For years now, getting a good price on a hotel room has become quite the cat-and mouse game. The Internet made comparison shopping incredibly easy, putting price pressure on hotels. They responded by inventing tack-on surcharges like “resort fees” to obscure the bargain-hunting process. Then they beefed up hotel rewards programs in an effort to steer users away from comparison sites. And all the while, dynamic pricing and other digital-age tricks have made getting a good hotel price a lot more like hitting a moving target.
There are plenty of tricks you can use, however, to at least make sure you aren’t overpaying during your summer vacation. So here’s a guide to buying a hotel room.
1. Go Opaque
For starters, most of the really great deals are on the so-called opaque sites that sell “distressed” room inventory, says travel expert Chris Elliott of Elliott.org. Hotels pay to keep the lights on whether a room is used on not, so they will often find ways to sell rooms very cheap on sites like Priceline or Expedia. Otherwise, when buying from the hotels themselves, pricing is actually a lot more consistent than you’d think.
“Unlike airfares, hotel rates are fairly stable and not subject to the wild swings like airfares,” he says. You will rarely see a hotel room offered for $200 on Thursday morning but $300 on Thursday afternoon, as can happen with a plane ticket. You do, however, see hotels sell out, so timely booking can be a good idea.
2. Go Last-Minute
On the other hand, Expedia says there are often bargains to be had as the clock ticks closer to your vacation stay.
“Last-minute bookings tend to show lower (average daily rates), as hoteliers aim to fill as many rooms as possible,” said Expedia spokeswoman Lindsay Cameron.
3. Play the ‘Free Cancellation’ Game
Expedia also suggests taking advantage of hotel free cancellation penalties to book early and ensure you’ve got a room, but then re-check the price as the cancellation date approaches, in case a better deal has come along.
4. Know the Market
Travelers can also benefit from knowing high and low season, Expedia says. Obviously, expect to pay more if you head to Florida during the winter. But remember, busy times can vary from week to week or even day to day. Travel to South Dakota during the Sturgis motorcycle rally and you might pay double what you’d pay a week later. Pricing out your hotel rooms nice and early — even if you aren’t ready to book — is one easy way to make sure your travel plans don’t collide with the American Widget Makers Annual Convention in Boise.
5. Go Direct
Many hotel chains have finally come around to the idea that they’d better offer consumers real value if they want them booking directly through their own websites, rather than through an aggregator like Expedia. That means offering lower prices or rewards points, or both. Use a site like Expedia to find the best price across various brands, but when you settle on a specific property, always check the direct booking price. Sometimes, a hotel’s website price is more, sometimes it’s less, but it’s always worth looking.
6. Double-Check the ‘Best Available Rate’
With all this clicking around, don’t forget to apply and re-apply for your deserved discounts, like AAA or AARP. Some hotel chains will offer you a drop-down choice that says “best available rate,” but you might see that the AARP rate is actually better than the “best available rate.” No kidding.
7. Fees, Fees & More Fees
Don’t immediately trust the price you get on a website – do your research. Your ultimate, out-the-door price could be much higher if a property socks you with one of the fees listed below. Always check a hotel’s fee policies, and consider them when comparison shopping. It’s common that the lowest price you see online ends up not being the lowest price after all the fees are paid. Here are some examples:
- Internet Fees – The more expensive the hotel, the more likely you will be charged a hefty WiFi fee of $10-$15 per day. The new trick I’ve seen lately is for hotels to offer “free” WiFi in the lobby, but charge for access in the room. (That means be skeptical of free WiFi offers now!) Best way to avoid that fee? Before you leave, make sure you know how to use your smartphone for broadband access.
- Resort Fees – As the name suggests, this fee is most prevalent in resort-y places like Las Vegas. But resort fees can pop up anywhere. Or they can come with other names, such as…
- Housekeeping Fees – Hotels like charging to clean your room now, as if that’s not included in the price. The worst part of the housekeeping fee: Often, housekeepers don’t get any of the money.
- Pet Fees – Traveling with Fido (or Rusty)? The good news: More hotels are embracing travelers with pets. The bad news? They are doing it because it’s good business. Hotels charge anywhere from $10 to $100 for allowing a pet in your room. If you use a site like Expedia to sort through pet-friendly hotels, make sure you manually check the fee. Not all pet-friendly hotels are created equal.
- Safe Fees – This one bugs me. Some hotels put a safe fee on your bill, even if you never use the safe. You can ask that it be removed. Same for the newspaper fee.
- Cancellation Fees – Gone are the days when hotels could be canceled by 6 p.m. on the night of a reservation for a full refund. Cancellation policies are all over the map now, and can even vary based on how the reservation was initially made. Never book a hotel without knowing what the cost of a breakup would be. Travel always involves adventure, which involves unpredictability, which means plans change. Make sure you plan for that.
8. Outright Scams
Finally, your hotel fee could end up much more expensive than you initially believed through no fault of the property if you end up falling for a lodging-related scam. There are plenty. The Better Business Bureau recently issued a warning about websites that appear to be hotel aggregators, but are really scams that purchase search engine placement and intercept web surfers trying to pay for legitimate hotel stays.
“It may have a URL similar to the real hotel website or established third-party booking site, such as Hotels.com or Expedia.com. The website may also use the same logo, colors and/or design of the legitimate site,” the BBB of Louisiana wrote in June. “The website might look okay, but it’s a fraud.” Directly typing the hotel’s website into your browser’s address field is your best bet.
Other scams include fake pizza delivery, used by thieves to get you to open your hotel room door; the “late night desk clerk call,” which can be an ID theft trick (“Sorry, sir, your credit card didn’t work. Could you share another one with me?”); and data hijacking through free hotel WiFi. Don’t answer the phone or the door if you don’t expect anyone; and don’t trust hotel WiFi with sensitive surfing like online banking.