It’s a common question: “When should you book a hotel to get the best price—early or late?” But there’s a surprise answer, and it’s “yes.”
Due to the way hotel prices work, your best approach for booking a cheap hotel room is to act both early and late. Because it’s still common that hotel reservations be cancelable and refundable, typically up to at least from a week prior your reservation, there’s no harm in booking early and then still shopping around.
Specifically, many travel experts I know suggest the following, four-part strategy.
Book Something Early on
Start by reserving the best deal you can find early on, even if it’s as soon as you start planning your trip—but with one condition: make a “pay when you arrive” reservation, not a nonrefundable deal. And while you’re not fully committing, it should still be a deal you could happily accept if you can’t do better later … otherwise it’s not worth booking. Reserving early can typically get you the price, but choosing a cancelable booking means you keep your options open. And cancel-friendly hotel bookings are easy enough to come by.
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Keep a Passive Eye Out
Maintain a pulse on flash sales without hunting for them by signing up for hotel sale alerts. Keeping track of flash hotel sales is easy: Sign up for sale bulletins like those from Booking.com, HotelsCombined, and as many others as you’re willing to allow in your inbox. Let them stream in until just before you plan to leave to see if your hotel or any comparable ones offer a competing price. If something really good pops up in your inbox, snag it. Otherwise, keep “looking.”
Do One Final Check
A week before your planned arrival, when you’re 99-percent sure of your final itinerary, do some light digging for special last-minute deals. The best ones are usually found on the “opaque” deal websites—the ones that get you a deal without telling you the name of the property, but give you all the other details about the hotel. Hotwire and Priceline are, for sure, the top metasearch systems of this kind. Chances are that the best deals you find this way will be pay-ahead and nonrefundable. But by this time, presumably, you know your specific needs. And as long as your original booking is cancelable without a penalty, nonrefundable might be worth the money you’ll save.
Also check for any unexpected steals on TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company), on the big hotel chains’ sites and social media accounts, and via any membership or other hotel programs you use.
If you find a last-minute deal better than your initial reservation, confirm it has everything you need, and is in a comparable destionation—not out of the way, which can end up costing you the difference in the sale price. If the deals are not comparable properties, it might be worth sticking with your original choice.
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Why (and Where) It Works
I couldn’t locate any “best time” studies or data from any online travel agencies that focus on hotels the way they do for airfares. The reasons are based mainly on the huge difference between hotel and airline reservations: You can make a firm hotel reservation without paying up front and without any cancellation penalty, so you can hedge your bets. In the hotel marketplace, hotels typically cut last-minute prices when they aren’t likely to get full and hike last-minute prices at busy times. Reserving early allows you to limit your exposure to price increases; buying late can improve your options.
Note that this strategy works best for larger hotels in bigger cities. Beyond published seasonal rate variations, smaller inns and B&Bs typically don’t engage in dynamic pricing, so what you see from day one is likely to be what you’ll see last-minute. But even in these hotels, there’s no downside to checking—and maybe even directly bargaining—for a possible last-minute deal.
Over the years, I’ve found this system works pretty well. Right now, for example, I’m planning a trip to Amsterdam. Months ago I made a reservation I would be pleased to keep: $140 a night. But, I just found an option for a hotel in the same class and general location on Hotwire for $111 per night, which I will likely take.
Readers: Have you employed this strategy? Will you? Comment below.
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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.