Booking a hotel seems pretty straightforward, right? And most times it is: Pick a destination, choose your dates, enter payment info and voila, happy travels!
However, there are some big blunders you could be making when it comes to hotel reservations. From booking on the wrong sites to forgetting to check some vital information, these mistakes could easily make or break your trip. Read on to find out what you must avoid when booking that hotel room.
Always expecting the best room
I was recently chatting with a front-desk agent about how her hotel chain distributes rooms at check-in. Curious, I asked what method her staff uses to determine who gets the best-located rooms. She revealed this surprising tidbit: Those who book through the hotel website or are hotel loyalty members usually get first dibs on room assignments, with the better views and quieter locations. Travelers who book through online travel agencies (OTAs), like Priceline, often receive "run of the house" rooms (what she called "ice-machine rooms," or basically whatever is left). The agent couldn't tell me just how many hotel chains do this, but she said it was a "fairly common practice" and that it sweetens the deal for travelers who book at regular rates.
The fix: Joining hotel loyalty programs is often free, and being a member can guarantee better room placement, free nights or helpful amenities like complimentary breakfast or Wi-Fi.
If having the best possible room is key to happy travel, then book directly through the hotel's website. But when those low, low OTA prices can't be beat—we know the feeling—you can always make a request for a certain type of room or location.
Expecting requests to be guaranteed
King bed or two doubles? High floor or low? Non-smoking? Water views? Three single red M&Ms? When reserving your hotel, most booking engines will allow you to make requests or add comments regarding your stay. However, in the teeny-tiny fine print, most hotels also say that your requests aren't guaranteed.
The fix: The old adage "Expect nothing and you'll never be disappointed" holds true here, but it's cold comfort when you really wanted a certain amenity. First, know that hotels will generally try to honor your requests. If, at check-in, you find your double beds have become one or you were placed in a smoking room, speak to the front-desk agent and request a change—politely. Also, it's well worth calling the hotel before you arrive to confirm your requests, especially if any were made for medical reasons.
Using incorrect arrival and departure dates
Of this travel sin, I am guilty as charged. On an overseas trip several years ago, I noted that my flight left on May 14th, so I booked my destination hotel starting the night of May 14th. Rookie mistake. I completely neglected to check that my flight was a red-eye that landed early in the morning of the 15th. This means I paid for an expensive (and nonrefundable) room that I didn't need.
The fix: Unlike your hapless writer, make sure you have your flight itinerary on hand when booking, and double-check the dates of your arrival and departure. Also consider time zones. If you're crossing the International Date Line in transit, yes, your check-in dates could be different than you expect. It's also not a bad idea to have someone look over your booking before you hit "confirm" or "pay," just to ensure that the dates you have selected are correct.
Not using a credit card
When booking a hotel, credit cards are king. Not only do credit cards offer rewards like airline miles, free night stays or cash-back bonuses, but they also offer certain guarantees that debit cards and cash do not (such as fraud protection or immediate refunds for mischarges).
Another tip that many travelers don't know? Most hotels will require an incidental deposit if you use a debit card to protect themselves against overdraft fees if your account has insufficient funds. These additional deposits can add up: I once paid a $100 deposit in Las Vegas that wasn't refunded to my account for two weeks.
Making reservations for the wrong hotel
Travelers, beware: A misleading hotel name or location description could lead you to book an airport hotel when you think you're getting centrally located accommodations. You would be surprised how often travelers see the name of the hotel and reserve it quickly without checking to see if it's located in the right place. After all, some hotels may call themselves "located near the heart of downtown," but a quick search could reveal that it's located at the airport … two hours away.
The fix: Check the mailing address and find the hotel's exact location on Google Maps. Always enter the hotel's address and see how far it is from popular attractions and restaurants by foot, by car or by public transport. Try entering the addresses of some attractions you'd like to see while in your destination and map the route. You may also want to explore the neighborhood with Google Maps Street View. And if there are multiple hotels by the same chain in that city, make sure you have booked yourself at the property in the correct neighborhood—the Hyatt Times Square and the Hyatt Flushing are very different indeed.
Not accounting for taxes and resort fees
Back in March, contributing editor Ed Perkins reported one of the most outrageous resort fees we'd seen yet. At a hotel in Colorado, the decent $170 room rate was artificially inflated with a $35 cleaning fee, a $40 resort fee, a $10 pool-and-spa fee, and a $5.10 processing fee. Ouch.
The fix: You may be able to fight some fees, such as housekeeping or newspaper delivery, if you don't wish to avail yourself of such services. Others, like resort fees, are mandatory, so you need to account for the additional cost when you book that hotel. Hotels are expected to display resort fees clearly, but OTAs may not and instead include vague language like "additional fees may apply." So call the resort and ask point-blank about additional resort fees before you book.
As for taxes? Much like security lines, you aren't getting out of those.
Not checking reviews
If you've ever taken a spin on Oyster's Photo Fakeout feature, you know that hotels go to great lengths to make their properties seem perfect. But upon arrival, that infinity pool could really be the size of a postage stamp, and those sumptuous linens could feel like sandpaper. Take anything a hotel says about itself with a grain of salt (or sand).
The fix: Do your research. Reading user reviews is a tricky balancing act. You want to read as many reviews as you can without suffering from information overload. You also want reviews to be unbiased and recent. The best way to get an accurate picture of the resort is to choose your review sites wisely. TripAdvisor and Oyster (which, like us, is owned by TripAdvisor) offer pretty accurate previews of what your hotel has to offer; Oyster's room photos are a great resource if you wonder how your room stacks up to the hotel's own slick—and possibly Photoshopped—images. Be suspicious of reviewers who have overly effusive praise, and the converse holds true, too: If you see that Bob Grump has given one measly star to every hotel he's ever checked in to, feel free to question Bob Grump's judgment.
Booking at the wrong time
As most procrastinators will readily admit, waiting until the last minute to make travel plans can have dire consequences for your credit card balance. Hotel rates can soar in the days leading up to a particular date, and you could be left without a room if everything books up (or if nothing left is within your budget). On the other hand, being an advanced planner can have its own disadvantages: Sure, you may want to have all of your travel ducks in a row as soon as possible, but it can actually cost you money to book your hotel room too early.
The fix: There are no easy answers as to when, exactly, is the best time to book a hotel room. Rates depend on many factors: location, seasonality, convention crowds, even weather. As a general rule of thumb, booking more than 21 days ahead of your arrival date is a no-no for the most popular destinations; you'll be putting yourself at risk for jacked-up prices. Your best bet is to start checking prices at least 40 days in advance and monitor the trend. If prices seem to go up, book.
If you want to make sure you get the lowest rate, the hotel booking site Tingo (SmarterTravel's sister company) will automatically monitor your hotel and rebook you at the new lower rate if prices drop. Of course, if you have waited until the 11th hour and hotel pickings seem slim, check out the Hotel Tonight app for truly last-minute deals.
Not comparing prices
Saw a hotel you loved advertised at a "great price!" and immediately plunked down a credit card number and booked? Wrong: Without doing proper research, you could be missing out on big savings.
The fix: When it comes to prices, compare, compare, compare. Use websites that have metasearch functionality (which means that they show multiple prices from multiple booking sites in one window). Compare the rates on the property's website to the rates you find on Priceline, on Expedia, on Groupon Getaways or in travel brochures. Also look into the types of booking discounts that are available and which ones can save you the most money. (For example, you may get 10% off with a hotel chain's summer sale, but your AAA discount could be larger.) As a general rule of thumb, you should check at least three different sites for each hotel booking.
Booking nonrefundable rates
Every wondered why nonrefundable rates are cheaper than the regular rack rates, even if the room is the same? It's because the hotelier benefits from the lower price, too. Locking you in at that low rate guarantees she or he won't have an empty room, which would cost the hotelier money. Of course, trying to pinch a few pennies will end up costing you if you need to cancel.
The fix: If there is any chance at all that you'll need to cancel your hotel reservation—bad weather, difficult connection, chance of illness—then forgo the nonrefundable rate. Yes, you'll pay more up front, but you won't be out much bigger bucks should you need to put your trip on hold. And, if you book your hotel through a flash-sale site or online travel retailer (OTA), triple-confirm the site's cancellation policy; these low prices are often not refundable, and no amount of begging will bring your money back.
-Dara Continenza, SmarterTravel.com