Photo: No bitter aftertaste here.

While prices may vary between different online travel agents, the days of great savings by sticking to one provider are largely over, though each online travel agent (OTA) can have a number of different price points.

Cookie monster

The price you are offered by an OTA may be based on information they have gleaned from you by using cookies. A cookie is a small file a website sets in your browser that is used to track user preferences like language and preferred currency, along with a vast range of other information.

The cookie may contain information including:

Language preference
Currency preference
User login information (to keep you automatically logged in to a site)
The browser you use
The type of computer (or phone) you use
Your location (with a varying degree of accuracy)
How many times you have visited the site, what pages you looked at and whether you already tried to purchase something but then backed out
What site you came from
And so on.

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In theory, the above can be used by a website to customise what you are shown. So, for example, if you have booked 20 hostels before and never a hotel, hostels may be suggested to you. The information can also be used to show you a particular price for a product that isn't necessarily the cheapest.

While airlines and hotels are the most aggressive at using this technology, all sorts of retailers, Amazon for example, may also tap into its power. OTAs may also offer different prices depending on if you are logged in or not, or if you are using a smart phone app.

Broadly speaking, the following are all possible different price points for the same $100 room—and there are probably plenty of others:

Website with a new cookie
Website with an old cookie
Website logged in as a member
Mobile website with a new cookie
Mobile website with an old cookie
Mobile website logged in as a member
Smartphone app
Smartphone app when logged in

If you’re really determined to get the lowest price, you need to do a lot of comparison shopping. This is without even taking into account loyalty programmes, cash back sites and so on.

In many cases, the prices between OTAs are within a few dollars or so of each other, though there are wider spreads on occasion. Our advice is to weigh up the value of your time with sifting through all these. And don't forget: There is also the option of booking with a hotel or guesthouse directly, which is sometimes the cheapest option—especially if you are willing to pick up the phone and call them.

Things to watch out for

Service charge and “government tax” is sometimes included in the listed price, while other times not revealed till the very last step of the transaction. This makes simple price comparisons difficult. How this works can depend on your browser settings and where you are when you are using the site, and it can change from time to time. Sometimes a “government tax” is included when it isn’t really clear just what government tax they are talking about. If you show up at the property in person, you may not be charged any “government tax” at all.

You’re looking at a hotel profile page and an alert pops up saying “Only 1 room left, book now!” What this really means is that of the rooms allotted to the OTA only one room is left; it does not mean that the hotel has only one room left. This is an important distinction.

While we see less of this now, in the past OTAs sometimes listed a property even after the property had stopped working with the OTA—they’d just be listed with zero availability. Any time a hotel is marked as having zero availability, contact the hotel direct.

We’ve personally booked hundreds of hotels between Agoda and Booking and have only encountered a hotel overbooking once (with Agoda). They contacted us by email within the hour and gave us a full refund plus a $40 credit for the inconvenience. We have though heard of guests being inconvenienced by these kind of problems.

The golden rule is, if the property is being shown as full, check other OTAs and with the property direct.

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Further reading

Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.


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