If you browse the Internet, you will find a lot of advice out there on how to save money when traveling. For seasoned travelers, this is often referred to as “travel hacking”. It is the process of making the system work for you to save money on travel. However, the more you read, the more you will realize that a lot of the advice that is out there is geared towards people that either spend a lot of time traveling or spend a lot of their time thinking about traveling.
There really isn’t a whole lot of advice out there for how the casual or new traveler who doesn’t travel that often or spend a majority of their time thinking about travel can save money. I think this is unfortunate because one of the biggest barriers that infrequent travelers run into when they start to think about traveling more is being able to afford it.
If you like to travel, but you don’t spend a lot of your time thinking about travel and you typically only take a few trips a year, then this article is for you. Instead of talking to you about how you can rearrange your finances to be able to afford more travel, or which travel credit cards to sign-up for to maximize your travel rewards points, I am going to keep this simple. I am going to tell you which hotel and booking site rewards programs to avoid as an infrequent traveler because they won’t provide you with a lot of benefits. I am also going to tell you which hotel booking site will provide you with the most savings. Most importantly, I am going to give you tips that can help you start saving on accommodation expenses immediately.
Avoid Concentrating on Hotel Rewards Programs
Most of the advice you will read on the Internet about saving money on travel accommodations will undoubtedly include using hotel rewards programs to your advantage to get free night stays and other benefits. If you are a frequent traveler, this is a great way to save money on traveling. However, if you don’t travel very frequently, then focusing on a hotel rewards program can be a waste of your time and money.
Instead, I would focus on using the rewards programs from one of the online booking sites such as the following:
I cover these rewards programs in the last section of this guide and let you know which rewards program I think is the best for new and infrequent travelers.
Most Hotel Rewards Points Expire With Inactivity
The biggest reason that hotel rewards programs seldom pay off for infrequent travelers is the fact that most hotel rewards expire with inactivity. With most hotel chains, inactivity means not either earning additional rewards points or using existing rewards points. In case you are interested, I have included a chart below that details the rewards expiration periods for some of the biggest hotel brands.
|Hotel Chain||Rewards Expiration|
|Choice Privileges||18 months of not earning or spending points|
|Club Carlson||24 months of not earning or spending points|
|Hilton HHonors||12 months of not earning or spending points|
|Hyatt Gold||24 months of not earning or spending points|
|IHG||12 months of not earning or spending points|
|Marriott||24 months of not earning or spending points|
|Starwood Hotels||12 months of not earning or spending points|
Keep in mind, earning points doesn’t necessarily have to happen by staying additional nights. If you have a hotel rewards credit card, earning points by spending money with that card can prevent your hotel rewards points from expiring. However, if you are an infrequent traveler you may not have a hotel rewards credit card or any interest in obtaining one. It is good to know that this is an option though.
Forces You to Focus on One Hotel Brand
The biggest disadvantage that focusing on hotel rewards programs can be for infrequent travelers is the fact that it forces you to narrow the scope of your search for accommodations. In order to make a hotel rewards program pay off, you really should focus on booking a majority (if not all) of your stays with that hotel brand or chain.
For instance, if you are a Hilton HHonors rewards member, you will want to always look for a Hilton chain hotel first-and-foremost when you travel. After all, accumulating points that you can redeem for free nights and other perks is the name of the game.
If you don’t travel very frequently, limiting your stays to one hotel brand or chain can prevent you from capitalizing on substantial travel deals and in some cases force you to spend even more than you should. If you are getting a good return on investment for using a hotel brand loyally via points redemption, sacrificing some savings up front may be worthwhile. Even then, sometimes the cost of a stay isn’t even worthwhile for rewards members.
General Booking Tips that Help Infrequent Travelers
Even though you might be a new or infrequent traveler, that doesn’t mean that all of the good travel advice out there for saving money on booking accommodations doesn’t apply to you. In fact, a majority of the travel advice I can give you on how to save money when booking accommodations apply to all travelers.
Shop Around for Price
The first tip that I can give you may seem like it is pretty common sense, but you would be surprised by how many travelers don’t really shop around. They will look for hotels on one booking site, assume that the prices for hotels will be the same or similar on other sites, and then just book the best hotel they see.
What you may not realize is that the different hotel booking sites will have different deals for different hotel properties at different times. Yes, many of the prices that you will see for hotels at a location will be the same or very close to the same. However, all it takes is that one great deal on a hotel for you to save a significant amount of money on your trip. If you only shop one site, you could miss that deal.
Book Trips During Shoulder Season
Another great tip for saving money on travel accommodations that applies to all travelers is to look at booking your trip for one of the shoulder seasons at your destination. If you book during the peak tourism season, you are definitely going to pay more for accommodations than you would if you booked during the offseason.
One of the biggest reasons people don’t like to book travel during the offseason is the conditions aren’t the best for visiting during that time. In other words, there is a reason the peak season is the peak season. If you are looking to book a ski trip, then booking that trip during the summer months really isn’t going to help you much.
However, booking during one of the shoulder seasons can be the best of both worlds. By booking during the periods in between the peak season and the offseason, you can save money on hotel accommodations and not completely miss out on the ideal conditions for travel.
Don’t Wait Until the Last Minute to Book
One of the biggest mistakes that travelers will make is to put off booking their travel accommodations. While you can occasionally find a good deal on accommodations by waiting, far more often all you do is limit your options. By putting off making a reservation, you run the risk of having most of the desirable properties at your destination being full when you decide to book. This can force you to either spend more than you want to spend or to settle on booking an undesirable accommodation.
When I am booking accommodations for my travel, I will always start looking for accommodations for at least 6 months in advance. If I find a good deal, I will make a reservation. However, that doesn’t mean I stop looking. If I find a better deal or a more desirable accommodation later, I will book that and then cancel my other reservation.
When I make my reservations, I always make sure I am able to cancel my reservation for a full refund. I am reluctant to book any accommodations that don’t allow cancellation for a full refund unless I am absolutely content with the property and the price.
Consider Paying In Advance
Another way that you can often save on travel accommodations is to pay for your stay up-front. Many hotel chains and booking sites will offer discounts for paying for your stay up-front. However, keep in mind that on many occasions this also means that you aren’t able to cancel your reservation for a full refund. So if you are going to take advantage of the savings that go along with paying up-front, I would suggest you make sure you are completely content with the booking first.
Look on Airbnb and Other Hospitality Marketplace Sites
Another option that you should look into when shopping for accommodations for any trip is hospitality marketplace services such as Airbnb and Vrbo. These services act as online market places where you can go to rent anything from whole houses, apartments, or even just single rooms to stay in during your trip. The site acts as the facilitator to take payment, provide booking details, and take reviews.
I have used both of these services during my travels and have had nothing but great experiences with them. In some cases, renting a house or apartment and splitting the cost with your travel mates can be significantly cheaper than booking a hotel room or rooms. This is especially true if you are traveling with a group.
Consider Staying at a Hostel
An oldie but a goodie, one of the most tried-and-true methods for saving money on accommodations when you travel is to stay in a hostel instead of a hotel. Hostels are inexpensive lodging establishments that cater to low budget travelers. Sleeping quarters, bathrooms, and other facilities are typically shared with other travelers, though in what capacity typically differs with each hostel. If you are alright with the communal nature of hostels, they can be significantly cheaper than area hotels.
The one big drawback to relying on hostels to save money on accommodations is the availability. They are typically plentiful within large to intermediate sized cities, but once you get outside the city they can be much more difficult to find. This is where relying on hospitality marketplaces like Airbnb fill the gap.
The Best Rewards Program for Infrequent Travelers
When it comes to rewards programs for accommodations, the return on investment that you get from each rewards program is going to differ based on how frequently you travel and whether or not you want to apply for a travel rewards credit card. I already explained why I think hotel brand rewards programs don’t pay off for infrequent travelers, but that doesn’t mean I think all rewards programs aren’t worthy of consideration.
Some online travel agency (OTA) websites out there have rewards programs that I believe offer great value to travelers, including those who don’t travel frequently. The ones that I think offer the greatest return on investment are Hotels.com, Orbitz.com, and Expedia.com. I have included an overview of the benefits of these rewards programs below for you to review. If you are interested in a much more in-depth explanation of the value of these programs, please check out my Definitive Guide to Maximizing Your Hotel Savings When Traveling.
- Hotels.com Rewards give you a 10% return on investment for every booking by giving you a free night’s stay for every 10 nights you book with their site. This return on investment increases to 20% when you book using a Capital One Venture card as Capital One will give you 10 points for every dollar you spend with Hotels.com at a value of ($0.01 per point). In my opinion, this is the best OTA rewards program out there if you are willing and able to obtain a Capital One Venture card.
- Orbitz.com Rewards give you 3% cash-back with each booking you make on their website and 5% cash-back with each booking you make using their mobile app. The great things about Orbitz rewards system are that you can use those rewards immediately if you pay for your stay up-front. You also earn cash-back in the form of Orbucks with each flight you book thru their site. If you don’t have an airline frequent flier account, this is a great way to get a return on investment for the money you spend on airfare as well.
- Expedia.com Rewards by themselves are rather meager as you have to spend $70 to earn enough points to get $1 off of your next hotel booking. However, they do offer the biggest Ebates cash-back rate out of all the OTA sites. With a 10% cash-back offer from Ebates, you get a big return on investment for using their site to book your accommodations. This makes them a really great option for infrequent or new travelers as you don’t even have to sign up for their rewards program to get a big return on your investment.
|Hotel Chain||EBates Cash Back Percentage|
|Expedia.com||10% cash-back on all hotel purchases|
|Hotels.com||8% cash-back without using rewards, 2% cash-back with rewards|
|Priceline.com||5% cash-back on all hotel purchases|
|Travelocity.com||4% cash-back on all hotel purchases|
|Orbitz.com||2.5% cash-back on all hotel purchases|