Cheap Hotels 101
"It sounds obvious, but those online search engines such as Priceline and Hotels.com really do offer discounts," says Robert Reid, author of Lonely Planet's USA & Canada on a Shoestring. One sample exploration of Priceline.com, for example, generated a $45 rate for a room in Chicago that would normally cost $150. Using large travel search engines, it's not unusual to see prices that are 40 percent off retail, especially at the last minute; hotel managers know an empty room is lost money.
Rummaging through endless webpages can be reminiscent of a tedious college research project, so arrange your search into three different steps. First, check out a couple of your favorite online search engines, like Cheaptickets.com, for low rates -- and to assess a typical price. Then, hit up an aggregator site like Mobissimo or SideStep, which sifts through search engines as well as hotel-company sites. Once you've done a little comparison shopping and found what seems like a reasonable price, make sure you go to the hotel's website before booking to make sure you can't find a better rate. Some hotels, like the Hilton, Marriott, and Ramada, offer special deals only via their own sites. Many also guarantee the lowest rates, with a deep discount if you find lower prices elsewhere. Plus, by booking directly on the hotel's website, you'll avoid the search engine's booking fee, which is usually around $5.
If you're an A+ hotel-search student and you're flexible with your destinations and dates, try looking at a few travel sites that have an army of specialists keeping track of the best Web deals. SmarterTravel.com and BestFares.com are good places to start. There are also sites that specialize in listing less expensive hotels. EuroCheapo.com, for example, is a particularly good one on the EU beat. It includes average prices and reviews of hotels in over 100 European cities.
BID ON A ROOM
Priceline.com became famous for the online airfare bid, but they also do hotels. In fact, they claim that half of their name-your-price customers save more than 46 percent on their hotel rooms, in comparison to published prices on Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, and Hotels.com. "Since this is name-your-price, you can be as aggressive as you want," says Brian Ek of Priceline. "However, my rule of thumb is, if you bid 40 percent below retail for hotels and 25 percent below retail for rental cars, you'll be successful more often than not." Also keep in mind that depending on the destination and time of year, you can have extraordinary luck with last-minute bids. But tread lightly -- there's some risk involved. If you get your bid, you're committed to staying there (or at least paying for the stay). Look up the hotels on a user-review site like TripAdvisor.com to make sure you're getting what you're looking for, since bid-generated reservations are nonrefundable and nontransferable.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication