Hotel and flight myths busted: Does your booking method actually matter?

You can’t scroll social media for more than a few minutes without running into a “travel expert” who has figured out how to hack the system.

They promise you a guaranteed way to save money on flights and hotels by using their super-secret method the airlines and hotels don’t want you to know about.

Related: 5 hacks to make air travel easier

We all want to save money on travel, so it’s tempting to follow their seemingly expert advice to book through travel apps or third-party booking sites. Or, to heed their warnings that hotels and airlines are tracking your every move and jacking up the price every time you search and the only way to avoid their tactics is booking in incognito mode.

There’s only one way to find out if these methods really do work or if they are actually a waste of your precious time and hard-earned money: Put them to the test. I priced flight and hotel reservations using a number of popular hacks and booking engines to determine if they are fact or fiction.

Method

This project took me right back to my science fair days. This time, rather than placing plants in varying degrees of sunlight to see how they grow, as I did in fourth grade, I chose a specific date, number of guests and fare type or hotel rate to ensure my results were standardized.

For flight searches, I chose popular direct routes on most major U.S. airlines for a round-trip flight departing June 1 and returning June 2.

I left out basic economy fares because of their unforgiving change and cancellation fees and stuck with more flexible fares (with the exception of Spirit Airlines, because its fares are meant to be budget-friendly and, therefore, more restrictive).

The Eliza Jane. HYATT

For hotels, I chose a mix of U.S. and international hotels from Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt and IHG, as well as one Walt Disney World hotel just for fun.

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I searched for a one-night stay for June 1, checking out June 2, and based my findings on standard, refundable rates. I did not include nonrefundable rates or rates that require you to participate in a hotel rewards program (though you really should) for a discount.

I conducted my search through the following apps and websites:

  • Direct.
  • Incognito mode.
  • Google.
  • Hopper.
  • Skyscanner.
  • Priceline.
  • American Express Travel.

So, are the travel hackers on the right track? Or are you wasting your time searching every possible third-party travel site or going incognito before booking airfare or a hotel room?

Let’s take a look at the results.

Results

In the interest of simplicity, I did not include Google in my results chart. This is because Google will ultimately take you to the airline’s or hotel’s website to complete your booking, and the prices that are shown match what is available directly. There may be other benefits to booking through Google, which we’ll get to in a moment.

STEPHEN M. KELLER/SOUTHWEST AIRLINES

It’s also worth noting that all flights and hotels booked through the Amex Travel portal are prepaid, making it the one exception to the rule I set for this project (though most Amex Travel bookings have flexible cancellation policies).

It’s still worth including because it is a popular travel portal with a lot of other benefits for American Express cardmembers.

Related: Should you book flights on a travel portal? Comparing fares through Amex, Capital One, Chase and Citi

Flight booking results

Direct Incognito Hopper Skyscanner Priceline Amex
Delta: ATL to BOS

Main Cabin

$458. $458. $458. Doesn’t display Main Cabin fare. $468. $458.
JetBlue: JFK to SEA

Blue fare

$815. $815. $815. $794 through Expedia. Doesn’t display results from JetBlue. $815.
United: LAX to LAS

Economy

$198. $198. $198. $198. $198. $198.
American: DFW to CLT

Main Cabin

$435. $435. $435. $435. $435. $435.
Spirit: ATL to FLL

Standard fare

$232. $232. $232. $232. $232. Doesn’t display results for Spirit.

Hotel booking results

Direct Incognito Hopper Skyscanner Priceline Amex
JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn Resort & Spa $632. $633. $627. $633. $631. $627.
The Eliza Jane $256. $256. $208. $218 through Super Travel. $246. $207.
Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh – The Caledonian $786. $786. $696. $612 through Trip.com. $774. $784.
InterContinental Paris le Grand $862. $862. $893. $907. $903. $907.
Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort $789. $789. $884. $740 through Priceline. $740. Unavailable.

Conclusions

The results of this experiment were surprising even to me. I love a good deal and have no problem scouring the internet for coupon codes or finding the shopping portal that will save me a few dollars or earn me a few points.

Flights

As someone who loves the thrill of the hunt (for deals, that is), I was shocked to find that booking flights directly with the airline was the same price or, in a few cases, cheaper than booking through a third-party site or using popular travel hacks like incognito mode.

SKYSCANNER

The only exception was JetBlue, which was over $20 cheaper through Skyscanner than booking directly on the route I tested. I sampled a few other routes to see if Skyscanner was consistently less expensive than booking directly with JetBlue and found that this was a bit of an anomaly. Most of the time, the prices are exactly the same.

Related: 5 key tools and tips to find the cheapest airfare

Hotels

In the case of hotel bookings, I found a lot more price variability. Third-party booking engines like Hopper, Priceline and Skyscanner were often less expensive than booking directly with the property.

The downside is that it took me a lot of fine-print-scouring to get the actual price. Sites like these often show a price that seems like a great deal until you realize you still have to pay the resort fee upon arrival or the initial fee shown doesn’t include taxes.

Don’t be distracted by the initial price; you have to get through the booking process and read the fine print to get the true price. Even so, in some cases, the price really was less expensive.

PRICELINE

Sometimes, that lower price comes with stipulations. The cancellation policy may be more stringent than it would be if you booked directly with the hotel. I skipped over many of Skyscanner’s third-party booking options because they were either nonrefundable or had a much shorter cancellation window than if you had booked directly with the hotel.

That being said, you could save money by searching third-party booking options as long as you make sure you are comparing apples to apples. Double-check that all fees are included, and the cancellation policy is the same as that of booking directly (or that you are comfortable with it).

Related: The best hotel rewards programs in the world

If you are hoping to earn hotel loyalty points or reap the rewards of hotel elite status, you will want to book directly. Even if the price is a bit more, you may enjoy perks like free breakfast and room upgrades that cancel out a minimal price difference.

It’s also important to point out that many hotel brands offer “best rate guarantees.” If you find a better price elsewhere, they may be able to match the price and offer you an additional discount or bonus points, so it may still behoove you to book directly.

Exceptions to the rule

No rule is without its exceptions, and this one is no different. While booking directly with the hotel or airline is most often the best way to book, there are times when you may want to go another route.

Hopper

HOPPER

As you can see, Hopper offers additional savings on your initial booking, as well as through occasional special promotions. In the case of the InterContinental Paris le Grande, Hopper offered me a discount of $81 on my initial booking.

In the case of flights, Hopper shows options from most major airlines. This is helpful if you want to mix and match the airlines for your departing and returning flights to save money. You can also view price predictions and set price notifications for upcoming trips.

Priceline

The biggest benefit to booking through Priceline is its partnership with online shopping portals. During my searches, Rakuten was offering 4% cash back through Rakuten, 2 miles per dollar through United MileagePlus Shopping, 6% cash back through Ibotta, and 4.5% through Capital One Shopping. If you want to earn points, miles or cash back through one of these shopping portals, you can compare how much you can earn through Priceline versus booking directly.

Related: Don’t want to miss out on earning bonus points? There’s an extension for that

Google Flights

Google Flights can be an incredibly helpful tool for finding flight deals. You can search for flights from most major airlines and use the filtering options to find the best flight for you.

Related: What you need to know about using Google Flights for award flight searches

Where Google Flights can be really fun to play around with, though, is if your dates or destinations are flexible. You can search dates to find the cheapest price or enter only your departing airport and let the Google Flights map show you pricing for destinations all over the globe.

Incognito mode

Never. It doesn’t make a difference, so don’t believe anyone who promises you they’ve found a way to hack the system.

Booking with points

This test applies to booking flights and hotels with cash only. If you are booking with points, there are different things you want to consider when choosing your booking method.

Bottom line

While unexpected, it’s reassuring to know that you can save time and money by booking flights directly with the airline you are flying. Booking directly also helps you earn loyalty points and status with your chosen airline.

Related: These airline and hotel programs offer free points when you sign up

When booking hotels, you can typically book directly and take advantage of price-match guarantees if you find a lower price.

Searching for the lowest price can be time-consuming, but it may be worth it in the long run. Just remember to pay close attention to the fine print and keep in mind your long-term goals. If you want to earn hotel loyalty points and earn nights toward elite status, booking directly with the hotel is still the way to go.

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