Booking a hotel room should be pretty straightforward. Find the hotel you want, click on the room or rate you like and boom, you're booked. But when there are so many ways to book a room—through the hotel, through a third-party booking site, on your phone, etc.—things can get a little crazy. And if you're comparison shopping? Then you can really get sucked into a dizzying booking vortex as you hunt down the best price.
Luckily, we’ve pooled together the best tips for booking a hotel room to make sure you don’t have to suffer outrageous charges, miss out on amenities, or pay through the roof for your next hotel stay.
Choosing Your Hotel
Figure Out What You Want
Are you planning a special getaway or do you just need a place to crash in between flights? There’s no need to pay for a posh reception and 24-hour room service availability if you’ll be in and out.
To avoid paying for amenities and extras that will tack on unnecessary costs, it helps to understand hotel star ratings. While many guests assume that the ratings are related to reviews, the star system is actually a government-approved ranking of the services and amenities offered by each establishment.
Ironically, cheaper hotels tend to provide more for less, even in the same chain. For example, Hampton Inn and Embassy Suites typically provide breakfast, internet and free local calls. Their more expensive sister chains—Hilton, Waldorf Astoria, and Conrad—all charge for these privileges.
Traveling on a budget? Consider chain hotels, as their rooms are often the same price regardless of size, making them a great choice for families.
Alternatively, those planning on a longer stay may want to seek out suite hotels. They typically offer lower rates on multiple days and the in-room kitchen can cut down on eating out expenses.
Pod or micro-hotels are brilliant for airport layovers. These compact solutions provide everything you need to step away from crowds and rest up, and are often located either within airport terminals or only a short shuttle ride away.
Lastly, don’t forget about B&B options or independently owned hotels! Often more difficult to find due to smaller advertising budgets, these local gems typically have lower taxes than large hotel chains—savings that they pass on to you, along with personalized service.
Getting a Great Deal
Price Compare (But Don’t Buy!) Online
When it comes to prices, compare, compare, compare! As a general rule of thumb, you should check at least three different sites for each hotel booking.
Use websites that have metasearch functionality (which means that they show multiple prices from multiple booking sites in one window). Compare the rates on the property's website to the rates you find on Priceline, Expedia, Groupon Getaways or in travel brochures.
Also, look into the types of booking discounts that are available and which ones can save you the most money. For example, you may get 10% off with a hotel chain's summer sale, but your AAA discount could be larger.
If you've ever taken a spin on Oyster's Photo Fakeout feature, you know that hotels go to great lengths to make their properties seem perfect. But upon arrival, that infinity pool could really be the size of a postage stamp, and those sumptuous linens could feel like sandpaper.
Instead of relying on possibly manipulated photos, do your research. But reading user reviews is a tricky balancing act. You want to read as many reviews as you can without suffering from information overload. You also want to focus on reviews that appear to be unbiased and recent.
Understand Supply & Demand
Hotel rates depend on many factors: location, seasonality, convention crowds, even weather. As a general rule of thumb, booking more than 21 days ahead of your arrival date is a no-no for the most popular destinations, as you'll be putting yourself at risk for jacked-up prices.
Experts say that your best bet is to start checking prices at least 40 days in advance and monitor the trend. If prices seem to go up, book.
If you want to make sure you get the lowest rate, the hotel booking site Tingo will automatically monitor your hotel and rebook you at the new lower rate if prices drop. Of course, if you have waited until the 11th hour and hotel pickings seem slim, check out the Hotel Tonight app for truly last-minute deals.
Another way to search for the best bargains is Google Hotel Finder (my personal favorite), which will tell you the best time to stay at a destination. It also allows you to input parameters including your budget, desired travel dates, and geographic limits using various filters, to further refine the list of destinations for you to consider.
Reserving Your Room
Book Directly With the Hotel
Skip the middleman, such as third-party hotel-booking websites or the tourist information office's room-finding service. Booking services extract a commission from the hotel, which logically closes the door on special deals.
See Also: How to Spot a Hotel-Booking Scam
Additionally, most property chains and big-name hotels have a policy that guarantees guests a lower rate through their official website. What to do if you find that Expedia has a room listed for cheaper? Call that hotel’s customer service desk and ask if they’ll match the lower rate.
There are a few other reasons to always attempt reserving your room through the hotel’s front desk:
- Third-party booking websites, such as Expedia, don’t always give accurate information or guarantee your special requests. Need adjoining rooms, an early check-in or a mini-fridge? It’s best to call the front desk to ensure that these amenities are available and noted in your reservation.
- Third-party booking websites can make it extra difficult to change or cancel your reservation. Since your payment is in escrow until you’ve checked in, the front desk assistant can’t just alter the information within the hotel’s system. Instead, the third-party site must be called to confirm, sometimes causing travelers an extra, and unnecessary, hassle.
- Hotels don’t allow you to accumulate points when booking through a third-party system! If you’re a member of a hotel’s loyalty program, you know those points get you first dibs on upgrades and extra perks. Which leads us to…
Join a Loyalty Program
By investing only a few minutes, you can reap continuing dividends. Rewards programs target different preferred lodging styles — such as boutique or business-friendly — and guest requirements.
Some programs offer greater flexibility and prioritize earning points for free nights. Others emphasize special members-only perks, like free amenities. To make the most of your membership, you'll want to select a program that suits your travel style.
However, one thing is true for all loyalty programs: the more points you accrue, the more freebies and upgrades you are entitled to. Travel Zoo keeps an updated list of popular loyalty clubs and their perks that may help you decide.
Use a Credit Card
When booking a hotel, credit cards are king. Not only do credit cards offer rewards like airline miles, free night stays or cash-back bonuses, but they also offer certain guarantees that debit cards and cash do not (such as fraud protection or immediate refunds for mischarges).
Another tip that many travelers don't know? Most hotels will require an incidental deposit if you use a debit card in order to protect themselves against overdraft fees if your account has insufficient funds. These additional deposits can add up to take a big chunk out of your holiday spending budget, as they’re often not refunded for several weeks after checkout.
Double Check Your Arrival & Departure Dates
This may sound like a rookie mistake, but when planning travel through different time zones, it’s not infrequent that multi-tasking vacation planners accidently book their rooms one day too early or late.
Before you click “confirm,” it’s not a bad idea to have a second set of eyes scan your booking to ensure the dates (and location!) you’ve selected are correct.
Tips for Getting a Free (or Cheap) Upgrade
Don’t Book the Cheapest Room
If you’re planning to try for a free upgrade, it’s less likely that the front desk assistant will be able to upgrade you upon arrival. The difference in cost between rooms is considered lost revenue, leaving representatives in a tougher spot when a greater deficit is apparent.
Ask When Checking In
Upgraded rooms are doled out depending on availability the day of your arrival. No matter how special the reason for your visit, hoteliers are unlikely to pass up the chance to book their nicer rooms at full price if there are still several days until you’re coming to stay.
You’re more likely to get an upgrade for stays of one to two nights because the hotel knows that they’ll be able to sell their upgraded rooms at the normal price the next day.
Be a Regular
Frequent guests or loyalty members are always given first dibs when it comes to room upgrades, as the perk is an establishment’s chance to show repeat customers how much their business is appreciated.
Asking doesn’t hurt, especially if you’re inquiring about something you earnestly would consider, instead of appearing like you’re just waiting for a handout. It’s also advantageous to ask for something specific, instead of just a general upgrade. This can include perks like a bigger room, a fridge or a better view—all of which might be more easily given to guests for free than the hotel’s presidential suite.
Last Minute Tips When Booking Your Hotel
You’ve shopped around online and found your best rate. Just remember that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” holds especially true for periods of travel! To avoid having any trip ruined by a perfect storm of problems, remember these tips the next time you book your hotel:
- Find out exactly what the hotel's cancelation window is. Before you click the "BOOK NOW" button on a hotel's reservations site, be sure to read the hotel's cancelation policies extremely carefully. Almost all hotels have some sort of cancelation policy but it varies wildly.
- Find out exactly how much the hotel will "authorize" your credit card for. Just below the cancelation policy is where the hotel will also tell you what amount it will authorize, or charge, your credit card for. Sometimes, a hotel will charge 50 percent of the stay to your credit card at booking and then the other half when you arrive at the hotel. If it's a special "advance" deal where you get a lower rate than usual, the hotel will charge the entire rate up front with no refunds allowed.
- If you use a debit card, make sure you have enough money to cover the room rate, the deposits, and incidentals. If you use a debit card, make sure you have enough funds to cover your hotel stay, the deposits, and your general living expenses for a few days, maybe even a week, after you leave the hotel.
Finally, always look closely at your checkout receipts and your bank account. Hotels are notorious for making mistakes, often in the form of double billing. And if you don't catch these mistakes at checkout? Your credit card will be charged and then you will have to go through the hassle of calling the hotel and getting them to refund you the money. Then, you have to make sure the money actually gets refunded, which can put a real damper on the rest of your travel!
Do you have any money saving tips for booking a hotel? Share them in the comments section!