5-Step Guide to Finding The Lowest Rate For Hotel Rooms

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Whenever I’m not traveling on the company dime, I usually run through a checklist to find the lowest price on hotel stays. Let’s say you’re like me and need to find a room in New York City for a few nights, checking in August 30th. I’d like to stay somewhere near Times Square in Manhattan, close to all the sights and action. I’m also leaning towards something reliable and not bargain basement – this is NYC and I don’t want a Hotel Carter experience involving bed bugs, roaches, and urine smells. (Note this for later: At their website, they charge $99 a night.)

1. Check the hotel’s direct website.
If you have some favorite chains due to corporate agreements or loyalty points, then this narrows your search down and you can try and check directly with their website. For example, there is Hilton.com, IHG.com, and StarwoodHotels.com for Sheraton/Westin/W Hotels. Here are some quotes (all prices not including taxes):

Hilton Times Square, $195
Hilton New York, $169
W NY Times Square, $272
Westin NY Times Square, $232
Sheraton Manhattan Times Square, $189
Four Points Midtown, $157

This gives me a benchmark to work from. Another benefit here is that they usually have some form of “Best Rate Guarantee”. Starwood will beat a competing vendor’s price by either 10% or give you 2,000 Starpoints.

2. Try to use loyalty program points.
An extension of the above, at times it is better to redeem your points, or some combination of cash and points. For example, the Westin NY Times Square would only cost 12,000 Starpoints per night, or 48,000 points for 5 nights (avg. 9,600/night). Keep in mind the point redemption even covers taxes, which would turn the $232 listed above to $268 per night. Too bad I’m low on Starpoints after visiting Madrid.

You can earn Starpoints faster and get up to 25,000 bonus Starpoints with the Starwood co-branded American Express card.

3. Use the travel search engines. Expedia, Kayak, Hotels.com, etc.
You know the drill. Actually, you can search most of these all at once through Kayak.com. Sometimes one site like Expedia may have special rates for a block of rooms that aren’t available on other sites.

From Kayak, I note that the prices for the Starwood and Hilton hotels were basically the same. After sorting by price, I see that the Holiday Inn NYC is slightly cheaper at $160/night + taxes. A bit farther away in Midtown East there is the DoubleTree Metropolitan at $149. Not too bad. Oh look, Hotel Carter is discounted at $67. Too bad it doesn’t include the cost of burning your clothes afterwards!

4. Use opaque sites like Hotwire and Priceline.
Finally, there are what are called “opaque” travel sites, because you don’t know the name of the hotel until you’ve paid for the non-refundable room. You must decide only based on the star quality rating and general neighborhood of the hotel, which means you can’t look up reviews easily either. Priceline is done using a reverse auction format, while Hotwire just gives you the price.

On Hotwire, I find that I can get 2-star hotel (examples given are Comfort Inn, La Quinta, Days Inn) for $93+tax ($112 total) in a large and vague area that basically covers everything south of Central Park.

5. Using database sites to reverse engineer the hotel information. Sites like BiddingForTravel and BetterBidding gather information from successful purchasers to remove some of the mystery.

For example, what exactly might be a 3.5 star hotel in the Midtown area? Does Hotwire call the Westin Time Square 4 stars, or 3.5 stars, or 4.5 stars? What if Priceline disagrees? What one site calls Midtown West might be Midtown Central to another.

Well, here is a list of hotels in NYC that Hotwire and Priceline has sold rooms for, complete with star rating and neighborhood. From this list, the only 2* in Central Park listed is WooGo Lincoln Center. Of course this might not be the hotel you end up with, but it is a good possibility and you get a sense of quality (mixed reviews).

In addition, you can find a list of winning bids posted by users, and BetterBidding even has a calendar for easy searching. Here are the applicable ones for my situation:

Hotwire Winning Bids
4*, Central Park, Empire Hotel, $139
3.5*, Midtown Central, Sheraton Times Square, $119
3.5*, Midtown East, Millennium UN, $116

Priceline Winning Bids
4*, Midtown Central, Sheraton NY Towers, $125
4*, Midtown West, Sheraton NY Towers, $115, $110, $126
4*, Times Square, Westin TS, $169

Putting things together, if Hotwire is offering me a 3.5* hotel in Midtown Central on these dates, it is most likely be the Sheraton Times Square. Or, in the same price range, I could likely get the Sheraton NY Towers. After reading some reviews, I chose the Times Square location. The prices keep fluctuating, but when I was searching it was at $113. That’s a pretty good price for a solid hotel.

To be the most aggressive, I would go onto Priceline and bid about 20% below the Hotwire price for a 3.5* hotel in the Times Square region, say $95. I don’t want to bid too low, because each time I get rejected, I must change a search parameter (star rating, neighborhood) to bid again. Also, I run the risk of getting another 3.5* hotel that I don’t like as much.

So I held my breath, used Hotwire… and got it. Whew! In the end, I got what I wanted at 40% off the “guaranteed” low price, $113 vs. $189 per night at the Sheraton Times Square.. Over few nights, that’s hundreds of dollars in savings.

To think, if you did no research, you might end up with the Hotel Carter for $99/night! If you have tips to improve this process, please leave a comment below! I know I could try hostels or even couchsurfing and such, but that’s not what I was looking for on this trip.

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  1. auntie_green says

    I find tripadvisor.com very helpful. It doesn’t give prices or allow you to book, its just user reviews with lots of detail. So your chances of ending up at a hotel with bedbugs decreases….

  2. (1) BiddingForTravel has a great explanation (link below) of how to get rebids while using Priceline. This strategy allows you to really low-ball your initial offers for 3- and 4-star hotels and to raise bids slowly so you have a good chance of getting a room for the lowest price possible. Also, the people on that board are beyond friendly and helpful – if you reach out early enough about a well-traveled destination, they’ll make recommendations on what / how to bid.


    (2) I subscribe to Frommer’s and WeJustGotBack.com’s RSS feeds, which often highlight some pretty sweet package deals and discounts. This is more useful if you’re very flexible about your travel arrangements or haven’t really decided where you want to go. But it is also useful in building general travel savvy.

    (3) I usually default to the lowest price available in determining how to book, which usually means Priceline bidding. But sometimes it pays off to book through the hotel directly. For example, I went to Vegas last week, and in the planning stages I noticed almost immediately that Vegas hotels generally offer the same price on their websites as they do through travel search engines. But by booking through the hotel directly, I got an awesome deal: average $65 per night for 7 nights, free all-day access to the buffet, complimentary poolside cocktails, free access to nightclubs, 20% off spa services, and $20 free slot play for each guest. Moreover, I got two important benefits that are unavailable when booking through a third party: the right to cancel my reservation without any charges up to 24 hours before the reservation and the ability to earn comps that further discount the room costs. Vegas is a special case, but it is important to factor in any extra benefits to booking directly with the hotel, especially because you won’t need a third party involved if anything goes wrong. Sometimes that’s worth an extra $10 – $20 a night.

    If booking directly with a hotel, you can also just google for “[Hotel Name] discount” or “[Hotel Name] code.” Sometimes nothing useful will turn up, but this is exactly how I found the special offer code for my Vegas deal.

  3. Money Beagle says

    Great step-by-step list. Thanks! I also agree with auntie_green that tripadvisor is a must read. You see the good and the bad. I’ve never been ‘surprised’ if I thoroughly read TripAdvisor beforehand.

  4. I like to call the hotel directly and negotiate. I saved $2000 at the Fairmont Kea Lani by doing so.

  5. Jonathan – Thank you for sharing. I think for leisure travel, opaque sites plus sharing notes among the crowd through sites like betterbidding deliver a good value. The ‘business’ hotels (Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton/Westin) have more rooms than they can sell, especially on weekends, but they don’t want to cut their rates in the open. So they sell through opaque sites. I often get a 3* hotel like Hilton or Sheraton for the same price one would pay for a 2* like Comfort Inn or Best Western.

    You do have to wait until the last minute when your travel plan is solid though, because there is no cancellation.

  6. The new Bing travel site is pretty good. It also shows distance from a desired location; for example if you try “Times Square” you can find lots of hotels less than 1 mile away. Picking some random dates, I find a 4* hotel for $118. That’s not as good as your hotwire, but at least you know what hotel it is beforehand.

  7. Anonymous says

    My wife and I always use Priceline for hotels, even internationally. The trick is to start low, then if rejected start a new search. True you need to re-enter all your personal and CC info, but we have always felt that we have received the lowest possible price–without compromising on the star quality.

    We have also noticed that if you are close, Priceline will sometimes suggest, “Would you be willing to pay $x?”

  8. That’s funny, Jonathan. I don’t remember ever bidding on hotwire.com. I thought they just listed what you could get, with you taking a chance on the hotels location. You know you’re getting X number of stars, and how much, but you don’t know the actual hotel. The location is pretty much within a radius of some destination, but it could be one of many hotels. But the prices are usually just listed — no bidding involved. Has the site changed since I’ve visited it? I definitely thought they gave the best deals.

  9. NoMoreWork says

    I use Priceline all the time. My last two trips I stayed in the 4* Seattle Westin for $65 a night on the 36th floor and the 4* San Fran Union Square Hilton for $70 a night on the 32nd floor. Both had fantastic views.

    I usually use tricks to submit multiple bids for 4* hotels without the time delay. Simply submit a bid for a 4* only downtown, if it is not accepted submit a slightly higher bid for 4* only and include an area with no 4* hotels along with downtown again. Repeat the process until your bid is accepted. No waiting to search since you are including other areas and thus altering the search. Priceline doesn’t care that the included area doesn’t have 4* hotels, it’ll just search again…

  10. I’ve used Hotwire + Betterbidding combination before myself and it worked great.

  11. Tripadvisor is good, but you have to read between the lines. I feel there are plenty of fake reviews for lots of properties, and then there are the people who are disgruntled employees or just never happy with anything. Look for specific examples of good/bad.

    No, you still don’t bid on Hotwire, but since the prices seem to go up and down all the time, I just call it a winning “bid” for people who pulled the trigger at a certain price.

    Yes, rebidding on Priceline is a good trick, to know, although explaining it reminds me of stat class. Lily’s link above is helpful. For an area like NYC with lots of neighborhoods and good public transportation so being off by a bit doesn’t matter, it can be beneficial. I used this method in London a few years ago when I saw the winning Priceline bids were much lower than Hotwire. With the bid histories, I don’t think I’ve used more than 3 bids, although I usually bid by $5 increments.

  12. Travel search sites are very useful in terms of finding affordable hotel rooms. Here the charges are also matches with the real costs (sited by the hotels) mostly.

  13. code4food says

    I love your blog! Thanks for posting this. Another site I find helpful is 1800hotels.com. We just booked a trip to Playa del Carmen and their price was almost 30% else than anywhere else.

  14. Trung Quach says

    please dont ever stay at Hotel Carter. It is a dirty and run down place. I stayed there a couple years ago and will never stay there again. You will regret it.

  15. Just use SideStep.com, it’s the best for flights, hotels, everything.

  16. thanks for the good info.

  17. Nasty N8 says

    Great travel advice. I practically travel for a living (most for work, but a large portion for pleasure as well) so found it amusing that your step-by-step process is very similar to what I do on a weekly basis.

    I will offer one tip though when it comes to Hotwire. You *CAN* figure out what hotel you’re most likely getting with a simple trick.

    Once you perform your hotel search on Hotwire, you’ll get vague descriptions of hotel class and general location (as pointed out in your post). Pick the hotel you’re interested in. Scroll down the page and, often times, Hotwire will show the TripAdvisor rating out of 5 bubbles (Remember or jot this down) and *IN SMALL PRINT* the approximate number of TripAdvisor reviews. This approximate number is the *KEY*!

    Now, jump over to TripAdvisor. Type in the city or specific area (if TripAdvisor breaks the city down into smaller areas, i.e. New York City). Sort the hotels by class. The classes roughly correspond to Hotwire’s star system.

    Scroll down until you find the appropriate class section in TripAdvisor. Now scan the TripAdvisor listings for the ranking and *approximate number of reviews* you saw in Hotwire. The number Hotwire posted won’t be exactly the same as the number on TripAdvisor but it’s usually within the 100s or even 10s range.

    By using the hotel’s general class, the TripAdvisor bubble rating, and the approximate number of TripAdvisor reviews, you can usually deduce the exact hotel you’re getting at Hotwire!

    I’ve used this technique several times and have not been wrong yet.

    Love the site Jonathan. It’s a daily read. Keep up the good work.

  18. That sounds like a great deal! My friend recently booked a couple trips through skyauction.com and everything was as it appeared. I haven’t used it myself, but…may be of help to some readers.

  19. Sweet. I’ve been traveling a lot lately and haggling with priceline over hotels and cars – I’m also low on starwood points.

    I feel like priceline is getting a bit more sly these days. I’ve lowballed and they’ve automatically jacked up the price and asked me to confirm. Be careful when booking. Also huge hassle re-entering cc info every time.

    now we need a good post on cheap rental cars.

  20. Do you get a refund if you cancel? I usually pay full price for my trips as I can cancel as late as 5pm on the day without any charges.

  21. Recently I’ve been starting my travel searching at http://travelzoo.com/

    In my experience TravelZoo has been good for giving me a sense of the “deals to beat” for a given location without hours of researching on the hotel chain sites. They have some really great vacation packages, as well. Also, a lot of the deals are booked through the normal hotel website with a discount code. This means you get the low price and can still get your loyalty points (plus read reviews before doing the deed).

    I’ve also gotten impressive flights deals in particular at http://www.bestfares.com/ in the past.

  22. Another way to get an idea of hotels on Hotwire is to go into the flight/hotel package options to see what hotels they offer with their packages…!

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