Hotels 101: Get the Best Deal on Your Hotel Room (2021)

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“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. You should almost always be able to make a hotel reservation for LESS than the "best available rate".

The trick is to find and take advantage of several types of “non-standard” rates. These special rates bypass contractual limitations and are therefore allowed to be less expensive than the normal rate.

Don't just settle on booking your hotels 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 on a different site.


Better than "the best available rate"

There are several different basic strategies for finding a better hotel deal.

  • Always check the hotel’s website for members, discounted, and promotional rates. 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 third party travel websites like Expedia. You'll need to join the loyalty program to access these rates, but joining is free, doesn't take much time, and provides a number of additional benefits. Furthermore, booking direct is often the only way to get loyalty points for your stay and guarantee access to any of your member benefits. Get Extra Benefits and Cheaper Rates Just by Signing Up for Hotel Loyalty Programs.

    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 often be a better deal than the standard rate. For example, 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.

  • For many hotels, a AAA rate might offer the best deal. 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 have access to a refundable reservation for around the same price as the 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.
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    The AAA rate is usually available through the hotel's website. But if a US-based hotel is not showing a AAA rate, you can try calling in. Sometimes they actually offer a AAA rate; other times they will give you a discount anyway.

    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 belong to both organizations. Join AARP to Save Money on Hotel Rooms (you don't have to be over 50).

  • You can sometimes find much lower prices through “private deal” websites. If a website requires you to sign in before showing you its "special" prices, it doesn’t need to stick to the official rates. Several “membership only” websites offer lower-than-normal prices, although only for a subset of the hotels at any 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.
  • 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.

    • goSeek.com. goSeek is probably the best of the private deals websites. It acts like an aggregator, searching several other "private deal" services. For more details see our private deals guide.
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    • 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.
  • 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.
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    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. And with just a little bit of extra effort, you can usually determine exactly which hotel you'll be getting (before you commit).


    On many trips, NOT booking via Hotwire simply translates into paying too much for your hotel room (even when you factor in the fact you 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.

  • 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 many cases, you would do better by booking directly with the hotel, booking through Hotwire, or taking advantage of a “private deal” site. But if you can’t find a better rate elsewhere, book at Hotels.com.

  • If you are booking at an expensive hotel, make sure to check “luxury hotel programs”. You may not find 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.
  • 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.


Save More with Non-refundable Rates

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 uncover 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 can rarely convince the hotel to provide a refund for a cancellation, it is often possible to rebook 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.

Always check the "standard" rate

Never book a room without first checking the prevailing rates on a "hotel aggregator". Not every deal you see, even on the best hotel booking websites, is really a “deal”. Before you actually book your room, you need to check the normal hotel rates, so you can be sure you really are getting a lower price.</li>

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.

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Of the different aggregator sites, we like Kayak.com best. Unlike other aggregators, they have the side benefit of being a decent source of private deals (which are allowed to undercut the hotel’s normal best available rates). Just be 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.

However, for many trips we wind up using TripAdvisor.com instead. While its private deals aren't as useful as Kayak's, TripAdvisor has more extensive reviews and user-submitted photos. Like Kayak, you need to scan through the individual prices for each hotel to make sure you are seeing the lowest available option.

An example

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. We'll recap the results at the end.

Best available rate

For Saturday night, March 9th, the “Best Available Rate” for the Park Hyatt Chicago on Kayak was $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.

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Unfortunately, this is a nonrefundable rate. The refundable rate was higher and isn't displayed directly in the hotel listings of tools like Kayak or TripAdvisor; but like the best non-refundable rate, was also consistent across the web.

For the same date, the "Best Available Rate" for the less expensive, but very highly rated, Loews Chicago Hotel was $144.

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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 reservation 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%).

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For the Loews Chicago, the hotel website provided a few package rates that would save you money under various circumstances, as well as a AAA rate that was $7 (4%) cheaper than the Best Available Refundable Rate of $159.

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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.

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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 enticing enough to book through a third-party site, instead of Hyatt's.

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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!

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Hotwire

Hotwire’s rate for the Park Hyatt was $162, a savings of $74 (31%) off the standard non-refundable rate and substantially lower than any other rate for that hotel.

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There are only a limited number of secret “Hot Rate” hotels available on Hotwire, and the Loews Chicago was not one of them, 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.

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Hotels.com

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. Even if we hadn’t found such good rates, we probably would have still been better off booking directly, paying a few percent more, but getting to take advantage of Hyatt or Hilton’s loyalty program.

But for the Loews Chicago, Hotels.com was a slightly better choice for anyone who wasn’t interested in one of Loews' special 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.

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Luxury hotels program

We discuss Luxury Hotels Program in their own guide, 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.

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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.

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Recap

In summary, here are the rates we found at each of the hotels. The Hotels.com rate is adjusted to reflect a 10% rebate.

Website Hyatt Loews Waldorf
"Best available rate" $236 $144 $326
"Best" refundable rate $275 $159 $340
AAA refundable rate $236 $152
Other direct rate $310
goSeek $216 $266
Hotwire $162 $214
Hotels.com $214 $129 $293
Amex FHR $275 $159 $340

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 normal prices. A place that is expensive during high season, might be very affordable during the shoulder 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.
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  • Particularly in resort destinations, you might get a better hotel rate as part of a travel package. Hotels often allow their rooms to 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 elsewhere. 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.
  • You might be eligible for a corporate discount. If you work for a larger company or are a member of another large organization, you could be eligible for a corporate or organization rate. Before the next time you need to book a hotel room, check the policies at your company. In many cases, you can use the company booking tool or a corporate booking code for personal travel. Alternatively, book over the phone and mention the name of your company.
  • Corporate rates are especially attractive when hotels are charging higher than normal prices during periods of peak demand. Negotiated corporate rates are typically much more consistent across dates and can be much cheaper than the regular rates when prices are high.

    At other times, corporate rates may be less attractive. For example, at the W Hotel in Seattle, the regular flexible rate for a mid-week stay in the spring was $237. Marriott members had access to a $232 rate and AAA members could have gotten a $225 rate. A typical corporate rate (Microsoft’s) was a bit less expensive at $219. However, anyone could have booked a non-refundable rate of $201 instead and Marriott members could get a lower non-refundable rate of $191.

  • If you occasionally stay at hotels for longer periods of time, get the Citi Prestige card to take advantage of its "4th night free" benefit. Citibank will refund the cost of your 4th night at pretty much any hotel. If you tend to make a one or two longer hotel stays each year for ski trips, beach vacations, family visits, medical care, work, or other reasons, this can be a lucrative benefit. Get Your 4th Night Free with the Citi Prestige Card.
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). Make sure to investigate some of the extra hotel benefits covered in our Travel Benefits section.

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.

The simple approach is to:

  • 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, such as the Sapphire Reserve Card. Best Credit Cards for Travel Spending.
  • If the hotel belongs to a loyalty program, make sure to earn points on your stay. If you don't already belong to the loyalty program, it only takes a minute to join. And you'll usually get access to special member rates and benefits, along with your points. Earn Hotel Points Whenever You Can.
  • 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

  • As mentioned above, 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. Just remember that if you use Hotels.com to book a chain hotel, you usually won't earn loyalty points from the hotel or have access to any loyalty program benefits. If you Can't Find a Better Rate, Book at Hotels.com to Take Advantage of their Generous Loyalty Program.

But if you are willing to invest more time and effort, you can earn additional rewards (on top of the normal points you'd earn from your credit card and the hotels loyalty program or Hotels.com).




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