You don’t have to overpay for a hotel room — there are tricks and tips you can use to find the best room rates so you can enjoy your trip guilt-free.
Keep reading for their advice on when to book a hotel room and how to find hidden discounts to save money on your next vacation.
If the listed price of a hotel room is scaring you off, don’t call it quits – you might be able to negotiate the cost. Depending on the time of year, the hotel company and a few other determining factors, it may be possible to phone the hotel and bargain for a better price for your stay. It’s all a matter of knowing when to travel, which types of hotels to target and how to handle the conversation when you make that call.
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Time Your Travels
To have leverage with your hotel of choice, the hotel has to feel like it needs you more than you need it. So, if you’re trying to negotiate hotel prices at a time of year when loads of tourists are clamouring for accommodation, you probably won’t have much luck, because the hotel will have no problem finding someone willing to pay the listed price. On the other hand, if you’re travelling at a time of year when hotels are struggling to fill beds, you should have the upper hand in negotiations.
Schedule your trip for the low season to score the best deals on hotel rooms. Do some homework on your destination to learn when people tend to travel there most often. In most places, tourist season peaks around Easter, Christmas, New Year’s Day and in the summer months. If you book outside these times, you’ll have an easier time negotiating.
Choosing a Hotel
Start by asking around. If your friends or family members have been able to negotiate prices with a particular hotel in the past successfully, chances are you should be able to do the same. Try to get the name of the front desk agent or manager who spoke with your friend, and ask to talk to that person when you give the hotel a ring.
More often than not, chain hotels won’t want to budge on their room rates regardless of the season. Opt instead for privately owned properties, such as small boutique hotels, whose managers will be more open to price negotiations.
Making the Call
Give yourself plenty of time by contacting the hotel as soon as your travel dates are set. Call and ask to speak with a manager, and if a friend referred you to that hotel or hotelier, make sure to mention that their establishment was recommended and that your friend sang their praises.
Let the manager know your travel dates, and ask if the hotel has availability during that time. If so, ask for a quote on a room rate. The first quote you get will most likely be for a top-priced room, so try to work the number down from there, asking politely if there’s a possibility of having that room at a lower rate since you’re booking directly through the hotel. If the manager is willing to negotiate the price of that room, roll with it. If not, continue inquiring about other rooms that might be available at a discounted rate. Make sure you know the hotel’s published rates, so you can ask if those rates are the best they have to offer.
If you have no luck getting discounted rates, see whether you can get some amenities – breakfast, spa services or alcohol, for example – included in the quoted rate. Either way, keep your tone respectful and professional throughout the conversation.
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Ask for the Best Rate
Start the negotiation by saying something like, “I found your rate online for $200 per night. Is that your best rate?” You may or may not get a better deal right away.
Follow up by asking, “Is that the best you can do?” or, “Can you do better than that?”
If you still don’t get the rate you want, continue by saying, “I can’t spend more than $150.” Then, see what response you get. It’s a good rule of thumb to try getting 25% off your starting rate because hotels generally pay that amount to third-party agents like online booking sites and travel agents for finding guests.
Mention the Competition
You can also try dropping the names of the hotel’s competitors. For example, you can say, “Hotel Down the Avenue has a free gym for guests to use and they only charge $175 per night. Would you be able to give me $150 per night?”
Tweak the Dates
If you have some flexibility, ask the hotel manager, “Does that happen to be a busy time for the hotel? Would you be able to lower the rates if I change my dates?” Hotel rates fluctuate a lot, so simply adjusting your travel dates could affect the rates dramatically.
Another trick you can use is to start out with a two-night stay and later say, “I can extend my stay to three nights if you could give me a better deal.”
Ask if there are any special discounts. The hotel may call it a special rate or saver rate.
Hotels often have discounts for AAA members, AARP members, senior citizens, government workers, military members, veterans, travel industry employees, hotel shareholders, business travellers, and loyalty program members. Boutique hotels may even offer introductory rates for first-time guests.
Much like the clearance racks at clothing stores, hotels also often have discount rooms that they don’t offer to regular customers. There’s usually a defect that makes the manager decide to keep the room empty. For example, there may be a stain in the carpet, or a lamp may be missing.
Depending on the hotel, you may be able to get this room at a discount. Just ask, “Do you have any out-of-order rooms? I’d be willing to stay there if the price is right.”
Negotiating with the Hotel Franchisor
For example, maybe you are booking a Hilton hotel. You could book the room through any of many different websites, including the Hilton main website.
You could also call the (800) number to go directly through to their reservation centre. Unlike the airlines, hotels don’t charge you extra to make a booking on the phone!
You could certainly try negotiating a rate with the person who you’re speaking with, and possibly they have access to some different rates for the room you want to book. A bit of sweet talking and some suggestions about booking a cheaper room at a nearby competing hotel might persuade them to shift you to a different rate category.
The big difference between negotiating with an online travel agency (OTA) and with the online franchisor is that with an OTA, any rate reduction comes out of their margin. With the franchisor, any rate reduction is passed on back to the hotel; so it doesn’t cost the franchisor any money.
A secondary difference is that with the OTA, they don’t really care which hotel you book, just so long as you book a hotel through them. The only real lever you have with the OTA is to say ‘you are charging $102 all up for this hotel, but your competing OTA is charging only $98’.
However, for the franchisor, if you switch from one of their member properties to some other unaffiliated property, they lose all the revenue. So they should be more sensitive to doing deals to win business.
Sometimes the franchisor can be the most motivated of all to cut you a deal because they are most interested in getting rooms sold at any reasonable rate. Let’s face it – a 5% or so commission on $90 isn’t all that much different to a 5% commission on $100 – it costs them only 50c to give you a $10 discount at the hotel. They’d much rather slice their income from $5 down to $4.50 than to lose it entirely, and they’d also be happier to keep the booking going to one of their member properties. If they don’t give their members lots of bookings, there is a danger the property will switch to a different franchise/brand instead.
So this is very different from the situation with both the hotel and any OTA, where every dollar of discount they give you potentially costs them exactly as much as the amount you receive.
However, there’s an exception to the claim that giving you a dollar costs the hotel a dollar, but you must apply a bit of ‘verbal judo’ to the hotel directly to flip around their perception.
Negotiating with the Hotel Directly
First of all, to state a perhaps obvious fact. You can’t negotiate a hotel rate (or much else) in writing. You need to talk, interactively, on the phone. So don’t email or write or fax. Pick up the phone.
In theory, you’d think that the best place to get the cheapest rate on a hotel room would be going directly to the hotel itself.
Sometimes this is true – the classic concept of the ‘blackboard special’ rate – a special low rate advertised on a blackboard/sandwich board outside the entrance to the hotel is a time-honoured example of a hotel discounting its rate deeply, particularly for bookings for the same night.
But these days, particularly when phoning the hotel sometime prior to the actual date you plan to arrive, it seems far from uncommon to be quoted a higher rate than what you can find on other websites.
This is – on the face of it – crazy, and the reason is in part, indeed due to craziness and in part due to calculated greed.
Now, remember back to the calculation we did before. For every $100 of a hotel nightly rate, it is a reasonable approximation to estimate that the company selling you the hotel room is probably getting $10 – $15 (sometimes considerably more, occasionally a bit less) and probably there may be another middle man or other costs to the actual hotel or perhaps another $5.
In other words, hotels are typically selling their room nights through various types of distribution systems with about a 20% discount – again, with plenty of exceptions in terms of margins, both up and down.
Now here’s the thing: Keeping to the example of a $100/nt room rate for which the hotel gets only $80 for, don’t you think the hotel would prefer to get a full $90 from you directly, rather than to receive only $80 from its distribution network? That would give them an extra $10, and it would save you $10 at the same time. You’d both win.
I’ve very regularly been confronted with more extreme examples. The hotel might say its rooms cost $100/nt, but online – even on their own corporate/franchisor website, I can see the same room for $90/nt (which the hotel would get about $72 for). You would think the hotel would be delighted to accept $85 for the room – that is much more than it would get if the room were purchased online through another outlet, and it is also, of course, $85 more than it would get if no room were purchased at all.
So here’s where the verbal judo comes in.
Using Verbal Judo to Get the Best Rate
If you say ‘I am calling to ask for a discount’ your call will be an unwelcome one. But if you say ‘I bet this is the first call you’ve received today from someone offering to pay you more than you normally get for a room’ wouldn’t that be a surprise to the hotel staff?
Say to them – ‘look, I saw your rooms being sold on (whatever travel site) for $90 a night, and I’m guessing, if they are selling the rooms for $90 a night to me, they are only paying you about $70 for the room, right?’
Pause at this point and give them a chance to agree with you. If the person says ‘I don’t know’ or anything less than a sensible/positive response which shows they understand how things work and are willing, being honest, and open with you, you’ve found out something very valuable – you’re speaking to the wrong person. Ask to be transferred to the reservation manager or duty manager.
When you’ve found someone who understands this very basic bit of hotel marketing, continue ‘Why don’t we do a win-win deal, so that you get more than $70 while I pay less than $90? Can we split the difference and you sell the room to me for $80? That means I save a bit, and you get $10 more than normal, while also creating a direct relationship with an appreciative customer who will probably keep coming back in the future?’
If the person says something like ‘We’re not allowed to undercut our retailers’ you could say ‘I understand that. Maybe there’s some other way we could make a win-win deal. Could you sell me at the standard/run-of-house room rate, but give me an upgraded room?’
Alternatively, you could ask for breakfasts to be included or anything else at all that has some value to you.
The key bit of verbal judo here is that you’re not asking them to give you a discount. Instead, you are inviting them to accept your kind offer to pay them more money than normal.
Talking to the Right Person at the Hotel
I’ve touched on this already with the trick rhetorical question you should ask about the net return a hotel gets from an internet booking site.
In more general terms, you need to be sensitive to who it is that you are talking to. Is it someone doing double duty as the front desk clerk/receptionist, and do they have a long line of people waiting to be served (e.g. if it is 9 am with lots of people checking out)? If you reach this person at a busy time, they’re going to just quickly say ‘No’ to you so they can get rid of the interruption and get back to dealing with the impatient people waiting in front of them.
Or is it a low-level low life reservationist who could care less about anything, and who only has the authority to say ‘No’ rather than to say ‘Yes’ to your requests?
How can you find out? When you call the hotel, do you have an option for reservations and other options for the front desk, and so on? Or do you just get through to someone, and you don’t know who they are?
If you just get through to someone, you should first ask if they need to transfer you to a reservations department, or if they can help. If they say they can help, then continue ‘I’ve a couple of questions about your hotel, its rooms, and your rates. Do you have time to discuss these with me now, or would it be better to call you back?’.
If the person says they have time, you’ve used verbal judo to get them to in essence offer to talk with you at length.
If they transfer you through to reservations, see if you can engage the person in a couple of sentences of discussion to see if they are a sensible, helpful pro-active person or not. You could ask them a question about amenities that may be included or not (e.g. ‘Do you offer Wi-fi and cable internet, and if so, what does it cost?’).
You could ask them ‘I’m thinking about staying on these dates, can you tell me if you still have good availability or not?’. That’s actually a great question to ask – if they have good availability, you know to next say ‘Oh, so do you have some specials for that period then?’. If they have bad availability, you could ask a similar question ‘Oh, does that mean you’re now only selling at full rack rate, or do you still have other rates available too?’. In both cases, you’ve now used verbal judo to flip the topic to discounts.
But if you don’t like the sound of the person, you should politely say ‘That’s great, thank you for your help. I’ve got an off-the-wall request, rather strange because it involves paying you more money than normal for a room. Could you transfer me to the reservations manager or duty manager, whoever you think can best talk me through this?’.
The thing is you don’t want the person who transfers your call to say to whoever you next speak ‘I’ve got this mean nasty person demanding to speak to a manager who will give them a low rate, even though I’ve already refused to do so’. In such a case, it is more common for the manager to back up their staff member than to overrule them. But with your introductory comments the way you phrased them, you sound like a nice guy, and there is no way the person transferring can say something negative about you.
Should You Feel Embarrassed at Asking to Speak to a Manager?
So there you are, wanting to book a short two-night stay at a hotel; let’s say their offer to you is $135/night and you’re hoping to save a few dollars on the rate.
Maybe you might worry that this is too trivial a matter for a duty manager or reservations manager to bother about. Indeed, if all you might get is $5 – 10 off the rate (i.e., for a two-night stay, $10 – $20 in total) maybe it isn’t even worth your while either?
Not so! The time it will take to have this discussion represents maybe five minutes maximum, and probably only three minutes. Think about this from both the hotel manager’s perspective and your perspective.
For the hotel manager, he or she has spent three or four minutes and has managed to generate $250 or more of new business for the hotel (plus all the extra money from meals, drinks, internet, and so on that they’ll get from you too).
That means his hourly rate equates to something like earning $3750/hour if all he did all day was to handle calls such as yours. That’s a brilliant earnings rate that should delight the manager and his boss, too.
And as for you, your four or five minutes of time has saved you $10 or maybe $20 – and probably a bit more when you consider that you’re not now paying 10% or more taxes on the hotel room rate savings too. Worst case scenario – five minutes saves you $11 – that’s the same as $132/hour. Best case scenario – four minutes saves you $22 – that’s a $330 hourly rate. Isn’t that worth your time, too?
If you have a special request, leave it for later in the phone call. Otherwise, you may be given a more expensive room. You want to know their base rate so you can decide for yourself if whatever addon you want is worth the extra charge.
Once you get a rate you like, ask, “Oh, by the way, will this be an ocean-view room?” If the hotel manager says it’s not and that you’ll have to pay more for an ocean-view room, you can judge for yourself whether to pay the higher price.
This is also a good time to ask, “Could you throw in the breakfast?” You can also ask for a room upgrade or free parking.
Before you end the call, get your reservation confirmation code and the name of the person on the other end of the phone. These details will help you if there’s any confusion or problem with your reservation later.