By Ed Perkins

You can easily make sure the hotel you select has the accessibility features you need. Or if you want rock-bottom prices, you can let the site pick your hotel. The big online agencies keep improving their utility, constantly adding new features and improving old ones. Latest tweaks involve rooms for travelers who need special access features, plus a new "opaque" option.

Although Expedia's accessibility search feature has been online for a few months, the big agency is just now promoting it. Travelers who use the U.S. site can now screen their hotel searches for seven different accessibility features: equipment for the deaf, accessible bathrooms, accessible paths of travel, Braille or raised signage, handicapped parking, in-room accessibility, and a roll-in shower. You can look for these features individually or in combination. Expedia says that, when you reserve, its agents contact the hotel to ensure that the specific traveler requests are met. Expedia then either confirms your request or offers a similar booking at a different hotel that can accommodate you. Affiliated site provides a similar feature.

The other two big online agencies also offer accessibility screening, although less detailed: Orbitz lets you search for "handicapped rooms/facilities" and Travelocity searches for "wheelchair accessible" accommodations.

With all three agencies, you have to dig a bit to get at the accessibility-screening feature. First, you enter the usual broad search parameters. Then, after you get to the first display, you can click on an "additional features" or equivalent button to narrow your search.

You can also narrow your search by a long list of other factors, not related to accessibility. Examples range from "free" breakfast and "free" parking to availability of WiFi, a spa, room service, pet friendly, and maybe two dozen other features.

Of course, many individual hotel chains allow you to search for accessibility and other special features. What's valuable from the big online agencies is the ability to search for those features across many different chains and independent hotels.

The other big innovation -- which I've just seen for the first time -- is an "opaque" buying feature recently introduced by Travelocity. Although I haven't used it yet, the "Top Secret Hotels" feature appears to operate the same way that Hotwire does: You select a hotel based on a general idea of location, a "star" rating, and a stated price. You don't know the specific hotel until after you make a nonrefundable buy.

When I checked in mid-February, Travelocity offered "Top Secret Hotels" in only 18 U.S. cities plus a smattering outside the United States -- far fewer than you can find on either Hotwire or Priceline (the other big opaque sites). Still, some of the deals seemed quite good.

Over the years, I've relied extensively on Hotwire and Priceline for hotel arrangements. For the most part, I don't really care which hotel brand I use, as long as I can specify the general location and general quality level, and I'm not involved enough with any major chain's loyalty program to influence my choice greatly. I figure I've reduced my daily accommodations bill by somewhere between 25 percent and 50 percent that way. The only problem I have with opaque hotel buying occurs when I need a specific bed arrangement. Although the opaque sites say all the rooms they arrange are suitable for two people, I find the hotels almost always give you a room with one queen or king bed, never two. When that happens, you can sometimes negotiate a two-bed room with the hotel, but you have no guarantee.

The opaque sites are also good for rental cars -- again, as long as you aren't wed to one brand. You can arrange rentals on both Hotwire and Priceline, but so far I didn't see any "Top Secret Car Rentals" on the Travelocity site. You can also do airfares that way, but you can specify only the date, and I'm too fussy about schedules to buy an air ticket blind. However, if you don't mind taking the site's schedule, you can probably cut your airfare bill, too.


© Ed Perkins

Travel | Travel Expedia Goes Accessible; Travelocity Goes Opaque