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Take the Ouch Out of Hotel Pricing: Four Common Discounts

hotel bed bathrobeIf you are a deal hound, inevitably you have read a travel article advising that you "never pay rack rate" at a hotel, which is good advice -- but who ever even gets quoted the rack rate these days? Almost all hotel searches have some discount built in, whether due to pricing agreements between hotels and booking companies, or the many discounts available on hotels' own sites to travelers with certain memberships or affiliations (think AARP, AAA/CAA, senior, government/military and the like).

If you're a member of one of these associations -- and a huge number of travelers are -- note that these discounts do not show up on the major booking engines (Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, etc.). Big booking sites frequently offer their own special discounts arranged in partnership with the hotel chains, and try not to compete with their own offers. As a result, to qualify for association membership discounts, you typically need to book directly with the specific hotel or chain. But which association discounts will yield the biggest savings?

I did a large sample test on on some of the most common hotel discount programs to see how they stack up against each other; here is what I found, along with some tips on getting the most from the programs.

AAA
The most common affiliate membership discounts are available to American Automobile Association (AAA) members, or members of its northern equivalent, the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA). The option to search for AAA prices shows on almost all hotel Web sites and discount program listings. This is also typically the first option offered by a hotel booking agent when you are making a phone reservation.

Are these deals any good, and can you actually use them? I have used my AAA membership to get a slightly better deal on almost every hotel stay on a "normal" trip in the past 20 years (by normal I mean other than package deals, points bookings, vacation rentals, etc.). Booking AAA discounts has become almost absurdly easy; most hotel Web sites have a checkbox for AAA visible at all times during the booking process, and you just click the box and hit Find Rates to see the discounts.

The discounts tend to be significant, if not huge; my general feeling on AAA discounts is that they can often drop the nightly rate from the "ouch" range into the "okay, I can do that" range. On a large sample of test searches this past week, I found most discounts came in at $12 - $35/night, which in some cases constituted a 20 - 30 percent discount on the originally quoted rates. Not bad. I found prices to be more or less the same when asking for AAA rates over the phone.

15 Ways to Get the Best Hotel Rate

Senior and AARP Discounts
senior hot tubWhile some hotels and booking engines want you to be a member of the AARP to qualify for age-based discounts, many just require proof of age when you check in (the minimum age may be 60, 62 or 65; you will want to pay close attention to this). This is easy enough -- hand over your driver's license or passport, done. These discounts are available at almost all major chain hotels, although I did do at least a few searches while writing this article where generic senior rates simply were not available during peak travel times.

Doing a large sample of senior discounts for this article, I found that prices usually dropped out quite a bit when I clicked the "Senior discounts" button on hotel Web sites, with discounts of $25 - $30 per night very common for rooms priced in the $140 - $170 range, which puts the typical discount at 20 - 25 percent.

Membership in the AARP is open to folks starting at 50 years of age, so you can get a good 10 - 15 extra years of discounted deals when you join the AARP. That said, AARP discounts usually must be booked through the AARP itself, or at least using the AARP Web site as a starting point -- they don't always show up automatically on hotel booking sites, as do the AAA and CAA discounts.

The AARP has a more limited selection of hotel chains available than does AAA, but it is still a solid list, with discounts mostly stated as "up to 20 percent" at slightly higher-end hotels, and "up to 10 percent" at moderate or lower-priced hotels. See our travel deals section for a good sampling of senior discounts.

Six Savings Secrets for Senior Travel

Government and Military Discounts
Many hotel chains offer special discounts to government employees as well as current and past members of the military; I found that these discounts were very similar to the AAA and similar memberships, although they were available at fewer chains, and at fewer properties. Find more details on how this played out below.

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