By Jim Ferri
I spent a few years as the director of PR for the world’s largest hotel chain. Now years later, I can’t help but notice how some things really haven’t changed that much in the hotel industry.
For example, major hotel chains still advertise you’ll find the very lowest rate by booking directly through their website.
I’m not saying that hoteliers are lying. In fact, I think most of them are honest people, and are trying to give you the lowest price on their website.
The problem, however, is that no hotel brand has control over the Internet and its online competitors.
Let me give you a good example.
I’m a member of the Starwood Preferred Guest program, as well as that of many other hotel brands. Last month I needed a hotel in Amsterdam for one night. After checking the price on the Starwood website, I called the reservation number and asked for the “best price.” The agent looked at the hotel’s unpublished prices and quoted me an even lower price than on their website.
Sounds incredible, right? But the story doesn’t end there.
Before calling Starwood, I also checked the price on Hotels.com, a hotel aggregator. It’s price was lower than the two quoted to me by Starwood since it was providing a “holiday discount.” (Another good site to check is the award-winning Hotels Combined. It guarantees to refund the difference if you find a lower price after you’ve booked.)
I told this to the agent, and she said that Starwood would issue a refund for the difference. I would, however, have to submit an online form and include the date and time I saw the price.
My point is that Starwood and other chains have no control over Hotels.com or other online travel agencies (OTAs). Hotels usually charge a few dollars less on their sites, but every once in a while an OTA drops the price. Double-check prices and you can benefit from it.
(You may wonder why I just didn’t book the room with the OTA and save time. The reason is that if you book through an OTA, a hotel brand will not award you points for the stay. On the other hand many OTAs, Hotels.com included, have their own reward programs. But I wanted the Starpoints, as they’re called, since they are much more valuable than the others).
1) Speak To a Human
Prices at many luxury hotels can vary quite a bit depending on occupancy at the time. A property may be full one week because of a convention or holiday and nearly empty the next. If you’re looking at a hotel that has an on-site reservation desk, as many luxury properties do, call it. Inquire when the hotel forecasts it will have the lowest occupancy and lowest rates. Then ask if during that period would there be a chance they may upgrade you to a better room.
2) Look For a Package Deal
Hotels, especially upscale properties, like to keep their discounted rates out of view of the general public. They do this by bundling their room rates with airfare, disguising the discounted price. If you book through online travel agents (Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity, etc.), you’ll often find good discounts. Do the math first, however, to determine the total price if you bought each element separately.
3) Stay in Extended-Stays
Extended-stay hotels have always had a lackluster reputation among many travelers. But if you’re traveling on a budget and are looking for real value they can quickly become your best buddy. Looking at the overall budget picture, they’ll save money if you use the in-room kitchen. But you’ll also find the rates are quite low on weekends when corporate travelers have returned home. Even Hyatt (Hyatt House Hyatt House), Starwood (its Element brand) and Sonesta (ES Suites) have gotten into the act.
One sure way to tug at the heartstrings of a hotel – and get a better rate – is to use social media. Before you book, Tweet the hotel and see if they are offering any special deals (that are often broadcast on social media first).
Like them on Facebook. And perhaps send a Tweet ahead of your arrival saying how much you’re looking forward to staying with them. That may help you score an upgrade, but still, don’t forget to ask for one on arrival. Some brands, Kimpton and Marriott among them, award loyalty points to guests who promote the brand on social media.
5) Want an Upgrade?
A good way to increase your chances of getting a better room is to check in later in the day. That’s when a hotel has a good idea of available inventory for that evening. Also, consider staying at a newly constructed hotel. They have a greater incentive to court guests by providing an upgrade in the hope they will return another time. And, of course, become a loyalty-program member of that hotel.
6) Save on Hotel Costs by Traveling Off-Season
Hotels need to keep their rooms filled. In the off-season, after the crowds have either left or not yet arrived, they will often slash prices. Some will also provide added perks to lure your business. Such perks may include spa credits, discounted meals in the hotel’s restaurant and other incentives. Look also at business hotels for weekend stays.
If you see a price for a hotel on the web, it sometimes helps to call the front desk and ask if they can provide a better rate. Also, inquire about other available discounts. Are you a member of AAA or AARP, a government employee, etc.? Check also if the company that insures your car offers discounts. USAA, Allstate, and other insurance companies offer discounts on hotels for their members.
8) Try Another Neighborhood
Often you’ll find better a better rate if you change the neighborhood in which you’re looking. If you’re driving a car, this often isn’t a problem. But if you’ll be flying into town you’ll need to do some planning. Just make sure there is sufficient local transportation to help you make the move. For example, many travelers who don’t want to pay the high hotel rates in Manhattan stay across the East River. There, in Long Island city, only two subway stops away, there are several other less-expensive brand hotels.
9) When Comparing Hotels Online, Check All the Costs
Whenever you book a hotel online, be certain to check additional fees. Although some websites may show a lower price, it may not include all of the taxes and charges. The sites of many brand hotels will likely include all fees, but it never hurts to ask.
Keep watching a hotel’s rates even after you book since sometimes you’ll find a less expensive room. If that’s the case, call the front desk and see if they’ll match the rate. Or book your room through sites such as Tingo, a TripAdvisor company. It tracks your hotel’s rates and automatically refunds any difference to you should the price drop. To qualify for any rebate, of course, you have to prepay your stay.
11) Join a Hotel Loyalty Program
If you participate in a hotel loyalty program, you’ll earn points towards future stays. But you’ll also get such perks as member-only sales, early notification of upcoming sales and discounts, and free WiFi. There are also other benefits. Elite members of Starwood’s Preferred Guest Program, for example, are offered bonus points, room upgrades, and late checkout.
12) Fight Those Fees
Some hotels have become as fee-crazy as the airlines. But you can fight them and sometimes win, especially if you are a member of the hotel’s loyalty program. (In fact, if you are a loyalty program member you may not see them at all).
A rule of thumb is the more upscale a property, the more likely the chance for additional fees. So it’s always worth calling ahead and inquiring what they may be. Sometimes they’re willing to waive them, especially if you’re a frequent guest or a member of their hotel loyalty program.
13) Booking With Airbnb? Negotiate
Many people don’t realize it, but if you stay in someone’s home or apartment by booking through Airbnb, there’s nothing that says that you can’t negotiate a better rate. You might tell them that you love the looks of their place, but it’s a bit above your budget and ask if might they lower the price a bit.
Apartment rentals are a great option to a hotel room, especially if you have a group of people. My wife and I have stayed in rental apartments, and I love the experience, especially since we have plenty of room, as well as a washer and dryer (ensure the amenities and extras before you book, however). The best thing is that you can often learn from the owners where are the best “non-tourists” restaurants and things to do in the area. Try Airbnb, HouseTrip , and FlipKey.
Also, consider staying at a hostel or in a college dormitory during summer vacation. Some colleges, such as England’s prestigious Cambridge University, also provide breakfast. Find your institution of higher learning at University Rooms.
15) Save on Hotel Costs by Booking Blind
Priceline’s Negotiator and Hotwire’s “Secret Hot Rates” can provide some great discounts. What you’re giving up, however, is knowing what hotel you’re staying in until your bid is accepted. Overseas this can be a gamble if you don’t know the neighborhoods of the city. But if you do, you usually have a pretty good idea of the hotels are bidding on. I’ve booked blind several times and have never had a problem.
You needn’t stay in the same hotel for your entire stay. If several consecutive days at your hotel are more expensive, change to another hotel on those days. The key is finding a comparable property. It’s an inconvenience, of course, but it will save money.
17) Ratchet Up Those Rewards
And another nifty trick: say you’re staying for five nights in a city and want to max out the points you’ll receive for your hotel stay. Some travelers switch to a different hotel every night. (You cannot check out and then check in at the same hotel, however).
Since many hotels are within an easy distance of one another this is easier to do than you may think. In fact, another hotel might be right next door or a short walk away. It will also get you free rooms five times faster.
18) Choose Your Credit Card(s) Carefully
In addition to giving points for your charges, some hotel credit cards also provide you a free night every year. These annual gifts are bestowed by Hyatt, Intercontinental Hotel Group, and Marriott, among others. Other hotels require a certain level of spending to qualify for any “gift nights,” so check before applying for any card.