While baggage and meal charges on flights vary within the industry, they're usually fairly consistent within the airline itself. Not so for hotels. Because many hotels are independently owned or franchised, even loyalty-rewards customers may find their experience -- and bill -- vastly different from one hotel to the next.
To avoid sticker shock during 11 a.m. checkout, here are three tips to help you book the perfect room, every time.
Know Your 'Must-Haves' and 'Nice-to-Haves'
It used to be that at a certain price point, you knew what sort of hotel you were visiting. No longer. Economic swings, emerging markets and attempts to merge the business and holiday markets have eroded those carefully drawn lines. The result? Luxury hotels may not provide more of the amenities you find necessary than budget or mid-priced ones.
A newspaper in the morning is nice, but if you read your news online, complimentary WiFi will be more important. According to a study on hotel satisfaction from J.D. Power, 55% of hotel guests will use the Internet during a stay, and 87% of them will connect via WiFi.
While only 11% of hotel guests are charged for Internet access, those charges can vary greatly. Traveling with a laptop, tablet, and smartphone? Some hotels will only allow customers to log on to their network from one device, even with paid Internet access.
Before you book, think about what you'll need on this particular trip. More of a night owl than an early bird? An endless breakfast buffet might mean far less than an in-room coffeemaker. Switching off the work email for a week? A hotel that charges for WiFi but offers complimentary poolside towels might be a necessary luxury. Be clear when making a reservation what you expect and are willing to pay for.
Make Them Battle It Out for Your Business
In popular tourist and business travel areas, competition may drive hotels to undercut each other for the best rates and free features. Booking online can make it easier to compare features across several chains, but even then, room rates aren't cut-and-dried.
When comparing several properties online, dig a little deeper. Find a place that looks great but doesn't offer WiFi? Contact the property and ask for it before making a reservation. Be sure to tell the person taking the reservation that your second choice, their next-door neighbor, offers it. You may be surprised at the results.
Don't Discount Service
Satisfaction with a hotel stay goes far beyond the room rate. The J.D. Power survey found that customer satisfaction with service, food and beverage quality, check-in/checkout, and hotel facilities is the lowest it's been since 2006.
It doesn't bode well for those who need special accommodations, are looking for nonstandard amenities, or are traveling with kids. And if rates vary among and within chains, so too does service. Even if you're booking online, a call to the individual property is often worth the time -- to verify amenities and rates, ask about specials, and get a sense of the service levels of the staff.
Skip the Hassle
Don't want to spend too much time researching your accommodations? Use a travel agent (here's how) who knows your style and what individual hotels have to offer. Or ditch the hotel stay altogether and find an alternative arrangement -- here are four -- that meets all your needs.
Motley Fool contributor Molly McCluskey recently spent six months traveling the world. Follow her travel and finance tweets on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey.