When looking for the cheapest place to book a hotel room, the commonsense approach is just to compare prices on different sites. Go to Expedia, Trivago, Kayak, Priceline, etc., and pick whichever one has the best deal.
If you try this obvious strategy, you’ll run into a problem immediately: They almost always have the exact same prices. It’s pointless. And when you think about it, that makes sense. If one of these sites was cheaper than the others, they’d all have to adjust to compete, or risk losing business. It makes even more sense when you realize that most of them are owned by the same company.
But there is one aspect of hotel booking sites that’s not equal across the board — rewards programs. Some have systems where you earn a certain number of points per dollar spent, and then you can redeem those rewards on a later booking. Some count the number of nights you’ve stayed and reward you based on that. Other sites have no rewards programs at all.
Since price is almost identical everywhere you look, focusing on rewards is the best way to hack the system. So which hotel booking site has the best rewards program — and thus the cheapest effective rates overall?
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Hotels.com Rewards Outclass All Other Travel Sites
If you want the short, easy answer, just book on Hotels.com. You’ll get (almost) 10% back in rewards over time, which is vastly superior to any of the other booking sites out there. Done. Problem solved. You can stop reading if you’re in a hurry.
Here’s how it actually works though: When you book on Hotels.com, you’ll get one “stamp” on your virtual rewards card for each night you stay, no matter where. Once you get your 10th stamp, you earn a free night. The value of that free night is equal to the average price of the ten nights you paid for to earn it (or, in simpler terms, 10% of the total you paid, before taxes and fees).
If you redeem your free night for a stay that’s less expensive than its value, you forfeit the difference, so try not to do that. If you stay somewhere slightly more expensive, you get full value out of the reward and just pay the difference yourself.
When redeeming a free night, you’ll be charged a small fee unless you book using the Hotels.com mobile app, so you’ll want to download that eventually. But you can book your paid nights fee-free from any device, with or without the app.
To do any of this stuff, you’ll need a free Hotels.com account, so make sure you sign up and stay logged in when booking your stays. You won’t collect stamps if you go through the checkout process as a guest.
Between the possibility of forfeiting part of your reward if you book a cheaper hotel, the small redemption fee if you don’t use the mobile app, and the fact that your reward night’s value is computed without including taxes and fees, you’re not actually earning a full 10% on your money. But other hotel rewards programs typically pay out in the 1-5% range, so Hotels.com is still crushing them all*. And no matter where you book, you can use a cash back credit card to eke out a couple extra percentage points.
There’s another hotel hack you can try, too — but it doesn’t work every time. If you’re staying at a chain with its own loyalty program, you’re not supposed to be able to double dip and get the loyalty points in addition to your Hotels.com stamps. We’ve found that a few hotels are willing to give you those points anyway, but only if you explicitly ask at the front desk during check in. Give it a try! It helps to be nice.
By the way, if you really want to be paranoid and make sure you’re getting the best deal by booking through Hotels.com, call your hotel directly to ask for a quote offline. When you book through a third-party platform, hotels have to pay a commission, so occasionally, they’ll give you a better deal if you skip the middleman. You can also ask for things like AAA or military discounts this way. But honestly, it hasn’t helped us get a better bottom-line price as often as you’d think.
Credit Card Rewards Give You Free Hotel Stays — Sorta
Another way to get free nights at hotels through rewards programs is to sign up for hotel-specific credit cards. As long as you pay your statement balance in full every single month and avoid paying interest, you can definitely come out ahead by doing this. But there are a few reasons why it’s not quite as good a deal as it seems.
First off, when you sign up for a hotel credit card, you are implicitly using that credit card instead of a cash back credit card. Earning 2% in hotel rewards points when you could be earning 2% cash on everything you buy is a terrible trade.
Now, if you’re playing the credit card churning game and just cycling through a couple of particularly high-value hotel credit cards, you might be onto something. We’ve done some of that ourselves. Just make sure that the hotel cards are yielding more than the cash alternatives available to you at the time. You can always find an updated list of our favorite credit cards on our Recommendations page.
It’s also worth noting that hotel credit card points are notoriously inflexible. When you get a free night from Hotels.com, you can apply its value to nearly any room at any hotel chain, plus a bunch of condos, bed & breakfasts, and motels, too. But if you have Marriott, IHG, or Hilton points from a credit card, you’re locked into those specific brands.
Another thing to consider about hotel credit card points is that using them may have a tendency to cause you to overspend. When you think of the stays you’re redeeming as “free,” you might go for more extravagant hotels than you normally would, which wrecks the effective value of your points. You should try to maximize your points by only redeeming for rooms that you would have gladly paid cash for, even if the rewards never existed.
Hotel Alternatives Can Offer Lower Prices and Unique Locations
So far, we’ve operated under the pretense that you want to stay in a hotel. But don’t forget that other options exist for overnight accommodations, too. Most of them are less glamorous, but they can definitely be cheaper.
A popular place to look for hotel competitors is Airbnb. Instead of booking a traditional room from some massive corporation, you can rent space from individuals and smaller landlords. If you’re willing to be flexible about your level of luxury, you can find some affordable options. Unfortunately, it seems like their fees are getting higher over time though. Nevertheless, it’s worth a look if you’re having trouble finding a place elsewhere.
Another avenue to consider is getting a campsite and pitching a tent. Kampgrounds of America (KOA) is a good place to start. They actually have some pretty fancy campgrounds that include things like wifi, hot showers, fire pits, and even game rooms. If tent camping isn’t your thing, some KOA locations offer small cabins with amenities that can make you feel more at home while you’re out in nature, but they aren’t as cheap.
Personally, we prefer to avoid paying to sleep altogether when possible. That’s why we drive around a small cargo van that we converted into a camper. We get our showers at national gym chains and park overnight at places like Walmarts and truck stops — for free.
Whatever you choose for your overnight accommodations, just make sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck. If you combine all these strategies — price comparison, hotel booking site rewards, credit card benefits, and alternative options — you can be pretty confident that you’re extracting as much value as possible. And that means you’ll be able to afford more travel in the long run!
* Rewards programs change all the time. Everything in this article was accurate at the time it was written, but there may come a day when Hotels.com modifies its rewards program, or another site comes out with something better. You can check the official Hotels.com rewards policy if you want to make sure nothing has changed since I wrote this.