Which kind of traveler are you? Are you the one who plans meticulously months before a vacation, locking in your airline tickets, hotel, rental car and passes for activities? Or do you have a bit of wanderlust, wanting to take off spontaneously?
If you’re that last-minute planner, will you be paying much more for your hotels than the meticulous planner? It depends. Experts have mixed opinions, but here are some considerations that should help you decide when and how to book your hotels.
48 Hours to 15 Days Before Is the Sweet Spot
While booking hotels last minute is risky, “it can be a great way to score killer deals,” says Mitch Glass, a travel blogger who runs the Project Untethered travel blog. Rather than searching online, he recommends calling the hotel directly 48 hours before you want to check in. “Speak with a manager, ask if they have any last-minute deals on empty rooms and tell them you’re flexible.”
The travel search engine Kayak recommends between one to three days prior as the sweet spot for saving some cash on domestic hotels. For international hotels, six days prior, but you’ll want to have a backup plan.
The Points Guy website offered this tip: if you’re planning a trip and don’t want to get shut out of accommodations, or desire a specific hotel or location, book your hotel with cancellable reservations as soon as you firm up your travel plans. But don’t think your preparation is done. When you hit about two weeks before your travel date, begin the hotel-shopping process again. Once hotels assess their bookings for upcoming days, rates could drop if the property is undersold.
Wait Until 4 p.m.
Another way to trick the system is to wait until 4 p.m. on the day of arrival to book your travel, if possible. By that time of day, hotels often are willing to discount their rates in order to fill a room that night. USA Today reported the price drops by an average of 10% less than the advance booking rate once the clock hits 4 p.m. If you are going to a hot tourist destination, however, that strategy might not pay off.
Also, websites such as HotelTonight.com can offer significant savings on last-minute bookings.
Deals do exist at the last minute, says travel advisor Kelie Fiala, but nothing is guaranteed.
“If there is an event going on in the area you want to stay, then you’re most likely not going to find a deal,” she said. “The best way to find a last-minute deal is to be flexible about when and where you’re going. If you care more about the deal, then I suggest shopping around on booking sites.”
Another recommendation is to work with a travel agent and ask them to alert you to a good deal, since agents often have access to this information.
Don’t Take Too Big of a Risk
While it may be possible to book a hotel more cheaply at the last minute, travel advisor Tiffany L. Layne cautions against it. “In the current climate, hotel availability has become extremely limited. I would never recommend to my clients to wait until the last minute to book anything. Any savings you get will be nominal and most likely you will miss out on exactly the preferred property you would want.”
Instead, she recommends taking advantage of booking promotions and exclusive perks.
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Jami Farkas contributed to the reporting for this article.