The Ultimate Guide to Finding Cheap Hotel Rooms

Next up in our Wandering Moms Ultimate Guide series is our ultimate guide to finding cheap hotel rooms! Depending on whether you are flying or driving, and depending on how long you’re traveling- hotel rooms can be one of the most expensive costs of a family vacation.

Understanding OTAs

OTA stands for “Online Travel Agent” and we gave a thorough overview of how OTAs operate in our related post The Wandering Moms Ultimate Guide to Finding Cheap Flights. In brief, An OTA is a third party provider that sells flights, accommodations, transportation, tours and trips via a one-stop-shop platform online. Examples of OTAs include Expedia, Kayak, Priceline, Orbitz and Skyscanner. Because these OTAs resell hotel rooms and flights, they can either mark prices up for down. Sometimes you’ll find that hotel rooms through an OTA site cost more than a direct booking, while other times you can snag great deals through OTA sites.

One of the biggest downsides to booking hotel rooms through OTAs is that you are bound to the cancellation policies of the OTA, not the actual hotel’s policies. Cancellation policies can be less flexible and more difficult to navigate. So be sure to read the fine print when booking through an OTA and make sure you are completely comfortable with the cancellation and refund policies.

Credit Cards and Loyalty Programs

Earn Points with Travel Credit Cards

Saving up points on a travel credit card is one of the best (and only) ways to book free hotel rooms. The basic premise is that certain credit cards give you rewards for every dollar you spend on that specific card. Some cards do a general reward like cash back, but there are travel specific credit cards that allow you to earn points towards travel- including hotel stays, flights, and car rentals. On travel cards, points redeemed directly for travel are often worth more than if you were to redeem them as cash back. There are two types of travel cards worth looking into

  • General Travel Credit Cards: These are cards that allow you to earn points that can be redeemed on all kinds of travel, across brands. Credit cards like the Chase Sapphire cards and the Capitol One Venture Rewards cards help you earn points on every purchase- and those points are worth the most when redeemed for hotels, flights, car rentals, and other travel related items such as tours and park tickets. You are not limited to a specific airline or hotel brand- your points are worth the same across most all travel brands and the card company’s travel portal will help you compare where your points are worth the most. If you’re looking to save points for both hotels and flights, and if you’re not particularly loyal to one brand of hotel- these cards are a great option.
  • Brand Specific Travel Credit Cards: There are brand specific travel credit cards for both airlines and hotels. The most popular hotel credit cards are the Marriott Bonvoy cards (offered through American Express and Chase) and Hilton Honors cards (offered through American Express). These cards allow you to earn points that can only be redeemed at their specific brand of hotel, but in addition to earning points that can be redeemed for free nights, they also offer additional bonuses after you stay a certain number of nights in a year. These bonuses can include free Internet upgrade, room upgrades and even free night certificates. If you’re loyal to one brand of hotel and want to focus your savings on hotel stays only- these cards are your best bet.

If you’re looking to sign up for a travel credit card, keep your eye on sign up bonuses. Sign up bonuses are changing all the time, but each card usually offers a certain number of points if you sign up for their card and spend a certain amount of money in the first three months. Amounts required can vary between $1,000 to $5,000 in the first three months- with higher amounts generally leading to more bonus points. It’s worth the time and effort to compare sign up bonuses across cards and see which will offer you the most free points!

Sign Up for Hotel Loyalty Programs

Every major hotel brand has a loyalty or rewards program where you can earn points or free nights by staying at their hotels. It can take awhile to rack up enough points for a free night, but if you travel frequently it’s worth signing up for the program. OTAs like Booking.com also have heir own loyalty program- and if you’re not loyal to one hotel brand, this might be a better option for you as you earn points for booking through their website- but you are free to book across multiple hotel brands.

Search and Compare Prices

Direct Booking

Always check the price of booking your room directly with the hotel. Also check deals that are offered directly though the hotel. Often times a hotel will have deals like “Stay 4 nights and get a 5th night free” or “Free Breakfast Buffet” that will not show up if you search through an OTA. Booking directly usually means you’ll also have the best refund and cancellation policies- and the easiest time utilizing those if needed.

Online Travel Agents (OTAs)

While booking directly with a hotel can be easiest, sometimes OTA’s do offer better deals on hotel rooms. Check the main sites like Booking.com, Expedia and Orbitz to see what deals they offer.

Hotel Specific Sites

While most OTAs offer all kinds of travel bookings including hotels, airfare and car rentals, there are also a few sites that specialize in hotels only- or that do most of their business with hotel bookings. SnapTravel is a great hotel specific site, as is Hotels.com. Roomer is another unique hotel specific site where you can buy someone else’s hotel reservation off of them. If someone has to cancel their travel plans but they do not have a hotel room with a free cancellation policy, they may try to sell their reservation on this site. It saves them from eating the cancellation costs- and may help you save a bit too!

Last Minute Hotel Specific Sites

If you’re okay with booking at the last minute (as in, the very last minute) HotelTonight offers hotel rooms up to 50% off if you book the same day as your stay! This may not always be the best idea, but there are certainly times when it’s worth taking the risk to wait until the last minute and see what kind of deals you can score!

Upgrades

Call the Hotel Directly

It may be nearly impossible to find a direct number to a hotel- but if you’re hoping for an upgrade it’s worth taking the time to search for it. Chances are the reservation line can’t offer you an upgraded room because they don’t have access to the same information as the actual front desk of the hotel. Calling the front desk of the hotel directly is your best bet, because they can see exactly which rooms are available, who has checked in, who still needs to check in, etc.

Ask for a Corner Room

Corner rooms tend to have a bit more square footage. So while the room may be in the same category and same price point as a similar room- if it’s a corner room you’re likely to have a bit more space.

Check-In Later In the Day

By the end of the day, most guests have checked in already and the hotel knows the status of most of it’s rooms for the night. If they have an upgrade available, they’re more likely to give it to you. Earlier in the day they’re likely to hold on to upgraded rooms until they see how the day shakes out. So if you are hoping for a room upgrade, plan on checking in a bit later in the day to increase your chances of success.

Always Mention Celebrations

If you’re celebrating a birthday, anniversary or other special occasion, be sure to mention it when you book your hotel and when you check in. Most hotels will do something special if they know a guest is celebrating something. It might be something as small as a few chocolates, or it could be a room upgrade!

General Tips for Finding Cheap Hotel Rooms

Use Membership Programs

If you have a AAA membership, AARP membership or any other association memberships, check for discounts. AAA offers lots of travel discounts and many hotels have a special AAA rate for members. AARP also offers some travel deals. Union memberships sometimes come with discount codes for certain businesses so that may be worth looking at as well.

Change Your Location

While it’s nice to be in the city center and close to all the action, hotels in such locations come at a premium cost. If you’re looking to save money, look at neighborhoods in your location that are outside of the city center. Even moving just a neighborhood or two over can make a huge different in prices of hotel rooms. One trick I use is to search travel blogs for the best neighborhoods in an area. Do a Google search for “Best neighborhoods in XYZ” or “Best neighborhoods for families in XYZ” and just fill in your destination. There are always travel bloggers who write about which neighborhoods are best for each type of traveler, and they often list the price points for hotels in each area as well!

Consider Hostels

Contrary to popular belief, hostels aren’t just for broke backpackers! Most major cities have some amazing hostels that have bunk rooms or family rooms with private bathrooms. They’re often just like hotel rooms, but without the frills and extra amenities- and a LOT cheaper. You’ll just want to look carefully at the vibe of each hostel- some are mainly for backpackers, single travelers or party people, but there are family friendly hostels out there so search for those! The savings can be huge. And if you’re just using your hotel room as a place to sleep and store your bags during the day, it could be totally worth it to save a lot of money with a hostel.

Use the “Opposites” Rule

Many hotels fall into one of two categories- business hotels or resort style hotels. Business hotels, often located in the business district of major cities, tend to have higher prices during the week when their rooms are more in demand. Prices tend to go down on the weekends when workers are not traveling for business. If you’re looking to book a hotel room on the weekend, look in the business district of your location to see if you can score a better deal on their off peak days.

On the flip side, resort style hotels are busier on the weekends and weekdays tend to be more affordable. If you’re looking to book a hotel room during the week, look for a resort style hotel that will likely have lower prices during their off peak days, which are during the week.

By looking for a hotel room on days that are opposite of their peak days- you can score some deals!

Look for Coupons

Coupon websites like RetailMeNot and Coupons.com often have coupon codes for major hotel brands. Check to see if there are any coupons available for your travel dates, then search hotels within that brand to find somewhere that you can use the coupon code!

Groupon also has great travel deals, so that’s another site to check out. Their coupons and deals are often limited to specific properties and/or dates- but if you can make those work, Groupon is known for having some great deals!

Do you have any other tips and tricks for finding cheap hotel rooms? Leave them in the comment section to share with our readers!

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