Everyone knows that there's not really a standard hotel room rate. On any given night, hardly anyone is paying the official room price: there are people on special offers, those who booked through discount websites, and those who know the less well-known tricks, who are paying anything up to 60 per cent less than everyone else.
Before you book a hotel stay, therefore, it pays to get wise to the tricks of the trade.
1. Use a cheap hotel comparison site
There are a number of useful sites, but the one with the most hotels - and therefore a useful one to start with - is Trivago.co.uk which has almost 725,000 hotels on the site. It's also worth trying laterooms.com, lastminute.co.uk and travelsupermarket.com.
Many of these sites will have the same hotels at different prices, so if you are searching for a particular place, it makes sense to try them all. Let's say, for example, that you wanted to stay at London's One Aldwych hotel on 7 March: Lastminute has it for £283.20, Trivago can find it for £283, but Travelsupermarket has it for £269.
If there's a specific hotel you are after, then it's also a good idea to check the special offers on the hotel's website too, which can compete with the search engines and in some cases beat them. One Aldwych, for example, is offering a 20 per cent discount for early booking - at £283.20. It's also offering 25 per cent off longer stays.
Most of the big hotel chains won't negotiate on price, so getting the best rate has a lot to do with timing. The tricky thing is that the best time to book in advance depends partly on the type of hotel, partly on how well bookings are going, and partly on the policy of the business.
Business hotels, for example, will tend to get most of their bookings in the three weeks before people travel, so they may review prices a fortnight before the date of your stay. A tourist hotel, on the other hand, tends to get booked up more in advance, so will review prices earlier. The 'review' isn't an automatic reduction - it will depend on how much of the hotel is sold out, and whether they are trying to push more bookings.
Another variable is that hotels will often release block bookings to tour operators, who will hand them back if they are not sold. The different operators work on different days, so may hand them back 60 days, 30 days, 14 or 7 days before the date of your stay. If you coincide your purchase with the date they are handed back, you'll get a bargain.
The sensible approach, therefore, is to decide how much you are willing to pay, and how late you are comfortable booking things. Then do a search 60 days, 30 days, 21 days, 14 days and 7 days in advance.
If you are willing to take a real gamble, you will often get the best price by booking after 6pm on the night of your stay. Not all hotels will have availability, obviously, and not all will offer deep discounts at this stage, because some are keen to protect their advertised rate, but if you are flexible about which hotel you want, and search through the comparison sites for a deal, you should find something at around 50 per cent of the usual rate.
Opt for a secret hotel
One way that hotels discount their last minute rates even further without damaging their reputation is through 'secret hotel' sales. These are operated by lastminute.com and hotwire.com/uk, and let you search by area and the star rating of the hotel. It will then offer you a price, on the grounds that they will only reveal the name of the hotel once you have booked. This element of anonymity means you can save more than 60 per cent on the cost of the room.
Both sites feature TripAdvisor reviews, so you can read what other people think of the hotel. You can also do some detective work to track down which hotel it is, such as cutting and pasting the description into Google and seeing what comes up. Also check the number of reviews it has in Tripadvisor and compare that to hotels in your location
Name your own price
Another way that hotels can clear last minute availability without damaging their brand is through Priceline. This isn't the standard booking section of the site - it's the 'Name Your Own Price' section. You can choose the area and the number of stars you want. You can then name your own price. The hotel will assess its occupancy rates on the dates you have chosen and decide whether or not to accept your offer.
You'll get one chance to bid each day, so start early. Start nice and low, and creep up if you need to - or go elsewhere. Set a maximum you will be willing to pay for the room, and ignore the warning that your bid is probably too low. If you start at about £50 a night, you can get lucky.
If you want to get some idea of the kinds of prices that may be accepted, you can check biddingfortravel, which is a forum where people post details of their winning bids.
Ask for an upgrade
Anther option is to book a standard room, and then ask for an upgrade when you arrive. The hotel staff receive hundreds of upgrade requests every week, so if you want to improve your chances of success it pays to stand out. Insiders say it's a good idea to mention a special event that you are celebrating. However, they get people in celebrating their birthday every day, so it's best to mention things like substantial anniversaries, or off-the-wall things like celebrating a divorce.
When you ask, the answer will usually be entirely at the discretion of the hotel staff, so you need to be nice to them. Being polite, not being in a hurry, and not starting with the upgrade request are all recommended. If you are somewhere with a tipping culture, a handsome tip goes a long way to securing an upgrade (for a far lower cost). It's also useful if you ask for something specific like a sea view or a jacuzzi, rather than a nebulous 'upgrade'.
The timing helps too. The hotels will tend to know around 6pm how full they are going to be for the night, and whether the posher rooms are taken. If you can check in around this time (but not too late or the upgrades will all go), you'll stand a better chance of an upgrade.
Finally, before offering an upgrade, the staff member will look at your current position. If you have booked the cheapest room they are far less likely to upgrade you than if you booked the second cheapest. They will also tend to look more favourably on you if you are a member of the loyalty scheme - as it's a good sign you will be back.
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