Points, status, and bonuses are often the most leveraged way to secure the best overall travel experience at the lowest price overall. In other words, best value proposition — combination of best rooms, best benefits like breakfast and internet, for the lowest price considering all that you get.
That’s mostly what I write about and how I approach my own travel. But there are times when it’s all about price, not all about the best overall travel experience. So instead of ‘how do you get elite status quickly?’ or ‘how do you leverage that status with points promotions and upgrades?’ this post is about ‘how do you get the best price?’.
I’m going to give a shot at look at airfare, hotels, and rental cars separately. Let’s start with hotels. Though since I’m not always looking for the lowest price, considering elite benefits and point bonuses and my need to qualify for status. So perhaps I’m even out of practice on this. As a result, I’d love to solicit your additional thoughts and approaches.
Special publicly available rates
Several chains offer discounts that aren’t really offered to the general public, but can be booked by anyone. The price is lower than what you’d find searching for rooms on a chain’s website. And of course unlike the ‘opaque’ booking sites I’ll talk about in a minute, you get to pick your hotel property and even pick your room type.
A few of my favorites are:
Intercontinental hotels friends and family rate. Randy Petersen first posted this on his blog, using a link from Steve Sickel, an Intercontinental Hotels Group exec. It’s a pre-paid non-cancellable rate that usually must be booked at least 7 days in advance and on average gets you 40% off the online cancellable rate. It isn’t supposed to earn points or stay credit. Anyone can use it. Originally the rate was valid just a few months but it keeps getting extended, it was introduced at the depths of the economic downturn to generate some incremental business and at some point probably goes away but it’s been a great way to buy discounted rooms including ones in upper categories, suites and premium view rooms, since most discounts generally book into the lowest room category. You do need to print out the ‘rate authorization form’ at the web link and fill it out and bring it with you, some hotels ask for it and many do not, but make sure you have it just in case.
Hilton MVP rate. Many Hilton properties offer special rates to folks associated with sports programs. No special ID is required, and the rates are generally both the lowest publicly available and also not prepaid.
As I wrote recently on my blog, Hyatt often undercuts their own online web pricing with their gift certificates. You can book cancellable, changeable reservations at some high end properties and pay for those rooms with Hyatt stay certificates bought at a substantial discount. Status benefits are honored, but no points or stay credit. Grand Hyatt New York at $185 including tax, when available, is a pretty good steal..
Finally, it may sound cheesy to the uninitiated, but believe it or not a AAA membership is indispensable. Take Hyatt, for instance, the AAA rate is usually equal to the prepaid rate but it’s cancellable. Hilton has some good AAA rates and they want your AAA number in the reservation to make the booking. If you stay in hotels frequently, a AAA membership can be a very good investment.
Now here’s something a little bit more on the ‘grey’ side of things: corporate discount codes. Plenty of companies negotiate discounted rates with hotel chains. Usually there’s nothing at all preventing anyone from booking those rates, if they know the rate codes. These aren’t rates you’re actually entitled to, but rather are ones you can frequently get away with booking. But definitely do this at your own risk.
Fatwallet has a long compiled list of Marriott corporate and other discount codes.
I recently had a stay at a hotel on a corporate rate that was less than half the regular advance purchase rate on the hotel’s website. The hotel, which participates in Priceline, didn’t have anything even close loaded there. And it was a cancellable rate that earned points.
Here’s the thing — I printed out the rate rules and there wasn’t anything about who was eligible to use the corporate code, and nothing about having an ID being required. So I figured I was in a reasonable position. I will admit to something else, very much grey, I did stick a logo of the company on a piece of paper in case I was asked to show an affiliation of some kind though I wouldn’t have let them copy it, it was ‘confidential’.
Generally very few hotels ever seek to ID company rates. This is especially true late in the evening checkin, or perhaps on weekends, when the senior managers aren’t around. What incentive does the clerk have? This advice doesn’t really apply to all markets. It’s frequently been reported that hotels in Asia will ID for deeply discounted codes, such as Marriott’s IBM rate.
Opaque Booking Sites
Hotels that aren’t expecting to sell out can either see their rooms go empty and get nothing for them, or dump them at a deep discount. Almost any revenue is better than no revenue.
The challenge is that they don’t want to give away rooms cheap to people who would pay more for those same rooms.
The solution is to sell rooms ‘blind’, describing a general location and perhaps a quality level or some general sets of amenities. Then people will pay low prices but don’t get to know what hotel they’ll wind up in until they’ve already paid a non-refundable rate.
The theory is that people booking any hotel that meets general criteria aren’t people who would have paid a higher rate at a specific hotel. You’re not likely undercutting your own pricing with your same customers, at least in any meaningful way.
While there are several sites that offer opaque (find out your hotel after you buy) bookings, but the two oldest and biggest and most established are Hotwire and Priceline.
Hotwire tells you the quality level, general area, and amenities of a hotel. It gives you the price. You buy the room and find out where it is afterward. BetterBidding.com, though, compiles lists of hotels by area/zone with their quality level and displayed amenities. And using those charts you can do a pretty good job of decoding the specific hotel that Hotwire is offering to you.
Priceline usually has even better rates than Hotwire, but they don’t describe a specific property and don’t tell you the price. Instead, they ask you to specify the quality level and zone you want and how much you’ll pay, then they tell you whether a room is available at that price or not and if it is you’ve already bought it and you find out what it is. The grand-daddy of bidding sites is/was BiddingForTravel.com but the site really hasn’t been kept up the last few years so it’s hardly as comprehensive as it once was.
But there are new tools that help get the best deal on Priceline. One new one is BiddingTraveler.com which helps lay out a bidding strategy and automates that strategy in order to save on effort. It’s simpler one-stop shopping than using a site like Biddingfortravel.com or Betterbidding.com, searching through recent bids to determine what folks are generally winning hotels for and identifying which ones are similar to your circumstances (e.g. weekday versus weekend). And it takes care of the work of identifying your ‘bidding strategy’, figuring out which zones to use as ‘free re-bids’ in order to order your bids from lowest to eventual highest that you make. Ultimately, the site just sets up your bidding for you. It develops the bidding strategy based on your preferences, and then executes for you. The bidding is done by your computer, not by the site itself.
Here’s some good backgrounders and explanations of how Priceline works, for the uninitiated:
- David Rowell’s introduction
- Leigh Witchel’s compilation of Priceline lessons
- A Good Laura Bly piece in USA Today
- About.com description of ‘free rebids’
What are your best hotel discount booking techniques?