HACK THE HOTEL
Planning to visit family for the holidays, and the guest room is not an option? Now is the time to start looking for cheap holiday accommodations. For those who need only a place to spend the night, Cheapism has already identified the best cheap motel chains. Travelers keen on more upscale lodgings can follow these 10 tips to find affordable hotel rooms during the holiday season.
DON'T WAIT FOR THE LAST-MINUTE RATE
As many frugal travelers know, the best offers pop up when occupancy rates are low. This circumstance may present itself to folks visiting cities checkered with hotels that cater to business travelers and running promotions during the otherwise slow holiday season. But be warned: Waiting until the last minute to snatch cheap holiday accommodations from hotels eager to fill empty rooms often fails at this time of year. Discount-rate sites that slash rates on rooms booked the same day are just too risky. No one wants to be left stranded or sleeping miles away from family because nearby hotels are filled.
START SEARCHING NOW
The best strategy for finding cheap holiday accommodations is to look early. When there is a good deal, however, don't just book it and forget about it. As long as the deposit is refundable, check online or call the hotel every four to six weeks and ask about new promotional rates; if there is one on offer, book at the new rate and cancel the old. The process can be automated using services such as Tingo and DreamCheaper.
BOOK AND STICK WITH IT
After booking far ahead of time and checking for rate drops, it may be best to lock in a price around three weeks before the stay. Some hotels offer as much as 15 percent to 30 percent off rooms that are booked and paid for several weeks in advance. The booking cannot be canceled or changed, but it's a good idea if your holiday plans are solid.
SIDE-STEP THE AGGREGATORS
Sites such as Priceline, Expedia, and other aggregators can point travelers to excellent deals, largely because they buy rooms in bulk at a discount and sell them for cheap. That said, booking a room through one of these sites may not be the ticket to the most desirable accommodations. For one, sometimes the reservation is lost; there are woeful tales online of travelers arriving only to find the hotel is full and their names are not in the system. Then too, in posts on Reddit several hotel employees admit that the cheapest rooms (near a stairwell or elevator, say) are often referred to as "Expedia rooms." (Others insist they treat all customers the same, and anyway, rooms are picked by their electronic booking systems, not by people.) And finally, booking through an aggregator inserts a go-between unlikely to be flexible about prices.
CALL HOTELS DIRECTLY
Rather than relying on an aggregator, call a hotel directly and quote the price found online. This doesn't always get results, but often enough the hotel will match or beat the price. If the hotel is part of a large chain, calling the central 1-800 number is worth a try because corporate employees sometimes have more leeway to grant discounts than employees at a franchise -- and the corporate website may post online-only discounts that on-site employees don't know about. But calling local hotels may result in a better offer than one found online because the manager might be willing to be flexible. One advantage of booking cheap holiday hotel rooms directly is knowing that the reservation is solid. The hotel makes a higher margin on the rate than if the room had been booked through an aggregator and is unlikely to misplace the reservation. Moreover, management may be more accommodating and offer a free upgrade or amenities -- just don't expect an upgrade during the holidays.
LOOK PAST THE STARS
The star-rating system is far from standardized; what one travel website calls 4 stars, another considers 5. Those looking for a nice place to stay can safely weed out 1- or 2-star options, but sometimes even a 3-star hotel can have better reviews and lower prices than a 5-star found elsewhere.
JOIN LOYALTY PROGRAMS
Frugal holiday travelers should also enroll in hotel loyalty programs, which usually offer incentives even at the basic level. For example, Club Carlson (Radisson, Country Inn and Suites, Park Inn, and Park Plaza brands) gives members free Internet. Cheapism lists the entry-level perks available through different hotel loyalty programs offered by other groups, such as Hilton, Hyatt, and Marriott.
BE AWARE OF THE ADD-ONS
Joining a loyalty program may result in a perk such as free Wi-Fi, but that should be a reminder there was an original cost -- and thus probably many more where that came from. Fees are actually more common in high-end hotels than discount motels, but travelers shouldn't book anywhere without looking for potential costly add-ons: parking, breakfast, Internet service, and if the destination is in a popular tourist area, a resort fee.
SEEK MISCELLANEOUS DISCOUNTS
One almost certain route to cheap holiday hotel rooms is through membership discounts from associations such as AAA or AARP. Active-duty military personnel often qualify for discounts up to 25 percent at large chains and smaller hotels. If friends or family members work at a hotel, they may have access to codes that can unlock deep discounts. Even during the holiday season hotel employees may be empowered to offer discounts on the spot, and Cheapism found reports of several having done so just because a traveler was especially courteous to them.
CHECK INTO CORPORATE DISCOUNTS
Large corporations often negotiate discounted rates for employees, and simply asking for a corporate rate used to be enough. Hotels increasingly require a company email address as verification, though. A potential workaround in the moral gray zone involves claiming to be a contractor, interviewee, or sales rep headed to a meeting at a large local company that has negotiated discounted room rates. A commenter at Lifehacker used a similar trick and suggested finding out about nearby colleges or universities or upcoming conferences and asking for the parent or attendee rate.