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We’ve been traveling around the U.S. for a year in an RV. You may think, “Where are we going to stay tonight?” is, at least, partially known… in the RV. That’s not always the case. Like many classics, the Chief doesn’t always run. Then there are times a campground shower or a solar shower or a baby wipe shower just won’t do. We like barefoot showers. We’ve had to get creative.
These are our budget travel hacks for hotel rooms.
Why is lodging an important budget line item?
Lodging usually accounts for the most money spent on a trip. It can easily cost more than that other big dollar item: air travel. As Matt explains from nomadicmatt.com, “approximately 60 to 70% of what you spend on a trip will end up in the lodge.” Thanks to the internet and new forms of hosting, there are many effective ways to find reduced-rate hotel rooms.
This is our guide to getting the best value our of your hotel room. You just need an internet connection and patience (a lot of patience).
What type of lodging are you looking for?
Before mentioning the tips, what type of accommodation you are looking for. Staying in a hotel room is different from lodging in a hostel which is different still from renting someone’s home or just their couch (CouchSurfing.com). If you really want to go fully hippie you can even check out WWOOFing.
Favoring our own itinerary over tour packages, we find that we don’t use many of the conveniences offered by hotels (that contribute to the price). When Scott and I are planning a vacation we almost exclusively opt for homestay.com, homeaway.com / VRBO.com or Airbnb. Even when it’s not the least expensive option, the value we get from having access to a kitchen and at least 1 bedroom is high for us.
That being said, when we’re in the Chief and just broke down at 6pm on a Friday night, we almost exclusively use hotels. Nothing can top the convenience of walking into a front desk, handing over your credit card and getting a room in 5 minutes. Right now, we’re all about hotels.
Tips to Finding The Best Value
1. Compare prices
Like airline tickets, hotel reservation prices may vary depending on the website or travel agency. I’m an avid user of TripAdvisor.com for the reviews and to compare prices across multiple search engines. We’re also regular contributors to TripAdvisor and recently got our Level 1 badge in attractions and our level 3 badge in hotels. (That’s true, yes, but it’s also tongue-in-cheek. I wrote a blog post about it. Read it here.) Also check out Hipmunk.com. This is where I start when I’m looking for flights, but it does hotels too and I appreciate the intuitive way they lay out the data.
Final note, after doing my research and settling on a hotel, before I make the reservation through a different website, I call the hotel directly to see if there’s anything they can do to give me a better deal. It’s not guaranteed to get you a better price, but sometimes it does and sometimes it gets you a little, unexpected something extra.
The art of bargaining is one way to get almost anything at a “good price”. Although not the most elegant means, it is one of the most effective ways to save.
I thought I was good at haggling. Then I moved to Istanbul. I went to the 500-year-old Grand Bazaar. I suck at bargaining. Then I moved to Colombia and shopped in local farmers markets. I really suck at bargaining. But I try… and even if I still get the yabancı/extranjero/foreigner price, even getting a little off makes me feel good.
There are people who don’t like the idea of haggling (Scott), but if your goal is to get the best price you have to be willing to do it. Ironically even large establishments can bargain a bit the price. How do you start? You have to be talking to the hotel directly. Try to get in touch with the hotel sales staff. They have the power to lower the price if necessary. Again, it doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a celebratory beer when it does!
3. Ask for proposals and discounts if you stay several days
Hotels often offer discounts if you stay for several days or more. Recent promotions we’ve seen: “we give you the 5th night of the hotel” or ” Breakfast and lunch free for those who book for more than a week”.
These days we generally find these deals directly on the hotel’s website. However, I remember my dad using the Boston Globe travel section looking for deals for our family when I was a kid. That’s how we ended up in the Bahamas when I was 17.
4. Try different dates, preferably midweek
If you’re flexible, keep in mind that the cheapest way to travel is in low season. Avoid the holidays. I define holidays as any time the kids are out of school: a few weeks before and after Christmas, spring break(s), Memorial Day Weekend, summer (with an emphasis on the 4th of July), Labor Day weekend, Thanksgiving weekend.
It’s not always possible to travel in low season, so if you have to/want to/need to travel during a holiday, it is a good idea to craft your itinerary so that you’re making reservations for weekdays. From Thursday to Sunday hotels tend to be more occupied. Prices reflect that and may be higher than in midweek. Ideally, choose days from Monday to Thursday.
Sunday is a special day. The weekend warriors have already checked out and the working stiffs haven’t arrived yet. This is generally when you’re going to find the absolutely best deals.
5. Join a Partner Program
Virtually all hotels give you the option to join their loyalty program. In doing so, they give you preferential rates and other items like free breakfast, free upgrades, free wifi, etc. It’s worth it to join everything.
Search the hotel website for the requirements to join. In most cases, the discounts will start to apply when you stay with them a second time.
I just rediscovered Best Western Hotels. I thought they were TBA “to be avoided”. Wrong! We stayed in once recently and it was really nice. The experience was so good I’ve started looking for them when we have to get a hotel. They also have a seriously good deal going on for AAA members (click here). We also like the Choice Hotels, specifically the Comfort Inn. We just stayed in one in Watsonville, CA that was exceptional. Our TripAdvisor review of the hotel can be read here. Finally, I always check to see if I’m near an Extended Stay America because a suite makes all the difference with the kids.
6. Use your miles and travel points
If you are a credit card user, especially if you are enrolled in a loyalty program (airlines or hotels), use your points to get discounts.
Nora Dunn, a professional traveler, explains on her website The Professional Hobo: “One of the keys to travel at a good price is the loyalty and frequent flyer programs. Because of the great competition that exists today, credit cards, airlines and hotels offer extremely attractive offers to attract more customers […] If you know how to use them correctly, it is very likely that you travel almost free for the rest of your life.”
Scott and I are currently using the Chase United Card. When we were living abroad we needed as many frequent flier points as we could get. The points have been convenient this year when we needed to fly my mom and Nate out to us. We’re always reconsidering the card though and it may be time for a change. Prior to the United card we had the American Express Platinum card. It’s got a hefty upfront fee of but, at the time, it was worth it to have access to the airport clubs when we were traveling regularly.
7. Review the ‘hidden’ fees and charges
As with airfare and car rental, hotels have charges that are included in the final price. While some of them are forced and you have to pay them, there are others that can be canceled or avoided. For example, theft insurance and sales charges.
How to find these hidden fees?
If you book through a web search of hotels, look for the section “other charges” (commonly accompanied by an asterisk *). There you will see the ‘extras’ rates that are in the final price.
8. Consider packages and discounts in other areas (breakfast, internet, transportation, etc.)
Hotels that are ‘expensive’ may be more valuable than many hostels and cheap hotels.
Why? These hotels (especially chains) offer packages that include accommodation, food, Wi-Fi, coffee, gym, airport shuttles, etc. Keep in mind that you may spend less on transportation (since they are in a better location). The famous “all-inclusive ” trips are a good example. There are times when an all-inclusive trip to the beach (accommodation, air transport, food and attractions) is far cheaper than the same plane tickets purchased separately.
So there you have it, my tips and tricks for getting a good value for your money when you’re getting a hotel room. Be patient and do your research. Good luck hotel hunting and drop us a line sometime to say hi and tell us who you are. Cheers.