There are so many ways to wrangle deals on hotel rooms these days that no matter how great a bargain you find, it’s not uncommon to worry you missed a better one.
The most obvious method to suss out savings is to explore the pricing and inventory differences among standard booking sites like Hotels.com and Orbitz. But dig a little deeper and there are countless ways to find “unpublished” rates, typically on excess rooms hoteliers think they won’t be able to sell at full or even publicly discounted prices. The problem: There are so many choices and so much information couched in bells and whistles that it’s easy to become overwhelmed.
To tame this wild world into submission, I designed a five-step process (with a two-step bonus round) and tested it out by planning an imaginary four-night trip to Paris this fall. Though the same general strategy should work for most kinds of trips, feel free to make tweaks as your situation requires.
This guide, of course, is for budget travelers. I’m also going to ignore lodging strategies at the other end of the price spectrum — staying with a member of hospitality exchange sites like Couchsurfing, braving hostel dorm rooms — or alternatives, such as vacation rental companies like Airbnb and Homeaway. We’re looking for actual hotels.
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But if you’re looking for a decent, well-located room, maybe even one with a little style, this system should come close to finding you the best deal possible.
▪ Get the lay of the land. Log on to a regular old online booking site, plug in your dates, adjust the filters and browse through your choices, paying attention to user reviews, cancellation policies and whether all taxes are included. Make a note of your top picks.
Of course, these sites are very different, which became obvious when I went searching for that Paris room. Orbitz, for example, is so inflexible that there’s not even a filter for price. Yet I couldn’t ignore its discount code that claims to knock 10 percent off hotel rooms — and to my surprise, actually worked almost every time I applied it in my testing.
I had always found Booking.com to have a wider array of budget choices in obscure parts of the world, but that was true even in Paris, where the site offered over twice as many properties as Orbitz. Hotels.com offered the best filtering experience, using sliding scales that allowed me to choose a precise upper limit for price ($110 per day) and a minimum user rating (2.5 of 5).
I ended up with a couple options as a baseline (all rates are for four nights, and include most or all taxes and fees): the Pavillon Nation, $500 through Booking.com, which I got down to $480 using Orbitz’s higher price but with the 10 percent code; and the Hotel Audran in Montmartre, highly rated and $440.
▪ Price check (and search again). Next step: Check the prices you’ve found first at Kayak.com, which aggregates prices across other sites (it also allows you to check several hotels at once).
The same room at the Pavillon Nation was available for $382 through getaroom.com; no one could beat Hotels.com’s price for the Audran. Then I checked both prices against the hotels’ own website, which sometimes have additional discounts.
Then do your whole search over on other metasearch sites, which are sometimes better than the standard sites anyway. Aside from Kayak, there are a few options:
Hipmunk wowed me with its new mapping feature that appears side-by-side with their hotel suggestions and even offers overlay “heat maps” to see which parts of the city are best for food or night life. (It is also the only American site to show Airbnb and Homeaway rentals alongside hotels.)
Trivago’s main advantage is that it searches about 200 booking sites, meaning it will quite frequently find prices lower than the others, though don’t necessarily expect prime customer service from obscure sites should you need to make a change later. And if you already spend time using the endless planning resources on TripAdvisor, you might as well book with its metasearch pricing component as well.
I spent the most time on Hipmunk, adding easy-to-use filters and then having it order hotels by “Ecstasy,” its mysterious but useful algorithm. The resulting No. 1 choice was quite appealing and I added it to the list: the fairly central and well-rated Element Hotel for $405.
I now had three choices for about $100 a night, taxes included. But those are all retail or published sale rates, easily searchable (as I found). Time to try a few of the best ways to find unpublished rates.
▪ Seek hidden rates. If you want a window into the world of unpublished discounts, fiddle around for a while on getaroom.com. That site offers fast-expiring flash deals, for example, and rooms at “hotels within hotels” — like those within the MGM Grand complex in Las Vegas sold under the rather made-up-sounding name of “Luxury Suites International at The Signature.” But things get really weird when the site urges you to “call for secret unpublished rates!” (So 20th century!)
I plugged in my Paris dates, and getaroom.com revealed a flash deal (“Ends in three hours!”) at the nice-looking, decently reviewed Villa Lutèce Port Royal in Paris, four nights for $450. And then, what the heck, I called the toll-free number. And what do you know? A woman with a very soothing voice instantly lowered the price to $378. Get the Villa Lutèce on the list!
▪ Look for a package deal. If you’ve already booked a flight, or are going on a longer, more complicated trip, package deals won’t work. But this straightforward, in-and-out New York-to-Paris trip is exactly the sort where a package deal might be the trick. (Trips to sunny destinations in the winter also work pretty well.) I went to Kayak’s packages page and it led me to a promising deal on Priceline.com: a round-trip, nonstop flight for two from New York to Paris, plus four nights at the Crowne Plaza Paris-Republique, for $2,505. The cheapest nonstop fare on my dates was $2,503.
In other words, four nights at the four-star Crowne Plaza would essentially cost 50 cents a night. I even contacted Priceline to make sure there were no hidden charges. They said the plane might charge me for luggage — um, yep, that much I knew. Assuming I hadn’t booked a flight, this was clearly my winner so far.
▪ Go opaque. Some of the sharpest discounts off retail rates come from opaque deals on sites like Priceline and Hotwire. You get to decide on star-level and broad geographic area, and then either bid (as with Priceline) or choose a discount rate (as with Hotwire and Priceline’s new Express Deals feature). Only when your credit card is charged do you find out where you’ll be staying — sometimes a soulless chain, but never, in my experience, a terrible place. Still, I do opaque as a last resort, usually when savings means more to me than anything else. (For, say, a romantic weekend, it’s definitely a risk.)
For those Paris dates, Priceline offers an Express Deal on a three-star room in the Marais-Republique area for $345. Not bad! Hotwire had a very similar deal in the same area for $351 — most likely the same hotel.
Now review your options and make a choice. If I went for the package, or the Priceline deal, I was all set. For any of the other choices, I had two more possible steps.
▪ Make the call. Call the place you’ve chosen (by Skype, to save money). Tell them you’re about to reserve their hotel with, let’s say, Hotels.com, and ask if they’ll give you a discount for booking direct.
Hotels typically pay a 20 to 30 percent commission to booking sites, so rationally speaking, they should be eager to split the difference with you. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t — it depends a lot on who answers the phone and what kind of power they’ve been given; at smaller places always ask to speak to the owner or manager. (You can also ask for a discount via email if it’s easier or if you call and English turns out not to be the hotel’s strong suit.)
▪ Last-minute adjustments. This final step only applies if you’ve got a cancelable reservation, but with lower-cost hotels that’s often the case. Theoretically, you could check back every day to look for better deals, or have a site like Yapta.com send you alerts when prices drop, but let’s be reasonable here. As your date of travel (and your cancellation deadline) approaches, try one of the many last-minute deal sites and apps. If there’s a better deal, pull a switcheroo.
And — you’re off to Paris. Sure, it was a lot of work, but it gets easier with practice. Admittedly, it was never quite as easy as clicking over to Small Luxury Hotels of the World — as I did just for the fun of it. It took me about three minutes to choose the Hotel Relais Christine, on the site of a former medieval abbey on the Left Bank. Cost: $2,688, nonrefundable. But it’s not a flash sale, so perhaps the price will still be available in my next life.