Coronavirus Universal Credit & Benefits
14 May 2021
How to get cheap hotel deals
With travel restrictions beginning to ease, many hotels will once again be welcoming guests. But never assume hotel or hostel prices are fixed. We've 25 tips for bagging cheap accommodation, including how to grab special opening rates, get up to 10% cashback and exploit free cancellation policies.
Travel restrictions are being eased for many, but things can change quickly and booking a hotel (and indeed flights etc) is still risky. Look for accommodation which offers flexibility so if you're unable to stay due to a change in travel rules or because you or someone you're going with has to self-isolate due to coronavirus symptoms, you're at less risk of losing money.
If you're wanting to go away soon, check which destinations fall into the Government's Green, Amber and Red lists – though this is only really relevant for the next few weeks. Beyond that, no one has a crystal ball so we can't help if you're looking to book further down the line, which is why we're putting so much importance on making sure any booking is flexible.
Many hotels, even cheap ones, will offer free cancellation up to a certain point (usually 24-48 hours before your arrival time) if you change your mind, and some won't require payment until then too. Have a careful look at the terms and conditions for your cancellation rights before you book. You may not get free cancellation if you're asked to pay upfront, so it's especially worth checking in that case.
You can filter hotels by free cancellation on each of our top-pick comparison sites below. Even forgetting Covid, this is useful as if you find the same room cheaper just before you go, check availability, rebook, and then cancel. See our Hotel rebooking tricks below.
And don't assume that you'll have an automatic right to a refund if you can't use your hotel booking because you're unable to travel. See our Coronavirus Travel Rights guide for full info
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:
While hotel booking sites often include reviews, it's always worth checking independent sites too. A worldwide institution, TripAdvisor*, lists detailed reviews and customer ratings for hotels by past guests.
You can filter reviews by rating, time of year and traveller type (eg, families, couples), to find the ones most relevant to you.
However, always remember anyone can pen a review. See MSE Jenny's blog Free tool to help detect 'fake' Amazon and TripAdvisor reviews for one way to spot them.
Star ratings are determined by amenities, not quality – a five-star 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.
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.
To check lots of hotel booking sites at speed, it's best to use a comparison site. Different comparison sites cover different booking sites, and the price you're offered can vary depending on the comparison site you're checking on, so ideally search all three big ones.
Below is our suggested order, though as prices are much of a muchness and change day-to-day, we included a number of factors when deciding. We've based it on which features each site offers, how easy they are to use and how often they found the cheapest price in our quick test.
Crucially right now, each of these sites lets you filter the results to only show hotels offering free cancellation. This can be very handy if travel restrictions change, or you simply change your mind about travelling.
It's also worth checking Trivago*, HotelsCombined* and TravelSupermarket* for full breadth. And while it's not a comparison site, Hotels.com* can give extra discounts, free stays and member-only prices.
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 worth noting that the pros of going direct and getting the hotel to match the price include the chance of freebies, such as Wi-Fi being thrown in, and earning loyalty points if the hotel has one.
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
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, and it is getting harder to solve the name of the missing hotel, 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.
Whether you've booked via a travel agent or direct with the hotel, often you're able to cancel for free up to a certain point, typically 24-48 hours before your stay starts. (If you don't have free cancellation, you may be able to take advantage of sites' price promises – see more on how below.)
Flexibility is particularly important when booking travel during the pandemic, but it can also be MoneySaving. If you book or have booked a room, you can save by cancelling if the price drops after you've booked.
To do this, simply cancel the original booking, then rebook at the cheaper price. Often this can work with the site you booked with.
Most booking sites and hotel websites give you a non-refundable and a free cancellation option for each room type. Non-refundable rooms tend to be cheaper, so you'll need to weigh up if paying more for free cancellation is worth it.
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.
If it's not clear, check the terms and conditions – they should clarify your cancellation rights – before you book. It's not likely to be free cancellation if you're asked to pay upfront, though it depends what site you book through.
If you can't see a free cancellation room in the options for the hotel you want, call it and check.
Although this can save £100s, it's not foolproof, so:
Some sites offer price promises, guaranteeing to refund the difference if the price of the hotel you've booked drops before your stay, or you find it cheaper elsewhere. So even if you didn't book with free cancellation, you may still be able to get money back.
The comparable hotel must be on exactly the same terms as your original booking. So the same room, hotel and dates, plus the same booking type – for example, bed and breakfast, non-refundable. It also must be available to book, in the same currency you originally paid in or booked using, and the price must include all taxes and fees.
Secret hotels, where you find out the name of the hotel after you've paid, are generally excluded, as are some loyalty scheme deals. It's also worth noting that screenshots aren't accepted as proof – when you claim under the price guarantee, the site you're claiming from must be able to find the deal itself.
Here are some of the big sites which do this:
Spotted a price promise that's not on our list? Let us know in the forum.
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. Remember, cashback's not guaranteed, so think of it as a bonus – see our Top Cashback Sites guide for more info.
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.
A couple of things to watch out for:
Special members-only websites such as 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. What's more, newbies to Secret Escapes can get a free £25 credit*.
For example, we found the Hotel Balmoral in Paris for £116/night on Secret Escapes, compared with £210/night booked directly. Le Meridien Lav in Croatia was also £142/night through the site, and £184/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.
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 resubscribe 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* and Hotels.com* are among those to do this – make sure you log in when searching.
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.
Many hotel chains have free-to-join loyalty schemes – some of the big ones include Best Western Rewards, Hilton Honors*, 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.
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 the popularity of sites such as Airbnb, it's now easier than ever to find rooms or properties for your party abroad.
For example, last summer 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.
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 we've seen double rooms priced at around £50/night – staying at a nearby hotel would cost around £100-£150/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 10% off per night at Hostelling International hostels. Under-26s can get 15% off per night.
Package holidays often win if you're heading for a traditional tourist destination (eg, Rhodes, Malaga) for seven, 10 or 14 days.
When we looked last summer, we found a week on the Costa Brava in August for a family of four, including flights, transfers and accommodation, at £197/person. Going DIY, the flights alone for the same dates were around £115/person – add a hotel and it pushes the cost per person to around £250. Plus with a package, you get ATOL protection (see below for what this means).
For package holiday prices skimpier than a pair of Speedos, 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.
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. If you book a flight plus separate hotel or car hire together from the same travel website in the same transaction, you get full ATOL financial and legal protection, just as with a traditional package holiday. If you book these elements from the same site, but in different transactions, you'll only get financial 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 seperately to see if this protection 'costs' you.
Pay by credit card. If a hotel stay is 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. For bookings under £100, see our Chargeback guide.
Booked directly with a firm that went bust? Check your insurance policy. Some insurers will cover you in the event of a 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.
See our Holiday Rights guide for more information.
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 £49 – a similar quality hotel cost £90.
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.
Before booking... find out as much as you can about the host, neighbourhood and property. Scour reviews from visitors and check photos closely. If there's a choice of payment method, 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.
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 £45 one-off 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.
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.
An added bonus is that if you are booking on a credit card, you get Section 75 protection for anything over £100.
Our current top pick is the Barclaycard Rewards card, which has near-perfect rates, no fees on spending or withdrawing cash abroad and no interest on either as long as you pay it off IN FULL every month. Plus, you get 0.25% cashback on spending worldwide.
As an alternative, the Halifax Clarity card also has no fees on overseas spending and withdrawals but withdrawals incur interest even if you pay off the card in full – so it's better to spend than withdraw.
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 Hilton, Mercure and Butlins Hotels, as well as at Hotels.com*.
The big advantage is that Clubcard points are worth 1p in store, but they're worth three times as much when converted into 'Rewards'. For example, £5 in Clubcard vouchers gets £15 in Hotels.com vouchers*.
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 online ones. So before exchanging your Clubcard vouchers, carefully compare prices, as you may get better value for your vouchers elsewhere.
For more on maxing Tesco vouchers' value, read our Boost Tesco Points guide.
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.
To join you'll need to pay a fee – Home Base Holidays is £49 for a year's membership (although you can slash the cost by choosing to pay in Australian dollars – the $69 yearly fee works out at around £38), while 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.
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 85 countries.
This can save on accommodation costs, even if you're travelling further afield – for example, when we looked we found a week's stay for a family of four at the Bloomfield Beach Camp in Tropical North Queensland for around £200. You'd pay around £900 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.
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.
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 184 countries and you'll need to pay around £30 for a one-year membership. We found vacancies listed near Rio working on a country estate, with jobs including 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 many countries 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.
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