7 steps to a cheaper hotel stay

Written by New York Times | Updated: Aug 31 2014, 07:56am hrs
THERE ARE so many ways to wrangle deals on hotel rooms these days that no matter how great a bargain you find, its 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 But dig a little deeper and there are countless ways to find unpublished rates, typically on excess rooms hoteliers think they wont be able to sell at full or even publicly-discounted pri-ces. The problem: there are so many choices and so much information couched in bells and whistles that its 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 from New York to Paris. This guide, of course, is for budget travellers. Im also going to ignore lodging strategies at the other end of the price spectrumstaying with a friend or a member of hospitality exchange sites like Couchsurfing, braving hostel dorm roomsor alternatives, such as vacation rental companies like Airbnb and Homeaway. Were looking for actual hotels. But if youre looking for a decent, well-located roommaybe even one with a little stylethis 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 theres not even a filter for price. Yet I couldnt ignore its discount code that claims to knock 10% hotel roomsand 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.

Price check

Next step: check the prices youve found first at Kayak.com, which aggregates prices across other sites. 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. Trivagos main advantage is that it searches about 200 booking sites, meaning it will quite frequently find prices lower than the others, though dont necessarily expect prime customer service from obscure sites should you need to make a change later.

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. 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 hotelslike those within the MGM Grand complex in Las Vegas sold under the rather made-up-sounding name of Luxury Suites International at The Signature.

I plugged in my Paris dates, and Getaroom.com revealed a flash deal at the nice-looking, decently reviewed Villa Lutece Port Royal in Paris, four nights for $450.

Look for a package deal

If youve already booked a flight, or are going on a longer, more complicated trip, package deals wont work. But this straightforward, in-and-out New York-to-Paris trip is exactly the sort where a package deal might be the trick. I went to Kayaks packages page and it led me to a promising deal on Priceline.com: a round-trip, non-stop flight for two from New York to Paris, plus four nights at the Crowne Plaza Paris-Republique, for $2,505. The cheapest non-stop 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 luggageum, yep, that much I knew. Assuming I hadnt 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 or choose a discount rate. Only when your credit card is charged do you find out where youll be stayingsometimes 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.

I was all set. For any of the other choices, I had two more possible steps.

Make the call

Call the place youve chosen. Tell them youre about to reserve their hotel with, lets say, Hotels.com, and ask if theyll give you a discount for booking direct. Hotels typically pay a 20-30% commission to booking sites, so rationally speaking, they should be eager to split the difference with you.

Last-minute adjustments

This step only applies if youve got a cancellable reservation, but with lower-cost hotels thats 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.

Seth Kugel