Most frequent travelers understand that not every airline shows up on Travelocity, Expedia and other major booking sites — including small regional airlines and even major discounter Southwest. Luckily, it's not too hard to find these airlines; even with the smaller outfits, most locals — the people most likely to use them — know about them one way or another. Failing all else, if you search on the regional airport into which you need to fly, there is usually plenty of information about the airlines serving that airport.
But while relatively few airlines are excluded from the major sites, hotels are a different story. Whatever the reason — the expense of sharing revenue with the big sites, the high cost of technology, the labor and resources required to keep up with online booking, contentment with "the way things are," or even simple stubbornness — there are thousands of hotels nationwide missing from the big booking sites.
These include B&B's, independently owned local hotels, seaside cottages, even off-season condos; whatever you call them, they also constitute some of your best lodging options in markets both large and small.
For travelers looking for a more individualized experience than a stay at a chain hotel, this sounds ideal. But with dozens, even hundreds of these off-the-radar properties to be found in every city, town, tourist outpost and roadside stretch, how does a traveler find a good, clean, comfortable local hotel when the big booking sites list the major chains and little more?
Why worry about it?
Since so many hotels show up on the major sites, you might ask why you should bother going off the beaten path anyway.
One reason is that lodging tends to be a much more personal choice than is an airline flight. A guaranteed seat from Point A to Point B is really about all you can expect from an airline; in coach, at least, the extent of "personal choice" comes down to window vs. aisle, if that.
Lodging is a completely different story; one traveler's favorite digs is another's fleabag dump. One traveler will gladly trade lumpy beds for a stunning view; another absolutely needs a spa or gym; another just wants a good breakfast; another a good hotel bar; yet another prefers a room with antique furniture or Victorian charm. And in every case, there is the highly variable factor of location, location, location.
Of course, many of these features are available at chain hotels — but if those are the only properties you're considering, you may not be seeing all your options. And some travelers are looking for even more specialized options that might not be available from the big chains — such as pet-friendly accommodations, a small hotel right on the water or close proximity to a certain attraction. If you want to be sure your preferences are met, it's worth thinking outside the big-box hotels.
When there is no room at the inn
I travel to Boston on the same weekend every year to cover and compete in a sporting event. There is an aging franchise hotel situated right at the staging area; I stayed there for years. A couple of years ago, however, the hotel figured out that its rooms were highly coveted, and jacked prices up about 400 percent for that weekend.
I have stayed in the same hotel on business during the winter, and paid less than $70 a night. During the event, rooms go for more like $300 a night, if you can get them; they're sold out for the next two years. Every other hotel on the booking sites within walking or bicycling distance is similarly full.
To prove the point, I did a search on Expedia on the city and weekend in question; of the 18 hotels returned by the search, 14 had no availability, the closest hotel with availability was three miles away and cost $385 a night, and the most affordable was six miles away and cost $285 a night. Ouch!
However, by digging a little deeper, I was able to find a very nice, extremely affordable and nearly empty hotel about a mile from the event staging area. My stealth hotel has a great breakfast and speedy Net access, still has rooms available and is closer to the venue than any other hotel save for the price gougers mentioned above. I'm there!
This is just one example of how going beyond the big sites can save you money, get you a better location and even get you a room, period — all good reasons to stray from the beaten path.
Where to start?
Just three or four years ago, I would have solved this sort of problem with endless clicking and surfing — to chamber of commerce sites, tourist bureau sites and local newspaper Web sites. And I'm someone who uses the Web all the time. When searching for a hotel on the ocean in San Diego a few years ago, speech therapist Misha Greenwood took a more random approach.
"I wanted a hotel on the ocean, so I tried a bunch of search engines and typed in all kinds of things," Greenwood said. She ended up at the Crystal Pier Hotel and Cottages, which is not merely on the ocean, but is actually over the ocean — and doesn't appear on the booking sites.
"I think the search that finally led me here was 'funky accommodations San Diego ocean,'" she said. "Even I was surprised it worked!"
I still sometimes use the resources listed above, but I've found a much faster route to the same information, which I'll share here.
First step: Integrated mapping software sites
For the first step of the process, I have been using the Google Earth software. At present, Google Earth requires a download; however, the online version of Google Mapsworks nearly as well. What I need is a map that shows hotels — all hotels — as pinpoints on the map.
To keep things interesting, I tried Yahoo! Mapsas well. I found that the service was every bit as good as Google Earth for our current purposes. To test the service, I pulled up a map of San Diego and then did a search for local hotels. Within the first 15 hotel listings alone, I discovered six properties that didn't appear on Expedia. I also found a heap of very promising oceanfront hotels, only a handful of which register on any booking sites anywhere.
Second step: Travel review sites
On both Yahoo! Maps and Google Maps, you can click on a particular hotel to find more information about it, including driving directions, user reviews, photos and a link to the property's Web site for booking.
For a more in-depth view of a property, though, I head to TripAdvisor.com. While Yahoo! and Google both offer reviews and links to reviews, I know of no other site where you can get such candid reviews as you'll find at TripAdvisor.
This can be a mixed blessing. While negative reviews often tell you a lot about the hotel, I have sometimes found they tell you a lot about the reviewer as well; you sometimes need to read with a judicious eye to separate a fussbudget's whine from a valid complaint.
Other interesting options may exist among the vast range of lodging options described as "bed and breakfasts"; these could range from someone's house to something very nearly resembling a spa, from big city B&B's to country cottages. See our Bed and Breakfast Centerfor a comprehensive look at this option. For even more creative options, see our articles on vacation rentals, home exchange, and homestays and farmstays.
I would guess that of my last 10 trips, I have used the mapping tactics described above to find lodging on at least a half-dozen of them. On my last trip to San Diego to visit family, in the end it came down to location for us, as it did for Greenwood, and we stayed at the Crystal Pier (we met Greenwood on the pier while watching the sunset). It wasn't a perfect stay — we booked pretty late, and had to switch rooms after the first night — but on vacation, I'll take a chain of oceanfront cottages over a hotel chain any day.