Hotel room rates may vary
depending on if the hotel feels it will be full or empty on the
night you want to stay, and the hotel's perception of its
eventual occupancy level changes over time.
In addition to understanding
when the best (and worst) times to book a hotel room are, the
key concept for you in this article is to understand that you
can probably cancel and rebook your hotel room at any time
without penalty. In such a case, why not continue to
occasionally check rates even after you've made a booking, in
the hope that a lower rate might come available.
How Far in Advance is the Best Time to Book a
This varies depending on the
hotel, and sometimes the answer is 'there are multiple good
times to book, not just only one'.
For example, a hotel might
budget, a year in advance, that it will have an average
occupancy level of 85%. So it might say 'We're going to
offer 10% of our rooms at a discount, in the hope of growing our
occupancy rate from 85% to 95%.
But if the 10% of rooms it
discounted sell early, then the other 90% may stay at full price
until a 'review period' when someone makes a decision 'Oh gosh,
the hotel isn't filling as fast as we thought, maybe we should
release a few more rooms into the discount category'.
When is that review period?
It depends on the hotel. Some hotels that cater mainly for
local business travelers may get most of their bookings in the three
weeks prior to the date of stay. That type of hotel may
not start reviewing their advance bookings until two weeks prior
to the arrival date. But if it is a hotel which typically
gets most of its bookings sooner (eg, it specializes in
providing accommodation to international tourists who typically
book further in advance), then it will start reviewing
the booking trends sooner.
There is another type of
review period as well. Many hotels allocate blocks of
rooms to large tour operators and travel websites, and require
these companies to either confirm or give back a certain
percentage of the rooms allocated to them at various times prior
to the date of stay - typically review dates might be 90, 60,
30, 15 or 14 and 7 days prior to stay. Maybe one of these
companies ends up giving back a large chunk of rooms on one of
these review dates, causing the hotel's projection to switch
from one of being comfortably full to suddenly/unexpectedly
being uncomfortably empty.
Plus the general feeling of
overall business climate and travel activity, shifts in the
local market (new hotels opening, current hotels changing
ownership, whatever) and other subjective things (maybe the
hotel has just landed - or lost - a major contract with a tour
operator) can all create shifts in how the hotel's
managers think they will need to price their rooms for when you
want to stay.
So the best rate can appear
and disappear, on and off, at almost any time, and particularly
at 90, 60, 30, 14/15 and 7 day periods in advance of your stay.
Last Minute Deals
Hotel room nights are like
newspapers, and airline seats on flights. They have no
value the next day - if they aren't sold and used, they have
been lost for all time.
This means that at 6pm on
any evening, the hotel is looking at all its remaining empty
rooms and is - in theory - desperately keen to sell them
at any price at all over and above its marginal cost of
servicing an overnight stay (which is somewhere between $25 and
$50, depending on what is included in the cost).
The conflict between theory
But, the theory isn't always
the same as the reality. The hotel - just like the airline
- has two conflicting imperatives. Firstly, it needs to
sell its rooms for any amount of money at all to get maximum
profit. But, secondly, it needs to 'protect' their
published regular room rates. If a hotel was to
unrestrictedly sell, eg, $300 hotel rooms for $75 on the day of
arrival, they run the risk that this becomes common knowledge
and soon no-one would book in advance and everyone would appear
at their reception seeking last minute special rates.
This actually happened in
the cruise line industry. It became popular knowledge that
cruise rates dropped the closer it became to the cruise's
departure, so fewer people booked in advance, and the cruise
lines ended up discounting cruises - not to sudden extra last
minute passengers, but to people who had outsmarted them and who
would have otherwise happily booked further in advance and paid
full price. In marketing terms, their last minute specials
were cannibalizing their yield. They weren't getting extra
passengers, they were merely selling at lower price to the same
The cruise lines only
managed to recover from that problem by creating a 'no exceptions' rule
that they'd no longer discount at the last minute, and their
rate structure (in theory, and usually in practice) now has the
cheapest rates for booking longest in advance, while the closer to
departure, the more expensive a cruise becomes.
So the hotels have this
terrible split personality. One half of them desperately
wants to take the $75 from you in return for giving you a $300 hotel
room for the night. The other half is worried that if it
does this, then the guest who paid $300/nt will be upset and
won't pay $300 for their next stay, and/or, next time you come
back, you'll refuse to book in advance and pay the $300 too, but
will rather hold out for the $75 rate.
How to resolve these starkly
contrasting issues? Some hotels have chosen to sell their
rooms cheaply to companies that will package hotel rooms plus
other things (eg a rental car hire) so as to obscure exactly how
much (or how little!) you are paying for the hotel room.
Other hotels use sites such
as Priceline.com - this hides from most people their willingness
to discount rooms at the last minute, because you never know
which hotel you're getting until after you've committed to the
hotel room purchase, and also, you never know just how low the
hotel would go on its rate either.
We write about
the best way to use Priceline in a separate four part series
that provides invaluable information about how to best use this
system to save you money.
Some hotels have decided,
like the cruise lines, that it is safer to not discount at the
last minute, even if it means rooms go empty and unsold. Others will discount at the last
minute, but sometimes you need to speak to a supervisor or
manager to get them to agree to this and override their usual
A different way to get a
Maybe a hotel has a policy
'we won't discount our rooms at the last minute, even if it
means we lose business'. This is actually a fairly common
policy, for the reasons discussed above.
If you're told that when
trying to get a last minute special deal, you can accept that,
but then ask for a special bonus inclusion or upgrade.
Maybe you can ask for a restaurant credit (this might be
difficult if it is a larger hotel that operates a separate 'Food
& Beverage' department as a separate profit center) or a room
upgrade (easier from an accounting point of view) or something
Perhaps you end up paying
full price for a standard room and get a suite instead, but
you'll probably need to suggest that, by saying 'I understand
about you needing to protect the integrity of your published
rates. But maybe you could charge me the applicable best
rate for your standard room, and then give me a courtesy upgrade
to a suite?'
Another approach would be to
again accept the refusal to give a last minute discount, but ask
that you be given their lowest rate which perhaps you don't
otherwise qualify for. You could say something like 'I
understand about your need to protect your existing rate plans.
But perhaps you could allow me access to your very lowest net
rate that you sell rooms through tour operators and wholesalers
- that way I get a bit of a deal, while you're still selling off
your rate sheet?'
The dangerous downside to
delaying your booking
There is a downside to
booking at the last minute. Maybe the hotel no longer
needs your business, and maybe instead of getting a discounted
rate at the last minute, you end up either paying a massively
over the top rate, or can't stay at the hotel you want to stay
at due to it now being full.
There can sometimes be a
flip in perceptions when nearly full hotels, knowing that they
have the only remaining hotel rooms in town, will switch from
offering low rates to fill their rooms to holding out for high
rates because they know that you need a hotel room more than
they need your business.
If you're going to try and
play the last minute booking game, you need to be sure that you
won't end up with the area you want to stay in all being full,
and where the situation has changed from being favorable for you
to being favorable to the hotelier instead.
Check to see if the area averages a high or low occupancy rate
for the time of year you're traveling, and check to see if there
are any special conventions or events scheduled for when you
want to stay, using the same tactics mentioned in the article on
getting lower hotel rates
by optimizing your dates of stay.
The worst time to book a hotel
It may be difficult to
establish exactly when the best time is to book a hotel room,
but it is comparatively easy to understand when the worst time
to book is.
The worst time is when
you're already at your destination. Whether you're
traveling for business or pleasure, your time at your
destination is probably both limited and precious. The
last thing you want to do is waste your valuable vacation (or
business trip) spending time in an unfamiliar town/city/country
trying to arrange a hotel room.
It is vastly preferable to
have all this done in as much detail as possible before leaving
home. You have familiar resources - websites, travel
agents, (800) numbers, friends who've been there, etc - all at
hand, and you have no time pressures acting on you while you
work your way to finding the best hotels and values for your
Don't Stop Checking Hotel
Availability and Rates After
Until recently, almost all
hotels would allow you to cancel your booking without penalty,
and some hotels allow you to do this as late as 6pm on the day
you're scheduled to arrive.
Even now, most hotels still
allow for cancellations without penalty, or perhaps with a $25
or so fee charged by the hotel booking service you were using.
It might be that your potential saving at a new lower rate is
vastly greater than whatever cancellation fee (if any) applies.
If you think you didn't get
a very good rate, or if your first choice(s) of hotel was/were
not available when you booked, keep checking from time to time
to see if the situation changes. Maybe you'll find your
first choice of hotel, previously full or too expensive,
suddenly becomes available and at good rates. And maybe
the hotel you're staying at will drop its rates, too.
Don't be Embarrassed Asking for
a Special Deal
Here's an important thing to
understand. You should never be embarrassed asking for a
special deal. If there should be any embarrassment
anywhere in this negotiating process, surely it should be on the
part of the hotel, which is trying to trick you into paying a
higher rate than the lowest one they would be prepared to
They're not at all
embarrassed about this, so why should you be embarrassed at
simply trying to optimize the cost of your hotel stay.
At the same time, however,
don't make your negotiation into an adversarial process.
Be good humored all the way through, so that the person you're
dealing with wants to help you and isn't, in turn, embarrassed
at revealing there are lower rates than the ones first offered
Read more in the rest of this
This is part 2 of a series on How
to Negotiate the Best Hotel Room Rate - please
also visit :
Optimize the Dates of Your
When is the best (and worst) time to make your hotel
What is Included and What
Hidden extra fees and how
to resolve them
Who to Speak/Book With
and What to Say
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12 Sep 2008, last update
28 Nov 2012
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.