Sally | Edited by Steve N
Updated August 2016
Never assume hotel or hostel prices are fixed. Book right and massive savings are possible on rooms.
We've 24 tips for bagging cheap accommodation, including how to grab special opening rates, get up to 13% cashback and exploit free cancellation policies.
24 tips on cheap hotel stays, including...
Do your research first to pick the right hotel
Whether you want to spend a few nights in luxury, fancy a cosy boutique hotel or just want a basic room as cheap as chips, the trick is to pick the right hotel first, within your budget, then try to get it for the best price possible. You might already have a particular hotel in mind, but if not, it's important to do your homework.
When picking your hotel there are a couple of things to watch out for:
Don't trust the star system
Amenities determine star ratings, not quality – a 5* rating is often based on a pool, big foyer and conference facilities, not how nice the place is.
As there's no universal worldwide standard, stars may be given by governments, review organisations or even the hotel itself, so treat them with a big pinch of salt. See a full guide to what stars mean.
A worldwide institution, TripAdvisor* lists detailed reviews and customer ratings for hotels by past guests.
However, always remember anyone can pen a review. Some hoteliers sign up and post glowing reports of their own hotels.
Once you've settled on a hotel – or a shortlist of several – check out the direct price on its website, but don't book yet. This will give you a good benchmark for the going rate – a useful starting point if you want to haggle later on too. It's also a good way to find out if the hotel's offering any special deals for those who do book direct.
Comparison sites usually give the best price
Check the top comparison sites to see who's selling it cheapest – the same room can be sold at vastly different prices. Here are our four top pick sites:
The cheapest tends to be Trivago* – it covers over 250 different brokers.
To broaden your search, try TravelSupermarket*.
For extra discounts, free stays and member-only prices, check Hotels.com*.
Popular review site TripAdvisor* lets you read reviews and do quick comparisons.
Once you've found the best comparison site price, call the hotel to see if it'll beat it – sometimes they offer direct bookers early booking promos or three-for-two night deals that comparison sites miss.
It's all very well us saying it, but to see how it works in reality, and how much you could save, here are a few successes from those at MSE Towers:
I booked five nights for two people in a five-star hotel in Zanzibar, all inclusive, for £714 total via Trivago. That's less than half the £1,620 price booking direct. - MSE Nick
I got seven nights in a four-star hotel on the coast near Rome for £565 total, including breakfast. That saved over £100 compared to booking direct, and I got 13% cashback on it too. - MSE Sally
Beware of hidden taxes and charges
Some brokers hide the true cost of a stay until the final booking page. In some cases, the first time you'll find out the true figure is at the hotel.
Many countries charge a £10-£30 per day room tax, which isn't always clearly indicated. Even if a website says that taxes at a particular percentage rate apply on top of the price displayed, you may not find out the actual cost until later. This can mean that some sites unfairly come up cheapest when you're searching.
Even comparison sites sometimes show the price minus taxes, so always click through to check the final price before choosing. See Revealed: Hidden hotel charges.
Also watch out for rooms 'on request'
If a site says it has rooms 'on request', this means it has only asked for rooms from the hotel – there may actually not be a room available. Be careful not to go for one of these and lose a firm cheap deal elsewhere.
Play detective and uncover 'secret' hotel bargains
With a bit of detective work, mega bargains are available from sites selling 'secret hotel' rooms. Here, you're just told a star level and rough location – only once you've paid do you find out the hotel's name. This means rock-bottom prices, as hotels needn't worry about losing trade from those who go to them directly.
You can never be 100% sure which hotel you'll be staying at before you book, so these sites aren't for those desperate to stay at a particular place. But there are usually sneaky ways to discover the hotels' identities to see if it's worth it.
The top sites which do this include Lastminute.com* and Hotwire for UK and worldwide deals, and the bidding site Priceline*. For a full how-to and more details, see our Uncovering Secret Hotels guide.
The 're-book your hotel' trick – cancel then book again to save £100s on the same room
Whether you've booked via a travel agent or direct with the hotel, often you'll find you're able to cancel for free up to a certain point, which is typically around 24-48 hours before your stay starts.
So if you see the price of your room fall after you've booked, simply cancel the original booking, then rebook at the cheaper price. Often this can work even with the same site you originally booked with.
Here's some inspiration to show it can work:
I saved £200 when the price dropped two days before travel! - Alison, via Twitter
Even if cancelling your booking isn't free, it's worth weighing up the cancellation charge against how much the price has dropped – if the charge is small you could still be quids in.
A few things to watch out for
Although this can save £100s, it's not a foolproof system, so:
- Check your booking for any hidden terms and conditions – make sure that cancelling really is free, and there aren't any extra charges.
- Bear in mind some sites make you pay in full when booking, even if you can cancel penalty-free. If so, you'll need to factor in if you can afford to re-book, given the refund from the original booking may take days or even weeks to come through.
- Be aware that if you booked in a currency other than sterling, the value of your refund could be less – or more – due to currency fluctuations.
Use cashback sites for up to 13% back
Cashback websites pay you when you click through via them to spend. In essence, it's nothing more than an extra click before you get to where you want.
With travel, it can shave £100s off the cost of your holiday – especially when it comes to hotels. Although rates vary, Topcashback* and Quidco* – the two biggest cashback sites – pay up to 13% when booking hotels through particular sites. For example, at the time of writing, booking through Hotels.com via Topcashback gives you 13% cashback.
Of course, we're not saying book via a certain site because the cashback is high – always do a comparison and ensure you couldn't get a cheaper price overall elsewhere. And remember too cashback's not guaranteed, so think of it as a bonus – see our Top Cashback Sites guide for more info.
Sign up for free to short-term hotel sales sites
Special members-only websites such as Conde Nast Traveller, Secret Escapes and Travelzoo* offer big but short-lived discounts on luxury hotels worldwide. It's free to sign up – you just need to log in to see what's available.
For example, we found a suite at the Wild Mushroom hotel in South Africa for £65/night with Secret Escapes, compared with £76/night when booked directly. Hotel Raito, on the Amalfi Coast, was £114/night through the site and £141/night booked directly.
Hotel companies and travel brokers also often offer short-term sales and these can be worth looking at. But always do your own independent research to see if you're really getting a good deal, or if you can beat it elsewhere.
Register for websites' email alerts to bag extra discounts – and make sure you log in
One way to secure an added discount is to sign up for different sites' email alerts. Priceline*, for example, sends out 15% blanket discount codes via email, and many others do similar – if you can, sign up to a few. If you get tired of the emails after you've booked, you can always unsubscribe when you don't need to look for a hotel and re-subscribe when you do.
It can also help to have an account with the site you're using as some offer exclusive deals or discounts just for registered users. Booking.com*, Expedia*, Hotels.com* and Venere.com* are among those to do this – make sure you log in when searching.
Scout around for special opening rates
New hotels often offer special rates to drum up custom. Typically this can be at least 50% off or even complimentary stays. To find new hotel openings, scour industry publications such as Hotel News Resource and Hotel Designs – these cover news worldwide.
It's also worth keeping an eye on forum threads and social media for alerts on opening rate discounts. You can even try the brazen approach and just call up the hotel to ask about about special rates – a bit of sweet talk goes a long way.
Register with loyalty schemes for mates' rates
Many hotel chains have free-to-join loyalty schemes – some of the big ones include Best Western Rewards, Hilton HHonors*, Intercontinental Hotels Group Rewards Club* and Marriott Rewards. These loyalty schemes are worth joining not so much for the free stays – which can take ages to clock up – but for the special offers they send to members.
Plus, if you call the hotel and ask for a discount or an upgrade when you check in, you're always more likely to get one as a 'preferred guest'.
Going in a group? Villas, apartments and Airbnb can undercut hotels
If you're travelling with extended family or a gaggle of friends, cottages, villas and apartments can massively undercut similar quality hotels – and the bigger the group, the bigger the potential saving.
It's usually self-catering, and you'll have to do your own cleaning and washing up. But if you want space, privacy, a kitchen, washing machine and more, it can be a winner. And with the rise in popularity of sites such as Airbnb, it's now easier than ever to find rooms or properties for your party abroad.
For example, we found a three-bedroom villa in Malaga priced at £352 for a week's stay in mid-August, compared with a nearby hotel costing £1,420.
We've more on this in our Cheap Holiday Rentals guide, including how to score discounts booking directly with owners. And for inspiration:
We've stayed at wonderful places in Europe and the Caribbean using rental sites and have always been delighted. It's way more cost-effective than hotels.
Barbecues on relaxing evenings with glasses of wine, jump in the pool anytime, do washing as you go. Loads of privacy and space to enjoy yourselves as a family... I love it.
Consider worldwide hostels – dirt-cheap, not dirty
Hostels can offer massive savings over hotels. While a few may be dodgy, many are clean and friendly, with free internet access and breakfast. Plus you're more likely to strike up a conversation in a hostel than a Hilton. And you won't necessarily be bunking up in a dorm either – many offer singles, twins and doubles.
The centrally located Riverside Lodge hostel in Berlin, for example, has excellent reviews and double rooms are priced at £62/night – staying at a nearby hotel would cost around £76/night.
Another example, found by forumite Caro200, is the YMCA hostel in Hong Kong, which has doubles for £127/night and the same spectacular views as the Peninsula Hotel next door, where doubles cost £330/night.
To check prices and availability, use Hostelbookers.com* and Hostelworld* – both give hostels a percentage rating based on users' experiences. Even if they say a hostel's full, always try emailing direct, in case there's a spare room that doesn't show up. To read more reviews from past guests and compare prices, try hostelz.com.
On top of cheap prices there are further discounts to be had. With a £20/year Youth Hostels Association* membership (£15/year by direct debit), you can get up to £3 off per night at Hostelling International hostels. Under-26s can bag membership for £10/year (£5/year by direct debit).
Traditional package hols are often cheaper than DIY trips
Package holidays often win if you're heading for a traditional tourist destination (eg, Rhodes, Malaga) for seven, 10 or 14 days.
We found a week on the Costa Brava in August for a family of four, including flights, transfers and accommodation, at £171/person. Going DIY, the flights alone for the same dates were around £100/person – add a hotel and it pushes the cost per person to around £350. Plus with a package, you get ATOL protection (see below for what this means).
For package holiday prices skimpier than Rihanna's bikini, always book late. But if you need special facilities, book early and consider carefully whether booking a package really will save you money. See Cheap Package Holidays for a full guide.
Pay by credit card or book hotels and flights together to protect your booking
If you don't opt for a package holiday though, there are still ways to make sure you're covered:
Get ATOL protection on DIY bookings. ATOL doesn't protect standalone hotel bookings. But even if you're not booking a package, if you book a flight and separate hotel or car hire together (or within 24 hours) from the same travel website (not airline), you also get ATOL protection.
Even better, if you book flights and a hotel together, Expedia*, Ebookers* and Lastminute.com* sometimes give extra discounts. Compare this with booking the cheapest flight and hotel separately to see if this protection 'costs' you.
Pay by credit card. If a hotel stay's more than £100 and you pay by credit card, you'll get extra protection. That's because under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act, for purchases over £100 the credit card provider is equally liable if something goes wrong. See our Section 75 guide for more info.
Booked directly with a firm that went bust? Check your insurance policy. Some insurers will cover you in the event of cancellation, and possibly for other elements of your trip too, like flights, if you can't find anywhere else to stay. Alternatively, if you booked using a credit or debit card, see above.
Stay in a swanky spare room
Spare room and apartment rental sites have mushroomed in recent years, and can often offer cheap short-term stays worldwide. The idea is hosts put you up in their spare room or rent out their whole apartment to earn cash on the side. You can stay everywhere from swanky LA lofts to houseboats in Paris, and it's a great way to meet locals.
Crashing in spare rooms often beats hotel prices, too. We found a night in a double room in a Barcelona flat for £26 – a similar quality hotel cost £61.
The sites below act as middlemen between hosts and guests to help. It's worth trying a few, as sometimes prices differ for the same room between sites. When comparing, always click through to the payment page, as they can add extra fees at the final stage.
- Best for breadth: Airbnb. It's the biggest name in spare room renting, features 80,000 listings in the UK and over 2,000,000 worldwide. It charges guests a 6-12% fee to stay.
- Smaller selection but can be cheaper: Wimdu. Another major player, it features 15,000 listings in the UK and over 300,000 worldwide. It's free for hosts to list, so some price at slightly lower rates to reflect this. Guests pay a 12% flat fee to stay, shown on the payment page.
- For belt 'n' braces: 9flats.com*. It covers slightly fewer properties, but it's also worth a look. The site features over 200,000 listings worldwide. It doesn't charge any extra fees for guests, but charges hosts 12% to 15% of the transaction.
Before booking... find out as much as you can about the host, neighbourhood and property. Scour reviews from visitors and check photos closely. When you pay, go through the site's own payment system for added protection rather than handing over cash – that way, your money will be held for 24 hours after you've checked in.
Couchsurf and stay with strangers for FREE
If you don't mind kipping on people's couches, the Couchsurfing site allows you to sign up to stay on sofas around the world. You won't need to pay anything (though there is an optional £13 fee to verify your ID).
Rooming with strangers can be a lottery. This isn't for types who like to run fingers along doorframes for dust. Sometimes check-in times are restricted or email replies slow.
Before booking, always do your research and find out as much info as possible about the host, neighbourhood and property. Check reviews from visitors and inspect photos closely.
Pay with the right plastic to get the best rates
This isn't a specific hotels tip, but it's one that needs to be high on your agenda if you're paying for a hotel in foreign currency. There's one way to spend abroad that smashes all others – using a specialist travel credit card.
Our long-term winner is the Halifax Clarity* Mastercard credit card. Use it to spend and you get the same perfect exchange rate the banks get. Plus we've a canny eligibility calculator, which leaves NO credit file mark and lets you see how likely you are to get it.
The new Creation Everyday* Mastercard equals Halifax on spending, and on paper is a smidgeon cheaper on ATM withdrawals. Yet we've little feedback, so do let us know if you try it.
Always pay both cards off IN FULL each month, or you'll pay 18.9% rep APR and 12.9% rep APR respectively.
An added bonus is that if booking on a credit card you get Section 75 protection for anything over £100. For other options, see our Travel Credit Cards guide, or if you want to take cash, use our TravelMoneyMax tool to ensure you get the best rates.
Bag £100s off hotels with Tesco points
Regular Tesco shoppers who have saved up Tesco Clubcard points can trade them in for Rewards Vouchers, which can be spent around the world at hotel chains such as Mercure and Best Western.
The big advantage is that Clubcard points are worth 1p in store, but they're worth three or four times as much when converted into 'Rewards'.
The snag though is that hotels usually only let you use vouchers against their rack rates (ie, normal prices), which are often much higher than their cheapest internet ones. So before exchanging your Clubcard vouchers, carefully compare prices on Trivago* first, as you may get better value for your vouchers elsewhere.
For more on maxing Tesco vouchers' value, read our Boost Tesco Points guide.
Monitor the latest MSE hotel deals
This guide helps you cut the cost of any hotel worldwide, but it's always worth looking out for special one-off promotions which can save you a packet.
Staycationing? UK bargains include cheap rooms in the capital and £15 breaks
If you're planning on staying back in Blighty, there are a host of special ways you can cut accommodation costs, from cheap university rooms in London and hostels with Game of Thrones views to £15 breaks using newspaper vouchers.
For full tips and details, see our UK Hotels guide.
Try a house-swap holiday
To join you'll need to pay a fee – Home Base Holidays is £49 for a year's membership and Homelink's a pricier £115, though it claims to offer a more personal service, with representatives around the world. Then you upload photos and a description of your place.
Feedback varies – some have found it a way to make lifelong friends, while others wouldn't try it again – so you'll need to decide if it's for you. See the Great Travel Swapping Hunt for tons more tips on this.
Camp under the stars
Good ol' camping's a fun way to explore the great outdoors and get away on the cheap, especially if you're staying within Europe. Pack up a car with your own equipment and book a pitch at one of the many campsites across the continent.
As a starting point, check out the European Federation of Campingsite Organisations and Holiday Park Associations' website or Campingo, which lists campsites in more than 80 different countries.
This can save on accommodation costs, even if you're travelling further afield – for example, we found a week's stay for a family of four in July at the Qualicum Bay Resort in Vancouver for around £120. You'd pay around £600 in a nearby hotel.
For a full list of MoneySavers' top tips on safe, hassle-free camping, see the Great Camping Hunt in the forum.
Check if the price includes breakfast – and if it's really worth it
When you're booking a room it's always worth checking if the price includes breakfast – sometimes it will, sometimes it won't. Always check.
There's no hard and fast rule on this. Sometimes booking-sites or hotels will throw in a 'free' breakfast as an added incentive to book and it's worth it, but sometimes you'll find you end up paying much more for the night as a result. So factor in the cost.
Most places are likely to have nearby cafes, bakeries and eateries that will allow you to pick up inexpensive breakfast items if you don't pay. However, if breakfast is included for only a little more, it might be worth shelling out the extra amount.
Breakfast also makes an excellent haggling point – if you're trying to persuade a hotel to beat a comparison site's price, ask them if it'll throw in breakfast for free.
Work for your food and board
It's sometimes possible to bag free food and accommodation in exchange for a few hours' work each day, usually on farms. Two of the biggest programmes are HelpX and WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). Prices differ depending on which country you're in for HelpX, but WWOOF is free for basic members.
On the site workaway.info, jobs are listed in return for accommodation and sometimes food. It operates in around 140 countries and you'll need to pay around £17 for a two-year membership. We found vacancies listed near Rio working on a country estate; jobs include gardening, cooking and working in the plantation.
However, none of the sites we've mentioned will organise, or help to organise, a working visa for you. For most countries outside the European Union, you're likely to need one to work. If you're not sure either way, contact the UK embassy in the country you plan to work in – it should be able to help.