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There are many websites, little competition for booking hotels

SHARE There are many websites, little competition for booking hotels

Have you noticed? Online hotel prices are becoming as homogenized as a quart of milk.

Big travel sites have gobbled up competitors. Discounters have bought other discounters. The concentration of nearly all travel booking engine websites ensures that most of them are reliable and efficient — but tend to have exactly the same price.

I did a test, booking a hotel in Portland, Ore., with a stay Sept. 19-20.

On Expedia, the top booking site, the price for the Westin in downtown Portland was $269.48, including tax.

Check Orbitz. The same. Priceline? The same. TripAdvisor? The same. CheapTickets, Hotels.com, Hotwire.com, Booking.com, Ratestogo.com, Sniqueaway.com, Tingo.com and Agoda.com. All the same, down to the penny.

Then, I checked the Starwood.com site, owner of Westin. Booking directly, the rate was $257.63 — cheaper, but not a giant savings worth wasting an hour to find.

Yes, there are cases in which booking sites have lower rates than hotel sites. Yes, there are times when a property will cut a deal with one of the big sites, and its price briefly will be much lower than competitors. But often, it is like checking the price of 12 cans of peas on the grocery shelf — monotonous similarity.

Now, I know you travel deal fans might be about to burst into tears. What about "discount" hotel rates? What about those super-duper cheap rates? Those Twitter deals? Those email specials?

I hate to burst your bubble, but "deal" is often just another word for the regular price.

Because U.S. hotel occupancy rates were up to 71 percent in August and room rates are 3.9 percent higher than last year at this time, according to STR Global, which tracks the hotel industry, hotels do not have to discount as heavily.

Plus, there's the concentration of ownership. According to new figures from Experian Hitwise, which tracks popularity of travel websites, Expedia is the top travel booking site, with TripAdvisor and Priceline just behind.

Here is a 2012 list of travel site ownership:

Expedia: Owns Expedia.com, Hotels.com, Hotwire.com and Venere.com.

TripAdvisor, which Expedia did own but spun off last fall: Owns TripAdvisor.com, BookingBuddy.com, SmarterTravel.com, SeatGuru.com, AirfareWatchdog.com, IndependentTraveler.com and Sniqueaway.com.

Priceline.com: Priceline.com, Booking.com and Agoda.com

Orbitz Worldwide: Orbitz.com, CheapTickets.com, Lodging.com and RatestoGo.com.

Sabre Holdings: Travelocity.com, IgoUgo.com, LastMinute.com and the gigantic Sabre reservations system used by the travel industry.

Kayak Software: Kayak.com.

Microsoft: Bing.com/Travel

Although this can be disconcerting, if you are trying to get the best hotel deal, there still are a few ways to do it. One, use hotel loyalty points toward free rooms or upgrades. Second, if you are willing to take a chance, use a site like HotelTonight.com to book the same day you stay. Third, call the hotel and ask about the best rate you can get — they might beat what's on the Web. Hotel rates vary more by occupancy than anything else, and also by day of the week. You might get lucky.

But don't waste your time scouring 13 travel sites comparing hotel rates. It will only make you crazy.

Either choose one favorite site and stick with that, or use one of the metasearch sites such as Kayak, BingTravel, Lodging.com, BookingBuddy or HotelsCombined.com. These sites do the work for you and show you multiple prices. They won't show you everything, but they will give you a general sense of how variable the price is — usually not very.

Make sure that the price you are quoted includes taxes and fees. You don't want rude surprises.

And dry those tears. Consumers do have some power. Because of the Web, hotel prices these days are pretty transparent — even if that "deal" you found really isn't.