Reservations on-the-go in Europe, June-October 2007
To search for hotels and make advance reservations, we primarily used third-party online hotel reservation sites. Favorites have been priceline-europe (Emily prefers Booking.com, a slightly different interface to exactly the same reservations) and Venere. Sites lastminute.com and hotels.com also look interesting, although we never ended up reserving through them. Expedia is a backup option we've used for hotels a couple of times, but it frequently doesn't provide the kinds of discounts the other sites do. It's surprising just how much all of these sites differ in terms of their search capabilities and actual hotel offers. Naturally, those differences have provoked new sites that try to amalgamate the third-party sites -- EuroCheapo is one example. Sometimes we've used booking sites to choose a hotel, then contacted the property directly; it saves them the commission to the booking site.
Without exception we'd check hotel reviews on tripadvisor before booking, and sometimes we'd work in the other direction: start with tripadvisor, which rank-orders hotels for each destination, and then check the reservation sites. Tripadvisor recently began offering reservation searches across third-party sites for some hotels, making that strategy even more attractive.
The best deals are invariably through Argus Rentals or Kemwel. These are third-party vendors who've negotiated deep discounts with the main agencies. (How deep depends on the destination, dates, and car type.) Only the car details, not the agency, are revealed before you book, but we always ended up with mainstream agencies and good cars. Of the two, I recommend Argus over Kemwel (unless Kemwel happens to be offering a much better deal): Argus's payment procedure makes more sense -- we had some problems with a double-charge from Kemwel, though we did get refunded eventually.
The explosion of budget European airlines has brought down prices dramatically, but for "strangers" like us trying to find a budget flight for a particular route, it can be difficult to know where to start -- small airlines usually don't sign up with big travel sites like Expedia. (For example, we learned about a small airline flying between Paris and Morocco only from ads in Paris subway stations.) Here too an amalgamation site can help -- we were aided by skyscanner a couple of times; later we discovered an excellent site hosted by attitidue Travel, with a companion site for no-frills Asian airlines that we'll certainly make use of.