Save on Hotel Rooms: 8 Tips for the Next Time You Travel

A sign in a window says "Help" marc falardeau/Flickr
Booking an affordable stay for a vacation has turned into a bewildering endeavor, with online travel agencies offering a blizzard of deals, hotels dangling rewards for loyalty, rates changing by the season, and sites like Airbnb letting you rent private houses and condos. There are a lot of opportunities to find an affordable room, but how do you navigate the sea of potential savings? We’ve got eight tips to keep in mind the next time you plan a trip.
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Screenshot highlighting a member rate on a hotel website screenshot
Loyalty rates—also called member rates—are what big hotel chains offer guests who join their rewards programs and book rooms directly through the hotels instead of third-party sites like Expedia and Travelocity. Hotels claim these are the lowest available rates for their rooms. We’ve found that it’s more complicated than that. But once you find an appealing rate at a third-party site (here's our guide to the best and worst), it’s still worth checking the hotel’s site to see if there’s a lower loyalty rate available for joining the rewards program. Don’t worry: enrolling is totally free at all major chains.
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Promotional material for Hilton's loyalty program, Hilton HHonors Screenshot
Here’s another reason to join every free loyalty program you encounter: you can earn points toward room upgrades, hotel perks, and, perhaps most enticing, free nights. It’s pretty easy to get the latter. Hotel rewards programs grant free nights starting at 5,000 or 7,500 points, depending on the chain—and you earn up to 10 points for every dollar you spend at their properties.
 
Some third-party booking sites have loyalty programs of their own. Hotels.com, for instance, gives registered users one free night for every 10 booked through its service. The program is admirably straightforward, but usually ends up being less generous than the hotel equivalent because it’s based on the number of nights (regardless of varying rates) instead of the money you spend. Hotel rewards programs will probably get you a free night faster—by our calculations, in up to half the time it would take via Hotels.com. But, on the other hand, you don't always have to stick with the same chain to get the free night from Hotels.com
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Sampling of flight + hotel packages listed at Kayak Screenshot
Thanks to special rates negotiated among online travel agencies, airlines, and hotels, your best bet for a package bundling airfare and a hotel stay can probably still be found at a third-party booking site like Travelocity or at Kayak, which aggregates deals from numerous sources. The alternative would be booking your room directly through the hotel and purchasing airfare separately, but we’ve found that turns out to be more expensive than bundles available at third-party sites, even after factoring in hotels’ specially discounted member rates. For a 2-night stay in Cancun with a flight from Los Angeles, for example, we were able to knock off nearly $100 from the total cost of the trip by selecting a third-party package, compared to booking Marriott’s lowest rate directly through the hotel and booking airfare separately—and that’s money you could spend on margaritas and other essentials.
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Screenshot showing vacation rentals and hotel rooms listed side by side at Hipmunk Screenshot
Then, of course, there are the growing number of companies like Airbnb, Flipkey, Rentalo, and Homeaway that let you rent private homes, apartments, and rooms from their owners for the length of your vacation. And now you don’t even need to go directly to those websites to book a vacation rental—many third-party sites list them right alongside hotel rooms. Airbnb properties appear at Hipmunk, and Expedia, which owns Homeaway (and its subsidiaries), places rentals in its search results, too. 
 
And the fact is, rentals are often a lot cheaper than hotel rooms—hence their popularity. While a hotel’s member rate might be $20 cheaper than the room’s price at Expedia, you could save double that or more by checking out well-reviewed rentals that also meet your criteria (and with lots of space and private kitchens, they might exceed them). 
 
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An empty beach Ronald Saunders/Flickr
Occupancy at hotels is usually lower when kids are in school or there are no big conventions or other special events scheduled at your chosen destination, so you might have a better chance of snagging a lower rate if you schedule your travel for those dates (this assumes, of course, that you have flexibility in your travel plans). For reference, you can check out our guide to booking in the off-season.
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Screenshot of promotional material for TripAdvisor's Tingo service Screenshot
If there’s a difference between your refundable deal and a newer, lower rate you've found, you can make an exchange in your favor. TripAdvisor’s Tingo will do that for you, refunding the difference if the hotel rate drops. However, Tingo doesn’t always offer the best starting rates, especially for budget properties, so check it against other sites before biting.
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Charging Bull statue in New York City's Financial District Sam valadi/Flickr
Banking and commerce hotspots like New York’s Financial District, Chicago’s Loop, and Miami’s Brickell neighborhood empty out after the work week. Hotels (even very nice ones) might lower rates on the weekends to fill rooms in those areas.
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Exterior of a hostel in Istanbul Felix Montino/Flickr
Affordable rates are easier to find when you’re willing to try something unconventional—shared-bathroom hotels, hostels, and “pod hotels” (with smaller-than-normal accommodations) are all possibilities. For free stays, try a site such as Couchsurfing or GlobalFreeloaders, both of which act as matchmakers between travelers and friendly locals who enjoy meeting out-of-towners (online reviews of both guests and hosts help weed out the weirdos). 
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