Hotels 101: Getting a Good Deal on a Hotel Room
Don't just book a hotel through a general-purpose travel booking site like Expedia.com, or a hotel review site like TripAdvisor. With a little bit of effort, you can usually uncover a better rate elsewhere, and save money on all your hotel reservations.
Once you’ve ready to move beyond our basic advice below, make sure to check our Advanced Strategies for Getting a Good Hotel Rate. It includes additional strategies that require a bit more time and effort, and adds some additional nuance to the basic advice below.
Finding the best rate
“Standard” hotel rates are usually the same, regardless of whether you are shopping on the hotel’s own website, or using a 3rd party travel website like Expedia. In most cases, contractual arrangements force everyone to charge the same rate for the room.
To get a lower price, you need to find and take advantage of different types of “non-standard” rates. These special rates are contractually allowed to be less expensive than the normal "best available rate" that you'll find on most websites.
- Never book a room without checking the prevailing rates on an "hotel aggregator" first—we like Kayak best. Not every deal you see, even on the best hotel websites, is really a “deal”. Before you actually book your room, you need to check the normal hotel rates, so that you can be sure you really are getting a lower price.
- Join AAA to get discounts on a broad range of hotels. You’ll be eligible for a discount of around 10% at many hotels in the United States and Canada; and/or access to a refundable reservation for around the same price as a normal non-cancellable rate. AAA discounts are available at every type of hotel—downtown chain hotels, seaside inns, large resorts, small boutiques, and independent roadside motels. Consider Joining AAA to Take Advantage of Their Hotel Discounts.
- Always check the rates on the hotel’s own website. Once you’ve narrowed down the list of places that you might want to stay, make sure to check each hotel’s website directly. At chain hotels, you’ll find special “member rates” that are lower than the rates available on 3rd party travel websites. For all hotels, the hotel website is often the only place that provides access to AAA, senior, corporate, military, and other discounted rates. More than likely, the hotel’s website also includes some additional promotions or packages, which can sometimes be a better deal than the “best available” rate. You might be able to get a free night or a discounted rate, on a multi-night reservation; a well-priced package that includes parking, breakfast, or other benefits; a discount on an extra room for the kids; or a special promotional rate. (Almost) Always Book Hotels Directly through their Websites.
- You can sometimes find lower prices through “private deal” websites. If a website doesn’t show prices to non-signed-in users, it doesn’t have to stick to the official rates. Several “membership only” websites provide access to lower-than-normal prices (at some of the hotels at a destination). For most of these sites, all that “membership only” means is that you’ve filled in a registration form, and are signed-in to the site—there are no fees or special requirements to join. A few general-purpose booking sites, like Kayak.com and Booking.com, also occasionally offer “private deals”, if you are signed-in to their websites or apps.
- goSeek.com. goSeek is probably the best of the private deals websites. It acts like an aggregator, searching several other services.
- kayak.com. If you are signed in, a single hotel search shows you the best available rates on many different travel websites (for every hotel), along with private deals on a decent collection of selected hotels.
- Hotel Storm. If you have an Amex or MasterCard, you can join Shoprunner (a 2-day shipping service that works across many different merchants) for free, and then use the “Shoprunner” code to take advantage of the private deals available on HotelStorm.com.
The best way to get a sense of your different hotel options, ensure that you never pay more than the going rate for any specific hotel, and possibly uncover rates that are lower than they should be, is to search on a “Hotel Aggregator” website. Aggregators compare hotel prices from many different travel booking websites with a single search.
Of the different aggregator sites, we like Kayak.com best. Unlike other aggregators, they provide the side benefit of being a decent source of private deals (which are permitted to undercut the hotel’s normal best available rates). Just be a careful when looking at the rates shown on their website and apps. The main price above the “View Deal” button on Kayak is not necessarily the lowest available price they’ve uncovered—you need to scan through the smaller price listings on the left, instead.
You can also get good deals by becoming a member of AARP (the American Association of Retired People). Surprisingly, anyone can join, and the membership fee is only $15/year. While AAA offers discounts on a considerably larger number of hotels, the AARP rates are occasionally lower, so it can make sense to get both memberships.
At private deal websites, you can find rates that are sometimes 20%, 30%, or 40% lower than the prevailing rate. Each site has its own set of deals, so it can be worthwhile searching multiple sites. Finding Lower Room Rates on "Private Deal" Websites
Other tips for saving money on hotels
If you have some flexibility, you can often save far more money on your hotel room, than is possible by just finding the best available rate for a specific hotel stay.
- If you are willing to give up some flexibility, it can be easy to get a fantastic rate on Hotwire (and other “opaque” hotel sites). On Hotwire, you’ll see prices for unnamed hotels that are often far below the normal rates. If you don’t feel a strong need to stay in a specific hotel, we find that Hotwire is usually the easiest way to get a great hotel rate.
- Try to travel during off-peak times. Hotel rates vary dramatically over the course of the year. Rates during the peak holiday seasons might be double or triple the rates at other times of the year. A place that is expensive during high season, might be very affordable during the shoulder season. Some resorts can be dirt cheap during the off season. You might not have much control over when you can travel, or you might have no desire to visit a destination when the weather isn’t at its best. But if you do, you can shave a significant amount off your hotel expenses.
- Particularly in resort destinations, you might get a better hotel rate as part of a travel package. Hotels often let their rooms be sold at cheaper prices when they are part of a package. Sometimes, you can add as little as a single car rental day, to qualify for a package rate. !!!Package Rates!!!.
- Consider staying in a hotel on the outskirts of town, or near the airport. The surest way to save money on your hotel room is to choose a hotel in a less expensive location. Particularly if you are travelling around by car, it only adds a few extra minutes of travel time to stay on the periphery of your destination. You are likely to find much lower rates, and save money on parking as well. Within a larger city, you can often find a location that is conveniently near a subway stop, and will let you experience a less-touristy neighborhood. Of course, there are plenty of times where you want a hotel located in the thick-of-things, or need to be in a particular location, and won’t be able to take advantage of cheaper hotels elsewhere.
It may seem risky to book a room without knowing exactly what hotel you’ll get. However, it isn’t that bad. You’ll have access to most of the critical information you need, before you book: the neighborhood where the hotel is located, its “star” rating, its Trip Advisor rating, Hotwire’s own user ratings, the size of the beds in the rooms, and whether the hotel has the key amenities you need. The chief risk is that the reservation is completely non-flexible, should your plans change. So, you might want to book a backup reservation first, and then rebook a cheaper rate with Hotwire when you get close to your departure date. Getting a Great Hotel Rate with Hotwire (and Other "Opaque" Booking Tools).
Getting extra benefits on your stay
Smart travel is not just about getting the best possible rate, it is also about getting extra travel benefits, that are usually reserved only for frequent travelers, and earning extra rewards on your travel purchases.
- Never book a hotel without joining its loyalty program first. You’ll get access to special member rates that are lower than those available on 3rd party travel websites; and receive extra benefits, like free Wi-Fi, during your stay. It won’t take much effort to join, doesn’t cost anything, and will save you time with every future reservation. A free tool called AwardWallet can keep track your membership number, username, and password, to take the hassle out of joining many different programs. Don’t worry if you don’t’ expect to stay often enough to earn free nights—you are joining for the discounted rates and extra benefits, not necessarily for the rewards. !!!Hotel Reward Programs!!!.
- If you frequently stay at Hilton hotels, you can get free breakfast, just by getting a credit card that gives you automatic Hilton Gold status. You could get the Hilton Ascend card, Hilton Aspire card, or Hilton Business card. Another option is the Amex Platinum card, which gives you Hilton Gold status, as well as the similarly valuable Marriott Gold status, has a much higher annual fee, and comes with many additional benefits. Fast Tracks to Elite Hotel Status.
- Try to book directly, to benefit from the hotel’s loyalty program. In order to try to get you to book directly (and avoid paying a commission), most hotels won’t provide elite status benefits when you book through a 3rd party website. You also won’t earn hotel reward points, or get credit towards higher-level elite status.
- If you are booking a higher-end hotel, your best option can be to book through a luxury hotel program. You may not get a better room rate, but you’ll receive a set of very valuable perks, like free breakfast, a free $100 hotel credit, late checkout, and room upgrades. We would never book a fancy hotel before seeing whether we can take advantage of these substantial extra benefits.
- If you can’t find a better rate, book at Hotels.com to take advantage of their generous loyalty program. You’ll get the equivalent of 10% back with Hotels.com’s “Stay 10 Nights and Earn 1 Free Night” loyalty program. In most cases, you’ll do better by booking directly with the hotel, booking through Hotwire, or taking advantage of a “private deal”. But, if you can’t take advantage of a better rate elsewhere, book at Hotels.com. Guide to Travel Booking Site Reward Programs.
- Book with a credit card that earns a good reward rate on travel or hotel reservations. You can get back as much as 6% in credit card reward points from a card that has great bonus rates on travel purchases. !!!Travel Credit Cards!!!.
To take advantage of the loyalty program, you need to book directly. In most cases, you’ll find the best rates on the hotel’s own website anyway. However, if you can find a cheaper rate elsewhere, it may be worthwhile to book it, and skip the loyalty program benefits on that stay.
Several different luxury hotel programs are operated by credit card companies, and available to anyone who has one of their cards. Chances are, that you have (or will soon have) access to multiple programs. In addition, each of the high-end hotel chains has their own program, which they make available via luxury travel agencies. Even in today’s internet era, when it comes to luxury hotels, you can get a better deal by working with a travel agent, rather what you can get yourself online. Get Valuable Extra Perks by Taking Advantage of Luxury Hotel Programs.
Save more with non-refundable rates (if you dare)
Not long ago, the typical rates you saw listed for hotels were always “refundable rates”. You could change or cancel your reservation up until a deadline that was close to check-in time. Nowadays, more hotels and websites are displaying non-refundable rates, either as a lower cost option, or as the only option for booking the hotel. Make sure to always check the cancellation policies when comparing rates.
It is always nice to be able to take advantage of a lower rate. But, if you book a non-refundable reservation, and your plans change, you are screwed. Sometimes, there is some flexibility for changing dates—you should always call and ask. But, many times you can’t change your dates, and you can never just cancel the reservation outright. You also don’t get the opportunity to take advantage of a cheaper rate (at the same hotel or at an alternative), that you might discover later.
One reasonable approach, is to start out booking a more expensive flexible rate. Then, when it is much closer to your departure date, and more certain that you won’t need to make any changes, switch your reservation to a lower non-refundable rate.
Trip cancellation insurance may seem like a possible solution. But be wary. Most policies won’t cover the cost of a cancellation unless you, or someone you need to take care of, is very sick, and you have the paperwork to prove it. You’re not covered if your plans change, recent events make you uncomfortable to go to your destination, you can’t take off from work, or you just want to switch hotels.