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If looking for a hotel deal, it might pay to wait until the last minute


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When it comes to reserving hotel stays, Aesop and his fabled ants might have gotten it backwards — it can actually pay to wait till the last minute to book.

While conventional wisdom holds that travelers get better rates for accommodations, air and other vacation components by reserving early, research from NerdWallet found that 66% of the time they’d save more by waiting to book a hotel room until 15 days before arrival, compared to four months out.

The idea that booking early is better has actually always been more about choice, said Sally French, a travel expert at NerdWallet.

“It’s less about ‘buy earlier for better deals’ and more about the opportunity cost of not booking early — you could severely limit your options by waiting,” she said. Booking in advance gives you more options to choose the right hotel for your needs.

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NerdWallet studied more than 2,500 hotel room rates in 2019, 2020 and the first half of 2021 at hotels worldwide across price point and brand, comparing prices for nights 15 days and four months out.

NerdWallet revealed that between 2019 and 2021 the North American room rates were $203 15 days ahead of time, while those for units booked 4 months in advance was $233. That’s a 12.7% gap. The difference between the rates was similar in international markets, with a gap of 13.5% at $232 and $201, respectively.

French stated that international trends tend to be in sync with local trends. He added, “It’s comforting knowing I’m not missing out on better international deals.”

The average rate at all high-end hotels, meanwhile, was $302 when booked 15 days before travel, compared to $386 four months ahead — a 21.6% difference. The difference is even greater — 50%, NerdWallet found — when comparing rates for 15 days ahead with 11 months before.

French pointed out that the term “cheaper,” is only a relative one. For example, French cited pre-pandemic nightly rates at JW Marriott Los Angeles L.A. LIVE which were $1110 and $450 when they were booked 11 months ahead of time.

French explained that even though $450 is more expensive than the average person will pay for a night in a hotel, it’s still a reasonable price. While you may get a lower rate in that hotel than the mid-range, this will still make it more costly than an average option.

The savings at low and medium-range hotels was less than 5% and 9.4%, respectively. French said NerdWallet found that “budget friendly” hotels, such as the $100-a-night Best Western Market Center in Dallas — which never deviated from that rate in the course of the study — are less likely to vary in price even up to the last minute.

But what if you believe it is OK to procrastinate? Then all budget hotels are gone because of a conference or big festival. French stated. The Ritz-Carlton is often available for bookings of over $1,000.

She said that waiting too late is a mistake worth $900.

Grab deals now if you are comfortable with traveling right away. I doubt they will last.

Sally French

travel expert at NerdWallet

Has the pandemic and ensuing downturn in travel helped keep rates down? French stated that prices have fallen 33% over the past year in 2020, but they are 30% less than 2019 which means they are on the rise.

She noted that she expects the trend of more tourists to be continued as people are vaccinated more often and foreign countries become open to them. You should travel if you’re comfortable. I doubt they will last.

You might consider booking online with your hotel, or calling them directly. French says it is less about cost and more about flexibility. “Many hotels have super-generous cancellation policies these days, but it’s often only honored when the reservation was made with them,” she said. Bookings made with travel agents or third-party sites will not guarantee a complete refund.

French says that hotels are more likely to match cheaper prices for the same rooms and dates. And, travelers who make reservations in hotels with flexible cancellation policies have the option of cancelling higher-priced reservations earlier or rebooking at lower rates. However, online bookings are “certainly quicker and more convenient,” she said.

Destinations with cheaper hotel rates include Bangkok and Tokyo abroad — where rates are still off 2019 prices by more than 50% — and, in the U.S., business centers like New York and Philadelphia, according to French.

What to avoid?

“I’m seeing a lot of hotels — particularly in more remote, domestic destinations — that have actually gone up in price,” she said. “Two different luxury hotels in Scottsdale, Arizona, the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Gainey Ranch and the Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Bungalows, both averaged about 80% more in 2021 versus their 2019 rates.”