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We live in an age of spontaneous travel. One minute you're daydreaming about your next trip or weekend escape, the next you're all booked "“ in theory. In practice, just finding a place to stay can be confusing with more than 200 hotel booking sites worldwide now, plus hotel websites; in fact most of us do 38 online searches before actually booking a hotel, according to Expedia
Where to start? Here are 11 ways to get a better deal when you book your next hotel stay online. (And remember to check the hotel offerings on GoPal's Travel Deals page for more discounts.)
1. Know your booking sites. Hotel booking websites often have specialties, offering the best deals for certain destinations or kinds of travellers. For instance: Agoda specialises in hotels in Asia while Wotif focuses on family holidays and short trips and, because it was set up in a Brisbane garage in 2000, features millions of hotel reviews by Aussie travellers. You can often get a better room rate using an "aggregator" site that compares prices at various hotel booking sites, such as Trivago or HotelsCombined; Google and TripAdvisor are also in the aggregator game. Then there are sites such as Roomer (roomertravel.com), which offers rooms that have been cancelled by someone else at up to 80 per cent of the original rate.
2. Booking direct pays off. Booking directly with a hotel offers advantages beyond customer service and peace of mind. Hotels will often match prices seen on booking sites; you might even get a lower rate, if you call to make a reservation (to sidestep regulations, including in Australia, preventing hotels from undercutting booking sites). Hotels can give you benefits such as breakfast or free parking to reward you for booking direct, particularly if you're a member of their loyalty program. AccorHotels' Le Club Accor is one of the largest in Australia with 2.8 million members and offers discounted room rates and benefits such as room upgrades, free Wi-Fi and airport lounge access when members book using accorhotels.com
3. Loyalty has its own rewards. Hotels and airlines aren't the only ones with loyalty programs; some booking websites have them too. Wotif gives Mates Rates members 10-50 per cent off selected bookings, Hotels.com offers members a free night for every 10 nights booked and Booking.com offers "secret deals" just for subscribing to its newsletters and "genius" status for booking five times in two years (which gives you more discounts and perks such as free airport transfers). Expedia Rewards goes a step further, allowing members to "triple dip" "“ earn frequent flyer and credit card points as well as Expedia Rewards points on selected bookings. And some sites are members-only: it's free to join Jetsetter, but only members can access its booking site and exclusive deals.
4. Price check! It's not just hotels that can price-match. Hotel booking sites such as Hotels.com and Wotif do it too, refunding the difference if you see a lower rate even after you've booked and paid for your stay.
5. Apps are where it's at. Using a booking site's app can give you access to discounts not available on their website, like an unofficial loyalty scheme. Expedia gives you double Expedia Rewards points when you book through its app. Some apps offer handy features such as online check-in, offline maps and the ability to book on the go: Hotel Tonight's app lets you book stays up to seven days in advance, for instance, and One Night sells unsold rooms in amazing hotels (in selected US cities and London) from 3pm on the same night you book, only through its app.
6. The Sunday sweet spot. "The general rule of thumb is to either book as far in advance as you can, or wait until the last minute," says David Spasovic, Hotels.com marketing manager Australia and New Zealand. The sweet spot is to book 3-4 weeks ahead of your stay and book on a Sunday for the best deals, according to a 2016 Expedia report.
7. Beware hidden fees. Hotel booking sites don't usually charge booking fees, but there can be other fees to be wary of such as cancellation charges and resort fees, even at non-resort hotels: New York City recently introduced an "urban destination charge" of up to $US40 per night on top of the room rate at major hotels. Airbnb now charges guests 5-15 per cent (up from 6-12 per cent) on all bookings plus cleaning fees on some properties. Remember to flash your loyalty card at check-in: members can be exempt from hidden charges (but sometimes only if you've booked using points).
8. Skip the breakfast buffet. Hotel breakfasts tend to be more expensive than having breakfast at a local cafÃ©, according to TripAdvisor's 2015 Breakfast Survey covering 37 destinations around the world. Using filters such as "Wi-Fi included" on booking sites can ensure you get the inclusions you want when searching for a hotel. Some hotels listed on Expedia offer guaranteed "free extras" such as room upgrades, late checkout and spa credit.
9. Pay now, not later. If you're given the choice between paying now (when you book) or later (at the hotel), choose now, says Wotif's Amanda Behre. "If you are travelling overseas and the dollar is strong for your chosen destination, it's a good idea to pay upfront, rather than when you get to the hotel. You'll lock in your accommodation at the strong currency rate, with the peace of mind that you won't have to pay more if it fluctuates in the lead up to your trip."
10. It's not just about hotels. While Airbnb now lists more hotels (and is aggressively pursuing them with lower commission rates than hotel booking sites), hotel booking sites such as Booking.com are returning the "favour", offering everything from houseboats and tiny houses to castles and train carriages, even hostels, many now with hotel-like facilities and double rooms. Hotel groups such as Accor, Marriott and Hilton are also in the process of launching their own hostel-like hotels.
11. Bundle it up. Booking your flights, car hire, even airport transfers on a hotel booking site when you book your accommodation can make for big savings. Wotif even allows you to search deals by "package discount" or price, handy if you have a set budget for your holiday.
*This is an edited version of a story first published on Escape.com.au, on July 9, 2018.