If you’re looking for accommodations on your next trip, a hotel probably comes to mind. But there are so many different lodging options that you need a guide with the best tips on how to book a hotel room.
You’re looking at it.
Checking into a hotel seems easy enough. You make a reservation, you show up and get a room key — and that’s it. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s rarely that simple.
What you need to know about your hotel stay
During the coronavirus epidemic, hotels have suffered record-low occupancy rates. They’ve had to lower prices and improve their cleaning practices. But the business model is unchanged. Hotels make money from a combination of room rates and fees. They sometimes tell customers the truth about their rates, but not always. At least through 2021, guests will have an edge when they’re dealing with a hotel; it’s a buyer’s market for hotel rooms.
Before your stay
• When should I book a hotel?
• When should I not book a hotel?
• How should I book my hotel?
• Can you recommend any sites that will help me find the lowest rate?
• Is there a definitive guide that can help me pick the right hotel?
• Should I take user-generated reviews into account when I book a hotel?
• How important is the bed?
• Is there such a thing as a “child-friendly” hotel?
• How important is a hotel’s location?
• Should I book a hotel for the points?
• What are the hotel categories and what do they mean?
During your stay
• What could go wrong with my hotel reservation?
• What should I do about hotel fees?
• If I’m self-booking, what should I look for?
• What if I don’t like my hotel room?
• When should I check out of a hotel?
• How do I resolve a hotel dispute?
When should I book a hotel?
- If you want a reliable lodging experience with the convenience of daily linen changes, room service, or an on-property restaurant.
- When you need to stay in a central location, near an airport or in a convenient location, such as near an airport or the center of town.
- If you need the peace of mind of staying in a secure building.
When should I not book a hotel?
- If you’re on an extended stay (usually longer than two weeks).
- When you need the convenience of a kitchen or need extra room because you’re traveling with a larger group.
- If you don’t like living in close quarters with others or prefer that other people, like housekeeping and room service, not have 24/7 access to your living area.
How should I book my hotel?
You have several options for booking a hotel room — each one with its own set of benefits and challenges.
How it works: You call the hotel or log on to the hotel’s website directly and buy without the help of any intermediary.
Pros: Hotels might offer you a low-price guarantee, extra points, or better terms on the room (such as the ability to cancel your reservation without a penalty).
Cons: Since you’re dealing directly with the hotel, there’s no agency to advocate for you when something goes wrong. Your first, last, and only place to go is directly to the hotel.
How it works: Sites like Priceline and Hotwire offer aggressive discounts on hotel rooms; in exchange, you give up the ability to choose the exact property and location or collect frequent-stayer points.
Pros: You’ll find some of the lowest prices — if not the lowest ones — on opaque sites.
Cons: You may get the worst room in the house. Your reservation is completely nonrefundable. If you want to change or cancel your reservation, you’re flat outta luck.
How it works: Large websites like Expedia and Travelocity buy blocks of rooms at wholesale prices, then resell them to you at a markup, but still significantly less than if you were booking at the sticker price (also called the rack rate).
Pros: You’ll get a reasonably good discount but will still have an agent to advocate for you if something goes wrong.
Cons: The room may be nonrefundable, so pay close attention to the terms before booking. When you need assistance, online agencies can be a challenge to deal with by phone.
How it works: A human agent has access to a wide range of hotel rooms through a reservation system and may even have access to some specially negotiated “unpublished” rates.
Pros: A real agent can take the time to listen to you and find the best possible room based on your wants and needs.
Cons: You might pay a little more once you factor in any booking fees and related charges. Agents also take a commission from hotels, which they do not always reveal to their clients. (Sometimes, even after commissions and other fees are factored in, it can still be a good deal.)
Can you recommend any sites that will help me find the lowest rate?
No matter how you decide to book a hotel, you’ll want to get a good idea of what the going rate is for a hotel room for the dates of your visit. Try Google’s Hotel Finder which displays hotels on a map and by price. Also, try an aggregator like Kayak to look for the most aggressive deals. A site like Booking.com also offers a lot of inventory at reasonable terms. Finally, check the hotel company’s website to see if it can do better or will offer other incentives to book.
Is there a definitive guide that can help me pick the right hotel?
Hotels are basically a bed and a bathroom. Everything else is window dressing. The amenities, the service, the towels, the beach views — they’re not an essential part of the product, strictly speaking. How do you cut through the clutter to determine what really matters?
There are no credible “star” ratings for hotels, and there is no single, authoritative guide to help you decide which is the best hotel. So, it’s up to you to figure out what you need, as opposed to what you might be told you need.
Should I take user-generated reviews into account when I book a hotel?
When choosing your hotel, you’ll run across user-generated review sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp, and other “star-rating” sites designed to show you the “best” hotel. But they can’t, and they won’t. Why? The ratings are easy for hotels to manipulate, and they don’t know you, so they can’t possibly understand what you’re looking for in a hotel experience. Use TripAdvisor reviews only as a litmus test. Check with friends and colleagues to get even more valuable “word of mouth” recommendations, if possible.
How important is the bed?
A few years ago, many hotel marketers woke up and realized that if their beds were uncomfortable, little else mattered. So, they began investing in bedding products, which led to the infamous bed wars. As a rule of thumb, hotel chains that have their own bedding line take the sleep experience seriously, and can be trusted to deliver a good night’s sleep. You can find out if they do on their website. However, some moderately priced hotels, like Holiday Inn, have excellent beds, too.
Is there such a thing as a “child-friendly” hotel?
Maybe. Few hotels truly embrace young guests. Instead, they offer licensed daycare facilities with “activities” that include watching The Little Mermaid on a worn-out DVD player for the 950th time. Honestly, if you’re traveling with lots of children, you’re almost always better off staying in a condo or rental home. Besides, who wants to spend an outrageous amount of money per kid at a hotel restaurant when you can cook dinner for the whole family for less than the price of a typical hotel meal?
How important is a hotel’s location?
Hotels charge a premium for their location, whether there’s a quality product on the inside or not. So, unless you absolutely need to wake up and be downtown, or unless you’re in the city for a convention, consider staying outside of town. You might have a better lodging experience and get to know some of the surrounding countryside while you’re there. Also, check to see if your hotel is close to mass transit. You might even save yourself the expense of a rental car.
Should I book a hotel for the points?
Look for a hotel that will deliver the best product and service at the right price. Loyalty programs, which can unduly influence your purchasing decision, should be low on the list of factors you consider when booking a room. How far down the list? Somewhere between whether they offer mints or chocolates for turn-down service. Seriously. Once you make loyalty programs an integral part of your purchase, they’ve gotcha.
What are the hotel categories and what do they mean?
When you go shopping for hotels, you’ll find all kinds of descriptions, from “budget” to “luxury.” But these can mean different things to different guests, and no one seems to agree on the best definition. I like AAA’s simple diamond classification system, which can help you find the kind of hotel you’re looking for quickly.
These establishments typically appeal to the budget-minded traveler. They provide essential, no-frills accommodations. They meet the basic requirements for comfort, cleanliness, and hospitality.
These establishments appeal to the traveler seeking more than the basic accommodations.There are modest enhancements to the overall physical attributes, design elements, and amenities of the facility, typically at a moderate price.
These establishments appeal to the traveler with comprehensive needs. Properties are multifaceted with a distinctive style, including marked upgrades in the quality of physical attributes, amenities, and level of comfort provided.
These establishments are upscale in all areas. Accommodations are progressively more refined and stylish. The physical attributes reflect an obvious enhanced level of quality throughout. The fundamental hallmarks at this level include an extensive array of amenities combined with a high degree of hospitality, service, and attention to detail.
These establishments reflect the characteristics of the ultimate in luxury and sophistication. Accommodations are first class. The physical attributes are extraordinary in every manner. The fundamental hallmarks at this level are to meticulously serve and exceed all guest expectations while maintaining an impeccable standard of excellence. Many personalized services and amenities enhance an unmatched level of comfort.
What could go wrong with my hotel reservation?
Many hotel reservations aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, or the electrons that render them on your computer screen. Here are some of the most common problems you’ll encounter.
Although your website may generate a reservation number, some guests arrive at check-in only to find that no one was expecting them. The reason? Reservation systems, some of which still are powered by fax machines (yes, fax machines), can break down. Fax machines run out of paper, you know. The workaround: Always call your hotel to verify your reservation, even if you made a direct booking.
Hotels routinely accept more reservations than they have rooms because a certain percentage of their guests are “no shows.” That’s fine, but the computer algorithm that allows a hotel to do that isn’t always the most reliable. The fix: If your hotel is out of rooms, it should “walk” you to a comparable hotel, which means it will send you to another hotel of comparable quality and pay for the first night’s lodging. It’s almost impossible to know in advance if a property has overbooked you, but rest assured, if it has, you’ll still have a place to stay.
Hotel dates can sometimes be tricky, because you arrive on one night, and stay until the next morning. Your reservation starts on the day you check in and ends the day you leave. That can throw some people off, because they say, “I’m planning to be here on Sunday, so I need a room for Sunday,” but they arrive Saturday night. They actually need a room for Saturday. Also, pay extra close attention to booking hotels in Europe. Date conventions there are Day-Month-Year, not Month-Day-Year, as they are in the United States. You could end up with a reservation for the wrong month. If you are unsure about how dates work, consider using a travel agent.
What should I do about hotel fees?
Hotels can make a good portion of their profits from additional fees charged to you, whether you asked for a service or not. Here are some of the biggest “gotchas.”
Bed taxes and other government fees.
A bed tax is a levy imposed by local governments on hotel stays. Along with various other fees, they can be used to support tourism promotion efforts and other outreach to visitors, or just to build new roads and bridges. Unfortunately, they are mandatory. A hotel should tell you the “all-in” price for your stay, including these taxes, before you book a room.
Mandatory resort fees.
Some hotels add a mandatory “resort” fee to your room rate, which includes items that ought to come with your room, like beach towels, and access to the exercise room. What’s more, they won’t remove the charges, even if you promise not to go to the beach or exercise room. To avoid these “gotcha” fees, pay close attention to the room rate when you make a reservation, and ask if everything is included.
Fees for “amenities” included in your room.
Some hotels add a fee for a room safe (whether you use it or not) or newspaper delivery (whether you want it or not). As soon as you can, tell the hotel that you don’t want these amenities, otherwise, they’ll be added to your room rate, and they might stick.
Fees for using the phone or Wi-Fi.
Even hotels that claim to offer “free” local calls or wireless high-speed Internet access for a “low” daily rate may have some surprises in store for you. Long-distance calls and even “800” numbers may face a steep and profitable markup, and Wi-Fi connections may end up being billed per device, which means they’ll getcha even if you don’t think they will. Read the fine print before you make a call, or log in, and if you have questions, ask.
Mandatory tipping fees.
Some hotels add “bellman” or “concierge” fees to their rooms. These surcharges are nothing more than junk fees, meant to pad a property’s revenue. If you find yourself staying at a hotel with one of these surcharges, and especially if you prefer to carry your own bags, and know where all the good restaurants are, you can and should dispute these fees as soon as you see them on your bill.
If I’m self-booking, what should I look for?
Pay extra close attention to the terms of your purchase. Many hotels offer a modest discount in exchange for giving up your ability to cancel a room. If you think your plans could change, you’ll want to do your due diligence before you click on the “book” button. Otherwise, you might pay for a room you never use.
Here are a few common hotel problems and how to fix them
- Missing amenities.
Running a hotel is a complex business. Hotel guests steal towels and fixtures, and sometimes the housekeeping department fails to stock your bathroom with soaps and shampoos. Usually, it’s not a big deal. If you’re short a hair drier or a bar of soap, just call the front desk, and they’ll usually fix it quickly. For extra fast service, walk down to the front desk. They may be able to give you those missing turn-down chocolates right away.
- Room is not as advertised.
What if your room isn’t configured as promised? What if it has too few beds, or two queen beds instead of one king-size bed? Often, the only remedy is a room change, but it helps to get creative. If you’re traveling with kids, you may be able to sleep one of them on the sofa, or move a rollaway bed into the room, at no extra cost, and a minimum of inconvenience.
- It’s a smoking room.
Yes, some states and many countries still allow guests to smoke in their rooms. You may find yourself in a smoking room or one that’s designated nonsmoking but still smells like smoke. You have the right to not breathe secondhand smoke while you and your children are asleep. It’s important to let the hotel staff know immediately if you’ve just checked into a room and it smells like smoke. Ask for a room change, and if none is available, you may want to see if the hotel will walk you to a smoke-free property at no cost to you. Otherwise, you could end up finding a surprise smoking fee on your hotel bill at check-out.
- Utilities not available.
A more serious problem is when certain basic utilities are not present. This may include a lack of air conditioning during the middle of the summer, no electricity, no running water, no hot water, a stopped up sink, or a toilet that doesn’t flush. While these basic utilities or amenities aren’t specifically promised to you, it’s generally understood that your room will come with them, and that they’ll work. An in-person visit to the front desk is often the best way to fix these problems. Maintenance will be called. The process should be quick. You shouldn’t have to spend a night in a hotel room without working air conditioning, heat, water, or electricity. See the section on when to check out of a hotel for alternatives.
- Worst room in the house.
Hotels routinely assign choice rooms to their best guests — the ones who paid the most or who have elite status. The worst rooms often go to the customers who paid discount rates. A number of years ago, one hotelier admitted he had a broom closet, referred to internally as the “Priceline” room. Bottom line: No one should be stuck in that awful room next to the elevator, above the restaurant, and below the disco. Speak up! If the room isn’t to your liking, let someone know, and if you’re halfway nice about it, you’ll be moved to another room.
- Dangerous hotel.
If you check into a hotel and the first person who greets you is the director of security, or anyone with a “security” shirt, and parts of the hotel normally open to the general public are only accessible with a room key, you might have a little safety issue. Unless it’s spring break or a major holiday weekend, a time known for rowdy guests at some resort areas, you might want to go somewhere safer.
- Loud guests.
People book hotel rooms for all kinds of reasons, and not all of them are there to sleep. If you find that your room is next to the room of boisterous guests, remember the chain of complaint. First, if possible, politely ask the loud guests to quiet down. If the guests are belligerent or if you feel you might be in danger, skip to the next step: Call the front desk. If that doesn’t work, go to the front desk, and ask for a manager. Still nothing? Ask to move, and if that’s not an option, call the police.
When should I check out of a hotel?
Sometimes, you have to say “enough is enough,” and you need to pack your belongings and leave. Here’s when to call it a day.
- At the end of your reservation.
This may sound obvious, but some guests feel they can extend their stay indefinitely. Actually, most innkeeper laws reserve the right to remove you and your property if you do that. It’s better to make a new reservation or extend your reservation.
- If you’re asked to leave early.
Under most state laws, unfortunately, you don’t have a right to stay in a hotel indefinitely. If an innkeeper asks you to go, and you don’t, they can call the police to have you forcibly removed. So if a hotel believes you’ve been a bad guest (for example. it’s spring break, and you’ve had too good a time), maybe it’s time to go.
- When the hotel can’t deliver what it promised.
If you reserved a nonsmoking room with twin beds, and the hotel placed you in a smoking room with a queen-size bed and a pull-out sofa, with toilets that didn’t work, and broken air conditioning — and what’s more, failed to remedy the situation — then you should depart ASAP.
- When a hotel fails to deal with unruly guests.
If your complaints about a fellow guest fall on deaf ears, and if you have to call the police, but the issue is still unresolved, then you should depart early, and find alternate accommodations.
- Early checkout protocol.
No matter where you made your reservations, a hotel should not charge you for a room you can’t or won’t use under these circumstances. So, if the hotel insists on charging you even though it asks you to leave early, delivers the wrong room, or fails to crack down on noisy guests, you should consider disputing the excess charges on your credit card.
How do I resolve a hotel dispute?
Although some of your rights are outlined in the terms of your reservation, you have additional legal rights that are detailed in your state’s lodging statutes. Each state’s laws are slightly different, and we don’t have the space to deal with all of them. Here are the major types of “rights” you can expect to see addressed in a state’s lodging laws:
- Limits of liability for property left in a room.
- Rejection of undesirable guests.
- Telephone surcharges.
- Conduct on the premises.
- Unclaimed property.
- Sanitary regulations.
Not exactly the kind of lodging “bill of rights” you would hope to find, that might promise a reservation is a guarantee of a room, for example. But even though hotels appear to have a broad license to play games with their customers, they usually don’t. The reason: The lodging industry is highly competitive, and hotel managers know that if they treat you badly, you won’t be back a second time. This contrasts sharply with, say, airlines, which are confident you’ll return, as long as the fare is low enough.
The hotel staff is trained to address grievances in real-time, and like other travel problems, they can offer you everything up to a “comped” room (in other words, zeroing out your bill) if the situation warrants.
The bottom line
When you’re dealing with a large hotel chain, you also have a final layer of appeal, when you’ve hit a dead-end with the property. You can send your case to the corporate owner. So, for example, if you have a problem with a DoubleTree property and are getting nowhere with the local manager, you can forward your grievance to Hilton at the corporate level. Even the suggestion that you might “take this to corporate” can make a hotel change its tune. Properties are evaluated by their corporate parent based on how many complaints they generate, and they will often do everything in their power to make you happy before you go over a hotel’s head.
The Elliott Advocacy research team lists the names, numbers and email addresses of all the hotels in our company contacts database. And if all else fails, send your request directly to our team and we’ll investigate — we’re always here to help.
And for more travel advice, don’t forget to check out my ultimate guide to planning a trip.