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How to Get the Best Hotel Deals

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Need to get a cheap hotel for an upcoming work trip or family vacation? In this post, I walk you through my hard-won strategies for finding great hotel deals and give you some cheap hotel alternatives.

kid in a cheap hotel

Our Bad Experience With a Cheap Hotel

I’ll never forget the experience.

Jesse and I had only been married a few years and we decided to splurge on a “big family trip” to San Antonio, Texas for a conference. It was something we had planned for quite awhile and we had scoured the Internet to find deals.

We ended up finding a crazy good deal on a flight, hotel, and car rental package. It was dirt cheap and we felt like we had pretty much won the lottery! Even on our small budget, we figured out a way to make this crazy cheap vacation happen!

Be Wary of One-Star Hotels!

We were so excited about the deal that we didn’t really take the time to think through the fact that it was a one-star hotel. Ahem.

Well, fast forward to our trip. We flew to San Antonio, picked up the car, and met up with friends. Time got away from us and pretty soon it was after 1 a.m..

We realized we’d better head to our hotel… and that was when the whole reality of a one-star hotel began to hit us. The hotel was in a very sketchy party of town. We didn’t really even feel safe getting out of our car at 1 a.m.. But what other choice did we have?

We got checked in and got to our room to discover it was dirty and had roaches and the door barely locked because it was somewhat broken. Since we didn’t have the money to switch to another hotel, we decided to just suck it up and stay there.

We cleaned the room as best as we could, barricaded the door, and went to bed. It was a good thing that we barricaded the door because in the middle of the night, someone started trying to get into our room.

They jiggled the door handle multiple times and tried unsuccessfully to unlock it. It’s very possible that they were disoriented at 3 a.m. and thought it was their room, but it seemed pretty aggressive for someone who was just trying to get into their hotel room.

Gratefully, after a few minutes, they finally left and they didn’t come back. But you can imagine that we felt pretty shaken by it!

Don’t Make the Cheap Hotel Mistakes We Did!

As you can likely imagine, after that, we decided we would do our research before jumping on some crazy cheap hotel deal again!

We also decided to never stay in a one-star hotel if we could at all help it! 🙂

Whether you have had a bad experience with a cheap hotel site, you’re nervous you might, or maybe you’re just looking for someone with lots of experience to be your guide, this post is all about helping you learn how to find cheap hotels that are quality!

I’m going to break down my best advice for finding good deals on hotels, walk you through what you need to know to stay away from the scary one-star experiences, and help you save time and money on booking hotels.

family fun at a hotel

So, let’s jump right to it…

1. Travel off season.

First things first, the best way to find a deal on a hotel is to travel off-season. I know this is not always possible, but if you can swing it, you’ll save so much money.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t travel in the summer; it just means you should choose places to go in the summer that aren’t the vacation destination of everyone else!

I love to use the search feature on Skyscanner if we have somewhat flexible dates and locations. You can search by locations or by dates or by budget to find flights that are often incredibly affordable. I love to look on there to get ideas of the best times of year to travel where… because typically if flights are really inexpensive to a location, there’s a chance that hotels will be, too!

In addition, if you plan your trip during the middle of the week, you’ll often find cheaper hotel rates than if you are booking your stay on a weekend. Again, this isn’t always feasible, but it’s something to consider — especially if you have a bit of flexibility.

2. Search multiple travel sites.

There are a number of places online where you can find cheap hotel deals. Some of our favorites to use are: Groupon, Hotels.com, Travelocity, Hotwire, Expedia, and Priceline.

If you’re willing to be adventuresome, you can purchase your hotel “blind” through Expedia and get a great deal. You’ll save at least $15 or $20 — often more! — if you’re willing to purchase the hotel room without knowing what hotel you are staying at.

You can search by lowest price and star rating to see what prices are for the area you’ll be traveling to. We are typically able to find a three-star hotel for around $50-$60 per night this way.

Note: Because of our awful one-star hotel experience, I wouldn’t suggest getting anything less than a three-star hotel. Two-star hotels can be hit and miss and, in our experience, one-star hotels should be avoided altogether. 🙂

family in a hotel room

Reader tips:

  • Hotels.com offers a deal where you stay 10 nights and get one night free. They also have discount codes. We always stay in hotels that offer a good breakfast because it saves us $$. -Quintana
  • Try to stay at the same hotel chain using their rewards program. My favorite rooms include breakfast, a sink, fridge, and a pull out couch. -Kelly

If you want to get to pick your hotel before you purchase or be able to get a refund if your travel plans change, I’d recommend going through Orbitz to find cheap hotels. They have great deals, they show you the price including fees, and they do not charge you if you cancel your reservation. Usually, their prices are a little higher, but it might be worth it to pay a little to know what hotel you’re reserving ahead of time, and to not be charged if you cancel your reservation.

Pro Tip: Check Out Express Deals From Priceline

Jen shared this in a comment on a post not too long ago:

Priceline offers “Express Deals” which provides basic information about a hotel – neighborhood, amenities, star level, and guest rating (in most cases). They also tell you the percentage discount you’ll get by using the Express Deal, plus the price you will pay for it.

Most people don’t take advantage of Express deals, because they don’t like not knowing which hotel they’re booking. (And once you purchase an Express Deal, there is no backing out. You get what you get at that point.) With the information they provide, however, you can filter hotels offered by Priceline to figure out what hotel you are going to get!

As an example: a hotel is listed as three star, in Times Square, offers free Internet and a gym, has a 7+ rating by guests, and is available for $145 (a 39%) savings. To figure out what this deal is, you back out of Express Deals and go back to the section that lists all of the hotels on Priceline.

You filter your search to only show hotels in Time Square which are 3 star and have free internet and a gym. It might pull 4 matches, so you next look at which hotels are rated 7-7.9 by guests. Let’s say there are two hotels left at that point. Then it’s simple math to figure out which hotel is a 39% savings from the price listed on the screen.

Make sense? Hopefully! It takes a little practice, but with this method I’ve always been able to figure out what hotel I will get (and usually at a huge savings!). I have successfully done this over three dozen times.

find cheap hotel deals with hotels.com

3. Look for a coupon code.

Many cheap hotel sites regularly offer coupon codes. These coupon codes usually have some restrictions, but it’s still worth checking to see if they have a coupon code that will work on the hotel you’re wanting to book.

Tips for Finding Travel Site Coupon Codes:

  • My favorite site to find online coupon codes is RetailMeNot.com. They have a very robust database of coupon codes for just about every online site.
  • You can also check the travel site directly (for instance, at the time of the writing of this post, the above coupon code popped up on Hotels.com).
  • Try searching for the site you’re planning to purchase from + the word “coupon code” and see if anything pulls up.
  • Sign up for the email lists for the travel sites as they will notify you when there’s a big sale or coupon code available! This is a really easy way to find cheap hotels!

4. Book through a Cash Back Site.

Once you find a cheap hotel deal and have decided which travel site you’re booking through, I highly recommend purchasing through a cash back site. You’ll typically earn somewhere between 4% to 10% cash back on your purchase.

All you have to do is sign up for the cash back site (if you’re not already signed up) and then search for the online travel site you’re purchasing through. Click through and find the deal you were planning to purchase and purchase it.

Within 30-60 days, your account will be credited with the cash back! Since booking travel plans online typically means you’re spending at least $50 to $150, if not more, that 4% to 10% cash back can end up being a fairly significant amount — especially if you book a few trips online per year!

My Favorite Cash Back Sites:

#1: Rakuten (formerly Ebates) — One of the oldest cash back sites, Rakuten has an easy-to-navigate website and, in my personal view, is the best cashback program. You only have to earn $5.01 in rebates in order to get a check or Paypal payment. You get a $10 welcome bonus when you sign up and make at least $25 worth of purchases within the first 90 days, so you’ll reach your first payout very quickly!

#2: TopCashBackTopCashBack is another site I’ve used for quite a while. I really like them, because they offer cash back at over 4,000 stores, have guaranteed highest cash back rates, and are really customer-friendly. If you find a higher cash back rate anywhere else, they will match it for you. They also allow you to receive a payout at any time (no minimum required!) and offer five different payout options.

#4: Swagbucks — If you’ve read my blog at all, you know I’m a HUGE fan of Swagbucks. And you probably signed up a long time ago and have been earning gift cards ever since. But did you know that you can earn swag bucks on many of your online purchases in the form of cash back? Make sure you’re logged in to your Swagbucks account each day when you shop online, and then activate the Swagbucks cash back button when it pops up! This one is a little bit different than your typical cash back site, since your earnings are in the form of swag bucks. But it adds up quickly over time, and you can trade those earned swag bucks into gift cards!

family hanging out

Are you a little more adventuresome? Here are some cheap hotel alternatives:

Alternative #1: AirBnB or VRBO

Morgan says: “We use Airbnb or VRBO. I have never had a bad experience. Read reviews, ask the owners questions. Use common sense. I have rented 3-bed, 2-bath condos at wonderful resorts for less than $600/week in Orlando. Same for cabins in Tennessee. And book as early as possible for the best prices.”

Erin said: “We are renting a house at the ocean this summer through VRBO. It was much cheaper than a hotel, we have a fenced yard and a nice deck and it’s 5 minutes from the beach. We thought about camping, but this was a better option for our family. We are also going during the week so it was less per night.”

Patricia: “We have had really good luck with renting the smallest AirB&B that will fit our crew and cooking our own meals. The fact that we don’t eat out, unless there is a restaurant we really want to try, just about pays for the lodgings.”

Tip: Read my post on Our Experience Staying in an AirBNB in Rome.

Alternative #2: State Park Cabin Rentals

Jessi said: “Depending where you live, off-season state park cabin rentals can be economical. Here in Virginia, you can rent a furnished, heated 2-bedroom cabin (with two sets of bunk beds in one of the rooms) with a full kitchen (apartment-size refrigerator, range, pots, pans and utensils) and full bathroom for $84/night (or $506/wk) if you reserve off-season. During prime season, the same cabins would be $112/night. They don’t tack on expensive excess fees on top of the rental fee, like some cabins you can rent on HomeAway do.”

Angela: “We love staying in camping cabins at state parks and KOA campgrounds. You have to bring your own linens and use the bath house, but for $40-$60/night you can’t beat it. Plus, they have amenities like pools and playgrounds and we love that the kids can run around outside and not be cooped up in a hotel room.” 

Alternative #3: Camping

Angela said: “If you’re really adventurous, try tent camping! We did a 12-night vacation and every night was in a tent (4 different campsites). Can’t beat D.C. lodging for $34/night and the city bus came right to our campground. We didn’t have to drive for 3 days!”

For more tips, read my posts: How We Prepared For Our Very First Camping Trip, My Master List of Things to Take on a Camping Trip, and 5 Important Lessons We Learned On Our First Camping Trip.

Alternative #4: Stay With Friends or Family

Sara: “Stay with a friend or family member! I have friends living all over and plan my vacations with people I can stay with! Lodging and food is the most expensive part of any vacay!”

Angie: “I get great deals on eBay from people who don’t want their timeshare points at resorts so they sell days to people. Ask around, sometimes friends or family members have condos or vacation homes that they’ll give you a discount on instead of them having to rent it out through VRBO, because there are lots of fees when they do it that way for the renter and the owner.”

What advice and tips would you add? What are your best methods for finding cheap hotel deals?

Other Budget-Friendly Vacation Tips:

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24 Comments

  • Joanne Peterson says:

    I discovered Kayak.com, and I don’t remember how I discovered this site, but they will compare different search sites such as expedia, orbitz, etc and I can come up with the best deal for me.

  • Charlotte says:

    If I want to visit a major city, I will stay at a hotel in a neighboring city or town or community versus a hotel in that major city. Its almost half the cost. You may have to drive a little more like 15 to 20 minutes more to your destination but I think its worth saving half the hotel cost. I have only visited places in the Southeast so I don’t know that this would do well for other regions of the country.

    • MrsWJAI says:

      Yes! We had business to attend in uptown Charlotte, NC…. the first time, we booked directly there and it was close ton$100/night +parking. The next trip, we booked in the same brand hotel the next town over and it was closer to $60/night with free parking… the commute was about 20 minutes of freeway traffic, but it was much easier on the wallet with all the same amenities.

  • Shannon Sanders says:

    Booking a vacation with a time share presentation is super cheap and getting hotel coupons when your driving through states at the rest stop stayes in a hotel for $35 a night 3 star hotels also with free breakfast

  • Sarah says:

    What do you do with having a family larger than four people? Places always try and push our five into a suite or adjoining rooms. I don’t mind a pullout couch or even an air mattress but harder to find hotels when you input five people.

    • Clare C. says:

      Great article and comments! We are a family of 6 and I’ve had good luck with the website, 6 Suitcase Travel to find suites and larger hotel rooms that sleep more than 4. They don’t always have a lot of comments about the hotels so I like to cross reference using Trip Advisor online to find out ratings and such.

    • We just search for a room online that sleeps 2 adults and 3 kids. There are usually lots of options — at least it’s not been an issue for us.

    • Susan says:

      It’s not always budget friendly, but our family likes to book a 2 bedroom suite at Residence Inn. It’s “one room” that has two bedrooms and two bathrooms and a sofa sleeper. It is so nice to not all have to share one bathroom. You get free breakfast and during certain days of the week sometimes a dinner.

    • Alea says:

      This is why we are now Airbnb people. I’ve found it so much easier to find a great deal for our family of 6 in a house rather than a hotel. With 3 teens, most hotels consider them adults!

  • April says:

    OMG were had a similar experience with a motel 6. We were cash strapped after a client cheated us out of nearly 10k. We were asleep in the middle of the night when our door opened. We hubby immediately jumped up yelling. We say a man standing in our room pausing. My husband confronted the night clerk who denied giving out our room key. He tried to say we must have given someone a key. We had our keys. There were no functioning smoke detectors in the room. Its obvious that are room key was either given out or the night clerk entered our room. And soon as daylight hit we packed and left. We emailed corporate and that offered us a free one night voucher. I saved it for a rainy day in another city and 15 minutes from home. We checked the ratings, told the clerk about our prior experience and blocked the door. We don’t stay a low budget hotels. I use booking and look for the cheapest best rated with the amenities we desire. Sometimes free breakfast and free cancellation are a must.

  • Liz says:

    We recently used Priceline Express Deals for our stay in St Louis. Ended up staying at the Marriot for $59 per night plus about $20 for tax, fees, etc. Hotel was beautiful, the staff was AMAZING, and the location was perfect for the sites we were planning to visit. Great deal if you are a bit flexible and adventurous! It is really not that risky since you can choose the star rating and general location. With a little research, you can pretty much know which one of 3-4 hotels you will get. We will definitely use it again!

  • Sarah says:

    For road trip vacations: since it’s just the two of us and we like camping, if I can find a good deal on an SUV, we’ll rent a car and spend half the trip sleeping in the SUV and half the trip in hotels. It’s best when we can find BLM land to just pull off on for free. Having AWD also allows us to get off the beaten path so it’s a win-win.

  • Cris says:

    Read reviews!! I’ve been able to stay at pretty cheap hotels if the reviews say they are clean and in a safe area. I usually book at hotels.com and sort from cheapest to most expensive and start reading the reviews of the ones that have good ratings (starting from the most recent ones as sometimes they have had remodels and got better). Beware as there will always be someone to rate a hotel a 1 star while everyone else is giving much higher scores.
    I also try to save swagbucks (although lately I’m not getting much) and shopkicks for hotels.com gift cards and combine it with the stay 10 nights, get one free.

    • YES! That’s such an important tip — especially if you know what hotel you’re staying at (instead of our one-star experience where it was such a good deal because we didn’t know where we were staying until after we purchased it).

  • staci says:

    We did a 2-week trip through Colorado this summer booking Priceline Express deals the day-of each stay because we didn’t know where we were going to land for the night. With the exception of one night, we got decent hotels every time at great prices. The first night we got a room in Denver for $100 that would normally have been over $300. It was an amazing experience! They must have had rooms to fill late on a Friday night and offered the discount because it was much more expensive when we tried to stay there again. The other nights we usually saved $15-20 per night. On our last night in Denver we got a three star for $130 that was awful. Absolutely terrible, bugs, beer cans, cigarette burns in my blanket and everything was under construction so there were holes in the wall and anyone of the street could walk into the hallways. That was the downside to the Express Deals because it was very challenging to deal with that since there is a no cancellation policy. Priceline did work with us and a few weeks later we were refunded our money but it was a hassle – not so much in priceline’s end but the hotels. Overall, I think the Express Deals were a good money saver for us but do be careful and read reviews. One thing you have to be aware of is on a lot of the Express Deals you do not get to select your bed options. They assume double occupancy rather than a big family so keep that in mind. We did find some deals that gave us options to select the two beds we needed but it did make the Express Deals a little trickier.

  • Mary says:

    When I was a kid, Red Roof Inn was about the cheapest motel and often really bad – but they’ve cleaned up their act and the last few I’ve stayed in (Madison, WI – Harrisburg PA are two that come to mind) were amazing – clean, recently redone, allow pets, etc. Check out RRI and ask at booking if it’s a redone property – they are really nice, clean, and reasonably priced.

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