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October 25, 2006

London dithering, again.

Once again I’m dithering on London accommodations.

I will be there in November on the evening of the 22nd and from the 24th through the 26th. Priceline isn’t giving me love. Well, it would give me love if I loved Kensington, but that isn’t the love I want. It’s pretty obvious I could get the Millennium Gloucester for about $85/night plus taxes+fees but staying in Central London last trip convinced me that I just don’t want to stay in Kensington. For me, it would be like vacationing in Manhattan but staying in Queens; I have nothing against it, but nothing I want to do is there.

Usually hotels in the Bloomsbury zone go for around $100-105/night but the counter offers I’ve gotten have been $140 for the weekend and $210 for the 22nd. The usual counteroffer for a $100-105 win is about $10 higher. I’ve bid up to $120; no dice, so I am now looking at other alternatives.

This means scouring the other booking websites; here are my findings.

Three other sites offer opaque booking, Hotwire, Lastminute.com and Lastminutetravel.com or Easyclicktravel.com – their engines are the same. The most useful tool for navigating Hotwire are the hotel lists at Better Bidding, which give some idea what a hotel might be based on featured amenities. 4* in Bloomsbury are offered at $138 on the weekend, but taxes and fees jack that up to $150 or more, which is starting to not be enough of a savings to justify losing control of the process.

Lastminutetravel and Lastminute.com (they are very different sites; try both) offers “Top Secret” and “Off the Record” hotels respectively. Both give enough of a description of the hotel to make a very educated guess what it is – Better Bidding has an invaluable reverse search that takes the URL from Easyclick or Lastminutetravel and tells you which hotel it thinks it may be.

The pickings at Lastminute.com are rather expensive for these days; the Off the Record hotels in Bloomsbury at lastminutetravel.com turned out to be those of the Imperial Hotel chain – several large budget hotels up Southhampton Row and Woburn Place around Russell Square and Tavistock Place. They’re a good location for me, but the hotels themselves get mixed reviews. Price range is between $106 for a single at the Royal National and $148 for a double at the Imperial – in all cases tax and breakfast included.

Two rate comparison websites that are useful are hotelscomparison.com and kayak.com. No booking engine had consistently lowest rates; they each have their own advantages.

Of the big US engines (Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity), Expedia seemed to turn up the best bargains. With all of them you really need to get outside information; their star ratings for hotels seems to be created with a dartboard.

The best possibility on Expedia was a single room at the Strand Palace for $154 including taxes and fees. It will be small, but the location is close to perfect for someone going to Covent Garden. Similar low prices were also found at hotels.com.

Orbitz occasionally has promotional code offerings, but the booking engine itself is rife with inaccuracies; hotels that are available on other sites are listed as without available rooms on Orbitz (which only means that Orbitz no longer has an allotment of rooms)

Octopus Travel and Hotel Club offer an option very useful for the solo traveler to the UK, the separate “twin for sole use” category. Single rooms are like cupboards in England, the ability to get a double room at a discount is helpful. Hotel Club’s rates weren’t the lowest in any category; Octopus Travel had great rates on the Bonnington Hotel, a more modern alternative to the other hotels on Southhampton Row with more facilities as well; but they were “on request” – where Octopus needs to check with the hotel for availability and the Bonnington turned it down. Because I have time, I tried Asiarooms.com, a Singapore based travel agency that Kayak.com turned up with similar low rates for the Bonnington. Like Octopus, they also only have the rooms “on request”. Their inventory may not be different, but it’s worth a try. Octopus also has the Thistle Marble Arch available on the 22nd in a Twin for Sole Use category for $158 with breakfast, taxes and fees included.

If the Bonnington doesn’t pan out at Asiarooms, I’ll make a decision trying to balance location, price and quality. If you're wondering why I'm not investigating B&B's, the truth is I don't like them. Give me a clean, chararacterless hotel with wireless internet access and a good fitness center any day over charm and character. I get that from the city itself, I want my hotel to be a calm, neutral place where I can get things done.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at October 25, 2006 11:33 PM

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