That's why there are aggregators. They do the searching for you. Before booking any trip, check a few hotel room aggregators to gauge the prices that are out there.
What makes an aggregator? Essentially, it has nothing to sell. Instead, it canvasses many other sites and shows you what's available elsewhere, and then delivers you to the proper vendor once you've made your selection. Fortunately, aggregation is a crowded space. Here are a half dozen terrific hotel room search sites that will take the legwork out of planning your next trip:Momondo
Search results appear marked on a map of your destination city, a head-smackingly simple innovation that puts this one at the top of the list for ease of use. This Danish site is usually my go-to for finding the cheap flights of Europe's upstart airlines, but it turns out its hotel search is fairly comprehensive, too, particularly for European cities.
This is one of the biggies, having been around for half a decade, produced an iPhone app (iFind Hotels), and snagged the contract to power Yahoo's hotel searches. On my checks, the price quoted did not always match the price truly offered by the outside vendor. Such discrepancies are common with aggregators, and you won't be surprised to know it's almost never a discrepancy in the buyer's favor. Fortunately, aggregators allow the customer a list of results that allows them to quickly backtrack until they find a price that pleases.
This newcomer has "a terrible name," declared travel authority Arthur Frommer, but "already seems to be a powerful tool." It combs some 48 travel sites to find price quotes, and it supplements its searches with videos made by travelers so that you can see the property for yourself. There are some short-sighted bugs that suggest usability is not foremost in mind (it won't recognize "New York City" as a valid place -- you have to enter "New York"). There also aren't nearly enough of those vaunted videos, and the ones that exist leave much detail to be desired, but for the fact it keeps you from having to search 48 sites yourself, it's worth a bookmark.
This one checks more than 30 sites. Its point of difference is that if your friends use it, too, when you search for a hotel, your friends' recommendations rise to the top. That's a neat feature, but, as with all of these sites, I've had some issues with accuracy. A recent search claimed the best price at London's Brown's Hotel was $394, but when the site delivered me to its partner site, Reserve Travel, the rate had ballooned to $568. The cheaper the hotel, for example B&Bs, the less likely you'll encounter such disparities.
The site's FAQ puts it like this: "Imagine you had an army of 42 monkeys squatting in front of 42 computers searching 42 different travel sites for that perfect hotel room in Hawaii ... Well, with Wego, instead of having to own those monkeys yourselves, we provide the monkeys." In addition to its simian advantage, Wego also allows you to refine search results without having to reload the page or go back and search again.
If there's a downside to this popular site (which also has an app), it's that it litters your screen by opening windows everywhere. Its sources are completely mainstream, too: Travelocity, Hotwire, Expedia, Priceline, Hotels.com. One recent search returned a result for a hotel through CheapTickets.com, but when I tried to reserve, I was told the hotel wasn't actually available after all. Still, if Kayak delivers true deals, and it often does, it's still a useful tool.
Read WalletPop's story about sites that do similar tricks for cheap airfare.