Strategies for Booking Hotels on a Budget
By Beth J. Harpaz, AP Travel Editor
NEW YORK — When the economy was booming, many hotel companies began building new properties. Some of those are opening now, resulting in a 2.5% increase in hotel room supply this year, just as demand is dropping by around 1% or more, according to Jan Freitag of Smith Travel Research.
“We’re going to see a substantial decline in occupancy this year,” agreed Bjorn Hanson, an associate professor of hospitality and tourism at New York University’s Tisch Center.
Excess supply means opportunities for consumers. Here are some strategies for booking hotels on a budget.
It’s generally cheaper to stay in major cities on weekends, when there are fewer business travelers, and in resort areas on weekdays and offseason, when there are fewer tourists.
Visitors to urban centers may save by booking outside main tourist areas. For San Diego, for example, “you could stay in Carlsbad or even up as far as Oceanside,” said Joe McInerney, CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. But research the cost and time of commuting in each day, to make sure the tradeoff is worth it. McInerney pointed out that hotels on Long Island or Westchester might be cheaper than Manhattan, but your savings might be offset by daily train and cab fare or tolls and parking.
You’ll also pay less outside of peak holiday time, and some new hotels charge lower introductory rates. Canyon Ranch’s new destination spa in Miami Beach has nightly starting prices at $200 through Dec. 3. Rates go up Dec. 4-23, starting at $650 a night, and Dec. 24-Jan. 1, to $1,100 a night.
Places hard-hit by the downturn may also offer deals. The Bahamas’ Atlantis mega-resort, with nearly 3,000 rooms on Paradise Island, recently laid off 800 workers. It’s now offering a three-night package starting at $299 a person, including two sessions interacting with dolphins (normally $110 each), and $99 airfare each way on JetBlue from New York, $89 from Boston (book by Dec. 18, offer ends Dec. 25, atlantis.com, blackouts apply). In addition, the Nassau Paradise Island Promotion Board is offering a $250 rebate on air-inclusive packages (three-to-six night stays, book through Nov. 30, for travel completed by Feb. 28). An Atlantis package offered this time last year started at lower rates of $259 a person, but did not include dolphins, airfare discounts or rebates.
Most hotel chains have loyalty or frequent guest programs that allow you to use points for free nights. “Every traveler should be a member of every frequent guest program,” said Hanson. Joining usually costs nothing; points accumulate and often don’t expire; and most hotel chains now have no blackout dates for using points to book rooms.
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Many hotel chains offer cobranded credit cards with enough bonus points for a free night. Sign up for a new Marriott Visa card and get a certificate for one free night’s stay, plus 25,000 bonus points, which are enough for another night’s stay at Marriotts in many markets, including January in Miami, where you can go to the beach, or Salt Lake City, where you can ski. If you travel with a spouse or friend, that person can sign up for his or her own card and get points for free nights as well.
Research how fast points accumulate before signing up. Different chains have different systems. With Hilton, you get up to 20,000 bonus points for signing up for Hilton HHonors Platinum Credit Card from American Express (10,000 points for your first purchase with the card, 2,500 points for each of your first four stays at Hilton Family hotels). Cardholders can also earn five points for every dollar spent at Hilton Family hotels, grocery stores, drugstores, gas stations, restaurants and on U.S. postal services and wireless phone bills.
For other purchases, Hilton cobrand card holders earn three points per dollar. In addition, the program has an option where you earn 15 points for every dollar you spend at Hilton Family hotels, as long as you choose hotel-stay points as your sole reward. Hilton also has an “earnings mall” where you can earn extra points for shopping at various retailers like iTunes.