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It's happened to me a few times when I've wanted to book a room the same day. I've researched the prices on various hotels before visiting a hotel. At the front desk I present how many days I want to stay and get a quote - and the quote is higher than the ones on Booking.com and Hotels.com - even though the hotels set the prices there themselves.

I think this is normal but then I ask for the lower rate at Booking.com - for the same room and days - but the front desk then refuse and ask me to book through the websites instead.

When doing this it has happened that the staff were surprised that I actually did it (and I do it in the matter of seconds with pre-saved credit cards).

Why are some hotels doing this?

I can come up with a few valid reasons:

  • The front desk staff isn't allowed to give discounts.
  • The hotel wants more sales and reviews on the websites.
  • The websites might take some legal responsibility and handle customer service.
  • The staff might expect one to accept the higher rate to not have to struggle with the websites (if one is new to them).
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    Have you checked that the booking.com prices include tax and any additional charges? – Daniil Sep 4 at 21:55
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    Similarly brainstorming ideas: 1) They may be contractually obligated not to. 2) Booking.com may be taking a loss (in exchange for being able to sell you a bundle, get your information, advertise to you, etc) 3) As mentioned, rigidity. Companies have modernized, and that usually means removing power from the lower staff. They may not have the "authority" to set prices in a computerized system – Mars Sep 5 at 4:42
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    Not sure it happens with booking.com but as others have explained hotels sometimes sell rooms in bulk to, e.g., tour operators. Whoever bought these rooms get a significant discount but carries the risk of not being able to fill them. The hotel cannot sell them directly anymore. If the room has already been sold to some third party, it might make sense to get you to book through them so as to preserve the inventory of more expensive room for people who would pay for the higher price. – Relaxed Sep 5 at 11:41
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    @Relaxed I thought this at first too, but wouldn't they make a greater profit if as many as possible of the already sold rooms were empty? So they would have an incentive to give the customer another room for the cheaper price in the hope the other room will stay empty. – Nobody Sep 5 at 20:49
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    Where was this? This summer (2019) i had the opposite experience in Europe. I called hotels trying to find a room for the night and was told they were full but to check availability elesewhere via booking.com then call the hotel to get the room for 1/2 price (because booking.com takes crazy provision). I did, and paid exactely half the price cited by booking.com. – Ivana Sep 6 at 9:36
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I'd expect this to happen to chain hotels where, as you guessed, the front desk has zero price matching powers. And the chain already allocated those rooms to booking.com -- it's even possible you can't get a room from the front desk even though booking.com has them. Insanity or not, this industry is very inflexible. Also, I'd think the main reason is bookkeeping // accounting // card handling -- consider how easy it is for them when dealing with booking.com, it's essentially "here's a bank wire for all the rooms we sold this month" (possibly it's not for the single property but per corporate parent!) versus "here is a credit card which might or might not be stolen for my single night stay".

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    Depends on the chain. I booked a UK Hilton room trough booking or similar site. When checking in I was told by reception as part of their introduction "Next time book trough the site for guarantied best prices" and gave me a card. – Иво Недев Sep 5 at 8:35
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    That is a (very) complex topic. I'd like to draw your attention to an example Hilton itself gives on the Price Match page: "You booked a room with a 2 day cancellation policy, but this price is for a room with a 4 day cancellation policy." Let's just say the chances of a successful price match is ... not good. – chx Sep 5 at 9:19
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    Properties can withdraw individual rooms from Booking.com for a set period, e.g. when they are closed for renovation, or if they have sold that particular room directly—I have seen that happen, though I do not know if Booking.com offers different contracts with different policies on that. Then again, the front desk staff of a large chain might not have permission to close down individual rooms and sell them directly. – user149408 Sep 6 at 11:27
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As someone who runs an events business that regularly organises to resell bulk quantities of rooms with hotels, I can offer one reason colloquially from experience that builds off other answers:

While other people have identified that reception staff may not have the capacity to actually change the price to match booking.com, they may want you to use the website so that the room is booked under the block of rooms available to booking.com at that price. Yes, you can argue this technically goes under the umbrella of "accounting/bookkeeping reasons" but it's very likely that there is an agreement between the hotel and booking.com that X number of Y type of rooms will be able to be sold at Z rate (discounted) for a certain date range - they probably don't want to sell all the rooms in the hotel at that (probably) low rate. The reason the booking.com deal exists in the first place is for various advertising reasons brought up in other answers.

In practice, it's likely that there will be a cap on the number of rooms for a certain date range booking.com can sell at that price. If the front desk matched the rate, that wouldn't necessarily decrease the number of rooms at reduced price available to booking.com, resulting in an overall reduction in revenue for the hotel in a scenario where the marginal room-night was going to be sold anyway.

So for example in a figurative tiny hotel with 15 rooms available on 1 night (scale up to real life in your head as necessary), where booking.com had the rights to sell 5 of those rooms at USD50 per night, whereas the normal price was USD100 per night - in the scenario where the front desk matches the price, and all rooms are sold, the hotel loses USD50 in revenue (because after selling you a USD50 room, they still have to let booking.com sell 5 USD50 rooms). Whereas if they tell you to use booking.com, your USD50 room is one of the 5 sold through booking.com and if enough rooms are sold, the hotel does not miss out on revenue.

The potential follow up of "but why can't the front desk just count it against booking.com's block" is some combination of communicating with people is hard/time expensive, the contract may or may not allow it, and again non (upper?) management staff may not have the capacity.

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    I actually ran into this in practice, and it was the thing that led me to start using hotel booking sites/apps for virtually every stay. For a last minute room I was quoted a price over the phone that was much higher than on the booking app. So I booked it on the app at the lower price and checked in about 15 minutes later. – Michael Hampton Sep 6 at 9:39
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In Europe/Germany there investigations ongoing related to booking.com's and expedia (and friends) pricing practice.

Essentially they compel hotels not to offer their rooms cheaper anywhere else. To enforce this they have reduced the rank of hotels they felt undercut them. This is anti-competitive and is being investigated. However, the sites also have a right to make people not only use them to look and then book elsewhere, this can include the price matching you mentioned. There have been no final rulings.

Eu complaint by Nustay

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The same way why you like shopping online and not dragging yourself all the way to a few stores to get the few things you want. It's more convenient.

Business owners are focusing on developing their customer relations online, and not on-site. In the early time, you actually could ask for a discount, they will ask you to wait and then they call some sort of a manager, who comes with a big smile and use some human-to-human marketing techniques, then gives you a little discount and makes you go to your room feeling like a king.

All of this has shifted to online resources, where booking.com or other online merchants will do the job for them, and little by little the actual businesses started to lose the technique of making offers..

You were the "customer" to the hotel, now the hotel itself is a customer to the booking.com and other online merchants. They are paying fees to use their services, these fees are paid so booking.com can do these things for them.

Aren't the fully automated hotels available now? you book, check-in and check-out online with no human interactions! Just wait for it and most of them will be the same. What you have been through is just the end of a transition period where the left-over humans who are supposed to do the job lost it to the digital ones.

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    Not particularly relevant to the question, but: I like shopping in a real store, because I get the thing I want immediately, rather than having to wait N days for a package to arrive, plus having to stay home from work to receive the package, or wait another day to get the privilege to pick up the thing at --- a real store! (of the shipping company's choosing, always quite a bit of way off from my daily commute). – Henning Makholm Sep 5 at 8:42
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    I stayed at a fully automated hotel back in 1973. My car broke down on the Massachusetts Turnpike at 11:00 at night. I got towed to Palmer, Mass., and dropped off at a motel. There was nobody at the front desk. There was a small pile of quarters for the pay phone, and a note with a number to call. They told me which room to take and what the rate would be. The key was in the drawer behind the desk. And they told me that if I left in the morning before anyone was there, just leave the money and the key in the drawer behind the desk. So that's what I did. – Pete Becker Sep 5 at 13:52
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    @PeteBecker That doesn't sound as much automated as remote operated. – Azor Ahai Sep 5 at 17:42
  • @AzorAhai -- yeah, but then it wouldn't relate to the answer. <g> – Pete Becker Sep 5 at 19:11
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If you pay less, you get less. Rooms booked through a consolidator come from a different pool than rooms booked directly through the hotel (by phone, on website, or in person). The rooms may be larger, have better amenities, be cleaned by more experienced staff, etc. You won't earn any loyalty rewards points by booking through a consolidator. If you have any special requests -- such as booking multiple rooms near each other, early checkout, late check-in -- the hotel will be much more likely to accommodate you if you book through the hotel, but won't have any motivation to do so if you book through a consolidator.

In addition, selling rooms through multiple channels allows the hotel to perform market segmentation. People who are bargain sensitive will book through the consolidator and endure the annoyances, similar to booking "basic economy" vs "economy" vs "premium economy" on an airline.

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    Not sure why this got downvoted. This is exactly what happens in practice. The extra you pay to the front desk buys you the guarantee they won't outsource service to booking.com – Jeffrey Sep 5 at 14:32
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    @Jeffrey I'm not a downvoter but in practice, as someone who stays in hotels dozens of times per year, I have never noticed any of the differences that this answer claims. The majority of hotel staff are not going to change how helpful they are based on how you booked the room. Furthermore, the second paragraph is not applicable here, because we are talking about a customer who is already at the desk choosing between the two modes of purchase. Market segmentation explains why the hotel has two prices, but it doesn't explain why they are inflexible towards someone who has access to both prices. – JBentley Sep 5 at 19:33
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    @JBentley Anecdotally, I was actually once told by a receptionist "No, because you've booked it on Expedia" when I requested a room with a city street view vs a wall view. It was the same rate room in a hotel where rates did not differentiate based on the view, so on paper these were identical. Yet in reality direct booking with a hotel would result in better value. – ZenJ Sep 5 at 21:18
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    @JBentley They don't change their level of customer service and politeness, but paying the lower rate causes the clerk to literally not be able to do certain things, mainly relating to the pools of rooms available. They can't put you in the room you requested, because it is not in that pool. – Snowbody Sep 6 at 1:45
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I don't know if this applies to booking.com, but in some cases a company may have a corporate relationship with a hotel which means that they are always entitled to the lowest offered rate or better. i.e. If anyone else gets a price better than their negotiated corporate rate they can also have rooms at that price.

In these circumstances the hotels will offer spare rooms via web brokers as "mystery hotels" where the name of the hotel isn't mentioned in the listing, but it's very easy to work out which one it actually is with a bit of digging. This gets around the problem associated with the corporate rate as it's not being directly offered.

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According to an acquaintance of mine that runs a hotel, sites like booking.com have rules that require the complete transaction to be completed through them. They don't want the hotel owner contacting you directly and arranging payment in a way that cuts out the website. Not only does the website not get their commission, but the customer doesn't have the protections that they'd have if they went through the site. You see scams like this more often on Airbnb than on hotels, but it's still a possibility. The site's terms of service protect both the site and the customer by preventing them from bypassing the site and completing the transaction directly.

In your case, neither you nor the hotel is trying to pull anything underhanded. However, it all looks the same from the viewpoint of the website. You found a room on the site, and now you want to book that room directly with the hotel and bypass the site. If the hotel goes along with it and get caught, they risk getting kicked off of the website completely. Given the amount of business they get through that site, it's too big of a risk for them. Ask the front desk if you can borrow the computer in their business center, and use it to book the room on the site.

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Simple answer - they already sold the rooms for the low price to booking.com. Why should they lower their prices when they can sell further rooms for a even higher price? It's still possible that the rooms given to the customers of the portal have or don't have certain features regular rooms may or may not have.

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