It’s important to remember one key point when you are traveling: hotel/hostel/guesthouse rates are negotiable.
Most backpackers figure this out in a few days and some go overboard using it as their guiding mantra for the next year on the road. But I get a fair number of e-mails and blog comments asking, “How do I go about getting a better hotel rate?” Enough journalists ask me about it too that it must not be as obvious as we experienced travelers think it is.
So while the rules and circumstances may vary, in most cases you can take the market bargaining approach used the world over for a few thousand years and apply it here. They make an offer (the listed price). You make an offer (a much lower one). They make a counter offer or accept. You make a counter offer or accept. In the end, you strike a deal or you walk away. If you walk—literally or figuratively—and they don’t relent, your final offer was too low. Pay their last offer or move on and repeat.
In the hotel world, there are some complications to this. First, you can approach by phone, e-mail or in person, all of which may get you to a person with no power to negotiate. Try e-mail first because you can make simultaneous offers and it will often get routed to the right person. Often you can get a great deal by just asking for “your best possible rate.” The longer you’re staying, the better luck you’ll have. One-night stays don’t get anyone very excited.
The phone often works best if you are in a country where you speak the language as you can ask to speak to a front desk manager or reservations person who can make a decision. If you can’t get a better price, ask for an upgrade to a better room class.
In person works the best for informal, family-owned hotels or hostels, especially at the end of the day. They’re often willing to negotiate if they’re nowhere close to full, or they’re brand new and trying to get the word out, or it’s low season—-you get the idea. The idea is that you have some leverage in those situations.
There are other situations where you have no leverage, so forget it. Festival times, high season, when a convention is in town, or when a wedding party has booked the hotel are all examples of times when you have no hope of bargaining down the rate. Suck it up and pay.
In the U.S., much of this bargaining is done behind a curtain rather than out in the open. Hotels want to look like they are retaining their “rate integrity,” so they use Priceline and Hotwire to do the dirty work of filling unsold rooms. Combined I’ve probably used the two at least 25 times, typically getting 50% or more off the rate you see on one of the regular booking sites. You have to do it right though by checking the null to see what others have paid and where you’ll probably end up. Your plans need to be firm though: rooms are pre-paid.
Here’s a great MSNBC article I got quoted in that has more info: Bargain your way to better hotel rates.