Finding the best deals on accommodation

Until recently, it was pretty straightforward to attach a price to a hotel room. Yes, you might get a discount if you shopped around at the last moment, and the price might be quoted with or without breakfast, but there was always a standard or "rack" rate published on the website and on the tariff sheet handed out at the front desk. The amount charged varied according to season, but if you knew when you were going to travel, you knew what you would have to pay.

Now, as with short-haul airfares, trying to quote a meaningful rate is becoming virtually impossible. Following the path beaten by airlines, many hotels are now raising or lowering their rates daily, according to how many rooms have been booked on a particular night. I see this happening every week because I have to book a room in a well-known chain of budget hotels every Tuesday. The price varies by about 25 per cent, depending on how many rooms have been booked for that night.

But why are they doing it, and is it good for consumers? The hoteliers argue that they have no choice. None likes to admit to slow bookings or having to sell "distressed stock" cheaply. But I have talked to several recently both individual owners and representatives of big chains off the record and they are all facing the same problems. Customers are booking much later than they used to and they are shopping around more carefully to make sure they are getting the cheapest possible deal. If a hotel doesn't respond to this trend, it will lose bookings.

Here's a guide to how to find the best-value hotel room with the minimum of fuss.

How to find the cheapest hotel rates

1. Travel at the best time

The dates of your travel have the most critical impact on the price you pay. Some basic research can make a big difference here, because many hotels still use tourist "seasons" as benchmarks to underpin their pricing. Some are quite obvious: in Venice, the beginning of November sees a steep change in rates.

But they are not always what you might expect. For city hotels, autumn is often high season, but even within that season there are variations. September is an excellent time to visit Paris, and it is usually possible to find good rates and plenty of availability. But leave it until October and the annual series of commercial events, including the art fair and fashion weeks, mean that all the good hotels are booked solid and have been for months.

Try a few hotel websites in your chosen destination, and before long you will find one that still quotes seasonal prices and you will be able to work out when the best times for bargain-hunting are.

2. Book at the best time

While the biggest bargains go to late bookers, you can still get a decent deal if you book three months or more in advance. And more to the point, you can be sure of getting into a better hotel or b & b. Many of the best especially the smaller ones do not operate fluid pricing. They don't need to, because demand for their rooms is consistently high. Bargain-hunters might find this off-putting, as it means you can never get a discount. But look at it another way and it means, by definition, that you are guaranteed to get good value. You know you will be getting an excellent room that you can book well in advance knowing that you could not have got a better price.

3. Booking late

The good news is that specialist websites have made it virtually impossible for you not to find a room at a discounted rate in most major destinations, no matter how late you book. The questions are will you get a good hotel and will it be in a good location? That is the risk you run. 

4. Check the extras

Breakfast can represent 10 to 20 per cent of the cost of the room: make sure you know what is and isn't included.

5. Look at what tour operators are offering

Some hotels especially those in long-haul beach destinations promote their special offers through tour operators instead of, or as well as, on their websites. So it's worth checking what sort of price-package holiday you can buy, as well as looking at room rates.

Last updated 14 September 2010