Many Internet sites offer hotel bookings - and even those that aren't familiar may be terrific resources. Over the years, we've successfully booked with many sites, including the "Big Three" online agencies, Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity. Often, though, we send e-mails directly to the owners of small lodgings we've discovered through guidebooks and online.
When checking hotel reviews, consider the source: Is the writer someone like you? Ratings drawn from reviews may be most reliable when a hotel has many reviews rather than a handful. When reading them, carefully weigh those that sound too glowing or overly negative.
Here are some sites we've used with success.
The biggest of the lodging sites, Hotels.com lists more than 75,000 properties globally, including B&Bs and vacation rentals. It also allows for group bookings. The site charges $5 for most bookings and, in a recent policy change, charges nothing when you cancel (though you still must abide by the hotel's cancellation policy). Hotel-flight packages also are offered.
Hotels.com started as a phone service before the advent of the Internet, and it still books hotels by phone for the same fee, at 1-800-346-8357.
The site invites only guests who have booked through Hotels.com to post reviews about a specific hotel. Its star ratings are based purely on the amenities offered; its own experts visit each hotel to verify amenities (pool, spa, wireless Internet, etc.) and check facilities for cleanliness.
Rate calendars make it easy to compare costs and find out the cheapest dates for lodging. Clicking the "full description" link under a given hotel lets you see amenities at a glance.
Check for new deals on Fridays. New inventory is loaded Thursday night, but the subscriber newsletter doesn't go out until Monday, so you get a few days to snag the latest deals.
Quikbook offers a number of advantages: Its 24/7 call center (1-800-789-9887) is in New York; its inventory includes big hotels and smaller boutique properties; and guests pay hotels directly - which, experts say, increases your chances of getting a good room. Shortcut links allow users to go quickly to green and smoke-free hotels and those with free breakfast or free WiFi.
The site invites only guests who have booked through Quikbook to post reviews.
Travelers get a Quikbook confirmation number and a second number for the hotel.
Look for hotels labeled "quik picks." These are deals negotiated directly with the hotel rather than being available elsewhere.
We used this service to book rooms in a variety of Asian locations, especially near airports where we've got an overnight stay. Regional and location-specific companies often have good deals because they're locally based.
Innkeepers at lodgings I've loved have rated this site among their favorites, and we've found the Most Romantic Inns list useful. Other areas steer travelers to B&Bs with cooking schools and those good for girlfriend getaways.