Hotel Rates: How They Work

By Walecia Konrad · April 17, 2023 · 9 minute read

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Hotel Rates: How They Work

Booking a hotel can feel like spinning the roulette wheel — you’re never quite sure where you’ll land pricewise. You can find different hotel rates listed from one travel site to another, as well as on individual hotel websites. The result: Confused and frustrated travelers.

Understanding how hotel pricing works and why rates range so widely is a good first step in demystifying the hotel booking process. Here we’ll explain why hotels do what they do, then offer advice on how you can use that knowledge to find the best rate for your next out-of-town stay.

What Factors Influence Hotel Rates?

Many factors determine the price you pay for your hotel stay, from the destination you’re seeking to the time of year you’re traveling. Other influences are less predictable. Let’s take a closer look.

Location

It’s no secret that sought-after hotels in large cities or popular resorts will cost quite a bit more than a modest motel on a country road. But did you know pricing also varies widely within a location? Hotels near city attractions such as sports arenas, convention centers, downtown, or revitalized neighborhoods will likely charge significantly more than the same type of property located on the outskirts of town or in the suburbs.

Star Ratings

A variety of different groups — such as guidebook publishers, consumer associations and travel websites — award hotels between one and five stars. The more stars awarded, the more the hotel will charge.

But star ratings are not standardized. The same hotel may have three different ratings, depending on where you’re looking. And each star-giving organization has its own methodology (although you can usually find an explanation on the website). The bottom line: Rates among hotels in the same location with the same star rating can still vary significantly.

In general terms, here’s what star ratings usually mean:

•   1 star. Often independently owned, these hotels/motels provide the bare minimum.

•   2 stars. Economy chains, such as Econo Lodge or Days Inn, offer the basics plus a few “extras” — like a television.

•   3 stars. Usually big chains, such as Marriott and DoubleTree, have stylish, comfortable rooms with true extras, such as a fitness room and restaurant.

•   4 stars. These are large, fully staffed, upscale hotels with lots of extras.

•   5 stars. Luxury hotels indulge customers with all imaginable amenities.

Keep in mind that one or two stars does not necessarily signify a lack of cleanliness or safety. They may be perfectly fine, just no frills. Best to check online reviews to make sure.

Recommended: How Families Can Afford to Travel

Room Type

Whether you’ve chosen a no-frills two-star motel or a glamorous five-star resort, you’ll pay more for certain rooms within the same building. The view, proximity to a noisy elevator, square footage, and the number and size of beds are taken into account when pricing a specific room. Sometimes room upgrades are available using your credit card rewards.

Amenities and Additional Services

Special touches, like turn-down service and super fluffy towels, can add to your enjoyment during, but they’ll also add to the price. Hotels factor high-end bedding, luxurious towels, upscale bath products, complimentary dry cleaning and 24-hour room service into the price of each room.

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Peak Season and Holidays

Hotels in prime destinations book up fast during busy travel seasons such as holidays, spring break, and summer vacation. Sometimes peak season really does follow the seasons, such as winter months in Florida and summer months in New England. Because the volume of travelers increases during peak season, hotels know they can charge higher prices and still book all or almost all of their rooms.

Peak times can even be determined by the day of the week. In most locations that cater to non-business travelers, you’ll likely pay more to stay on a weekend night than a weekday, no matter what time of the year you are traveling.

Supply and Demand

This may be the most significant factor in determining hotel rates. Hotels profit when they achieve maximum occupancy for as many nights as possible. As long as demand for rooms is strong, hotels know they can price rooms at higher rates and still get customers. Holidays, major events, and school breaks are all times when hotels can potentially achieve full or near full occupancy.

That said, hotels can’t afford to let rooms go empty, so when demand is slow, operators will drop rates, sometimes even at the last minute, hoping to lure available customers from the competition.

Tips to Getting the Best Rate on Your Hotel

Now that you’ve got the inside story on hotel pricing and availability, let’s see how you can use that information to get the best rates and stay within your travel budget.

1. Be Flexible

Off peak doesn’t have to mean the dead of winter or the middle of hurricane season. If you have the flexibility to move your vacation dates just a week or two, you can often save a bundle on hotel rates. Traveling the week after Easter, for instance, or just after Labor Day can make a world of difference.

2. Book in Advance for Peak Season Travel

Sometimes peak season travel can’t be avoided. If you must travel for a holiday, big event, or during a popular vacation time, book as far ahead as possible so you’ll be first in line. As rooms book up, pricing for remaining rooms can increase even more — a situation you want to avoid.

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3. Off Peak, Consider Waiting Until the Last Minute

During less busy travel times, hotels have been known to drop rates at the last minute in an effort to fill rooms. Or they may offload empty rooms to an online travel agent. (More on these sites below.) If you use the wait-and-see approach, you may need to search among several locations, so flexibility is key.

4. Off the Beaten Path

As mentioned above, hotels in the most central, desirable locations charge the most. Consider a property that may be just as nice but a little bit out of the way — say a bus ride to downtown or a relaxing walk to the beach. If you’re willing to be a bit of an explorer, you can save on hotel rates and perhaps discover a charming area you wouldn’t have otherwise.

5. Compare Travel Websites

Online travel agents and travel websites like Priceline, Expedia, Kayak, and Orbitz offer hotel bookings at major chains and independent inns and resorts. Some of these sites specialize in last-minute bookings.

Often these sites will feature rates below those offered on the hotel website. But rates vary among the different sites, so you’ll want to do a thorough search to find the best deal.

And always check back with the hotel, calling the location you are interested in to see if you can negotiate a lower price for the same room than what you’re finding online. In some cases, hotels may offer you the same rate, but will upgrade your room or throw in other extras.

Last-minute bookings at some online travel agents such as Hotel Tonight and Hotwire are opaque — a travel industry term that means you agree to book without knowing the name of the hotel until you pay for it. Instead, you’ll see the location, star rating, and price to help you make a decision.

6. Consider Nonrefundable Reservations

Many hotels and travel websites offer cheaper rates for nonrefundable bookings. The savings can be significant, but the risk of losing your money is substantial too.

There are ways around this. If you have a cancel-for-any-reason travel insurance policy for your trip, your hotel costs will be partially refunded.

In addition, check if your credit card offers travel insurance that will cover cancellations for any reason.

7. Track Your Refundable Hotel Reservations

There is also a way to save money on refundable hotel rates that allow you to cancel at any time. Go ahead and book the best deal you can find, then periodically check back to see if the rate has fallen. If it has, rebook at the new lower rate, then cancel your original reservation.

If you don’t have time to track the prices yourself, use a website or app like Rebookey that will monitor your reservation for you and notify you if the rate drops.

8. Use Your Rewards

If you belong to any hotel chain loyalty programs, always check for member discounts at properties in or near the destination you are headed. You may find a comparable or better deal than you can find elsewhere. And you’ll rack up more points.

Most airline credit cards and travel credit cards have affiliations with major hotel chains. You may be able to use your reward points to pay for your hotel room. Or if you have a cash-back credit card, you may have enough in the “bank” to cover your hotel costs.

Recommended: Choosing Between Cash Back and Travel Rewards

9. Always Ask for Specific Discounts

Many hotel chains offer discounts for members of AARP, AAA, and other organizations. Be sure to ask when you make your reservation. If you book with an online service that doesn’t ask for this information, check with the hotel receptionist when you register.

The Takeaway

Making sense of the puzzling way hotels set prices can help travelers become better shoppers. When you know how rates work, you can use several tools — last-minute bookings, price-tracking sites, discount memberships, and more — to save on your hotel bill. In addition, the more flexible you can be about when you travel and what hotel you stay at, the easier it will be to find the best deals.

Whether you want to travel more or get a better ROI for your travel dollar, SoFi can help. SoFi Travel is a new service exclusively for SoFi members that lets you budget, plan, and book your next trip in a convenient one-stop shop. SoFi takes the guessing game out of how much you can afford for that honeymoon, family vacation, or quick getaway — and we help you save too.


SoFi Travel can take you farther.

FAQ

Why does the price of hotels vary so much?

Many factors go into hotel pricing, including location, star ratings, type of room, amenities, peak or off-season, and supply and demand. Hotel rooms may be priced differently if they are sold through online travel agents and other travel websites versus purchasing from the hotel directly.

What is considered off season?

Traditionally, off-season travel has been defined by the seasons. For example, peak season in warmer climates like Florida, Arizona, or island resorts hits in the cold winter months — and hotel prices surge. But off-season can also mean big savings just a few days or weeks away from peak travel times.

What’s the best way to get a last-minute hotel discount?

Several travel websites specialize in last-minute bookings. In an effort to avoid rooms going empty, hotels will sell through these sites. You can get a good deal this way, but in most cases, you’ll pay for the room without knowing the name of the hotel — only the price, location, and star rating.

Can I negotiate hotel rates?

Sometimes. If you find a better rate on a travel website than the hotel is advertising on its own site, it can make sense to call the hotel directly and ask if they will beat the travel site price. The hotel may agree. Or it may match the discounted price but offer extras such as meal vouchers or a room upgrade.


Photo credit: iStock/structuresxx



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