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What Are the Best Hotel Discounts?

If you are a deal hound, inevitably you have read a travel article advising that you “never pay rack rate” at a hotel, which is good advice — but who ever even gets quoted the rack rate these days? Almost all hotel searches have some discount built in, whether due to pricing agreements between hotels and booking companies, or the many discounts available on hotels’ own sites to travelers with certain memberships or affiliations (think AARP, AAA/CAA, senior, government/military and the like).

If you’re a member of one of these associations — and a huge number of travelers are — note that these discounts do not show up on the major booking engines (Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, etc.). Big booking sites frequently offer their own special discounts arranged in partnership with the hotel chains, and try not to compete with their own offers. As a result, to qualify for association membership discounts, you typically need to book directly with the specific hotel or chain. But which association discounts will yield the biggest savings?

I did a large sample test on on some of the most common hotel discount programs to see how they stack up against each other; here is what I found, along with some tips on getting the most from the programs.

AAA

The most common affiliate membership discounts are available to American Automobile Association (AAA) members, or members of its northern equivalent, the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA). The option to search for AAA prices shows on almost all hotel Web sites and discount program listings. This is also typically the first option offered by a hotel booking agent when you are making a phone reservation.

Are these deals any good, and can you actually use them? I have used my AAA membership to get a slightly better deal on almost every hotel stay on a “normal” trip in the past 20 years (by normal I mean other than package deals, points bookings, vacation rentals, etc.). Booking AAA discounts has become almost absurdly easy; most hotel Web sites have a checkbox for AAA visible at all times during the booking process, and you just click the box and hit Find Rates to see the discounts.

The discounts tend to be significant, if not huge; my general feeling on AAA discounts is that they can often drop the nightly rate from the “ouch” range into the “okay, I can do that” range. On a large sample of test searches this past week, I found most discounts came in at $12 – $35/night, which in some cases constituted a 20 – 30 percent discount on the originally quoted rates. Not bad. I found prices to be more or less the same when asking for AAA rates over the phone.

Senior and AARP Discounts

While some hotels and booking engines want you to be a member of the AARP to qualify for age-based discounts, many just require proof of age when you check in (the minimum age may be 60, 62 or 65; you will want to pay close attention to this). This is easy enough — hand over your driver’s license or passport, done. These discounts are available at almost all major chain hotels, although I did do at least a few searches while writing this article where generic senior rates simply were not available during peak travel times.

Doing a large sample of senior discounts for this article, I found that prices usually dropped out quite a bit when I clicked the “Senior discounts” button on hotel Web sites, with discounts of $25 – $30 per night very common for rooms priced in the $140 – $170 range, which puts the typical discount at 20 – 25 percent.

Membership in the AARP is open to folks starting at 50 years of age, so you can get a good 10 – 15 extra years of discounted deals when you join the AARP. That said, AARP discounts usually must be booked through the AARP itself, or at least using the AARP Web site as a starting point — they don’t always show up automatically on hotel booking sites, as do the AAA and CAA discounts.

The AARP has a more limited selection of hotel chains available than does AAA, but it is still a solid list, with discounts mostly stated as “up to 20 percent” at slightly higher-end hotels, and “up to 10 percent” at moderate or lower-priced hotels.

Government and Military Discounts

Many hotel chains offer special discounts to government employees as well as current and past members of the military; I found that these discounts were very similar to the AAA and similar memberships, although they were available at fewer chains, and at fewer properties. Find more details on how this played out below.

Other Association Memberships

Many professional and other associations offer hotel discounts through partnerships with specific chains. For example, I am a member of the United States Rowing Association, and am eligible for a 15 percent discount off the “Best Available Rate” at any of the 10 Hilton brand hotel chains. To get this kind of discount, typically you need to book through a special Web site or phone number, which you can usually find by calling or checking the Web site of the specific association. Other associations to look into for hotel discounts include alumni organizations and professional groups (such as the American Bar Association).

I found that the USRowing membership did return better rates than a generic Web search, but boy, did I have to pay close attention.

I did a test search on a Hilton Homewood Suites property for an upcoming trip, and where a generic Expedia search gave me a price of $194 average per night for a two-night stay, booking through the USRowing special link showed me a rate of $194.65/night — at first. There was a patch of italics at the bottom of the search results, however, stating that “This rate changes during your stay. Please select the room link for more information.”

So I selected the room link, and found that while the first night’s stay was $194.65, the second night was only $135.15, a savings of $59.50 by booking through USRowing.

That wasn’t the end of the comparison, however; the Expedia rate showed an additional $28.73 in taxes and fees, for a total of $445.44 for the two nights.

The Hilton booking simply mentions that there is a 15 percent tax per room, per night — but gives no indication at all whether that is included in the quoted rate, and there is no way to find out the grand total until after you have actually booked the room.

So the Hilton/USRowing room is either $329.80 if taxes are included in the room quote, or $379.27 if they are not — I couldn’t find out without actually booking the room.

The Hilton/USRowing room options are also very difficult to figure out — “1KG ACC RI SHW STUDIO NSMK” refers to an accessible room, but it sure isn’t easy to figure out.

All of that said, either way the Hilton/USRowing deal is better, by at least $65 or so — which is exactly consistent with the original 15% discount offer. As I understand it, a portion of the proceeds goes back to the rowing association, so that is an additional upside.

Comparing Membership Offers

The Hilton site allowed me to compare its AAA discount offer against the USRowing offer — USRowing won the race by around $10/night, no matter how I did the search.

Comparing AAA and AARP (or rates merely noted as “senior rates” in some cases, which would simply require you show ID proving your age), the winner varied from case to case, although rarely by very much. Some searches showed results with no discounted senior rates available, but it seems it is always worth a try, as you could save a few dollars here and there.

That said, if you find a decent deal on a hotel room through one of your memberships (or by virtue of your senior status), you can usually book it without wondering if a substantially better deal exists out there. On the other hand, if you are a true discount chaser, as a lot of readers of a column like this one are, it is worth trying out your various options, as you could see a spike of 5 – 10 percent savings in some cases.

Of course, you’ll want to check any of these membership discounts against shorter-term sales that might be running on the hotel site. I also recommend doing a quick Google search for “Hilton promo code” or the like — you’ll turn up sites like retailmenot.com, which could have discount codes or sales you weren’t aware of.

When Filtering for Discounts Can Backfire

Keep in mind that when you look for discounts, you could unintentionally narrow your options. Some hotel chains do not offer association discounts at their higher-end (and sometimes lower-end) hotels — so when you click the AAA box, those hotels might not show up in the search results at all.

I found this to be the case with a couple of Marriott properties near my family home. A search without the AAA discount button checked returned 22 hotels from nine brands, but when I checked the AAA button, I got back only 20 hotels from eight brands. Then I clicked the Senior Discount button, and got back only 18 hotels from seven brands. The Government and Military button brought back 14 hotels from seven brands.

Finally, Be Ready to Show ID

Until a few years ago, most hotels used an honor system for such bookings; you rarely had to give your member number over the phone or at the time of check-in. Lately, however, I have been asked on a couple of occasions to do both. This is due in part to the fact that many hotels are already offering sharply discounted rates, and are more stringent about confirming that travelers truly qualify for the membership discounts. Hotel and booking engine Web sites have even recently started to include warnings to this effect; the Hilton site explicitly reads “ID required at check-in.”

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