The Best Ways To Save Money On Lodging and Avoid Being Over-Charged ...by Bill Knell
Whether you travel on business or just for vacations and special occasions like meet ups, weddings or family gatherings, you should not have to pay through the nose for a nice place to stay. I have spent a good portion of my life traveling by myself and with my family for both business and pleasure. I learned a lot of hard lessons along the way and am happy to share them with you. Keep an open mind and if you are new to traveling avoid the number one problem all new travelers face: Wishful Thinking. That comes from the double-edged sword of the excitement about being away for the first time and believing all the hype that hotel and attraction brochures, web sites and ads try to create for travelers. Use your head, keep calm and take the steps necessary to make any trip you take a successful one.
Some Simple Tips
Everyone who has tired of spending the big holidays with relatives eventually decides to visit one of the top theme parks or attractions in the USA during those busy times. In just Orlando alone that means that an extra four to six million people will invade that area and visit the Florida mouse house, as well as other well-known area attractions, during the weeks that include the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years holidays. During these peak times everything costs more and that is Lesson One for vacationers: Visit these kinds of places during the off season and save a bundle. Not only will hotels and other rental choices be much cheaper, but you will also save on gas, food, attraction tickets and just about anything else you need to buy or spend money for on the road.
Experienced travelers know that hotels charge much more from Friday to Sunday. If you can stay during the Monday to Thursday corridor, you will probably get a better rate and might benefit from specials involving discount food, beverages or other amenities innkeepers throw in to attract travelers during the mid-week slump. Add to those savings by joining loyalty clubs or using discount cards that some hotels give out (Stay Two Days, Get One Free; Get A Free Upgrade and so on).
Check the social media sites of places where you might want to stay. Get promotion codes and then get on the phone. Call the front desk of the hotel where you are interested in staying and ask for their best or lowest non-refundable rate. Truckers usually get the best “rack rates” by making calls like these because all most of them care about is a bed and shower, so hotels can palm off their less then desirable rooms on them without many complaints. Vacationers or business travelers will likely end up with the sane rate and a higher quality room because these travelers expect more and tend to complain when they feel slighted or cheated. Today’s innkeepers fear bad online feedback more than anything else.
Check YELP!, the online Better Business Bureau and other similar web sites for honest reviews and assessments of hotels. If bed bugs are mentioned, stay away! Look for other important issues like excessive or unfair room charges or complaints about credit card fraud. I used to say that I would rather give my credit card to a complete stranger than to a front desk hotel clerk because I have been over-charged so many times over the years. For a while I simply paid cash until that became impractical, however, I still suggest using cash instead of credit whenever you can. And by the way: READ those room charges and fees CAREFULLY to make sure they are correct BEFORE you sign any final hotel bill upon checking out. Always check out in person even if it takes some time and question any charges that you do not recognize or understand. Dispute them there and then and get any billing problems resolved before you leave the property. Using automatic check out is a great way for some properties to overcharge your card and many will.
Start any journey with a strict budget if that is possible. Vacationers and new travelers often fall prey to impulse spending on deals and offers thrown in front of them. Fast talking tour and entertainment sales people often attack travelers waiting in line to check in and fast talk them into all sorts of deals. When you walk past those kinds of salespeople in kiosks or at desks in the lobby, keep walking! Save even more and stay smart by learning as much about the places you plan on visiting as possible. Sometimes you can save a small fortune, avoid crowd crushes and still get to where you need to go by staying a few blocks or miles away. That also tends to have the added affect of saving you on things like parking and food which go for premium prices in busy or very popular areas.
Save Money With Hotel Alternatives
Some people have been renting individual-owned condos or vacation houses for years as an alternative to staying in hotels. I began doing this in the early 1990s when I visited the Orlando, Florida area. I saved money and had what amounted to a complete home or apartment set up available to myself and my family. That often meant two bathrooms, lots of room for the kids to be kids, easily accessible or even in-rental laundry facilities, and a comfortable setting where you can kick back and relax after a long day of visiting the tourist traps. In many cases local calls are free, a pool is available nearby or (in the case of vacation homes) on the rental property and there is normally easy “pull right up to the rental” parking. Despite all these plusses, there can be down sides.
Some of the condos we rented were not as clean or well kept as moderately priced hotel rooms. Others had to be paid well in advance and were made available through a broker who only collected the money, had you sign the rental contract on the dotted line and handed you a key all before you even got to inspect the property. That meant that if there were any sort of problems like a lack of cleanliness, no towels or kitchen supplies, bugs or even air conditioning that was not operating correctly, you had to contact the owner directly and good luck doing that. And there can often be some other un-welcomed surprises as well...
The first time I rented a vacation home in Orlando we found out that it had a pool, but that we had to pay an extra daily charge for the pool heater to be turned on. Since it that happened in the fall, it was a real problem. In another case the owner had scheduled extensive landscaping and some basic upgrades to his home while we were renting it. Almost every time we wanted to go into the pool there was dust and loose grass flying around everywhere as the Landscaping Crew did their work. The kitchen and one bathroom out of two were unavailable to us for several days of our rental while contractors performed the upgrades.
Some lessons I learned through all this was to never pay cash for vacation rentals, never give the broker or owner a large cash deposit and avoid “cash only” vacation homes. Those who wanted cash or debit cards normally had something to hide; or charged extra or excessive fees for things like heated pools, cable, basic phone service or things that others provided for free like towels and kitchen supplies (pots, pans, utensils). By using a credit card you can always dispute the charges if you find things are not the way you expected them to be. If you plan on disputing any charges make sure you take lots of photos for evidence and provide your card company or issuer with copies of all the documents you signed before you checked in (get copies of those immediately) or that you might have received when you turned in your key. NEVER leave your key at the property. There is almost always an extra fee for that. Read the fine print at check in. Most of these types of rentals offer no housekeeping services and require you to leave the property clean (many ask you to wash all the linens and make the beds before you leave or face more charges) which may be deducted from your cash deposit or credit card.
Time Shares are still popular with many people despite all the complaints and hassles covered by any number of reliable travel reviewers and writers. Let’s face it: Time Shares are more about making money (or trying to save money even if you don’t) than satisfying the people who stay in them. I could talk until I was blue in the face and list any number of disadvantages that people who use Time Shares as places to stay face and they would still would believe that they were getting the deal of the century or a free vacation property to use at their leisure. So I will simply say that I do not recommend Time Shares as places to stay in our modern world of so many lodging choices.
Hostels have been popular for years outside of the USA. Now they are starting to make a dent in USA travel and tourism as well. The important thing to do is choose a Hostel wisely by checking as many online reviews as you can find. If you do not choose the right Hostel, these places can be just as expensive as moderately-priced hotel rooms without any of the privacy, amenities or comforts. Hostels are more for the younger, backpack crowd than anyone else. Definitely not for family travel. However, if you are looking for work in other areas and do not have a lot of cash to spend, Hostels can be a real value as a place to stay while you job hunt. Some of them are used to financially strapped travelers and will go the extra mile by doing things like posting local employment opportunities, providing meal discounts at local restaurants, offering cheap food choices like brown bag meals and taking as many messages as they need to for folks who have used up all their monthly cell phone minutes.
Credit Cards can be your best friends or worst enemies. When it comes to lodging deals you can sometimes strike gold by paying attention to any offers they send to you. You can even call and ask if they have any current hotel, vacation or travel deals and offers. Sign up to receive online travel, vacation, lodging or attraction coupons and promotions. When you do choose a place to stay beware of hidden charges. The more you do for yourself, the more money you will save. Doing your own laundry, cooking your own food or planning your own itinerary can save you hundred of dollars a week. Avoid most entertainment packages sold in hotel lobbies at all costs because they offer little for a lot. Watch for extra fees for things like wifi, pets and even housekeeping fees. Yes, some discount hotels offer you an extremely low rack rate and you think it is the deal of a lifetime until you find out there is a fee for daily room cleaning, towels, bathroom sundries (soap, shampoo, shaving kits, etc), ice and all those goodies that hotels place in the fridge or mini-bar.
Suites Verses Hotel Rooms and Other Rentals
It is easy to get taken in by the promise of a lavish hotel suite with comfortable furniture, cooking facilities and lots of amenities. In most cases you pay a lot and do not get what you pay for when it comes to suites. Many are one room, studio style set-ups that are not much larger than a normal hotel room. A few still deliver, especially older properties with the bedroom, living room, kitchen and hallway separate. However, many of those are pricey and showing their age. If you plan on staying anywhere for a few days you will have to do your homework before you make that reservation. Most modern suite hotels are very expensive even if you pay by the month. Value hotels that offer long term rental suites are unlikely to be very uncomfortable, offer little or no amenities and may not even be all that safe.
Check out the best to moderately priced lodging choices in the area you will be visiting. Look at the photos they offer, then call and ask if the photos actually represent the current state of their rooms or suites. With the economy being what it is these days most three to five star hotels that are not in areas where everyone is rich or business is great tend to offer some good and off season deals through discount hotel and travel web sites that compare prices and properties. This helps the hotels to keep their lights on during the bad times and may save you big bucks. However, call the property and ask any questions you have or try to get an even better deal before you book online. In some cases you may find that some of the well known and moderately priced hotels offer rooms that include most or all the amenities of a suite hotel at a much lower price. For example, many hotel chains now offer comfortable chairs and/or couches, microwaves, stove tops and a refrigerator, a small work area or desk with extra outlets and wifi, along with king or queen size beds in their deluxe rooms or mini-suites for a much better rate than suite hotels charge.
Some travelers prefer the room/rental sharing route that allows them to stay in someone’s home, apartment or other property (condos, cabins, luxury tents and even parked recreational vehicles) with or without the owners present. This works like Uber does for car service. You view properties listed on various web sites, book and pay. The downside is that you have no real idea whether you will get along with the people you are staying with (if they are home) or whether the property is what it appears to be (if they are not there). The best web sites that market these types of rentals are those which offer honest reviews and allow reviewer photos and videos. I would not recommend these choices for stays of more than one or two days.
These types of rentals are mostly for younger single people, some thirty or forty something couples without kids and the back packing set. These are generally not a good choice for families or folks who are retired or near retirement age. That is because parking is usually not very close to the rental since many of these choices are located in major cities and are actually apartments or condos. That means a lot of walking, carrying your own luggage a long way and possible parking fees which can be expensive in places like New York and San Francisco.
Too many travelers think of these choices as Bed and Breakfast-type rentals: They are not. On top of that people of all ages should know that there may be no or extremely limited access to laundry facilities and property owners that are present may not like it if you are a light sleeper who likes to watch their TV late at night instead of sleeping or flush the toilet at three in the morning. If you plan on watching the big game and must share a TV, that can be another problem. Some property owners are also a little too social and will bend you ears for hours even if you do not want them to do that.
If You Are Doing Business, Try Bundling
If you have to rent a hotel meeting or banquet room you should always bundle that with however many sleeping rooms you need. I did that a lot during my travels and always managed to get a decent discount on either the meeting room or sleeping rooms. Hotels have special rates and discounts that thet will never tell you about unless you ask them. In other cases you can get a better overall rate by dealing directly with the hotel and/or banquet/meeting room managers. If you know others who will be coming to the area to rent meeting and sleeping rooms, play that card. Let the managers have their names and numbers (with permission). They will take their best shot at selling their facilities and services to people you recommend and you will get a discount. Your friends or business associates may also get a discount making you the hero both ways.