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There are a lot of ways to save on hotel rooms, but when you ask people how they do it, their advice usually falls into one of two categories:
- Join xxx loyalty program
- Use my favorite discount booking site like Hotels.com, Bookings.com, Expedia, etc.
The first tactic can be great if you do it right, but it's also extremely limiting. Most of the good loyalty programs are for big chains, and if you're anything like us, you probably visit places like the British countryside or Scottish Highlands where large chain options are relatively rare.
What about the second tactic? Should you assume you'll get the best deal by going straight to a discount booking site?
Most of the time, you can get a pretty good rate at these sites – but with a bit of extra strategy, you can save as much as 10-20% more. I'll walk you through it.
I'll start by explaining the basic idea, then walk you through the exact steps. Don't worry if it sounds complicated at first.
Basically, you start off by joining Hotels.com and their rewards program (no charge). The rewards program gives you 1 free night for every 10 paid nights, and that free night is based on the average amount you spent on your paid nights. Right off the bat, you're basically getting back 10% of your hotel spend. If your vacation is 10 nights long, you'll have a free night waiting for you at the end of it.
Then, you buy discounted gift cards for Hotels.com. Before you use them, you'll sign up for 1-2 reputable cashback sites. When you're ready to book, you'll use your discounted gift cards + the cashback sites to take roughly 10% off the “discount booking site” price and give you an additional 1-5% in cash back on the bookings.
If you're using a good points credit card to buy your discounted gift cards, even better!
So now, let's slow this down and walk through the steps…
Step One: Sign up with Hotels.com
My discount site of choice is Hotels.com, and there are a few good reasons for that:
- You can buy discounted gift cards pretty easily
- You can book everything from large chains to smaller boutique hotels to tiny B&Bs there
- They have a loyalty program that lets you earn 1 free night for every 10, and you can redeem that free night almost anywhere
- Sometimes, they just offer straight 8-10% off coupons. You can't earn free nights on bookings made with coupon codes, but you do get the savings immediately. If you're really close to earning your next free room, you may prefer to skip the coupon code and get the credit towards your free night instead.
To sign up, just go HERE and join. There's no charge to become a member.
Step Two: Buy discounted gift cards with Raise
I'm kind of a nut about Raise. Raise is a site that allows people to buy and sell unwanted gift cards, and it's a great way to save money on things you'd buy anyway. Hotels.com gift cards can generally be found for somewhere between 5-10%, though they do occasionally send out promotional emails with even better deals. As you can see in the screenshot below, I've saved quite a bit of money with them:
If you click HERE or through one of my other Raise links above, you'll get an extra $5 towards your first purchase. If Hotels.com isn't your thing, keep in mind – they also have AirBNB, Delta Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and a number of hotel chains.
There's no cost to join Raise – you only pay when you buy. They offer a 1-year guarantee on all gift cards, so if anything should go wrong with a card you buy from them, they'll take care of it. I've purchase a LOT of gift cards from them (my order history is 22 pages long) and I've never had an issue.
One other note – do remember that Hotels.com will only take one gift card per booking. They used to have a great “combine balance” page on their site that let you smoosh the balances together, but that seems to be broken right now so you have to actually call them on the phone if you need to combine cards. The phone number for that is 888.999.4468, just in case you should need it.
Step Three: Join 1-2 reputable cashback sites
First off, what's a cashback site? Cashback sites are companies that have commission-based arrangements with a large number of e-commerce and travel sites. The companies (like Hotels.com) give them specially-formatted links that let them know who sent over a sale, so if you click their link and then buy, they get a small percentage of the purchase price back. After a designated amount of time (usually 30-60 days), the vendor pays them, then they pay you a portion of what they got (an amount they'll list ahead of time on their site).
Most cashback sites offer the option of taking plain old cash OR adding 1-10% to your balance and getting it back in the form of a gift card (often for places like Amazon, Walmart, Hotels.com, etc). Some also allow you to get PayPal funds instead of a check/bank transfer.
So, as an example, you might join TopCashback and then search Hotels.com on their site. While the offer varies from day to day, it will likely look something like what you see above. To lock in that deal, you'll just click on “get cashback now” and then proceed to search out your hotel/dates and book using the discounted gift cards you purchased before.
It may not seem like much, but if you use sites like this to book an entire vacation, you can easily find yourself coming back home to $50-100 in money you wouldn't have otherwise had. Bear in mind, you can only use one cashback site per transaction. If you click through all three, only one is going to give you a credit.
The three I recommend most strongly are:
Here's a look at my cashback stats across the three sites I use most:
Step Four: Make your booking
Before you get started, I recommend you gather up the following:
- Your Hotels.com gift card numbers and PINs (Raise will give you both of those things when you buy)
- Your dates and the hotels you intend to book on Hotels.com
I recommend checking the cashback sites you've joined to see which one has the best payout for Hotels.com that day. Log into that site, and make sure you're not running any ad blockers that might screw up the order tracking. Click over to Hotels.com, then use your gift card to make the booking. I often make separate bookings for each hotel I intend to stay at, especially if I'm using multiple smaller gift cards.
That's not TOO terribly hard, right? It's a little extra planning/effort, but considering how much you save, it's worth it.
One other thing you might want to consider is that sites like Hotels.com (and Bookings.com, Expedia, etc) do take a cut from hotel owners when you use them to book. The hotel owners are grown adults who fully understand that when they sign up, but it's still a nice gesture to book direct with very small properties. You don't get all the nice cashback, but you do help a small business get slightly better margins. It's entirely up to you. You could also consider leaving a cash tip with the owner if you use booking sites to stay at extremely small B&Bs.
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