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Trawling the travel net

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What's the best way to find a good deal on a hotel? Through a website - and if so which one - or through a travel agent? I think it depends.

When my wife and I did a big anniversary trip to Italy and France last year and were prepared to pay to stay somewhere nice we turned to the expertise of a travel agent and she delivered just what we wanted.

But I use the internet when I'm looking for somewhere cheap for family outings across the Tasman and that works out fine too.

Hotels.com, which has just launched a New Zealand website, last week released the results of an independent survey showing that 61 per cent of Kiwis now book their hotels online. It also found that 61 per cent use online research to decide what hotel to choose while only 5 per cent ask a travel agent.

Since that was an online survey, you'd expect the results to lean towards the web but the results are, nonetheless, easy to believe. After all, Wotif.com already gets around 350,000 visits and 20,000 bookings a month from Kiwis.

But, as a Google search reveals, there are a vast number of websites out there promising cheap deals. Which one should you choose? To try to find out I performed a small experiment, using three of the best known travel websites, looking for cheap accommodation for two on the Sunshine Coast from January 31 to February 7.

Hotels.com got a bit confused about where the Sunshine Coast was but offered 33 hotels. Expedia.co.nz knew where the Sunshine Coast was and offered 32 hotels. Wotif.com obviously knew the area well because it offered over 500 options.

The cheapest deal on Hotels.com was the Beach Club Resort at $143. The cheapest at Expedia was also the Beach Club Resort and at the same price.

But at Wotif.com prices went all the way down to Maroochy River Bungalows which offered a basic two-bedroom cabin (usually $190) for just $90. Or I could have had a red hot deal at Bellardoo Holiday Apartments, just over the road from Mooloolaba Beach, for $100 (usually $310). There was also a Mystery offer - usually a posh hotel that doesn't want to admit it's discounting - for only $100.

I also checked out one property, the Hyatt Regency Coolum, which was on all three websites.

On Hotels.com it was $300 a night. On Expedia the price was the same. On Wotif.com the first day of the period I wanted to book was available at $240 but thereafter it was $300. Interestingly, on the hotel's own website the cheapest rate for that period was $425 - though that did include a lot of extras.

So what does that prove? Well, firstly, you may be better off booking via an accommodation website rather than going direct. Secondly, Wotif.com clearly has the widest range of properties available in Australia. And thirdly, while prices on different websites are mostly the same, there are bargains to be found if you hunt for them.

What do you reckon is the best way to book accommodation?

- Jim Eagles

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