UPDATED FEBRUARY 19, 2020
1. Find out exactly what the hotel’s cancellation policy is.
Before you click the BOOK button on a hotel reservation, read the hotel’s cancellation policy line-by-line. Then read it again. Policies vary wildly depending on the property and, in some cases, the dates of your stay.
Popular holidays or big events in town usually warrant a stricter cancellation policy, but, typically, a hotel will want 24 hours' notice before canceling a reservation without charging you. Other hotels require 48 or 72 hours, while some insist on a week’s notice or more. Some hotels may even charge you a flat cancellation fee regardless of when you cancel.
If you’re using a third-party booking site like Expedia or Priceline, that company may have a cancellation policy that differs from the hotel's, so be sure to read both carefully.
2. At check-in, note the incidentals deposit and any extra fees.
Before handing you the room key and sending you on your way, a hotel should tell you the amount for which your credit card will be "authorized" in advance for incidental purchases (room service, mini bar, Wi-Fi, etc.) or damages. A reputable hotel will also disclose that info at the time of booking, so you shouldn’t encounter any surprises when you check in.
Since this is just a temporary hold on your credit card, it will be taken off your account once you check out—provided you haven’t raided the mini bar or trashed the room during your stay.
Check-in is also where hotels should notify you of additional fees not included in the room rate, such as resort fees (and don't get us started on that boondoggle) and charges for fitness center access, parking, pets, or towels. Again, most of these fees should be listed on the hotel’s website at the time of booking, but it’s always a good idea to review the extras at the start of your stay.
3. Don’t use a debit card—but if you must, make sure you have enough money in your bank account.
Using a debit card for a hotel room isn't wise for several reasons. The biggest one is that many of us don’t have enough money in our accounts to cover room rates, taxes, and the temporary deposit for incidentals.
With a credit card, the incidentals deposit is merely a hold on your credit card. But with a debit card, the hotel actually takes that money out of your account right away.
Once you check out, the hotel will put the funds back in your account, but it always takes banks a few days—or sometimes as long as a week—to get that money back to you. So if you must use a debit card, do so only if you have enough funds to cover your hotel stay, the deposits, and your general living expenses for a week after you leave the hotel.
Another benefit of credit cards: They come with far more protections against fraud. With a debit card, anyone can clean out your savings and there won't be much recourse for you.
4. Keep in mind that fees and incidental charges are collected by the hotel—not the booking site you used.
Even if you fully prepaid for your room at a third-party booking site, the hotel will still need to see a credit card at check-in for incidental charges and resort fees (if applicable, and ugh). The hotel is not charging you twice—if you booked anywhere but through the hotel's official site, you haven't been charged yet for those fees when you stroll up to the reception desk; you've only paid the room rate.
5. After your stay, look closely at your checkout documents and your bank account.
Hotels are notorious for making billing mistakes, often in the form of double charges. (For example, you ordered one movie from the room's TV but the hotel charged you for two.) If you don’t catch these mistakes at checkout where a front desk agent can easily remove them before running your credit card, you’ll have to go through the hassle of calling the hotel to dispute the charges. Then you’ll have to keep checking your bank account to make sure the money actually gets refunded.
While it’s tempting to leave your room without giving the checkout documents a second glance, hotels are not reliable and extra charges on your bank statement aren't worth the trouble.