There is no magical way to quickly get the cheapest rate for a hotel room. If you start planning months in advance and invest the time and effort you can save hundreds of dollars or more depending on where you’re going and the length of your trip.
Here’s how I do it:
1. First I determine what I want to do at the destination I’m going to. I look for all the hotels that are closest to the things I want to see and do, like museums, the beach, etc. I develop a list of a few conveniently located hotels.
You may save a lot of money by staying at a hotel that’s far outside the city center but if you have to take a long train ride, round trip, every day that’s a waste of your valuable vacation time. In addition to riding the same train back and forth there’s cost involved with rail or buses and if you miss your train or it stops running you may have to pay for a very expensive cab ride. If you can’t afford to stay close-in then you probably want look at another destination.
2. Now I need to check out my potential hotels to narrow it down to one. I always want to make sure its clean, reasonably updated and safe. I want to know what amenities they offer such as restaurants, laundry, spa, kid activities, business center, airport shuttle, etc. My requirements change depending on the trip I’m taking. You will have different requirements. I check reliable guide books like Frommer’s, Fodor’s and AAA for descriptions and ratings of the hotels under consideration. Frommer’s and Fodor’s online aren’t always the latest edition so see if you can borrow the latest edition from the library. The Chicago Public Library has many travel books in print and ebook versions. If it’s not available, the older online version will usually work for our purposes. I order the AAA books online. They usually arrive in less than a week.
Next I look at the local Living on the Cheap website for any recommendations. I use these for dining and other trip expenses but that’s another post.
Also consider asking friends, family or work colleagues to see if someone you know or they know has been to where you’re going. If they have a similar sensibility and travel style and they stayed there fairly recently a big chunk of your work might be done.
3. Now I’ve narrowed it down to one hotel. I call the hotel (a few times over a week or so) and ask different front desk people about the hotel. I work off a list specific for the hotel and trip. I ask questions such as: What is the best tower to stay in? Why? Which tower is closest to the pool? Is there any construction going on? Is any construction starting when I get there? Are all the amenities going to be open on X date? How is the partial ocean view different than the oceanfront view? How far is the oceanfront room from the ocean (you’d be surprised). Do palm trees obstruct the view? Up to what floor? Which side is noisy? Blah, blah, blah. Now I know what kind of room I want. Oh and don’t call during check in or check out local time. I call at off hours like 6am or 9pm local time when they’re not busy. And if they sound busy (planes land and people check in and out at all hours) I call back at a different time.
Note about room type: If you’re going somewhere where you will never be in the room then who cares about the view. If you plan to hang at the pool then you might want to be closer or if the pool is open late you may not want to be anywhere near it. If you’re a light sleeper you might not want a street side or low floor room. The questions you ask are based on what your needs are from your hotel room.
4. Find out what’s included and what isn’t in the base hotel rate. Many hotels charge resort fees. They are here to stay. Find out how much they are, including tax, and what they include. Ask if there is any way to get them waived. Find out the last time they increased and when they will increase next and by how much. Ask about any other mandatory room charges. I’ve head of parking fees, electricity fees, whatever. Most chains post these on their websites but I always ask. You don’t want any surprises otherwise you may have stayed somewhere else.
5. Now I’ve pinpointed the hotel and I know what type of room I want. I may not actually have a plane ticket yet (I’m simultaneously shopping airfare. I will publish an article about saving on airfare soon). I start shopping a range of dates. If rooms are super expensive during a particular week or weekend then I don’t want to go then. It could be that a convention is in town or a pro-golf tournament or something else. If it’s a busy time rates will be higher.
Let’s talk for a minute about different travel seasons. Most destinations have three types of seasons: high season when it’s most crowded and rates are the highest, low season, not busy and cheap (or cheaper), and shoulder season somewhere in between.
You should read a reliable guide book like Frommer’s or Fodor’s to find out when those seasons are for your destination. I usually go during shoulder season. There’s no point in going to the Caribbean in the low season, no matter how cheap it is, if its going to rain every day you’re there. And don’t think “what’s a little rain.” In some destinations roads wash out and places become inaccessible. Check the weather carefully. On the other hand one of the cheapest times to go to Vegas is in August. It’s over 100 degrees but if you don’t plan to leave your resort much who cares. Also hotels will close down amenities in the low season so if you’re going there for something specific make sure it will be open.
Okay back to hotel shopping. If I find a great rate, even though I haven’t booked airfare yet, I will still speculatively book the room. Sometimes I have several blocks of rooms booked until I buy airfare. Do not ever buy a non-refundable room. The small difference in price won’t matter if you have to cancel. Read all the cancellation terms and conditions carefully before your buy. If the hotel room rate goes up I’m locked in. If the rate goes down I just re-book the room at the lower rate and cancel the original reservation. Or you can call and they will lower the rate. If I decide to go at a different time then I cancel. Cancellation periods vary so read the cancellation policy very carefully before you buy. I cannot stress this enough. I’ve heard horror stories about this.
6. I search hotel rates through several sources online including the hotel chain website, and the Online Travel Agencies (OTA) Orbitz and Expedia (Expedia owns Travelocity now). I keep track of the prices for a range of dates and who is charging what. I keep this all in a folder.
Sometimes Orbitz and Expedia will have promotion codes that you can apply to your hotel search. They’re sometimes visible when you go to their sites or Google “Orbitz promo code.” Orbitz and Expedia have their own points earning system now so become a member and you will receive their sale and promo code emails.
The OTA’s have much less restrictive cancellation policies than they used to but still read everything carefully before booking. If you do book through an OTA after a couple of days call the hotel directly and make sure they have your booking. Get the hotel’s reservation number. Better yet get them to email you a copy of your reservation. If there’s a problem later the hotel can’t find anything in it’s system with your OTA reservation number. Keep in mind you don’t earn any hotel chain points if you book through an OTA.
A note about promo codes and sales: Just because an OTA says it’s a “great deal” or “50% off” doesn’t mean it really is. Since you’ve been checking rates for a while now you’ll know a deal when you see one. That’s the benefit of checking early and often. And when you see a real deal – book it immediately (make sure it’s refundable) because when you go back in an hour it may be gone. Or it may be there two days later. Who knows. You don’t want to let that low rate get away.
I don’t use any blind booking OTA’s like Priceline. These are sites where the hotel name is not listed and you bid. I don’t want my trip ruined because I’m at a bad hotel or a hotel in a bad location. I don’t care how cheap it is.
7. I am a loyalty club member at all the chains: Hyatt, Hilton, Starwood, IHG, Marriott, etc. Even if you only plan to stay there once you should still join as some chains offer benefits even for basic status. Also you’ll receive their sale emails. Read those emails when they come in. Again be wary of “sales”. Hotel sale emails can be good deals but sometimes they are for non-refundable rates which does us no good.
If you are just starting to travel it pays to become loyal to one or two chains. When you earn higher status they recognize your loyalty and you will get things like free room upgrades, free wifi, late check out, free breakfast and more.
8. When booking through hotels directly I use the AAA rate because I’m a member. Most hotels check now so if you use the rate and can’t present the card at check in you may be charged the prevailing rate. The same applies for AARP, military and government employee discounts if you fall into any of those categories.
9. I call the hotel chain’s toll free reservation number. I once had a Starwood agent find a super low rate at the Aruba Westin that wasn’t anywhere online. Just ask: “Can you look around and see if you see anything better than X rate” whatever rate you’re currently seeing. You never know.
10. I call the hotel directly and ask if there are any deals. Or just ask for a better rate. “I keep coming up with X rate but I really want to pay Y. Can you do anything for me?” If you’re staying there a number of days or a week you might be surprised. I once had a Hilton reservation where the first three nights were one rate but the last night was higher. I called the front desk and they knocked off the $50 for the fourth night. It never hurts to ask.
11. I look at airfare and hotel packages. When you search through an OTA you may be able to get a better deal by combining airfare and hotel. You won’t get hotel chain points but you will get airline miles. Just carefully compare the airline, flight times and room type to what you have been looking at separately. You have to make sure you are comparing apples-to-apples. Sometimes the OTA hotel room type descriptions don’t match the hotel website descriptions. You can try to call the OTA for clarification but I’ve found this to be unhelpful. If I’m not sure what I’m getting I don’t buy. Also beware of add-on’s like tours, airport transfers, theater tickets, etc. You need to see what these cost if you bought them separately. You may not use them. I rarely find these to be good deals so I skip them.
12. Keep checking the hotel rates after you book, at least every couple of days. Do it during your lunch hour. It will only take fifteen minutes. I once re-booked a Vegas hotel room six times because the rate kept dropping. The savings paid for all of my dining on that trip.
Okay. That’s all you have to do. Now you’re thinking – this is too much work! I’ve been using this procedure for years and it works. The less I spend on each trip the more trips I can take. If you reallocate your time from television viewing or whatever else we do that’s non-productive this process actually pays you money. Sometimes hundreds of dollars. Once you get the hang of it and develop a system it’s like a treasure hunt. There’s nothing better than taking a 4 or 5 star vacation at 2 or 3 star prices! Happy travels!