While a trusted guidebook remains the best place to start your search for a great place to stay, online tools such as booking sites and user reviews have improved some aspects of hotel hunting. Take advantage of their pluses — and be wise to their downsides.

Booking Sites

Hotel booking websites, such as Booking.com and Hotels.com, offer one-stop shopping for hotels. While convenient for travelers, they present a real problem for small, independent, family-run hotels. Without a presence on these sites, these hotels become almost invisible. But to be listed, a hotel must pay a sizeable commission…and promise that its own website won't undercut the price on the booking-service site.

Here's the work-around: Use the big sites to research what's out there, then book direct with the hotel by email or phone, in which case owners are free to give you whatever price they like. I usually ask for a room without the commission mark-up (or for a free breakfast or a free upgrade). Hoteliers are more likely to accommodate any special needs or requests if you're in touch with them directly. If you do book online, be sure to use the hotel's website. The price will likely be the same as via a booking site, but your money goes to the hotel, not to agency commissions.

As a savvy consumer, remember: When you book with an online booking service, you're adding a middleman who takes roughly 20 percent. To support small, family-run hotels whose world is more difficult than ever, book direct. I prefer that my hardworking hosts pocket the full value of my stay.

User Reviews

User-generated review sites and apps such as Yelp and TripAdvisor can give you a range of opinions about everything from hotels and restaurants to sights and nightlife. If you scan reviews of a hotel and see several complaints about noise or a rotten location, you've gained insight that can help in your decision-making.

With any crowdsourcing platform, take the reviews with a grain of salt — and watch out for fake reviews. Keep in mind that a user-generated review is based on the limited experience of one person, who stayed at just one hotel in a given city and ate at a few restaurants there. Though these evaluations aren't always the most well-informed or objective, they can still be helpful to gauge the amenities, service, and quirks of a place. If something is well reviewed in a reliable guidebook — and it also gets good online reviews — it's likely a winner.

Short-Term Rental Sites

Rental juggernaut Airbnb (along with other short-term rental sites) allows travelers to rent rooms and apartments directly from locals, often providing more value than a cookie-cutter hotel. Airbnb fans appreciate feeling part of a real neighborhood and getting into a daily routine as "temporary Europeans." Depending on the host, staying in an Airbnb can provide an opportunity to get to know a local person, while keeping the money spent on your accommodations in the community.

But critics view Airbnb as a threat to "traditional Europe," saying it creates unfair, unqualified competition for established guesthouse owners. In some places, the lucrative Airbnb market has forced traditional guesthouses out of business and is driving property values out of range for locals. Some cities have cracked down on the trend — many now require owners to occupy rental properties part of the year, and often stage disruptive "inspections" that inconvenience guests.

As a lover of Europe, I share the worry of those who see residents nudged aside by tourists. But as an advocate for travelers, I appreciate the value and cultural intimacy Airbnb provides.

With the right online resources, booking ahead is an easy and reliable way to ensure your trip is organized and takes full advantage of Europe's warm hospitality. You'll enjoy the peace of mind of a well-curated itinerary, and when you touch down in Europe, you'll have more time to experience its spontaneous charms.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow his blog on Facebook.