Sleep on the Cheap
It’s vacation season! So get ready for beautiful beaches, breath-taking mountains…and overpriced hotel rooms. Luckily, there are savvy ways to outsmart the sky-high rates and nab yourself a sweet deal.
For example, I spent last Memorial Day weekend at an ashram in upstate New York. It cost just $100 a night for a semiprivate room, which I shared with my mom, including three delicious vegan meals daily and unlimited yoga and meditation classes. The campus was gorgeous — a lake, walking paths through the woods, a meadow full of wildflowers — and it was just a five-minute drive to a quaint little town.
Whether you’re looking for a 5-star suite or adventurous hotel alternatives, we’ve rounded up the best money-saving lodging tips out there.
Wait Until the Last Minute (If You Can)
If you don’t mind flying by the seat of your pants during vacation, then HotelTonight is about to become your best new travel buddy: It’s an ingenious budget-saving app that connects consumers looking to score rock-bottom rates with cool hotels that have empty rooms to fill for that night — and, often, offer jaw-dropping deals. (When we just perused the latest options, we found rooms around the globe for up to 70 percent off the list price at several well-known hotels.)
You might be thinking… Are these really places you’d actually want to stay? No worries about ending up in a roach-infested mess in the middle of nowhere — the HT team curates listings, only including top-rated hotels where they’d love to spend the night. Places are organized by location and category (hip, luxe, charming), so you can easily find the right fit for you. HT is also a fun way to plan a staycation: Just search for spots in your town, then head on a last-minute weekend away-at-home with the family or your significant other.
Think Outside the Hotel
Forgo traditional lodging like inns and B&B for more adventurous — and less expensive — options. Some ideas: Sign up for Servas, a cooperative cultural exchange network that links hosts and travelers in more than 125 countries on six continents (you can arrange free homestays at members’ homes); stay at an ashram (often located in gorgeous bucolic settings, they’re super affordable—think under $100 for room and board); or dip a toe into agritourism via a farm stay (they average around $125 a night, including breakfast).
In addition, TripAdvisor now has a tab called “Specialty Lodging” offering off-the-beaten path stays, from campgrounds to ranches. “You can also try college campuses — some schools (mostly small, private colleges) rent out dorm rooms for around $35-$80 when classes aren’t in session,” says Allison McGuire, director of marketing at WanderWe, which focuses on short getaways. “Look on their website for more information, or reach out to the housing office directly.”
Fill an Empty Room
It happens all the time: Someone books a nonrefundable hotel room and then has to cancel her trip for one reason or another. So, what happens to that empty suite? Well, it used to just sit there, unused, lonely…until Roomer came along. It’s an online marketplace where people can sell unwanted suites to travelers searching for a killer deal. (Since their automated validation system verifies the authenticity of every reservation, the sketchiness factor is zilch.) Click on the “Best Deals” link for a selection of the lowest rates out there — many are upwards of 40 percent off.
Be Flexible on Your Travel Dates
Traveling during the shoulder season — the times just before and after peak seasons — not only yields wicked deals, but it’s often a more pleasant option anyway, because the weather’s milder and you don’t have to wrangle your way through throngs of Cape-Codders. “This doesn’t mean you need to spend summer vacation in the middle of Texas. Early summer in many mountain locales is shoulder season, for instance, while late summer can offer savings on all types of lodging in many coastal locations,” says Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Phoenix operations with Freedom Financial Network. “Weekends in bigger cities can translate into significant savings at great hotels.” Even just traveling the weekend after Labor Day or before Memorial Day can turn out to be an amazing bargain.
And since hotel rates fluctuate just like flight prices do, the person in the room right next door could have paid a considerably different amount than you did. Luckily, there are tools that can help protect you from overpaying. The new website TheSuitest is dedicated to making sure you land an enviable deal. They track price variations of hotel rooms, cluing users in to the ideal moment to purchase a room: Should you open your wallet now or hold off for later? And if you book a hotel using Tingo, they’ll follow the room rate and send you an automatic refund if the price drops.
Book From Home and Don’t Forget Insta-Discounts
Think twice before scouting out vacation lodging during your lunch break. A Rice University study found that when people purchased a hotel room while at work, they were more likely to select a pricey location and ended up being less satisfied after their stay compared with those who made reservations at home. “We speculate that people are more fatigued at work and tend to buy more expensive items,” said professor of marketing Ajay Kalra.
And before clicking “purchase” on that oceanview suite, eyeball websites that buy and sell discounted gift cards — like Raise, GiftCardGranny or CardHub. You can search by category, so select “travel” and watch the deals roll in. When I just checked, GiftCardGranny was selling cards for 22 percent off at the Four Seasons, 37.5 percent off BedandBreakfast.com, and a 5.5 percent reduction at Hyatt. Raise featured gift cards for 6 percent off Mandarin Oriental and 11 percent off The Peninsula Chicago, while CardHub was offering a 13 percent discount for the Ritz Carlton.
Especially if you live in a cool area, consider switching houses with people around the world using HomeExchange. Here’s how it works: List your residence on the site, browse listings for homes and locations you’d love to visit, and then get in touch with those members to see if they’d be interesting in trading for a weekend, week, or more. Meanwhile, interested travelers can reach out to you, too.
Once you find a great match and nail down dates that work for both of you, you can swap homes — totally gratis. With more than 50,000 listings in 150 countries, the possibilities are nearly endless: We saw a 17th century farmhouse in Bretagne, a chic flat in the heart of Berlin, and a lakefront condo in Vancouver with incredible mountain views.
Consider a Cruise
Being on dry land is so overrated. You can get a great bang for your buck with a cruise, says Sherri Eisenberg, editor-in-chief of Bon Voyage magazine. “Book between January and March, when cruise lines offer the lowest fares for sailings in the year ahead,” Eisenberg says. You can also scout out last-minute price drops 30 to 60 days before departure, when ships re-evaluate their inventory.
Check cruise lines’ social media pages or discount sites like Expedia Cruises and CruisesOnly, which aggregate the latest deals from all lines. (Eisenberg has seen rates as low as $499 for a weeklong trip.) Hint: To ensure you score a sweet cabin, request a room that’s not near the crew’s quarters or above mechanical equipment.