What everyone wants to hear is that there are one or two apps or websites that will always find you the best deal on hotel rooms.
Sorry. It’s just not that easy.
What worked for last month’s business trip to Chicago may not work for this summer’s family vacation to Disney World – or even this month’s return trip to Chicago.
The reason for this lack of consistency is hotels are always in flux. The price of hotel rooms changes daily, often times hourly, based on demand. Sometimes one site has the best deal for the hotel you want, and sometimes another site does. You can often get the best rate by going old school and picking up the phone or just showing up.
“This drives techo-babble people crazy,” says Tim Leffel, author of “Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune” and editor of Hotel Scoop, a lodging review website. “They think you should be able to find the best prices on the Internet, but that’s not always the case.”
The Internet, however, is a good place to start. The first thing you want to research is location. If you’re visiting New York City, you probably want to stay in Manhattan. Before you can look for hotels, you need to know which neighborhoods you’re willing to consider and how you’ll get from those neighborhoods to the places you’re going to visit. After all, a lot of $30 taxi rides will quickly eat up any savings on lodging.
Start with the big names in the industry: Travelocity, Expedia or Orbitz. If you’re looking for a broader picture, Leffel likes websites that gather price quotes from a variety of search engines, such as Kayak or Trivago. From these aggregators, you’ll get a sense of hotel prices at the time you plan to travel.
Then check discount sites such as BookIt.com, Hotels.com or Booking.com, plus the named hotels at Hotwire and Priceline. If you find a hotel you like, check the hotel website before calling to see if you can find an even better deal directly from the hotel.
If you’d happily stay at any number of hotels in a specific neighborhood, consider bidding on rooms at Hotwire or Priceline. Both sites offer big discounts if you’re willing to buy a room without knowing which hotel you’ll be staying in. You can narrow your selection by neighborhood and by star rating, but sometimes the neighborhood boundary is pretty big.
Not only is there no magic website, but there’s no magic time to book to get the best price. Often, you can get the best deal at the very last minute. But this is not going to work in a popular location at a busy time. For those deals, you’ll do better booking earlier.
Here are 13 tips for getting the best deal on hotel rooms.
Call the hotel. Before you book a room, call the hotel itself (the specific location, not the chain’s 800 number) during business hours to see if the hotel will match or beat rates you’ve found online. Sometimes they’ll throw in extras such as free Wi-Fi, breakfast or late checkout. This gives you maximum flexibility because you usually don’t have to pay in advance, plus you won’t need to deal with a third party if something goes wrong or you come across a cheaper alternative.
Make sure you know the total cost. Some hotels charge a resort fee that may not be included in an online quote. Others charge for Wi-Fi, breakfast or use of the gym. In a city center, parking can cost $35 or more a day. To avoid unpleasant surprises, always ask about which fees are included and how much they’ll cost you.
Consider hotels that don’t appear on major search sites. Many small hotels don’t want to pay search site commissions, and therefore they don’t participate. When you call them, you’re often talking to an owner or manager who is empowered to offer a discount. TripAdvisor is a good site to use to identify these small hotels, but you should go directly to the hotel to make reservations.
Consider something larger. If you’re traveling with a family or planning a longer stay, look into renting an apartment or house. You can find listings at HomeAway, FlipKey and VRBO, among other services. Many of these lodgings charge a cleaning fee, so keep that in mind when you’re calculating total costs. But with a kitchen you may save on food because you can cook some meals.
Use coupon books. On a road trip, pick up the coupon books at rest stops and convenience stores. Those coupons, offered by the owners of individual franchises, often beat the national deals advertised on the chains’ websites.
Travel without reservations. This doesn’t work for Paris at the height of the tourist season, but often times it will get you the best deal at hotels that start the day with plenty of empty rooms. If you just show up, you can also see the room before you commit. Several apps, including Hotel Tonight, cater to travelers looking for a room on the fly.
See what others are paying. Sites such as BetterBidding.com allow you to find out what other travelers have paid at HotWire and Priceline and can sometimes identify the “mystery” hotels that keep their name and location secret until you book.
Check with local tourist offices. In Europe particularly, tourist offices offer room-finding services for same-day rooms. Even in the United States, some cities, such as Newport, R.I., get a list every morning from local hotels of rooms they want to sell for that night. “Think of this as an old-fashion version of Expedia.com, only a real-life person finds the accommodations that is right for you … at the right price,” says Andrea McHugh, marketing and communications manager of Discover Newport.
Be careful with advance payments. If you book with a service that requires payment in advance, read all the fine print. And make sure you know how much it will cost if you have to cancel.
Check daily deal sites. Groupon, LivingSocial and other deal-of-the-day services offer travel deals.
Go with a package. If you’re traveling to just one destination, look for a deal that includes hotel, airfare and car rental, which may be cheaper than buying these components individually.
Use travel rewards points. Many credit cards offer points equivalent to several nights’ hotel stays just for signing up, plus you can earn points when you use your new credit cards. “Last fall I went on a two-week vacation to Europe where my girlfriend and I visited Paris, Belgium and Amsterdam. One hundred percent of our hotel stays were covered by hotel points, and we stayed at very nice locations, such as the InterContinental Avenue Marceau, Radisson Blu Le Metropolitan and DoubleTree Suites Amsterdam,” says Kevin Barry, who publishes the website Frugal Mouse, about traveling to Disney parks. “Using hotel points for free stays is the best deal in the travel industry, one that many people don’t know about or take advantage of.”
Visit at less popular times. That means fall in Florida and summer in the Caribbean, winter in Europe, weekends near convention areas and weekdays in resort areas.
A version of this story appeared at U.S. News & World Report.