If you’re an avid deal-seeker you will understand why finding and booking the right hotel is not always easy. Saving money takes effort but I believe it really is worth the time required to get the best value for your travel dollar. Booking hotels with points presents somewhat different challenges so I will leave that topic for another time. Anyway, here’s a breakdown of my considerations when I hunt for the right hotel.
Times Were Simpler…
In the pre-internet and early internet age it was so different. For trips in North America we’d order the CAA TourBook, review the options and call to make a reservation. For Europe, I went to Tourist Information or to the bulletin board at the train station where phone numbers were listed for local B&Bs and guest houses. I remember fondly the senior Scottish couple with the little cabin in their backyard (okay maybe it was more of a shed and you had to use the only bathroom in their little house but it was a mere 8 GBP breakfast included!) The other option of course was to let a travel agent handle hotel reservations.
After the internet came along and you could book online, making reservations was even simpler. You went to a booking website, searched for your destination, chose a hotel and reserved a room. Easy Peasy. I just went for the cheapest option that seemed reasonably acceptable in terms of quality and location.
…Till This Happened
Then came my discovery of loyalty programs, deal websites, google maps and streetview, travel blogs and online reviews. Booking a hotel became more involved, but with the potential of greater value I chose to do the research. So this is my approach…
Hotel loyalty programs are a big help when it comes to saving on travel but I don’t really find myself a devotee of any particular chain. As a budget traveller, I’m primarily a free agent when it comes to booking hotels. I just follow the deal wherever it leads. However, the benefits of various loyalty programs, including points and promotions, are key factors in the deal analysis.
Whether you hold elite status with a hotel chain is also a consideration if there are two or more enticing and similarly priced options. I have earned or matched into various loyalty program status levels over the years and enjoyed the benefits, but I try not to get too wrapped up in that element. I understand that others will differ on this, but for my goal of simply making trips happen that wouldn’t otherwise, any status perks are a side benefit and not a primary pursuit. The benefits can certainly save money or add value but status chasing can also lure one into spending more. That extra spending could possibly reach a level that means those added perks or potential perks aren’t really free. In a sense, they’re already paid for. That’s not the case for everyone of course. Co-branded credit cards with automatic hotel status that may also be matched to other programs can be a great way to easily take advantage of such benefits.
Is A Hotel The Right Choice?
If you’re going to be in one place for several nights in a destination where short-term holiday rentals are legal, give some thought to whether that might be a better option for you. Having kitchen facilities (and actually using them) can save you money on meals. For groups or families, having some extra communal space can be a big plus.
Depending on the destination, you might get a much better deal at an independent hotel as opposed to one that’s part of a chain. You might also find a smaller hotel offers more local character and perhaps you’d like to avoid the chain hotel homogeneity.
Although I have enjoyed stays at some very nice upscale hotels, my absolute favourite stays have been in B&Bs and little apartments. If you always prefer a full-service hotel this decision won’t be much of an issue for you.
Always Check Hotel Rates Before You Book The Flight
If you have some flexibility, be sure to scan the hotel rates during the time periods you’re considering for your trip. Major events can send hotel rates through the roof. If you book a flight and discover the global annual convention of left-handed people is happening on your dates you will feel terribly frustrated (unless that’s your crowd, I guess). I have had to scrap a trip idea or alter an itinerary when I discovered something big was happening at my destination. Now I use one of the aggregator websites like Trivago, Kayak, TripAdvisor etc. to compare rates from various booking sites on certain dates. I also check the rate calendars on the Hilton or Marriott websites that conveniently allow for flexible date searching. Sometimes I choose the dates for the trip based solely on when hotel rates are lower.
I always read some reviews to get a sense of what the common refrain is from recent guests of a certain hotel. I don’t pay too much attention to the one-and-done complainers. I give more weight to those who have reviewed many properties. If something is of particular importance like the location or the breakfast I’ll do a search for that term. I usually check TripAdvisor and the chain’s own website if it provides reviews. A quick search on Flyertalk might reveal a “master thread” for that property. Another great source of detailed info are the reviews and videos out there in the blogosphere. Do a google and see what you can find.
Maybe Put a Reservation in Your Back Pocket
After you’ve firmed up your travel plans, even if they are far in the future, try to lock in a booking that you consider acceptable for your budget. Make absolutely certain that it is fully cancellable. This is especially important if your destination tends to be expensive for lodging and you find an acceptable rate even though you hope you will find something cheaper later on. Just remember not to forget about this reservation if you end up booking something else.
When my mother and I included San Francisco in our nested Aeroplan itinerary, I knew that it was going to be a challenge to find reasonably priced accommodation. The best I could see was the Hilton Long Weekender Rate which discounts the third night by 50%. That brought the cost down to an acceptable level. I had hoped we’d find something even better but it didn’t happen so we at least had a rate that worked for our budget and would earn some Hilton Honors points.
Check For Promotions!
This one deserves an exclamation mark. Promotions vary in terms of quality but if you’re going to be staying at a certain chain hotel anyway, you should participate in any promo that will boost your points balance or put you closer to a free night. In some cases, your hotel choice will be directly influenced by current promotions. I have even planned trips specifically to take advantage of lucrative promos that would significantly offset the cost of a future trip.
How do you learn about promotions? Sign-up for e-mail updates from various hotel loyalty programs. Find a good website or blog that provides news about promotions. Check the Flyertalk subforum for that hotel chain. Sometimes there are promos for signing up for a loyalty program so watch for those as well. For example, when you sign up for Marriott as a new member you have to use a special link to qualify for a promo that will give you a free night after your first two stays in the three months after joining.
Book Direct If Possible
All things being equal, it’s generally recommended to book directly on the hotel chain’s website. This is for a few different reasons. Booking direct allows you sign up for the loyalty program and earn points. Membership can mean a slight discount on the rate and free wifi. The room information on the hotel or chain’s own website should theoretically be the most accurate. It also eliminates that extra commercial layer between you and the entity with which you intend to do business. Although they’re called “online travel agencies” these booking sites are not quite the safety net that a real travel agent can be when things go awry.
There are exceptions to this approach. I have used special discounts or promo codes to score a great deal on Expedia or Booking.com. These are especially useful when the hotel you want does not belong to a chain. Another exception would be if you plan on staying at various different chains and find you’d benefit from the loyalty scheme of Hotels.com. You get a free night valued at the average rate of the 10 nights you previously booked through its Rewards program.
After your reservation is made, your work is not done. You must keep an eye on rate changes both at your hotel and others within consideration. I have occasionally made hotel changes or cancelled and re-booked at the same hotel two or three weeks out from a trip when rates have dropped.
Watch Out For Resort or Destination Fees
Those dang fees. When I was watching rates in San Francisco I noticed a great low rate at a nice hotel. On further inspection I discovered this hotel charges a $44.46 USD destination fee. Dammit. No deal. If the total price including the fee still beat my existing reservation at a comparable hotel I would have booked it, but that was not the case and I suspect it rarely is.
For me the objective is to save money and get good value. That takes a bit of work. I feel like it’s worth it. I plan to highlight various promotions and tips on this blog to potentially help ease the workload slightly for those like me who always try to seek out a great deal.