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Travel budget squished? How to find the best hotel deals

I recently responded to an inquiry through PR meister Peter Shankman’s HARO (“Help A Reporter Out.”)

A journalist was working on a travel article for the financial lifestyle Web site MainStreet.com, so I sent her some of my favorite tips on how to spend less on a hotel room.

The resulting article, Score a Hotel Deal Abroad, quotes me and other travel experts but of course didn’t have room to include my entire input, so I thought I’d give it to you here on Family Travel:

Here are some questions about hotel deals and my thoughts in response:

– What’s the number one misconception about hotel deals?

Deals are often best on a hotel’s own Web site or with a direct call to the facility, not necessarily on sites like Orbitz or Expedia.  Hotels, quite frankly, feel less committed to a customer who chooses to stay with them only because that hotel was the cheapest option on Travelocity.

Hotels want your attention and your loyalty, so many are running excellent packages and deals from their own sites, and they are very responsive to a customer who calls directly.  A customer calling to say, “How can I stay at your hotel and still meet my budget requirements” is certainly a bird-in-hand customer, and who wouldn’t want one of those in tight economic times?

– What are three ways to get a good deal on a hotel that consumers should know about and why?

  1. Look for packages. If you’re visiting a city and plan to take the kids to certain attractions anyway, see if there is a hotel offering attraction tickets or a City Pass, plus lodging.  Check the city’s tourism Web site, where value packages and deals for visitors are almost always available to anyone. Bundled is often cheaper than a la carte, just like in a restaurant.
  2. Try Sunday night. Weekend traffic has checked out by late Sunday, but Monday’s customers haven’t arrived yet, so that means empty beds that must be sold, often at a low price.  This works well for families in summer, when kids are out of school, or for homeschooling families year-round.  We found an excellent Sunday rate recently at the Houston, Texas Houstonian Hotel, a place that would normally be out of my budget range.  They had three great pools and plenty to do; my kids loved it.
  3. Try business hotels on weekends. Especially in large cities, chain hotels cluster in downtown or business districts to support business travelers during the week. On weekends, they sit empty, so prices often drop to lure customers, making them perfect for leisure travelers.  The location may be “slow” because surrounding offices are closed for the weekend, but if you don’t mind that, you’ve just scored a nice room for a lot less money.

– Are there certain times of year that are better than others to get good deals?

Sure, everyone’s heard of travel in the “off-season” for better rates, and that’s because it’s true.

The Caribbean is cheaper in summer because it’s hot, but if you’re like me and have lived in the Middle East, Florida and now Texas, that is surely no problem! 🙂  Places like Utah and Colorado that specialize in winter sports also have tons of activities and good prices in the summer, their off-season.

I’m particularly fond of the idea of holidays spent somewhere other than home, including travel over Thanksgiving – many wonderful places in Europe are so much less expensive in November, so put on a jacket and go.  I’d rather have a lovely meal sitting in a Paris bistro than obsess too much over missing turkey one year.

– Are there any websites that you recommend?

  1. Kayak.com for a quick way to survey prices across many airlines and hotel chains. To buy your ticket or lodging, however, you click through to the actual hotel or airline Web site, which as I said above means that you may find even better deals.
  2. TripAdvisor.com for an overview of opinions about a location or facility. These are user-generated reviews and can be all over the map in terms of accuracy, so I throw out the “top and bottom” entries.  The overly complimentary top ones may be planted by staff or PR, the bottom ones may be written by some emotional person having either a bad day or unrealistic expectations.  Somewhere in the middle is the truth. It’s a data point for me as a trip planner.I’m always impressed when there is a bad review but the hotel/restaurant/etc. took the time to come onto TripAdvisor and respond.  I wish more places would wake up about how important it is to never let bad news about your company just sit there.
  3. Google Blog Search.  As a blogger myself, I know that some of the best travel information is found on local blogs written by people who are passionate about where they live, but it can be hard to find the gems. Google Blog Search helps me sift through the offerings.  Insights may pop up in unexpected places; a “locavore” food blog, for example, will often have excellent suggestions about local places to eat that I’d never find otherwise.

– Is it better to buy combo deals, why or why not? Are there certain credit cards that could help?

I am a big fan of combination deals in some circumstances, but know yourself as a traveler.

When I took my preteen daughter and 20-something nephew to Hong Kong and Tokyo, we found a very good package deal for airfare and lodging at the Go-Today.com Web site (I often see their packages on BootsnAll’s Cheap Travel Scout and in Budget Travel magazine.)  The key for me was that I was not terribly picky about a specific hotel or airline, which is important because the selection was limited.

Also, the included city tours were not mandatory, which works for me because I knew both cities well enough to be my own tourguide, and I prefer independent travel anyway.  Finally, the package was nonrefundable, which is true for many package deals, so I bought trip insurance (something I don’t normally do) because I did not want unexpected illness or anything else to cause me to lose my money.

Combo deals mean better prices in exchange for a loss of flexibility, so the traveler must be ready for that.

I do use an American Express card for business travel related to my writing and Web 2.0/social media consulting, and I’ve found that their awards points program is very generous. It’s come in handy several times to knock back the price of airline tickets and other vacation products, so I’m careful to check the AMEX online travel section for possible deals when I’m making travel plans.

Finally, I have learned that there may be hotel price points that you don’t want to go below; on the Perceptive Travel blog, we talked about whether I ask too much of US budget lodging below about $50-$60.