Updated: February 2014
I’ve been traveling the world for 20 years, booking hotels online for 15, and searching for family-friendly hotels for 10. This is everything I know about finding great hotel deals online.
What are the Best Websites for Booking Hotels Online?
What is the Best Way to Save Money on Hotels?
- Start your hotel search as early as you can. The longer stretch of time you have to search the better deal you’ll likely find. Often, early bookers get the best rooms too.
- If your dates can be flexible then compare different date ranges for the best rates. Hotels can fill up for a big convention or big event. Busy and expensive one weekend. Empty and cheap the next.
- Flip-flop weekends and weekdays. Hotels target different types of travelers which will have very different weekday and weekend routines. Hotels that have a large business clientele can be very quiet (with large discounts) on weekends. Hotels that see more leisure tourists will be packed on weekends but cheaper on weekdays.
- Think upgrade: book the least expensive room through a booking website then contact the hotel directly to inform them of special requirements or enquire about any available upgrades – if the hotel is quiet they’ll often be free or for a nominal charge.
When is the Best Time to Book Hotels?
Here’s a huge generalization that works pretty well for most situations: For hotels that have a business clientele the last week to 10 days will get you the best deals. For hotels and resorts that have tourists as their primary guests then booking 2 months to 6 months prior to your stay is likely the best.
Why? Business travelers are much more likely to arrange and make last minute (or last week) travel plans. A month before a given date, a hotel in the financial district of London might not have many bookings but will not start discounting those rooms yet. It will still expect to make a lot of bookings in the week or two before that time frame.
Often it’s not just about the price. Early booking will get you the best rooms at a similar price to the less coveted rooms. E.g. A huge family room that is only a little more than a cramped double room.
A hotel in Cancun, Phuket, or Bali that has a lot of openings in a month will start to worry. Most of its guests should have already booked those rooms so the hotel will start to aggressively discount those rooms.
What Day of the Week Has the Best Hotel Deals?
It depends what type of hotel you’re booking.
Business hotels will offer bigger discounts on the weekends (when business clients are at home). Budget hotels will have empty rooms (and discounts) through the week because the people that stay there (weekend shoppers, concert goers, university students) come on there weekends and return home Sunday night.
Why Do Hotels Use Booking Sites Like HotelsCombined or Booking.com?
Here’s where it gets tricky for hotels. Yes, they want to fill some of those rooms. Even if a guest is only paying half the rack-rate it’s still a lot more than zero. At the same time hotels do not want to establish the practice of rewarding guests that wait the longest to book. Then everyone will book last minute expecting (and probably getting) discounted rates.
Hotels offer those rooms to hotel consolidators so that the price discounts don’t reflect directly on the hotel itself. A hotel guest that learns from another guest that they got a 50% discount by booking through HotelsCombined.com would probably shrug their shoulders and try to remember the name of the website. But if that same guest learned that their friend simply booked through the hotel’s website and got a vastly cheaper rate, they’re likely to be upset and displeased with the inconsistent way the hotel charges customers.
As well, when guests book through 3rd party websites they often book other travel options (travel insurance, airfares, rental cars). These serve to obscure the true cost of the hotel room so a direct comparison to the rate another guest paid can’t easily be made.
What’s Included and Are There Extra Fees?
When you’re comparing different rates from different websites be sure to check what’s included in the quoted price. Are there extra fees and taxes?
Extra costs could include an of the following:
- City, State, and Country taxes
- City, State, and Country surcharges and other fees
- Booking service fees (often disguised as hotel charges)
- Hotel energy surcharge
- Hotel resort fee
- Spa or swimming pool fee
- Phone or internet availability fee
- Short stay surcharge or room cleaning fee
- Credit card surcharge
Clearly it’s not easy to compare 2 rates with all these extras to consider. Taxes and booking fees are the biggest ones so if you’re feeling overwhelmed focus on those and you should be fine.
If you’re staying at a big resort it might be wise to check the hotel’s official website to look for extra fees that may be applied (e.g. a charge for using the spa).
Most websites have search options for the following specifics:
- Swimming Pool (Indoor and Outdoor)
- Fitness Center
- Location (and vicinity of the airport).
- Airport Shuttle
- Non-Smoking Rooms
- Rooms or Facilities for Disabled Guests
Be sure to use these if you’re looking for a hotel with special features or characteristics as in my experience they’re accurate.
A final tip, is to check whether breakfast is included. When you arrive at the hotel you can even ask (with a tone of voice that expects that it is included). It’s often of little cost to the hotel to serve another buffet breakfast but this can be a huge savings for you especially over the course of a week or extended stay.
The Essentials for Finding and Booking Hotels Online:
This is the cheat sheet for booking hotels online.
- Imporant! – Like airfares, hotel prices go down and go up. Unlike airfares, you can (usually) cancel hotel bookings and book a different hotel – or book the same hotel through a different website. So if you see a decent deal book it. And then keep looking for a better deal.
- Important! – Verify directly with the hotel after booking through an online booking website (e.g. booking.com). This is easy to do and well worth it. Occasionally, you’ll get an even better room than if you hadn’t contacted them. For example, if you send an email saying something like this, “I had just wanted to confirm my booking with your hotel. We’re a family of 5 so really need this to go smoothly. Thanks.” At the very least it lets the staff know you’ll need a bigger room. Maybe it won’t change anything but occasionally some of the time it will.
- Important! – If you belong to a hotel loyalty program and want to get points by booking directly through the hotel you can still benefit by using 3rd party hotel websites. Simply look for deals for your chosen hotel then phone the hotel and state exactly the deal you found online. They’ll often offer you the same price on the same room. (Though not always, as sometimes they have sold these hotel rooms as a block and are not looking to discount the remaining rooms they still have booking access to.)
- Print your confirmation email (or have easy access to it on your phone) to show at reception. 9 times out of 10 you won’t need it but on occasion the hotel might not have received the reservation info and the confirmation will help.
- If you’ve already decided on the datess of your hotel stay then you’re starting from a disadvantage. Sometimes you have to travel on specific dates but if you can swing it, try to book hotels before you’ve settled on your dates.
- Check multiple sites before you book: the hotel’s website and at least 2 hotel booking sites.
- If you’re looking for a specific hotel and see that it’s full on the nights you need then be sure to check a second or third website as this can simply mean that the first websites’ allocation of rooms has sold out, not that the entire hotel is booked full.
- If possible contact hotels directly to ask for deals or enquire about special offers. This is a pain and it’s become less and less effective as the online deals have become so competitive but it’s still worth a try. It can be especially effective if you’re staying for a week or more. Hotel booking sites won’t be able to offer special deals based on length of stay.
- The biggest risk with reserving through a hotel booking site isn’t that you’ll be scammed out of your money by an illegitimate business (all of the websites that I list in here are reputable) but that they will overbook your hotel and you’ll get an email a few weeks before your stay saying that your room is not available. This is very rare, but it does happen. Contacting hotels directly after you book (I’m mentioning this twice since it’s so important) makes this scenario much less likely.
- If you book a non-refundable hotel (read the fine-print) you will never be able to cancel so be certain before you reserve it.
- The more particulars matter to you (e.g. special room requests, king or queen sized bed, bathtub, space for cot) the less well booking sites will suit you. That said, many sites are very good at passing along your specific requests when you book, so be sure to include any necessary needs or preferences when you place the booking (there’s usually a form when you can add extra information).
- For budget hotels it’s often better to book directly with the hotel. Usually they won’t be listed in the hotel booking sites anyways.
- Agoda.com and Hotwire.com are travel websites that accept PayPal – if that’s important for you.
- If booking an apartment or family run B&B through a site (e.g. Venere) don’t assume that the same apartment will be payable using a credit card. Confusing I know. The initial credit card is used to reserve the room with Venere, but when you arrive (and need to pay) the owner might only accept cash.
What are The Best Hotel Websites for the most most popular destinations?
Here are direct links for some of my favorite places:
Hotels in Europe
Hotels in Asia
- Hotels in Bangkok, Thailand
- Hotels in Singapore
- Hotels in Bali, Indonesia
- Hotels in Hong Kong, China
- Hotels in Tokyo, Japan
Hotels in the USA, Canada, and Mexico