When should you book hotels for the best rates?
How far in advance should you reserve your hotel room? Not surprisingly, that depends on several factors!
After painstaking research, you find a hotel in Rome that perfectly fits your trip. Great location, cute décor, friendly management, nice bathrooms, and free Wi-Fi. And the rates? Well, doubles are listed “from €98″, which seems perfect for your budget.
But then you try out your dates, only to find that it’s €149 a night during your stay. You bump the trip back a week and try—and now it’s €189 a night. Just for fun, you try out tomorrow. It drops to €89.
What’s going on here? Why do the hotel’s rates swing so dramatically from week to week? And does that mean you should wait for the rates to fall before you book it? Aren’t you supposed to book hotels far in advance for the best rates?
Remember when hotel rates were predictable? Back in 2001 when I started reviewing hotels for EuroCheapo, I’d ask a hotel’s receptionist for their room rates and usually get a pretty standard response. There were “high season” rates, generally from May through mid-September, and then cheaper “low season” rates for the rest of the year (excluding holidays and special events).
Back then, our advice was simple: Book your hotels (especially popular ones) far in advance to secure a room. Rates, for the most part, didn’t change much during the season. Sure, you could snag same-day discounts by simply showing up at a hotel and asking for a deal, but that was about it. If you wanted to stay at a popular hotel, you booked it months ahead of time.
Rates at hotels with dynamic pricing are difficult to predict. Above, the rate card for the Grand Hotel des Balcons in Paris. It’s one of our Editor’s Picks… when it’s cheap!
These days, with increasingly few exceptions, hotels play a game of dynamic pricing that can make it difficult to know if you should book a room, or hold off and wait for a better price. They’re changing their room rates daily based on all kinds of factors. In fact, many are changing their rates several times a day!
Why? They change the rates according to the hotel’s supply and demand, and they’ll raise rates if rooms start filling up, and drop them as the check-in date draws near… if they still have availability.
But that’s not all: They’re also constantly monitoring their competition, lowering rates if their competitors do the same. I know a proprietor in Rome whose hotel shares a building with another hotel. They both obsessively monitor each others’ rates, rising and falling almost in step with each other.
Dynamic pricing is nutty pricing, and the whole situation makes it increasingly difficult on our end to say in advance if a hotel is a “good deal” or not. After all, it’s quite difficult to say that a hotel is a great value if it offers rooms one day for €89, and three days later for €189. Is it a good deal? Uh, well, on which day?
And even if a hotel is, generally speaking, a good value, there’s always the impression that you might score a better deal if you wait. Is that a good strategy?
But wait—not everyone plays the crazy room rates game. There are still some hold-outs, mostly independent properties, usually with a small number of rooms. Many of these hotels still do not work with online reservation agencies, and thus require travelers to contact them directly to reserve (or book through their own website).
Rates at the Residence du Palais in Paris vary only slightly during the year.
Because they’re not showing up in the search results of giant booking sites, they’re not being directly compared to their competition, and thus feel less pressure to inflate or deflate their rates to match those of the other hotels in town. They also save quite a bundle by not paying out commissions.
Some of the most popular hotels that we recommend on EuroCheapo don’t work with reservation agencies and don’t change their rates from day to day. The incredibly popular Celtic Hotel in London, for example, offers rooms at the same rate, year-round. There’s not even a high/low season change. Same thing at the Residence du Palais in Paris (rate card, pictured at left).
Still, the majority of European hotels (and a majority of properties listed on EuroCheapo) do indeed work with at least one reservation agency. And yes, most of these employ some sort of dynamic pricing.
Knowing when to book for the best deal depends on several factors, including whether or not the hotel changes its rates frequently. How can you tell if it “plays the pricing game”? When you search for multiple dates for the same hotel, do you see a wide range of rates? Are you seeing €50-100 rate swings from one week to the next?
If so, the hotel is definitely playing the game. Some things to consider for these hotels:
1) The rates will probably drop as the date gets closer… if they still have availability.
This is, obviously, the hitch. If you hold off, the hotel might very well book up, leaving you looking elsewhere. How large is the hotel? I’m much more comfortable holding off on bigger hotels than on small properties that can sell out much faster.
2) How busy is the city for your dates? Look at the competition.
How’s the competition when you do a search in the city for your dates? If you see lots of other similarly priced options that look good to you, you might want to hold off. This could be a sign that there’s still a lot of availability throughout the town for your dates, which will ultimately result in great last-minute deals (see my next point).
If, on the other hand, you don’t see many other attractive options and the rate seems fair, it would probably be a good idea to go ahead and book it now to secure a room. If you get the sense that a lot of the good options are disappearing, get something decent while you can. If searching for peak travel periods, pickings could get slim the closer you get to your date.
3) Last-minute deals are easy to find during slower seasons.
Waiting until the last minute to book a hotel can result in a steal. This is especially common during slower months when hotels are competing aggressively to fill their rooms. Generally speaking, in Europe, this is from October – April, excluding special events and holidays. The drearier the weather, usually the longer you can wait to book the room!
I booked a three-star hotel in Venice (two blocks from Piazza San Marco) back in April for less than €80 (the posted rate was about twice that). It’s likely that the same room would have been more expensive booked months in advance.
But doing that a few months later, during high season, would have been dicey and could have led to a different ending. Yes, I could have wound up with a freakishly good deal, but I could have also wound up paying more than I’d budgeted for a room in a far-flung neighborhood. Or without a hotel at all.
4) Consider using “free cancellation” to secure a room.
Hotel are increasingly offering free cancellation policies to grab your attention on booking sites. If you find a hotel rate that seems fair and the hotel offers free cancellation, you could go ahead and book the room in order to secure it, giving yourself the option of cancelling it if a better rate (or a better hotel) comes along.
Do note the cancellation policy, however, as they can vary between sites and hotels. On our partner Booking.com, for example, some hotels offer free cancellation up to 7 days before check in, while others allow you to cancel the day before. Also, note that many hotels charge more for the rooms with free cancellation policies, and thus steer more guests into lower priced rooms that they can’t cancel. Think (at least) twice about paying more for a refundable room just so you can cancel it if something cheaper comes along!
5) Don’t be afraid to actually make a call.
If you’re seeing rate fluctuations online, you could always get offline and try to score a deal the retro way–by speaking with someone on the phone. Call the hotel directly and explain that you’ve found the following rates for your dates, and you were curious if the hotel could offer a better deal directly.
You’ll probably find that smaller hotels are more open to this sort of wheeling and dealing, but even larger hotels have been known to cut a deal. We’ve heard of hotels throwing in free breakfasts, room upgrades and lower rates.
6) If hotel rates don’t change, compare rates with similar hotels.
But what about hotels that don’t change their room rates dynamically? Let’s consider another popular hotel from our guide, the Hotel Tiquetonne in Paris, which offers singles or doubles with private bath throughout the year for €65. The Tiquetonne doesn’t work with any reservation websites; you have to email or call them directly to book a room.
Is €65 a night a good deal? That’s easy to figure out: Do a quick search for Paris hotels for your dates. You probably won’t find anything (with any charm, at least) for that rate in central Paris with a private bath. Is the hotel’s rate going to change if you wait? Not this hotel—it doesn’t play the game. Rather, the only thing you’ll find if you wait will be a sold out hotel.
With this sort of very popular hotel, you’re strongly advised to book as early as possible. In this case, there’s no such thing as “too early”. Email or call them now to reserve, even for a trip 10 months from now.
On the other hand, sometimes you’ll find that a hotel’s “fixed rates” seem too high or out of step with offers you’re seeing from other hotels in town. If you’ve got your eye on a two-star hotel in Paris with a set rate of €130, for example, and you do a “sanity search” for your dates and see lots of other options for less, you could give the hotel a ring and ask if they can beat the offers you’ve seen online. (Or just book one of the cheaper hotels!)
7) If you love a hotel, secure it now.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if you love a particular hotel, don’t play around with it and hope it’s rates will drop. Book it. Chances are that if you love a hotel, many others love it, too, and for many of the same reason you love it. Book it before somebody else does.
When do you find is the best time to book your hotels? Have any tips to share? Share your advice by leaving a comment below.