How to get the best hotel rates according to experts

Advance bookings, secondary markets and mystery reservations can be used for deals

Planning a vacation usually means you need to find a place to stay. And just like airline fares, hotel rates fluctuate based on timing and demand.

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Booking the first room you see generally won’t yield the best deal, according to travel experts. You’ll need to put a little work in to get significant savings, which may include sifting through several hotel websites and offers or strategically planning your arrival and departure.

To get insight into the best ways to secure affordable hotel rates, FOX Business consulted two travel experts for their tips and tricks for saving money on your stay.

Change how you search

A close-up of the most famous websites for searching travel deals: Hotels.com, Kayak, LastMinute.com, Booking.com and TripAdvisor. (iStock)

To get your best hotel rate, experts advise travelers to adjust their online search habits. This can range between comparing competitors and getting a little tech-savvy.

“If you are looking online it’s important that you are either removing cookies, working on a private browser or using someone else’s computer to do preliminary research. Otherwise, the prices will just keep going up each time you check,” said Margot Black, a founder and travel writer at Black Ink Travel Writing.

Outside of disabling cookies, it’s important to get specific with your search. Bruce Rosenberg, president of the Americas at HotelPlanner reiterated this tip by suggesting key search terms like “cheap rooms in NYC” or “discount hotel rooms in NYC” to see which brands are paying for advertising and which ones are not.

Additionally, he said it is important to know your “budget, preferred hotel type and general location requirements” to narrow down your options as well as the way you want to pay your rate. Hotel guests can usually choose to prepay their stay or handle their balance when they get to their destination.

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When all else fails, Rosenberg said, “Consider alternate accommodations, Airbnb and others to see if they can meet your requirements for a specific stay.”

Check out loyalty programs

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In case you’re not already signed up for one, it pays off to join a hotel, travel agency or airline’s loyalty program.

Frequent travelers can accumulate points for free hotel stays, Rosenberg said. And Hotel brands charge more points for higher-end hotels compared to limited service and more points are generally charged for resort destinations like Hawaii, he said.

“It’s best to have a goal in mind when focusing on the free stay aspect of each program,” Rosenberg added. “Where do you want to travel? When? How many points will it take to book one or multiple nights? How far in advance do you need to book to get a room in your favorite destination?”

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Other benefits that can be included with a loyalty program are free internet access based on the number of stays or a branded credit card with redeemable points. Though, Rosenberg advises travelers to check out the costs, points system and included benefits of these credit cards to see if it’s worth adding an annual fee.

“You should only go towards loyalty programs that actually offer benefits you will easily use and easily redeem," Black said. "For instance, I have an Alaska Airlines credit card because the first bag is checked free for family members.”

“Our 12-year-old son recently started to ask to bring his skateboard along everywhere we go,” she added, “This perk saves us a good amount of money with each trip, it’s worth the $75 yearly fee.”

Book in advance

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It’s no secret that most advise booking in advance to get a good rate. However, there are a few caveats, according to Rosenberg.

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“Travelers still need to understand the terms and conditions on each rate,” he pointed out. “Is the rate non-refundable – do you need to pay now – charge your credit card immediately – if you cancel the stay is there a refund option or is there a penalty?”

He added, “Hotel rates are looking a lot more like airline rates these days – pay more and get flexibility – want a deal – book or pay now.”

You can scalp a room

A desktop view screenshot of the Roomer hotel booking website. (Roomer)

Years ago, when a family emergency or a similar event came up at the last minute, some travelers ended up losing money if they missed their reservation. However, travelers have taken their power back from nonrefundable room terms by listing their hotel reservations on booking apps like Roomer, which connects prepaid hotel rooms with travelers who are looking for a deal.

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This secondary market allows the original booker to make some money back if their room gets purchased in time. The new traveler also gets the room transferred to them in their name, so there is no headache when they check-in at the front desk.

“If you have a reservation which has a penalty or no refund at all – it’s worth a shot to try Roomer,” Rosenberg said. “If the savings on the resale are low it may not be worth the time investment.”

Try a mystery hotel

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Another tactic that has become popular with frequent travelers is booking a mystery hotel through large travel platforms like Priceline and Hotwire,which hide the names of hotels that have the cheapest listings.

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“There are many intrepid travelers out there. If you have flexibility, these rates are a good option,” Rosenberg said. “It’s best to book by star category and use the mapping features to narrow down the options. If it’s not the perfect hotel, at least you got the booking at the right price.”

Black said she has had good luck with these mystery travel options. Black said she was able to book a room 20 minutes from Legoland that would have normally cost between $399 and $499 a night for $150 using Hotwire.

“I like Hotwire because each family member can select what is most important to them: our son wants free internet, husband wants free parking and I want free breakfast, and we all want a pool,” she said. “Using Hotwire we can sort from those parameters and see what’s offered.”

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