If you’re setting off on a round-the-world journey, starting the nomad life, or you just want to find the best possible lodging deal on vacation, shopping around can make a huge difference in what you pay per night. On a road trip, you’ll be looking for the cheapest motels that are clean and comfortable. For international city trips, the cheapest hotels that are decent. For backpackers, it might be guesthouses and hostels. The strategy can vary depending on the destination and the budget, but a little extra time investment can really pay off.
I’m all for renting an apartment when I’ll be in one place for a while, but there are many times you’re just passing through and a hotel room is the best choice. Plus while an apartment rental can make a lot of sense if you need a kitchen or have a family, other times it can be cheaper and more convenient to book a hotel where you don’t have to worry about key hand-offs, luggage storage if coming in early, or tidying up before leaving.
If you’ve got more money than you know what to do with or your company is paying, you don’t have to be very sensitive about what you pay for your hotel rooms when you travel. When it’s coming out of your own limited budget though, the right strategic moves can mean cheaper hotel deals. That translates to more money to spend on other aspects of your vacation.
I book my own hotel rooms that I’m paying for every month or two in my travels, especially when I’m in transit and will only be in a particular place for a night or two. Here are a few methods I use to find the cheapest motels that I’d actually want to sleep in and bargain rooms in cities around the world nearly every time I travel.
Keep in mind though that all this goes out the window when it’s a peak festival weekend, a holiday period, or just plain high season. If you don’t have much flexibility and haven’t left your travel variables open, there’s not going to be much you can do to bring down the rate. You’re paying top dollar by default. Otherwise…
1) Use a Hotel Aggregator Service
After Trivago drilled it into our head with TV commercials for years, people caught on to the fact that room prices are not uniform across all booking sites like Expedia, Priceline, and the official hotel sites. No matter how many times you hear some company say you’ll always get the best price from them, there are constant irregularities in the price across websites.
When you’re searching though, many of the “choices” are really just divisions of the same company. You need to see all of them to compare.
I routinely see differences of 10-20% when doing searches on Trivago or HotelsCombined and sometimes it’s more dramatic than that. I once booked one in Mexico where the Booking.com price was literally half what the price was on Hotels.com. Another time though, this could go in the opposite direction. You always have to shop around and these sites make it easier to do so.
Don’t forget to check Hotwire too if you don’t have your heart set on a specific hotel and just want a deal. This is an especially good strategy for last-minute bookings when properties are trying to fill their half-empty high-rise. I have found some amazing deals this way at hotels I never would have considered at list price.
There is some recourse though if you’re dealing with a major hotel conglomerate. Intercontinental Hotels Group, Marriott, and the like will supposedly match the price you find elsewhere if theirs is higher. You have to go fill out a form like this though to get the difference. Sometimes an independent hotel will honor cheaper prices elsewhere too, but you have to take the time to track down a front desk manager or reservations person and take it up with them. See the part below about negotiating in person or on the phone.
You’ll often find that two companies owned by Priceline have the biggest selection when it comes to international destinations. Agoda is generally the best for guesthouses and hotels in Asia, Booking.com has the most choices for Latin America and Europe. Those have a robust review system that I’ve found to be quite trustworthy. For hostels there’s one monopoly booking service, but Booking lists a lot of them too.
Sometimes there’s some local hotel booking version you’ve never heard of if there’s a big domestic market like you see in China or India, so ask around or just start searching for hotel deals with one of the aggregators and see what pops up.
2) Use Google Maps for Independent Hotels
I recently paid to stay at a hotel that a friend owns and I was surprised that he didn’t ask us to leave a review on TripAdvisor. Instead he asked us to leave one on Google Maps. “That’s how most young people are finding us now.” He runs an independent hotel that’s not on most of the booking systems, so he relies on this channel to get the attention of browsers.
In much of the world outside the USA, the best hotel bargains are with independent properties, not chain motels and hotels. Many of these hotel owners balk at paying the 20-25% these booking companies charge them to send business. They’d rather be 50% full and get the whole rate than be 75% full but owing a fat commission on every booking.
How this works in practice is that you zero in on the area where you want to stay, then see what is popping up when you search hotels on Google Maps. You’ll find places with terrible reviews and places with great reviews. Start looking through the latter and see what’s in your price range. If you book direct for two nights or more, you may even be able to get a lower rate or a room upgrade by contacting the owner directly.
3) Track Down Coupons for the Cheapest Motels
Because I run some other websites that feature hotel reviews, I belong to a lot of affiliate programs where I get a commission from someone booking through me. (It doesn’t cost you the customer any more though.) Because of this, I get e-mails every week from most of them with limited-time coupons and special deals. It’s more than I can keep track of, but assume there’s always a deal going on with somebody that’s probably relevant to your trip. Hit up a few hotel booking sites and see what pops up on the home page.
That’s the online version of a system that has worked for decades in the USA: physical hotel coupon books. If you’re driving across the USA, you see these coupon books at rest stops, in diners, and in tourism bureau offices in almost every state for the cheapest motels. I’ve probably used these 20 times or more to get a deal on a place where I’m just passing through.
I’ve frequently compared them to what I could find online and the coupon books usually give a better rate. Sometimes old-school wins out, which is easy to understand when, once again, you see how much these motel owners have to pay the online travel agencies for the bookings they receive.
All of the motels are not created equal though and some should be avoided. You might want to check out this post on the best cheap hotel chains in the USA, with data from customer surveys.
4) Book at the Last Minute (Or Not at All)
When online travel first got started, Priceline’s “name your own price” service and Hotwire’s blind booking turned the idea of unused inventory on its head. All these years later, you can still book that way, with those sites and the last-minute sections of the major booking sites like CheapCaribbean.com in the USA or LastMinute.com in the UK.
If you’re looking for a 4-star business hotel near the airport for one night, does it really matter which one you’re in? If you just want a 3-night getaway to sit by the pool and drink cocktails, you probably don’t have to pay top dollar for the nicest resort on the beach. Go for the best deal.
Then there’s what you can accomplish without any online booking at all. When I went traveling around the world for years as a young backpacker, we almost never booked a room in advance. That’s because before the internet came along, we couldn’t do that unless we made a phone call or used a travel agent. We just showed up, looked at rooms, and found a place we liked.
Now because we can book a whole year of rooms online if we want, people think that’s the smart thing to do. Remember though, as much as 25% of what you’re paying is going into the booking service’s pocket, whether it’s Expedia, Preferred Hotels, or Hostelbookers. If you can work out a deal directly, that’s more money in the owner’s pocket and potentially more in yours. You’ve just cut out the middleman.
So when I’m traveling solo, I still just show up now and then and ask the front desk manager for a deal. Other times I’ll e-mail direct and ask for a multi-day discount. I know hard-core backpackers who will spend a whole day finding an ideal room and working out a deal because they’re going to stay there for two weeks or more. They get a room for half what was listed online. Or sometimes they will put you into a suite for the price of a standard room.
Understand though, this works best for regional chains or independent hotels. It’s easiest in the cheap vacation spots where bargaining is an accepted practice. The big conglomerates are too locked into complicated contracts. The best you can do in those cases is ask for a free upgrade or ask them to throw in breakfast, which the front desk worker does have the authority to grant—especially if there’s a nice tip involved.
5) Get Your Hotel Rooms for Free
Cheaper hotel deals are nice, but how about not paying anything at all? In the past year my rate has been $0 at Crowne Plaza Santiago, Intercontinental Buenos Aires, Esplendor by Wyndham Calafate, four chain hotel nights in Orlando, a Hampton Inn in Medellin, and an airport hotel in Houston.
Next month I have a free airport hotel night booked in Geneva, Switzerland because I have a very early flight out. Being Switzerland, it would have cost me $180 if I had to pay for it. My price will be zero.
How did I pull all this off? Well, it wasn’t an unusual year. I get free hotel rooms every year because of three credit cards I use: one from IHG, one from Hilton, and one from Wyndham. Hilton’s doesn’t have an annual fee and for the others I earn the annual fee back 10 times over, especially with the IHG one since they give you a free night each year when you renew.
When I originally signed up for a Hilton credit card I got 75,000 miles plus silver status in their loyalty program. That’s enough for a few nights at different hotels, plus I’ve gotten more miles from using the card in the years since. (As I write this they’re offering 80,000 points as a sign-up bonus.)
They often have multiplier promotions going where I’ll get 5X, 8X, or even 10X the points per dollar. Sometimes I get an upgrade too when it’s time to cash in. These hotel cards, unlike some sneaky airline cards from Chase and Citi, don’t pickpocket you with any foreign transaction fees either.
I’ve done the same thing with my IHG card for a decade now and have gotten free rooms from them in countless countries and U.S. states. I put regular expenses on the card and also use it when I’m at that particular hotel chain for incidentals. The points add up fast. It’s a nice emergency stash to have too. Last time I got stuck overnight at a hub airport city because of weather delays, I simply cashed in 20K miles and had a place to sleep for the night.
Some credit card programs like Amex Membership Rewards and Chase Sapphire will allow you to transfer points to different programs. I used one of those to top off my Marriott account and got the Westin room above for my last night in Fiji with my wife. (See this post on a basic travel hacking strategy for specific recommendations.) We’ve used points on vacation and we’ve also used them when we just needed a good set-up to catch up on work for a solid day or two.
If you’re not getting a freebie, belonging to the loyalty program can mean it pays to book direct anyway. You’ll usually get the free Wi-Fi they withhold otherwise, plus loyalty perks like later checkout or a room upgrade. Sometimes you even get an extra discount.
What tips have you found to work for finding the cheapest motels, hotels, and guesthouses consistently?