Whether you're planning to spend two weeks on an island or a weekend in the big city, booking a hotel can be the most important part of any travel budget. Your flight tickets are likely more expensive individually, but your hotel room rate will probably include multiple nights and other costs, like resort fees, meals and activities, tacked on to your final bill. Fortunately hotels also offer many opportunities to save money if you know where to look.
Hotel rate rules are more flexible than airlines, and hotel loyalty programs can be more rewarding to active members. Plus, competition for repeat customers is fierce given that -- unlike an airplane -- it's difficult to move a hotel to a better market.
Book a refundable rate... even when it's not the cheapest option
Refundable rates seem like they would be the worst way to save money at a hotel because they almost always cost more than non-refundable rates paid in advance. But many other rates exist that may combine refundable terms with a discounted price. Even if you do end up paying more, that added flexibility may offer other opportunities to cut costs.
Many people belong to organizations like AAA, Costco or AARP that receive refundable terms at the same price as a discounted, non-refundable room. Sometimes these may include other benefits like free breakfast or parking so that, even if the rate isn't quite as low, the total cost of your stay will remain lower overall.
Most importantly, refundable rates provide an opportunity to check back often and rebook your room. Airlines have complicated reservation systems that almost guarantee prices will increase close to departure, but hotels are more likely to lower prices if they'll be empty. Be sure to check rates and cross-compare often before arrival to score the best deal.
Enjoy the perks of elite status
Elite status is fairly easy to obtain with many hotel loyalty programs. There's no need to be a road warrior to attain top-tier status, though traveling more often and occasionally paying extra for a preferred brand will always help. Try focusing on individual stays instead of total nights to qualify faster, or get a hotel-branded credit card that includes mid-level status.
Status can yield meaningful benefits at a hotel. Unlike an airline, not every room is equal, and there are many opportunities throughout a multi-day stay for the hotel to go the extra mile. Members with elite status will almost always get a room with a view instead of staring at an air-conditioning unit. Certain programs include free breakfast or lounge access. (Hotels in Asia have especially elaborate club lounges that offer free meals all day long.) A few programs such as Hyatt Gold Passport have even experimented with offering their members special discounted rates.
See: Best Hotel Rewards Programs of 2014-15
Capitalize on hotel loyalty programs' unusual generosity
Even those without elite status should keep hotel loyalty programs in mind. Starwood Preferred Guest was the first major program to eliminate blackout dates, promising the ability to book an award night whenever a standard room is available. Sometimes the room rate is low enough to pay cash, but for certain hotels and certain dates it makes more sense to redeem points. As an added benefit, these are often fully refundable and a great way to lock in a reservation if you're still undecided.
Three types of awards tend to provide the greatest value for your hotel points, but the specifics vary across chains.
- Cash and points awards allow you to pay half with points and half with cash. Usually the cash amount is fixed, so even expensive rooms can be relatively affordable while letting you stretch your points further.
- Upgrade awards allow you to book the cheapest room and move up to a suite or other premium room. Sometimes these are just a few thousand points per night -- relatively low given the difference in cash.
- A few programs offer an extra free night when you book several at once. Starwood Preferred Guest provides the fifth night free, and Club Carlson provides the last night free (even on a two-night stay) if you've signed up for one of their credit cards.
The most important thing to remember about participating in a hotel loyalty program is that you must book through the hotel's website. Using a generic online travel agency means missing out on points and credit toward elite status. It also increases your chances of getting stuck in a less desirable room. Fortunately, many hotels offer best rate guarantees if you find a lower price elsewhere.
Get to know the hotel (and its employees)
Finally, be aware that hotel chains run regular promotions throughout the year, and it never hurts to call the property and ask if they're offering any specific promotions of their own. Sometimes these are deals to earn extra points for future award stays, or you could save money by booking multiple nights or including parking in your rate. Other times it's just an ordinary sale.
Also, keep in mind that many hotels are individually owned and operated despite affiliations with larger brands. You can better your chances of solving tricky customer service situations and trimming costs by connecting with the local management. Even non-refundable reservations can be canceled if you can find a sympathetic ear from the reservations desk. The guest services director might ask room service to deliver a free cake if you tell him or her it's your birthday. And if you need to book an extended stay, ask the general manager about a negotiated rate. Between the high level of customer service found at local properties and the standardized practices of brand-backed chains, it's easier than ever to find ways to improve your next hotel stay.
See: How to Get Upgraded on Your Next Flight
Scott Mackenzie is a neuroscientist who learned how to travel and earn elite status on the cheap during graduate school. He now shares these tricks on the blog Hack My Trip. You can also follow him on Twitter @HackMyTrip.