Next to plane tickets, accommodation is the biggest chunk of any trip. As echoed in our post on how to book the cheapest flight possible, the Internet has brought with it a monstrous pile of booking sites – many of which offer different prices even for the exact same hotel. These days, it's far too easy to waste your time and your money when planning.
To simplify things, we've laid out the cheapest accommodation booking options out there. That includes sharing the best ways to snag a deal (even free!), to our ultimate hotel hacks and tips. Here's how to book the cheapest accommodation possible (now updated for 2018)!
1. Sign in for savings
That one minute it takes to sign up on a hotel or booking website can amount to some serious members-only savings. Skeptical? Check our example below or try comparing for yourself!
Many booking sites offer rewards programs (where you earn credit or free nights after a certain # of bookings) or members programs (where a membership earns you exclusive discounts). If you're hesitant to sign up because your inbox is perma-flooded with e-mails, fear not! You can still snag deals with a one-time sign-up to get a log-in ID, click “unsubscribe” from all e-mails thereafter.
A few companies that take advantage of members-only rewards programs include:
- Expedia (earn members-only prices)
- Hotels.com (earn members-only prices and points – after 9 stays your 10th is free)
- Booking.com (earn members-only prices)
- Agoda (earn members-only prices)
- C-trip (in China – earns account credit with each booking)
2. Use the best search engines
As you've probably learnt by now, not all booking services are created equal. Many sites tack on sneaky commissions to already inflated rates. The websites we've found to consistently have the best prices that also search broadly include:
- Expedia (good for members only and last-minute deals)
- Hotels Combined (combines multiple hotel and hostel search engines including Hostelbookers)
- Booking.com (offers special rates with free membership)
- Hotels.com (often has coupons)
Thrifty Tips: Reserve as far in advance as possible for best price – intentionally waiting for last-minute deals is a huge gamble, especially considering tip #3 (up next)!
3. “Hold” great rates by booking ahead with free cancellation
Booking a reservation that has “free cancellation” can help you secure great rates in advance. Most booking sites have free cancellation on the majority of listings, but always be sure of the cancellation policy and check how long that is valid for (e.g. sometimes it's only free cancellation until 48 hours before the booking date).
While this is a great way to hold an exceptionally good rate, many booking sites like Expedia and Hotels.com will offer an even greater discount if you book a non-refundable rate. It pays to plan ahead!
Finally, don't make a habit of “holding” infinite hotel rooms/dates – hotel owners don't enjoy repeated cancellations!
4. Collect points for free or upgraded hotel stays
Every major hotel chain has a rewards program, letting you earn points that can be exchanged for free hotel stays or upgrades to your room. What you may not realize is that hotel booking sites have started their own loyalty programs too. The advantage with earning points on a booking site is that you can earn points when staying at any hotel, not just one chain. So if you stay at the Hilton one night and the Marriott the next, both stays will earn you points as long as you book with the same booking site.
Some booking sites that have their own loyalty programs are:
- Expedia+ Rewards: Earn points on flights, hotels, car rentals, vacation packages, and more. Earn even more with an Expedia+ credit card.
- Hotels.com Rewards: Collect 10 nights across any hotels, get 1 night free.
- Orbitz Rewards: Earn points on flights, hotels, car rentals, vacation packages, and more. Earn even more with an Orbitz Visa card.
Loyalty programs with hotel chains can still be a great option. Many hotels offer exclusive perks and pricing to members of their program, such as late check-out and complimentary internet access. Most hotel programs are well connected with many partners, allowing you to earn points through credit cards, flights, car rentals, online shopping, and more.
Some popular hotel loyalty programs are:
5. Sign up for membership discounts
Many (non-hotel/booking site) memberships provide discounts on hotels and hostels worldwide. Often you simply type the membership/discount code in a coupon box when booking online. Some programs that offer discounts include:
- Hostelling International (HI) (provides discounts at HI membership hostels worldwide)
- CAA/AAA (provides members-only discounts on international hotel chains and car rentals)
- International Student Identity Card (ISIC) card (provides discounts on accommodation, transport, and attractions worldwide)
6. Scope out coupon codes
Found the best hotel price? Next, find a coupon for that hotel chain or the booking site you found it on. Always put in the year and/or month to filter out expired coupons, e.g. “Hotels.com September 2015 coupon”. Some of the more reliable sites that offer coupons include RetailMeNot and Coupons.com.
7. Find region-specific search engines and hotel chains
More often than not, broad search engines miss smaller, region specific search engines and hotel chains. It pays to ask around on Tripadvisor forums, friends, and Google to see if there are local hotel chains or booking sites you may not be aware of. Here's a few region-specific examples (got more to add? Leave a comment below!):
8. Try bidding or find last minute &/or mystery deals
Mystery Deals & Bidding
“Mystery deals” happen when the hotel name is only revealed after payment, in exchange for a deep discount off regular rates. Price bidding is a virtual auction, and involves offering your own price on a known hotel (keep in mind that a bid is a commitment to that price each time). Websites that offer mystery deals include Hotwire and Priceline (which also does price bidding).
Last Minute Deals
Last minute deals happen when rates are reduced to sell a room. Such prices can be found on normal booking sites or via HotelTonight, which specializes in last minute deals (get $25 credit using promo code TAVERY19). Expedia has a last-minute deals page as well. That being said, it's not recommended to delay booking in hopes of finding last minute deals – at least make a Plan A and “hold” a room with free cancellation first (tip #3)!
Book Someone's Non-Refundable Reservation at a Discount
A new service called Roomer allows you to reserve a hotel room that someone else has booked but can no longer use, and is non-refundable. By offering someone else's set booking, the original buyer gets some money back, and you get a reduced rate. Win-win for all!
9. Use the sharing economy
The sharing economy relies on “sharing” in one form or another, such as renting someone's home while they're on vacation. This is often hugely cheaper (and sometimes even nicer) than hotels, hence its worldwide explosion in popularity. Check our round-up of sharing economy travel services here.
What does it cost to stay somewhere using the sharing economy? Anywhere from FREE to as much as you want to fork out for a high-end apartment rental. Couchsurfing, housesitting, and house swapping are all cost-free options. Those wanting to splash out on fancier accommodations can book timeshares for rent by owners at a fraction of the cost set by the resorts themselves. Prices can range from as low as $28/night to a few thousand per week, depending on how luxe you want.
Some sharing economy accommodation options include:
Thrifty Tips: Create a detailed, enthusiastic profile with photos to be an appealing, responsible guest and/or home owner. Where relevant, detail any your pet/housesitting experience (even if you've only done so for friends – anything is better than nothing!). If listing your own home for an exchange, be sure to include bright photos and detailed descriptions of nearby attractions.
10. Check Groupon & deal-of-the-day sites
Hotel bookings or holiday packages can have significant discounts on group buy sites, especially if you're seeking fancier hotels. Some group buy sites include:
- Groupon (North America, Europe & Oceania)
- Expedia (Worldwide)
- Travelzoo (US, Canada, UK, Australia)
- Living Social (North America, Europe & Oceania)
- Wagjag (Canada)
- Scoopon (Australia)
Thrifty Tips: Always double check for black-out dates and take note of additional fees (e.g. extra charges for bookings on weekends or holidays).
11. Book longer stays for weekly & monthly rates
Longer term rates can reduce nightly rates significantly. Surprisingly, a 7 night stay can be even cheaper than staying 6 (see example below). Why is that? Extended bookings are ideal for owners as it means less room changeovers for them and thus less costs. Weekly and monthly rates on AirBNB are quite competitive against what locals pay in terms of rent, and are almost always much cheaper than hotels.
- Use air/rewards miles to book hotels – it's one of the better value strategies to get the most mile usage for your dollar (especially in consistently expensive destinations e.g. Paris). Remember, you can earn points on booking sites like Expedia and Hotels.com too.
- Use price matching – some hotels and booking sites price match. This means if you find another website offering the same hotel & dates at a cheaper rate, you could get a refund on the price difference. Expedia, Hotels.com, Booking.com, Hotels Combined all have price-match guarantees.
- Get price alerts on hotels – this can be handy if you're set on a particular hotel/date set and want to know if rates change. Kayak has opt-in price alerts via e-mail.
- Consider volunteering or working in exchange for accommodation. WWOOF (worldwide opportunities on organic farms), WorkAway, SkillStay, HelpX are reputable resources to find opportunities. Hostels often offer free accommodation in exchange for a few hours work, simply e-mail or ask on arrival.
- Consider roadtripping or camping. Merging your transportation & accommodation costs can be sensible in expensive countries. If you're flexible, $1/day relocations are an ultra cheap option (read our how-to guide here). Driving? Check our list of cost-cutting road trip items and car-booking hacks here.
WHEW! And there you have it. All of our best booking tips in a single place. If you've got some other cost-cutting hacks, recommendations, and tips feel free to share the thrifty love in the comments below. Happy saving!