscanner for the flights, Trivago compares hotel prices scanning most of the online travel agencies. It is a great website to start your search!
Booking.com is the largest portal to book online not only hotels but any type of accommodations you could think of, from villas to resorts, to small apartments to hostels. It’s the only website with a multilanguage in-house customer service.
Hotels.com is another great online travel agency for accommodations. I recommend it for the user-friendly website and the great selection of hotels.
Not so popular in Europe or in the USA, Ctrip.com is the first choice for the Asian market, China in particular. If you are heading to the East, give it a try!
2. How to search for hotels online
2.1 Login to your account for extra discounts or benefits
Several hotel chains and OTAs run loyalty programs and/or discounts linked to a free account! You can unsubscribe to the newsletter if you are not interested but you will still collect points or good deals.
Frequent bookers are Genius guests for Booking.com, a status that automatically unlocks discounts of 10% or 15% and freebies on selected properties.
Otherwise, collect nights with Hotels.com Rewards: every 10 nights (stayed and paid out), 1 is for free! It is ideal when you travel for work because the company pays the invoice but the free night is yours 😉
2.2 Enter your destination
Don’t limit your search to cities or towns, you can also type regions, specific landmarks or airports/stations! The website/app might show you different options in a drop-down menu, be careful to select the correct city and Country. If you want to stay in Amsterdam NY and you book a hotel in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, you will end up with a reservation to cancel… I never realized how many cities with identical names are both in the Americas and Europe!
If you enter a landmark, all the hotels located nearby will pop up as first results. Let’s say you want to plan a trip to Paris, dreaming to sleep nearby the Tour Eiffel: start your hotel search by typing the name of the famous tower!
2.3 Enter the check-in and check-out dates
Verify that day(s), month(s) and year are correct and remember this simple rule: you book for the night between the check-in day and the check-out day.
It means that if you are partying during the weekend (Saturday and Sunday) and you want to book a hotel last minute after midnight: you have to select Saturday as check-in day, otherwise you will book the night between Sunday and Monday. It seems that this mistake is very popular among guests in Las Vegas, not surprised why!
Extra tip: when you take a long-haul flight, pay attention to the arrival date, because it could be the same day of departure or the next, depending if you fly toward West or East.
2.4 Enter the occupancy
Specify how many adults will sleep in the room(s), how many children – if any – and their age. Entering correct information will allow finding family rooms, where children can stay for free or get a discount rate!
By default, most of the websites show 1 double room for two adults or your last search options, in case you have used the portal in the past and you haven’t cleaned up the cookies.
2.5 Read the guest reviews
96% of travelers consider reviews important when searching for a hotel. Psychology calls it social proof, I would rather say trust in other fellow travelers! Even if some websites are not transparent – on Tripadvisor you are allowed to leave feedback to a property or restaurant where you have never been to! – other OTAs, like Booking.com, collect reviews only from real guests. Fake comments are removed so that the final score online truly reflects the customer experience. Unless you have a limited budget or no choice, avoid booking accommodation with a review score lower than 7/10 and ideally look for the 8+. Otherwise, your stay could be unforgettable for very wrong reasons!
2.6 Filter and sort
Filters make your life easier. Instead of scrolling hundreds of hotels for hours, you can focus on the ones that fit your need, whenever it is a swimming pool, a pet-friendly room or a three-star rating. After the search is complete, sort the results by price, guest reviews or any important factors for your final choice: the best results matching your input will pop up on the top of the first page.
2.7 Check the location on the map
Most of the websites allow you to visualize the search results the map. Is your favorite hotel well located and convenient for your stay? Does the district have a high location score, meaning that other travelers recommended it? Is the hotel easy to reach?
2.8 Traveling with pets
Does the hotel allow pets? If you are not sure, add pet-friendly as a filter in your selection and you won’t risk choosing a wrong hotel!
2.9 Be careful of the check-in and check-out time
In general, 3-star hotels or above have 24h reception, meaning that they can welcome you also at night. Otherwise, make sure to reach the accommodation within the check-in time, or call few days in advance to ask for a later check-in, eventually for an extra fee. This is vital when booking in the evening of the arrival date: if you don’t pay enough attention, you risk to reach the hotel and find it closed!
Check-out time indicates when you have to leave your room, without paying for an extra night. Ask at the reception to store your suitcase, if you still have time to enjoy the city. It is usually for free 🙂
You have found a charming hotel, located is in your favorite district, with a review score above 8/10, plus they accept for free your doggy. Time to see the available rooms and the deals!
3. Paying for the hotels booked online
3.1 Book now, pay later
Book now, pay later is the classic ad for a free cancellation policy. Even if the credit card is required as a guarantee of the hotel reservation, you will pay for the booking only at the hotel. Don’t forget that the property has still the right to verify the validity of your card via pre-authorization: the amount is not charged but blocked up to 30 days, meaning that your available balance is reduced.
In case the pre-authorization doesn’t succeed, the hotel can ask an alternative credit card within a deadline and simply cancel the booking if not provided in time.
3.2 Cancellation window for flexible policy
When you make a booking, read carefully the cancellation terms and verify until when you can cancel or modify the dates for free. Leaving a reminder on your calendar is a good idea to not forget to cancel the hotel booking whenever the travel is not confirmed!
3.3 Prepayment of a deposit
Check if the policy includes the prepayment of a deposit. Despite most of the hotels ask for a credit card only as a guarantee of the reservation – unless the policy is non-refundable -, some might require to pre-charge the total or partial amount.
Again: read carefully the conditions before booking hotels online!
3.4 Non-refundable policy
Save money with non-refundable policy only if your trip is 100% confirmed. Cheap non-refundable deals allow the hotel to charge your credit card for the total cost anytime after your booking. You save up to 15-20% for the same room comparing to flexible conditions but in case of cancellation or modification, you might lose the full amount!
3.5 Verify the payment method
Does the accommodation accept credit card or it is a cash only property? Do you have to pay the deposit via bank transfer or Pay Pal?
3.6 Check if taxes and other charges are included
I am talking about TAX/VAT (% on the total amount), city tax (usually per person per night), tourism fee, etc… Charges are regulated by the local law but based on the hotel location and your IP they can be already included in the total amount or excluded, meaning that you will have to pay an extra cost.
3.7 Don’t skip the fine print
The fine print includes extra house rules that you should be aware of before making a booking. Take your time to scroll down until the bottom of the hotel page and read carefully all the provided info!
You have found the perfect hotel, the room of your dreams and you have selected the policy you prefer (let’s say a non-refundable because you are 100% confident). It is time to book!
4. Booking process checklist
Before clicking on “confirm” and booking hotels online, mentally follow this checklist to avoid mistakes:
Double check the dates and the city. If you make a non-refundable reservation with wrong dates or destination, the excuse that your cat made the booking walking on the tablet is not really believable… and neither your 2-year-old child, despite the new generation is impressive tech (not so sure about your pet)!
Check if the occupancy is correct. Don’t book for a single use rate if you are traveling as a couple: you will have to pay the difference anyway or the hotel might even cancel your booking upon arrival.
Check cancellation policy and meal plan. Read again the conditions, are they what you have selected?
Enter your correct email address and telephone number. Providing your contact details is a vital step to receive the confirmation email and be contacted by customer service if needed.
Use the credit card of one of the guests: some hotels – especially in the USA – accept the hotel reservation and the pre-payment only if the name matches! In case you need, make the card’s owner sign an authorization form to show at the reception, together with a copy of the credit card and an ID.
Make a screenshot of the reservation code and wait for the confirmation email. In the remote case you won’t receive the email within few minutes, check in the spam or promotion folder of your inbox and feel free to contact the customer service providing the booking code you have saved (luckily!). It will spare you a ton of time! Don’t re-book the hotel for any reasons before contacting the customer support center or you might end up paying for both the bookings.
Once you receive the confirmation email, your reservation is made. No need to contact the customer service or the hotel directly. Woo-hoo! Every online agency sends automatically the data to the property in a few seconds through their system or by email. Extra tip: I suggest to call the hotel only if you made the booking at very last minute and for a small bed and breakfast or an apartment… just for the peace of mind 😉
Booking hotels online: use your credit card or ask the owner’s authorization (comic by Poitras)
5. Manage your booking: know your rights!
How to cancel/modify a hotel booking
Need to cancel or modify reservations? If the policy you have booked is flexible and you are still in time for a free cancellation/modification, enter your code to manage your booking portal of Booking.com or Hotel.com and go ahead!
Otherwise, if the booking is non-refundable or it is too late to cancel or modify it for free, contact the customer service. When hotels are confident to resell the room, they usually accept the free cancellation!
Has the accommodation refused to waive the fee or refund you? Ask for a date modification and reconsider to go for the trip – after all, it is already paid! Otherwise, make a gift to a friend or try to resell the room online.
Has the hotel contacted you asking to cancel the reservation? Don’t do it! Call customer service for support. The request can hide an overbooking or error fares; in both cases, the agent will help to solve the issue and to guarantee the reservation.
Hotel overbooking: what to do?
You have searched for your perfect hotel for hours and you are counting the days for your vacation. Suddenly a new e-mail pops up in our inbox announcing “We are sorry to inform you that the room you have booked is not available. We will arrange a relocation to another property”. Much worse scenario: you reach your favorite hotel and the overbooking news is your great welcome.
I have experienced myself. It sucks. But it can happen and it doesn’t have to ruin your mood!
If the hotel has already found an alternative solution that you like, simply accept the proposal at no extra cost. Otherwise, ask for a third option or call the customer service of the online agency you have booked with; an agent will help you by providing a valid solution, furthermore after your stay you might get a refund of the price difference. Sometimes from a nastyhotel overbooking, you can gain a free upgrade!
Your stay is disappointing
Online photos are 300% better than reality, no safety box or kettle, both mentioned in your confirmation emails, plus the bathroom is dirty and there is no ocean view. To sum up: you are not satisfied at all!
My suggestion is to solve the situation on the spot, by asking kindly to the receptionist for a room change and mentioning everything you don’t like. Hotels want to provide the best experience for the guests, translating it to good reviews: they will try everything they can to make you happy.
In case of lack of cooperation, make some meaningful photos to the room/hotels as proof of your complaint and send an email to the OTA mentioning a refund.
One last advice: whenever we travel for work or pleasure, the main goal is usually not staying in a hotel room. Unless the problem is real and urgent, enjoy your time and don’t make minor details spoil your trip! 😉
Tips for a smooth hotel payment
When you pay for the reservation at the reception, verify that the amount matches with the one from your confirmation. Feel free to ask clarification in case of doubts, better before than after the charge!
Pay with the same credit card provided for the booking: the hotel will transform in charge the amount blocked by the pre-authorization and you won’t have to wait for the release of the second credit card.
If you pay in cash, always ask for the receipt mentioning the payment method. You will have a proof of a double charge in case the property has already charged your credit card. In this unlucky case, send an email to the customer service with the bank statement and the cash receipt in the attachment. If the claim is valid, you should get a refund in a few days.
Do you use websites to booking hotels online? Have you ever called customer service? Do you have any doubts? Leave a comment below and thanks for sharing this guide with your friends! 🙂