Hotels 101: Get the Best Deal on Your Hotel Room
Don't just book a hotel through a general-purpose travel booking site, like Expedia.com. With a little bit of extra effort, you can almost always uncover a better rate elsewhere, saving money on all your hotel reservations.
- 1 Finding the best hotel rate
- 2 Get an even lower rate with Hotwire
- 3 An example
- 4 Other tips for saving money on hotels
- 5 Getting extra benefits with your stay
- 6 Maximize the rewards from your stays
- 7 Moving beyond the basic strategies
Finding the best hotel rate
“Standard” hotel rates are usually the same, regardless of whether you are shopping on the hotel’s own website, or using a third party travel website like Expedia. In most cases, contractual arrangements force everyone to charge the same basic rate for the room.
Even though "standard" rates are the same on every travel site, it is still easy to get a better deal on your hotel room. The trick is to find and take advantage of many different types of “non-standard” rates. These special rates bypass the contract limitations, and are less expensive than the normal "best available rate".
- Never book a room without checking the prevailing rates on a "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 a large percentage of the hotels in the United States and Canada; and/or access to a refundable reservation for around the same price as a normal non-refundable 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 for Hotel Discounts at Many Hotels.
- Always check the rates on the hotel’s own website—that's where you'll often find the best deal. Once you’ve narrowed down the list of places that you might want to stay, make sure to check each hotel’s website directly.
- You can sometimes find lower prices through “private deal” websites. If a website doesn’t show "special" prices to users who aren't signed in, 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 each 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 "private deal" 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. HotelStorm is our other "go to" private deals website. However, they only provide their service through a number of partners, so you'll need to choose a partner website to access their special prices. For more details see our private deals guide.
The best way to get a sense of the different hotel options at your destination, 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.
On many trips we wind up using TripAdvisor.com instead. While its private deals aren't as useful as Kayak's, we often start our hotel search on TripAdvisor to take advantage of their more extensive reviews and user-submitted photos.
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. Join AARP to Save Money on Hotel Rooms (you don't have to be over 50).
At chain hotels, you’ll find special “member rates” that are lower than the rates available on third party travel websites. In addition, booking direct is often the only way to get loyalty points for your stay and guarantee access to any member benefits.
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 your best deal. You might be able to get a free night or 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.
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. Find Lower Room Rates on 'Private Deal' Websites
Not long ago, the typical rates 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. You’ll also miss out on any 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 (if one is still available).
- 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.
- Hotels will often let you MODIFY a non-refundable reservation. While you rarely can convince the hotel to provide a refund for a cancellation, it is often possible to re-book the reservation for a different date, or even with a different location (in the same hotel program). For example, Hilton will let you modify non-refundable reservations for North American hotels for a $25-50 fee. It is always worthwhile to call and see if the hotel will let you reschedule without losing out on your payment.
Get an even lower rate with Hotwire
If you have enough flexibility, you can usually get the best hotel rates through Hotwire. With Hotwire (and other "opaque" booking tools), you’ll often get rates that are 30-60% less expensive than normal, but you won't know the exact hotel you are booking until after you finish making your non-refundable reservation.
If you don’t have a strong need to stay in a specific hotel, we find that Hotwire is often the cheapest way to make a hotel reservation.
On many trips, NOT booking via Hotwire simply translates into paying too much for our hotel room (even when you factor in the fact we don't receive loyalty points and benefits). Because Hotwire's rates are non-refundable, we often book a fully-refundable "backup" reservation ahead-of-time, and then switch over to a less-expensive Hotwire reservation when it gets closer to our travel dates.
It may seem risky to book a room without knowing exactly what hotel you’ll get. However, it isn’t that bad. Before you book, you’ll have access to most of the critical information you need: the neighborhood where the hotel is located, its “star” rating, its Trip Advisor rating, the size of the beds in the rooms, Hotwire’s own user ratings, and whether the hotel has the key amenities you need. For more details on using Hotwire, check out:
And, with just a little bit of extra effort, you can usually determine exactly which hotel you'll be getting. Uncover the Actual Hotel Offered Through Hotwire.
A real world example may be helpful. We’ve chosen relatively expensive hotels for this example, but you’ll see similar results with less expensive options. Best available rate
Best available rate
For Saturday night, March 9th, the “Best Available Rate” for the Park Hyatt Chicago displayed in Kayak at $227. Notice that the rate was consistent across a variety of online booking sites, as well as Hyatt’s own site. It turns out that Kayak’s pricing was slightly out of date, and when you visited Hyatt or tried to book through various travel booking sites, the rate had risen to $236.
Unfortunately, this represents a nonrefundable rate. The regular rate was higher and can not be displayed directly in the hotel listings of tools like Kayak or TripAdvsior; but like the best non-refundable rate, was also consistent across the web.
The Best Available Rate for the less expensive, but very highly rated, Loews Chicago Hotel was $144.
Rates on the hotel’s website
Unlike most other chain hotels, the Park Hyatt’s own website didn’t offer a special “members rate”. And it wasn’t offering any particularly attractive promotions. But, it did offer a AAA rate which gave you a fully refundable rate for the same price as the normal non-refundable rate. If you wanted to book a non-refundable rate, the AAA rate would save $39 (14%).
For the Loews Chicago, the hotel website provided a few package rates that would save you money under different circumstances, as well as a AAA rate that was $7 (4%) cheaper than the Best Available Refundable Rate of $159.
But most of the time, especially for chain hotels, the hotel’s own website offers even better rates. For example, at the Waldorf Astoria, members of the Hilton’s rewards program could save $17 (5%) on the refundable rate, or $30 (9%) if they were willing to extend the cancellation window from 2 to 4 days.
Private Deal Websites
Looking for “private deals” through goSeek.com uncovered a rate of $216 for the Park Hyatt, a relatively small savings of $20 (8%). That discount wouldn’t have been enticiing enough to book through this site.
goSeek didn’t find any private deals for the Loews hotel on that date. But, for the more expensive Waldorf Astoria Chicago, goSeek uncovered a rate of $266, a significant savings of $74 (22%) over the Best Available Rate and $57 (18%) over the Hilton Members Rate. goSeek’s premium members ($20 per year) could access a rate of $232, saving $108 (32%) off the Best Available Rate!
Hotwire’s rate for the Park Hyatt was $162, a savings of $74 (31%) off the standard non-refundible rate, and substatially lower than any other rate for that hotel.
There are only a limited number of secret “Hot Rate” hotels available on Hotwire, and the Loews Chicago was not available, but Hotwire did have a secret rate of $214 for the Waldorf Astoria. This rate was a massive $126 (37%) cheaper than the regular rate, and even cheaper than the excellent “private deal” that goSeek had uncovered.
Because of the excellent rates we were able to find on Hotwire for the Park Hyatt and Waldorf Astoria, it wouldn’t have made sense to book through Hotels.com, just to receive 10% in rewards through Hotels.com. Even if we hadn’t found such good rates, we probably would have still been better off booking directly, paying a few precent more, but getting to take advantage of Hyatt or Hilton’s loyalty program.
But for the Loews Chicago, Hotels.com was a slightly better option for anyone who wasn’t interested in one of Loew’s specail packages. 10% rewards is a little better than a $7 (4%) AAA discount, and an even better deal for people who would have been willing to book the lower non-refundable rate.
Spoiler alert: Luxury hotels program
We discuss Luxury Hotels Program in the How to Get Free Perks and Benefits section of the book, but these programs were an attractive option for these particular hotels, especially the Loews Chicago.
For example, by booking through the Amex Fine Hotel and Resorts (FHR) program, you don’t necessarily get a particularly good rate, but you do get free breakfast, late checkout, a room upgrade, and some sort of special additional benefit, usually a type of $100 hotel credit.
At the Loews Chicago, the rate was the same as the normal Best Available Rate, but the room came with the standard Amex FHR benefits (like free breakfast), plus a $100 food and beverage credit. For most people, these benefits are worth far more than the $7 AAA discount, or 10% in Hotels.com rewards.
At the Park Hyatt, the Amex luxury hotel program offered the normal extra benefits plus a more flexible $100 credit. But many people would still have preferred a $162 rate through Hotwire, rather than paying $275 to get access to the Amex program’s extra benefits.
In summary, here are the rates we found at each of the hotels. The Hotels.com rate is adjusted to reflect a 10% rebate.
|"Best available rate"||$236||$144||$326|
|"Best" refundable rate||$275||$159||$340|
|AAA refundable rate||$236||$152|
|Other direct rate||$310|
Other tips for saving money on hotels
- Try to travel during off-peak times. Hotel rates vary dramatically at different times 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 allow their rooms be sold at cheaper prices when they are part of a package. This is especially true for hotels in beach vacation destinations, and for extremely expensive hotels in other locations, Sometimes, adding as little as a single car rental day, qualifies you for a package rate.
- Consider staying in a hotel on the outskirts of town, or near the airport. One sure 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 may only add a few extra minutes of travel time to stay on the periphery of your destination. You are likely to find much lower room 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.
Getting extra benefits with your stay
Smart travel is not just about getting the best possible rate, it is also about getting extra travel benefits (which are typically only available to "true" frequent travelers).
- 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 third party travel websites; as well as receiving a set of 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. Always Join Hotel Loyalty Programs Before You Book.
- You don't need to frequently stay at a hotel chain to achieve elite status (which entitles you to even better benefits). Elite hotel status is designed for people who spend a lot of nights every year at a hotel chain, typically people who travel for work. However, you can usually achieve elite status (and get access to enhanced benefits) without needing to stay a lot of nights.
- If you frequently stay at Hilton hotels, you can get free breakfast on every stay, 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 a bunch of other benefits, but has a much higher annual fee. Get Free Breakfast or Club Access with the Right Credit Card.
- If you don't book directly with the hotel company, you won't earn loyalty points, and you may not get your extra benefits. When you book through a third party website, like Hotwire.com, Hotels.com or a private deals site, you don't get to take advantage of the hotel's loyalty program. You won't receive any points or credit towards higher level status. At most hotels you also aren't technically eligible for any of the loyalty program's benefits, such as free Wi-Fi or room upgrades. However, many individual hotels will still extend at least some of the benefits, as a courtesy—just don't count on it.
- 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 nearly guaranteed room upgrades. We would never book a fancy hotel before seeing whether we can take advantage of these substantial extra benefits.
A free tool called AwardWallet can keep track your membership number, username, and password, and takes 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. Use AwardWallet to Easily Manage Your Loyalty Program Information.
Anyone who has the hotel's co-branded credit card will almost always receives some level of elite status. For example, anyone who has the Hyatt credit card gets automatic "Discoverist" status, and anyone who has the Hilton Ascend card gets automatic "Gold" status. All the Credit Cards that Give You Automatic Elite Hotel Status.
It is also possible to get your status from one hotel company matched at a different hotel company, even if the original status was simply received from a credit card, Take the Fast Track to Elite Hotel Status.
Try to book directly, unless you can get a considerably better deal elsewhere. With most chain hotels, you’ll find the best rates on the hotel’s own website anyway.
Several different luxury hotel programs are operated by credit card companies, and are available to anyone who has one of their cards. Chances are, that you have (or will soon have) access to multiple of these 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.
Maximize the rewards from your stays
Once you've found the best rates, and optimized your extra benefits, you should make sure to earn as many extra reward points from your hotel stays as you can.
- 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” site. 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. For most people, the most valuable rewards are with the Sapphire Reserve card. Best Credit Cards for Travel Spending.
- At chain hotels, you'll also earn points in the hotel's loyalty program. And if you've qualified for elite status, from hotel stays, credit cards, or status matching, you'll earn extra points for each dollar you spend.
- Elite members of various airline programs can earn miles for some of their hotel stays. This is on top of whatever hotel points they'd be entitled to. American elites earn 1 mile for every dollar spent at Hyatt, Emirates elites earn 1 Skyward miles for every dollar spent at Marriott. China Eastern elites earn 2 Eastern miles for every dollar spent at Marriott.
Moving beyond the basic strategies
Once you’ve ready to move beyond our basic advice below, make sure to check out our guide to more advanced booking strategies.
It includes additional strategies that require a bit more time and effort, and adds some additional nuances to the basic advice above.
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