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casahopFour new Web sites claim to either save users bundles of money on hotels or match them to the right property based on a variety of personal parameters. IndependentTraveler.com fiddled around with the sites to see which ones are worth your time and which you shouldn’t bother with.

Show Me the Money
Less than a year old, BackBid.com gets hotels to bid on your business.

You start by already having a hotel reservation in a city. You enter your hotel reservation with dates of travel and competing hotels send you bids in an attempt to lure you away. Bids can be in the form of money-saving discounts or value-added services, like upgraded rooms, free breakfasts or parking fee waivers. If you like a bid, you can claim it; if you don’t, just keep your original reservation. Keep in mind, if you take a bidder up on their offer you’ll need to cancel your original reservation – beware of cancellation penalties!

Travelers without hotel reservations simply enter their travel plans to get bids from hotels in their city of choice.

BackBid claims to provide competitor rates that cover all U.S. cities, and plans to expand into other countries eventually.

IndependentTraveler.com’s Take: BackBid looks promising but we haven’t yet received a bid from a hotel. If bids are few and far between, the site won’t be around for too long. However, it costs only a few minutes of your time to give it a try. Who knows? Maybe you’ll get an offer you can’t refuse!

Want a Hotel Refund? Check This Web Site

Guestmob.com is another relatively new travel booking site, which claims to use algorithms to find deals up to 50 percent off Internet prices – what it calls the “magic price.” The catch: You don’t know which hotel you’re staying at until one to six days prior to check-in.

It’s not as dangerous as you might think since when you do a hotel search, the site returns one or more hotel collections composed of four to eight hotels, all of the same star ranking (as determined by Guestmob). If you decide to book a magic rate, you are guaranteed a stay in one of the hotels within the collection you chose. Additionally, if you find out what hotel you’re staying at and you don’t like it, you can cancel any reservation up to three days before your stay and get a full refund. Of course, if you don’t get your hotel notification before that three-day time period, you’re out of luck on the refund.

A quick search for Seattle for Aug. 9 to 18 returned two collections – one 3.5-star and one 4-star. The magic price for the 3.5-star collection was $160, while the magic price for the 4-star collection was $174. A comparison search on Hotwire for the four hotels in the 3.5-star collection came up with prices $17 to $85 higher.

The site currently only offers hotels in 20 U.S. cities.

IndependentTraveler.com’s Take: Because you’re not selecting a hotel completely blind, we see no reason not to give Guestmob a chance. The site does claim it offers deeper discounts to people who sign in via Facebook – thus sharing their travel plans with their Facebook friends. However, we didn’t test this, choosing to register via e-mail instead.

Get the Best Hotel Rate

Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match
Still in its infancy, CasaHop.com is a social networking platform designed to aid people in finding homeswaps. Unlike other home exchange networks, CasaHop works through Facebook. So for the most part you’re networking with friends, family and friends of friends/family. The more public you’re willing to make your CasaHop profile, the broader the network you can exchange with.

Right now all you can do on the site is sign up via Facebook and enter information about your house, your neighborhood and your own vacation interests. The database and interactive community functions are scheduled to go live over the next few weeks.

In theory, by networking through Facebook, you’re avoiding swaps with “total” strangers. However, for those who are hesitant about sharing personal information on Facebook, CasaHop may not be right for you. In order for the site to work effectively you do need to enter a significant amount of personal information about your home and community, including photos.

IndependentTraveler.com’s Take: We’re leery of entering too much personal information, but for those who don’t mind, we say go for it.

A second match-making site, seriously in a beta testing phase, is simplehoney.com. This site claims to match users to accommodations based on their travel personality, assessed through a couple of short quizzes. But the site has so few hotels in its database that the matches seem a bit of a stretch right now.

IndependentTraveler.com’s Take: The jury’s out. According to the hotel matching page, they currently offer only hotel matches in California and Hawaii. But at the bottom of every search we’ve done, hotels in Vancouver and Nicaragua appear, which makes us think they’re throwing advertisers into the results. Another bad sign — while free at the moment, it says there will eventually be a one-time membership fee of $100. But for what? The two personality tests do offer a moment’s diversion, but for now we don’t think the site is worth your time.

What Not to Do at Your Hotel

— written by Dori Saltzman

corpus christi bayfront hotel impossibleThink you’re a picky hotel guest? “Hotel Impossible” host Anthony Melchiorri will give you a run for your money.

The new show, which airs Monday nights at 10 p.m. ET on the Travel Channel, follows roughly the same formula as popular restaurant renovation shows like Gordon Ramsey’s “Kitchen Nightmares” on FOX and Food Network’s “Restaurant Impossible”: likable host swoops into failing establishment and uncovers all of the challenges holding it back from success — then attempts to turn it all around during a one-hour episode with a blend of tough love and humor.

Indeed, the recent episode we caught, featuring the Hotel Corpus Christi Bayfront in Corpus Christi, Texas, offered its fair share of laughs. After arriving at the hotel to find an unmanned check-in desk, Melchiorri took matters into his own hands — namely, a tree in the atrium that, when shaken, showered dust onto an already grungy carpet (“the only thing staying at this hotel is dirt!”). Other unpleasant discoveries were just around the corner during Melchiorri’s full inspection, including a head-scratching toilet paper shortage, dead roaches, a pigeon corpse by the rooftop pool and thousands of uninvited guests of the bacterial kind.

How to Find a Clean Hotel Room

Melchiorri also provided guidance to the hotel staff (after he finally found them), from the overwhelmed owner to a haphazard housekeeper who did such a poor job cleaning a toilet that Melchiorri asked her where he was expected to put his butt. All good stuff — but when Don Jones, the gentleman in charge of hotel marketing, announced his job title to be Intergalactic Ninja Sultan of Revenue Development, we knew for sure we’d be back for more episodes. You can catch some of the highlights from this one here.

Amid the comedy and gross-outs, interesting facts about the hotel industry do emerge. Did you know, for example, that hotels that offer room service generally charge more per night, and that by adding room service a property can expect to increase overall revenue by 10 percent? We also learned that a typical hotel allows 30 minutes per room for housecleaning; that’s a lot of manpower for a 199-room hotel.

Curious about how the hotel is faring post-intervention, we surfed over to TripAdvisor. Alas, the property’s reviews are still mixed, with a submission from just this week citing fruit flies and stains. But there’s a bright spot: Mr. Jones no longer appears to be identifying himself as a Ninja Sultan in his responses to guests.

5 Things You Should Never Do at a Hotel

– written by Melissa Paloti

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network.

adirondack chairs porchEarlier this week, IndependentTraveler.com’s own Ed Hewitt highlighted the myriad benefits of membership in a hotel rewards program, such as free stays, room upgrades and other perks. (See Seven Smart Reasons to Join a Hotel Rewards Program to get the scoop.) But for many independent travelers, there’s one major drawback: Who wants to stay in bland chain hotels all the time?

If you’re the type of globetrotter who seeks out cozy B&B’s, stylish boutique hotels or unique local properties, you don’t have to forgo hotel rewards programs. We’ve unearthed three intriguing loyalty programs that go beyond the usual Starwoods and Hyatts.

Tablet Plus
TabletHotels.com is a portal for boutique and luxury hotels around the world, many of them independently owned. The site’s loyalty program, Tablet Plus, offers complimentary upgrades, advance access to private sales, and fun extras like free cocktails and cooking classes at hundreds of participating hotels. Membership costs $195 a year.

Do You Prefer Chains or Independent Hotels?

Golden Quill
An alliance of nearly 400 inns and B&B’s across North America, SelectRegistry.com offers a rewards program, called Golden Quill, that’s refreshingly simple: stay 12 nights, and get a reward certificate of $100 to be used toward your next stay at any Select Registry property. There’s no cost for the program, but you’ll need to accumulate your 12 nights within a two-year period to qualify for the $100 reward.

GHA Discovery
We’re cheating a little by including the Global Hotel Alliance in this list, since it’s a network of small luxury hotel chains (including Anantara, Omni and Pan Pacific) — but its rewards program is unlike most others in the world. The GHA Discovery program offers not free stays but unique local experiences, such as surfing lessons, spa treatments, after-hours access to museums or meet-and-greet sessions with local public figures. The more nights you stay, the more exclusive the experiences available to you. Membership, which is free, also includes more conventional loyalty perks such as free Wi-Fi, your choice of newspaper and room upgrades.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

vacation rental beach sandalsHow many of you rely on user-generated reviews to help pick a hotel or vacation rental? Virtual show of hands. That’s what we thought. And if a vacation rental owner’s property listing had bathroom pics showing only the porcelain spaces not dripping black mold, you might be inclined to tell the world, ex post tripso.

Not so fast.

According to a recent piece by veteran consumer travel writer Chris Elliott, “non-disparagement” clauses are seeping into vacation rental contracts as owners and management companies attempt to vigorously defend their reputations in a user-generated landscape. One scathing review, real or fake, can gut a small business, they say. Consumers aren’t the only ones who need protection.

Blow off the fine print and you could face a heavy fine, which a couple did recently for posting a negative review of an Arizona vacation rental on VRBO.com. Their rental contract said they needed consent from the owner or the owner’s rep, Progressive Management Concepts, to do so. Their credit card was hit with a punitive $500 fine. (The couple eventually agreed to take down the review and got their $500 back, plus $200 more.)

Finding a Vacation Rental

TJ Mahony, CEO and co-founder of IndependentTraveler.com sister site FlipKey, a vacation rental site, told us he hadn’t heard of this practice yet — but said, “In principle, we would never encourage nor support this.

“The overwhelmingly majority of vacation rental experiences are positive. Moreover, FlipKey and TripAdvisor offer extensive reputation management tools to help homeowners effectively manage their online reputation and address unreasonable claims.”

Mahony said he would personally never sign a contract including such a clause.

Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay

We agree. While there’s little doubt that fake, or at least disingenuous, reviews are a problem, forced confidentiality is not the solution. Online reviews are not some “vast buzzing, blooming confusion,” as travel icon Arthur Frommer recently told the Wall Street Journal. They’re one of many essential tools — which include, yes, guidebooks — used by the savvy traveler.

So, amid the fine print, there’s may be another question to ask when interviewing a vacation rental owner: Are you okay with consumer reviews?

– written by Dan Askin

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns FlipKey.

house in the clouds suffolk englandThanks to everyone who participated in last Friday’s photo caption contest. We received some great submissions, but our favorite was from Jean Jonker, who wrote, “I found the PEZ Museum!” Jean has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug.

Runners-up that we also loved:

“Keepin’ up with the Weasleys” — Liz Richardson

“Well, at least there won’t be any solicitors!” — BJP

“Yes, it’s our little bit of heaven but we should have put in an elevator.” — Nancy James

To see the rest of the submissions, click here.

Friday’s photo was of the House in the Clouds in Suffolk, England, which is available for rental. Interested in a lofty stay? See HouseintheClouds.co.uk.

Do you have a funny or bizarre photo that we could use for a future caption contest? Send it to us at feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put “Caption Contest” in the subject line.) If we feature your photo on our blog, we’ll send you a prize.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

holiday inn expressAs a traveler, I’m bewitched by B&B’s. Entranced by independent inns. Lured to local lodging like pensiones in Italy or ryokans in Japan. If it’s quirky, charming, intimate or unique, I want to stay there. I like getting a taste of local color, and putting my vacation dollars toward independently owned businesses instead of big international hotel corporations.

And yet, even though it goes against my independent traveler ethos, sometimes I just can’t resist staying in a chain hotel.

This happened most recently on a trip to Los Angeles, which I was attempting to explore without a car. If I didn’t want to spend a fortune on taxis, I had to find a hotel within walking distance of the Metro — preferably one that was clean and had positive reviews from previous travelers. And, naturally, I didn’t want to break the budget either.

I had to pass up a few intriguing B&B’s and boutique hotels because of inconvenient locations or high rates. But I finally struck gold at the Holiday Inn Express – Hollywood Walk of Fame, which was just a few blocks from the Metro and offered free Wi-Fi and hot breakfast. It wasn’t the most interesting place I’ve ever stayed, but the room was clean, the Internet was fast and the price was right ($160/night for a location near Hollywood’s most popular sights).

See More Los Angeles Hotels

Chain hotels often have other benefits as well, like loyalty programs, fitness centers and the simple security of knowing what to expect when you arrive (which can be reassuring when you’re thrown into a wholly unfamiliar place).

Which type of lodging do you prefer? Vote in the poll below or share your thoughts in the comments.

What Not to Do at a Hotel

– written by Sarah Schlichter

z hotel london sohoThere were no drawers for my clothes and only two hangers on the quartet of pegs that substituted for a closet, the bed was pushed against the windows (allowing for maximum exposure to the drunken “singing” at 3 a.m. below), and the shower flooded the sink area of the bathroom every morning — but one simple impression remained from my five-night January stay at London‘s Z Hotel.

I’d go back in a heartbeat.

The hotel, which opened in the Soho neighborhood in fall 2011, is decidedly not for everyone. I stayed because it was “only” $220 a night including taxes, which sadly enough is considered dirt-cheap in a city known for its exorbitant costs. But ultimately it was money well spent. The neighborhood, a mass of bars, clubs, restaurants and overlap from the adjacent theater-rich West End, is a London hot spot, with easy reach to the rest of the city.

Those rooms, however, are an acquired taste. They’re tiny by just about any measure; my Z Queen was advertised at being okay for two, but five nights in 150 square feet of space might have ended in divorce if I’d brought my wife. Z Singles, some of which are window-free (think of it as a cruise ship inside cabin without the free buffet), are a mere 85 square feet. The hotel comprises 12 Georgian townhouses interconnected by cooler-than-you lounge areas and glass-railed bridges, so there’s plenty of opportunity to get some fresh air, but still …

See Our Favorite London Hotels

hotel z soho london queenAll in all, my tiny space was incredibly functional, even if I had to pile my clothes on the shelf behind the bed and use my laptop on my, well, laptop (there was no desk). It took me an embarrassing amount of time to discover that I had to point the clicker for the suspended 40-inch TV (awesome!) at the headboard — and not the TV itself. But the free Wi-Fi was ridiculously fast, and I dug the upscale linens, plush duvet and Thierry Mugler toiletries. The ultra-modern shower, sink and toilet occupied the same giant glass-enclosed cube, but once I figured out that I could build a dam out of a towel, I put a damper on the mess that ensued every time I washed.

With the London Olympics approaching, I wondered what the hotel is charging for the expected mad rush. I couldn’t find many nights available for the Z Queens, but those singles are still up for grabs. For Thursday, August 2, to Tuesday, August 7 — five nights during the heart of the Games — singles are running about $360 a night. Not exactly a gold-medal-winning tariff, but, man, you can’t beat that location.

5 Things You Shouldn’t Do at a Hotel

Would you stay at the Hotel Z?

– written by John Deiner

academy awards oscarsWho doesn’t love a good awards show? Inspired by the Oscars this weekend, we’ve put together our own list of bests and worsts from the travel industry over the past year. The envelope, please…

Best Performance by an Airline
No, we’re not talking about on-time performance. We’re talking about music, dancing and having fun — and that prize goes to Finnair, for its toe-tapping Bollywood performance in honor of India’s Republic Day.

Worst Performance by a Leading Man
Two thumbs down for Alec Baldwin, who was booted off a plane for refusing to turn off his iPhone when the cabin crew requested that all portable electronic devices be shut down. His attitude that he was somehow too good to follow the same safety rules as the rest of us earned pans from many travelers.

I’ll Take a Large Popcorn and a Ticket to Paris

Best Newcomer
In a sea of new hotels that opened in 2011, one stood — quite literally — above the rest. Hong Kong’s brand-new Ritz-Carlton is now the highest hotel in the world, reaching some 1,600 feet into the sky. Toast the view from the rooftop bar on the 118th floor.

Lifetime Achievement Award
Steve Jobs, who passed away in October, will always be remembered for innovations that changed the world — including the travel industry. As we wrote in Steve Jobs: A Traveler’s Tribute, “That awesome ATM finder or the currency conversion app you can’t globetrot without wouldn’t exist if Jobs hadn’t dreamed up the interface for it.”

Which awards would you give out to members of the travel world?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

airport travelersAfter another year of covering the highs and lows of the travel world, we’re taking a look back at the stories that really got our readers talking — or ranting, as the case may be. Below, we count down our five most popular blog posts of 2011.

5. It’s no secret: The airlines are one segment of the travel industry that our readers love to hate. But which ones are truly the bottom of the barrel? Earlier this year, Consumer Reports put out a list of the Best and Worst Airlines. More than a dozen readers responded, including a wry Matt Leonard: “The worst airline to me is generally whatever airline I last flew.”

4. We polled our readers back in April to discover The Hotel Amenity Travelers Want Most. (Hint: The answer is something you’re more likely to find at cheap hotels than at luxury properties.) If you missed the initial vote, it’s not too late to weigh in with your own preferences in our poll.

3. Readers were up in arms over European carrier Ryanair’s plan to remove all but one toilet from its planes, which carry up to 189 people. (Can you imagine the line?) “I wonder if they will be selling ‘piddle paks’ or just ‘Depends’ in the in-flight boutique? Anything to make a profit,” quipped reader Debra in the comments. Reader Jackie said simply, “I will be voting with my feet — which will carry me to a different airline check-in.”

2. More than 550 comments poured in for our post about The Suitcase That Beats Baggage Fees. This petite powerhouse of a suitcase is sized specifically to help travelers avoid Spirit Airlines’ fee for carry-on bags (up to $40), and we gave one away to one lucky commenter. Didn’t win? You can still check out our Five Ways to Beat “A La Carte” Airline Fees.

1. Readers sick of paying big bucks for bland chain hotels flocked to Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay, in which we suggested creative alternatives like monasteries in Italy and farmstays in New Zealand. Reader nassautravellers chimed in to agree with our vacation rental suggestion: “We travel a lot around the Caribbean and most often rent vacation properties — condos, villas etc. We find this to be the most cost-effective way. Usually, the rates are cheaper per night than hotels and we can get our own groceries saving on restaurant meals (and the waistline!!).”

Which topics will get us talking in 2012? Check out our Nine Predictions for Travel in 2012.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

farm turkeysIn merely a week’s time, families across the U.S. will gather together to dine on turkeys, Tofurkeys, pies and potatoes. It all sounds fantastic — unless you’re the one washing the dishes and stuffing bread cubes into the back end of a bird. Although November 24 is fast approaching, you still have a chance to flee your kitchen and embark on a refreshing holiday weekend getaway, sans scary electric carving knife. Here are five fantastic Thanksgiving hotel deals to lure you away from that stove.

1. Pie and Booze in San Francisco
San Francisco’s Hotel Palomar is topping off your Thanksgiving stay with a freshly baked pie and a bottle of — what else — Wild Turkey bourbon. The downtown boutique hotel, which offers free Wi-Fi and is pet-friendly, is pairing these celebratory perks with deluxe accommodations in its “Pie + Family + Booze = Splendid Holiday” package, available through the end of December. Prices start at $299 per night.

2. Save Up to 58% on Thanksgiving Hotel Stays
Hotels.com is offering up to 58 percent off hotel stays in dozens of destinations around the world — including the Caribbean, Costa Rica, Canada and locales across the U.S. We recently featured this offer as the Travel Deal of the Week on our blog, and for good reason. This wide-ranging hotel sale covers so many properties, it’s worth a look no matter where you’re heading for the holidays.

3. Newark Airport Thanksgiving Package
If your eve-of-Thanksgiving flight is departing at an hour during which you’d normally be fast asleep, consider staying near the airport. New York-area travelers can avoid those high holiday hotel prices by booking the Thanksgiving Weekend deal at the Newark Liberty International Airport Marriott. Special Thanksgiving rates start at $199 a night.

4. Celebrate Thanksgiving Like a President
This Thanksgiving package in Washington D.C. includes a host of holiday perks, from a four-course Turkey Day dinner for up to eight people to a professionally photographed family portrait taken in your suite. You’ll bunk at the Madison, a luxurious boutique hotel located near National Mall monuments and, of course, down the street from the First Family. Prices start at $799 per night.

5. Give Thanks on the Slopes
Spend a long weekend zooming down the slopes, dining on decadent four-course dinners and toasting the holiday from the comfort of a traditional mountain lodge in Utah. Alta Lodge, set at the base of the Alta Ski Area, is offering a four-night Thanksgiving package that covers meals, lodging and taxes for $900 per person. A special Thanksgiving dinner is also included in the rates.

– written by Caroline Costello