Sad, but I found out that I flew 306,000 miles last year and spent over 200 nights in hotels. And after a few years of living in hotels across this planet, you, lovely reader, get to benefit from my mistakes.
Airbnb.com is disrupting the hotel industry
If you haven’t heard, it’s where people are renting out rooms in their houses, apartments, trailers, tree house, boats, and whatever. Kid you not!
I’ve gotten decent rooms for $30 a night in NYC, as opposed to paying $250 for a 2-star when some event (Hurricane Sandy) has sold out the area. If you’re a family, you can select the option for the whole house with however many bedrooms.
Sometimes it’s not cheaper than Hotwire.com, which I’ll get to in a second. And if you’re weirded out about staying at some random person’s place– I totally get that. You can talk to folks beforehand, read reviews, plus see how many friends you have in common.
I’ve done this for a few months and I’ve had consistently great experiences. I believe these hosts like to meet new people, for the same reason families take on international exchange students.
If you need just one night, don’t have time to chit-chat, are in a city that has cheap hotels already (the Midwest, Orlando, Phoenix), need to be in an exact place, or aren’t the one footing the bill, then Airbnb.com isn’t right for you.
Find the same hotel cheaper on Hotwire.com
And if you don’t really care what particular hotel you’re staying at, usually this is the cheapest. You pick an area, star rating, and date– then they give you options.
My trick is to look for anything that is at least 80% positively reviewed. I’ll take a 95% rated 2.5 star over a 60% rated 3.5 star any day. The highly rated 2.5 star is probably a Holiday Inn Express, because of the free breakfast. Note, the regular Holiday Inn (not the same thing) is a 3-star.
There is no difference between a 3.5 star and a 4 star unless you really care about 24-hour room service, which is overpriced anyway.
If you’re staying in Vegas, watch for the hidden fees– usually called a “resort fee”. It can be as high as $35 a night and only folks like the Stratosphere will let you remove it– but you have to be insistent. The general best deal is at the Rio, where you can get a 600-square-foot suite for $50 a night, then take the shuttle to the strip. No resort fees, either.
Hotwire charges fees that are blended into the taxes, so you don’t know their cut. Sometimes this fee will make the price higher than what the hotel costs directly to book, even though the daily rate may appear lower.
Further, when they say you’re saving 35% off the rate, for example– you’re not saving off that particular hotel’s rate, but the average rate of all similar hotels in that area.
I stay at hotels often enough that I usually know which hotel it is based on the star rating, area, and reviews. For example, if you see a 3.5-star hotel near Louisville Airport, then it’s the Crowne Plaza. And if you see a 3-star in the North Strip rated 80%, it’s the Stratosphere. New York and LAX are a bit harder since there are more hotels there.
Go off the TripAdvisor rating, not the Hotwire.com rating. They will show both to you. If you’ve stayed at that hotel before, they might show “no ratings”, when really they’re just hiding it from you. If it shows “X people have booked in the last 24 hours”, but says no ratings, then that’s a clear giveaway.
You supposedly can’t earn points when you use Hotwire.com or other 3rd party booking sites. But you should present your Hilton, SPG, Southwest, or whatever card anyway. Sometimes (usually not), they’ll credit you with a stay.
If you ask nicely, sometimes they’ll give you a room upgrade. Never underestimate the power of a clerk to help you or hurt you, too.
If you’re staying for multiple days, but aren’t sure about the hotel, then you can book one night to see. They’ll often give you the option to extend that particular booking at the same price. If not, you can always create a new booking– just remember what I said about them hiding the reviews from you.
Hotwire shows Hotels.com rates in another tab. Usually, they are not cheaper, but if they are, Hotwire.com has a money-back guarantee. It’s a pain in the butt to collect on it, so don’t bother unless it’s over $100.
Hotwire.com has better service than Priceline.com and for that reason alone, I don’t search Priceline unless Hotwire doesn’t have anything.
Hotwire will let you refund the stay if you’re a frequent traveler and claim that you made a mistake. If you’re not a frequent customer, they’ll let you book in another city or date range. Try this with priceline.com and they’ll stonewall you. But you can get priceline.com to allow you to rebook, as long as it’s the same star rating in the same area for the same dates on a “name your price” booking.
You can’t specify beds on Priceline, so don’t do it if you have 2 or more people. The “name your price” option is normally cheaper than Hotwire, but you better know exactly what the market rates are. Even if you get a cheaper price, it could be a 3-star hotel with 15% positive ratings.
I’d be willing to pay a lot more for a 3-star with 90% positive reviews than a 3-star with 10% reviews. Anything less than 75% and you’re just asking for trouble.
The major sites (Expedia, Travelocity, etc) work just fine for the United States and Canada– I consider Canada to be an extension of the United States– at least from a hotel-booking standpoint.
But know that star ratings don’t matter in Europe or Latin America. In fact, you’ll see listings for a 4-star hotel abroad— great pictures– but upon check-in, find a total dump. Verify it by looking at the reviews on TripAdvisor, Google, or wherever. Never trust the hotel’s own site.
In Europe, many hotels will have poor ratings but aren’t necessarily that bad. Americans are used to big hotel rooms, so take this into account.
Scams and tricks
Many of these guys will pre-check the box on “trip protection” insurance or other stuff. Decline it, of course. Sometimes they move around where the upsell is. And often, they will make it say “Yes, I want to buy it” or “Yes, I want to decline it”– so be careful to make sure if you’re really declining it or not.
You can literally spend hours researching every single hotel. I will often use a service like FancyHands to do this for me– costs a couple of dollars a task. You specify what you want and their agents do the research, even making phone calls and bookings on your behalf. More about it here.
Bonus pro tips
Hotel wifi is a scam. If it’s 3 stars or less, they give it to you for free. But often, if you have a T-mobile, AT&T, or Boingo account, you can get into the hotel’s wifi under the “roaming” option. And if you ask the front desk nicely, they’ll usually just give you a code.
The airport shuttle is a big deal for me. I don’t drive, nor do I want to drive– since the car rental return is a whole other game we can talk about later. Often hotels have an airport shuttle, but it’s not listed on Hotwire.com or Expedia. Factor this into the price of your hotel and the peace of mind factor.
If you want two beds, mark your booking as having 4 people, even if it’s just two people. 4 people will usually force two beds. If you put 3 people, they will assume you can all cram into a queen. Not pleasant if you’re 3 guys that are friends, but not “that” close as friends.
The first thing I do when I enter the hotel room is put the “do not disturb” hanger on the door. You don’t want housekeeping coming in at 8 am ruining your good night’s sleep.
I’ve had them even come in without announcing themselves– not nice. And once, a hotel (it was an Extended Stay– avoid them) gave me a key to a room still occupied. Let’s just say these guests were “busy”.
When getting a room, ask to make sure it’s not next to the elevator. If you don’t specify that you want a quiet room and you checked in late, they’ll try to give this to you. If you go via Hotwire or Priceline, you’re highly likely to get such a room unless you say something.
Don’t book a hotel/flight/car package. That’s just a way to get you to spend more money without really getting a better deal than if you bought separately.
If you get bad service (hey, it happens), don’t waste your time with the assistant manager or other folks who aren’t really managers. Get the General Manager to call you back at a specific time. Barring that, message them on Facebook and Twitter– then they’ll have to respond. Leave the emotion out of it. State the facts of what happened and what you’d like them to do to fix it. Free breakfast is easy, while a free night is harder.
There you have it! Thanks for spending time with me. I hope you’ve learned a few expert tips that will save you money and headache later. Let me know in the comments below what you think– love to hear your stories!