1. Check prices online before extending a stay.
If you have ever seen a calendar grid of hotel room prices, you know that prices change from day to day and from room to room. If you decide to extend your stay -- or shorten it -- doing the advance research on how much your room costs for the night or nights in question can be extremely helpful.
In this situation, the easiest way to extend your stay is simply to talk to the folks at the front desk, as that way you can typically stay in the same room, have the additional night appear on the same final invoice, leave your incidentals on the same card, etc. -- in short, you don't have to create a completely new booking with a new confirmation code.
But before you do, you will still want to research the price online first, for two reasons. First, if the new night is a peak night for the hotel, you won't be surprised if the price is jacked up considerably -- and you may even be able to negotiate it down to be closer to the rate you are already paying. Conversely, if the new night is a slow one for the hotel, you won't merely extend your reservation at the same rate, only to find out later that the additional night should have been priced much lower.
This is especially the case for summer travel, where weeknight rates can be a fraction of weekend rates. For example, on a recent search for a Labor Day weekend hotel, I noticed that prices came down from around $200 per night to under $100 per night on Monday night as off-peak autumn pricing kicked in. If you didn't know this, and the front desk offered you another night at the same rate you had paid previously, you would be out a lot of money you could have pocketed.
Similarly, if you shorten your stay, you will want to know the rate for that night so that your bill is adjusted correctly. In short, research prices just as you would for a new booking.
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2. When booking flights, check prices at airport hotels.
If you find you can save lot of money on airfare by shifting your flights a day, or by flying very early in the morning, take a look at prices at airport hotels, as they are not always as expensive as you might think. In fact, I have found airport hotels to offer extremely competitive prices, especially in major cities where hotel choice is extensive and the airport hotel tends not to be a first choice except for folks who absolutely need to be in that area. If the airfare difference is more than the cost of the hotel, tacking on an extra night's accommodations could actually save you money.
3. Speaking of airport hotels...
Many airport hotels also offer free or cheap parking for a few days. A hotel at which I stay occasionally near the Philadelphia airport offers four days of free parking with a one-night stay at the hotel, as well as a 24-hour airport shuttle. So a short stay at an airport hotel can sometimes result in a cheaper flight, completely cover the cost of airport parking, and offer an extra hour or more of sleep and a free breakfast to boot.
4. Check for a "best price" guarantee.
Many of the major booking sites offer a "best price guarantee" for flights, lodging, car rentals and more; this can mitigate the hassle and anxiety of searching for a rate on a booking site, then checking the hotel site, then checking the discount sites, etc. This way, if you see a good deal and want to book it straight away, you have options if you later find the same room for a better price elsewhere.
Expedia, for example, will refund the difference if you find a cheaper room within 24 hours of booking, and give you a $50 travel coupon; book a room, then see if there is a better price out there when you have a little time (within 24 hours, of course). Orbitz's guarantee is a little more time-limited for airfares, and a little less so for hotels and car rentals.
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5. Check hotel Web sites for deals and better customer service.
As hotel chains get into the act of driving customers to their own Web sites with the offer of otherwise unadvertised discounts, they are also withholding some of the best rooms in the hotel for folks who take the bait.
As often as not, you will find very similar prices on booking sites as compared to the specific hotel Web sites (in part due to a controversial practice called rate parity, in which booking sites exert influence to make sure hotel Web sites don't undercut their prices). But a little-known fact of booking directly is that you tend to get slightly better service with direct bookings than with third-party bookings. Hotels make more money on direct bookings because they don't have to pay commissions, which can be up to 25 percent, so they tend to show appreciation for the extra revenue by giving those folks slightly better rooms. It gets worse the less you pay; when a reservation shows it was booked at an almost obscenely low price on an auction site, it has become more or less standard operating procedure to withhold the best rooms in the hotel for folks who paid more and paid directly.
Corollary to Nos. 4 and 5: The hotel and booking site wars are only just now heating up; more and more travelers are hearing the words, "Well, you booked this on a third-party site" when checking in or asking for amenities and room changes, so the hotels are clearly using this as a bargaining chip.
That said, while the booking sites are engaging in rate parity practices, not all the hotels are doing the same, and just because you are booking on their Web sites doesn't mean they will give you the best price. That means you can use the booking sites' best price guarantees as your own bargaining chip with the hotels. If you see a much better price on Expedia, as I did for a hotel booking in Atlanta recently, give the hotel reservation number a call directly and ask if they can match it.
6. Beware of auction sites, but use if you must.
While I recommend blind auction sites such as Priceline for car rentals, especially from the major rental companies, they can be quite risky for hotels, almost more so than for airfares. This is because some of the steepest discounts are offered by hotels that might be less attractive when you know exactly where you will be staying, whether due to poor reviews, ongoing construction, inconvenient or shady neighborhoods, or maybe even a listing on a bedbug registry.
That said, when your search is extremely specific -- an airport hotel might be a good example -- use Priceline's neighborhood mapping guide in an area where you know hotel choices are pretty limited, and you could do really well.
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7. Are you a member? There's a deal for you.
Most Americans are members of one association or another -- most commonly AAA or AARP -- and most membership associations offer member benefits that include hotel discounts. I am a member of USRowing, which offers 15 percent off the best available rate at all hotels in the Hilton family. My AAA membership offers deals at Best Western, Starwood, Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt hotels. Your credit card company probably has even more relationships.
That said, I know truly almost no one who has ever taken advantage of these offers. Most of us go online, search for and find a price, book it, and forget about it. But 15 percent off a $199 booking is a fair chunk of money, and the vast majority of us leave it on the table. For more on these types of offers, have a look at Take the Ouch Out of Hotel Pricing: Four Common Discounts.
If those types of deals are too old-fashioned for you, try Groupon, LivingSocial and other social media-based offers; there are truly heaps of them out there as startups tussle over your loyalty and small margins.
8. Ask your hotel if it has an airport shuttle.
Many hotels that are not necessarily in immediate proximity to the airport still run airport shuttles; it just might not be very widely advertised (especially on larger booking sites, where specific hotels do not always have detailed control over the content of their listings). Finding this info will usually require a phone call directly to the hotel.
9. Ask your hotel for taxi recommendations.
If the hotel doesn't have a shuttle, it will often have a relationship with a taxi company that will offer consistent pricing and service to its lodgers. On a recent trip to Europe, the front desk not only called a taxi for us, but also negotiated a price and sent the car out to pick us up at the end of the day. While we were sightseeing, I decided to ask another taxi company for a quote back to our hotel, and it was more than double the price the front desk had negotiated for us. Not bad.
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10. If you miss breakfast, get a to-go box.
On the same recent trip to Europe, the hotel staff knew we had a very early flight that would require us to check out before the hotel breakfast was served, so they made a to-go box breakfast for us to take with us to the airport. Not all hotels offer this amenity -- I haven't seen much of it in the U.S. lately -- but it's worth asking the night before you leave if the hotel can bundle up some muffins or the like for you in the morning.
Have any expert tips we missed? Share them in the comments or on our message boards!