One of the best things about a road trip are the last-minute detours, whether that’s stumbling across an antique car club meeting in Western Massachusetts or deciding to speed to Boston to see a million people cheer for a hockey team. Even along my planned route, I don’t even have a place to stay for the night when I pull into a city, hotel or otherwise. Sound crazy? With new internet tools and some winning strategies, a last-minute hotel stay is not only possible-it can be an unexpected money saver.
Here are my five tips to successfully booking at the last minute, to keep your plans flexible and keep your travel budget in check.
Load your smartphone: Web-booking tools are great for last-minute shopping, but you can never be sure you’ll find wifi when you crack open your laptop. Instead, download booking apps that are always on. I’ve been using Hotels.com for its broad selection of properties and its buy 10 nights, get one free loyalty program, but others are available. HotelTonight is an interesting option that announces deep discounts on three hotels per city per night. In only a few cities so far, it’s one to watch.
Shop smart: Local boutiques and quirky properties are fantastic, but when I’m booking at the last minute, I prefer to shop by chain. Brands like La Quinta and Quality Inn may be inexpensive, but they have a consistency guaranteed by the flag flown out front, meaning I’m sure I’ll find free internet, free parking and free breakfast when I arrive. You can’t always say the same for one-off hotels that may otherwise be perfectly nice.
Look for deals: Because a hotel can’t sell a room for yesterday, they’ll often offer a discount if they still have a vacancy for the evening. On Hotels.com, I’ve seen offers of 15, 20 and even 25 percent for the night-of. Don’t be shy about taking advantage of the hotel’s predicament! Hard bargainers can even try calling the hotel directly to negotiate, but remember that properties still have bills to pay and have a limit to how low they’ll go.
Check the reviews: Of course a booking site or app will tell you a property is a winner: They’re selling you the room. Even at the last minute, I like to pull up a few second opinions. Hotel reviews are Tripadvisor’s bread and butter, but other sites, like Yelp, have marginally more intelligent comments. Google’s “place pages” for hotels-the info that pops up on your smartphone when you search for a specific property-aggregate web commentary, making for easy comparison shopping. One thing to remember: photos, unlike anonymous commenters, usually tell the truth. I didn’t book the Holiday Inn Express in Cleveland, pictured above, until I’d seen some convincing photos.
Be patient: Even with from-your-phone booking, it can take time for a reservation to arrive at a hotel. In Providence, Rhode Island, I walked into the Biltmore hotel just five minutes after booking a room. When I learned my reservation had yet to appear, I said “No problem” and got some work done in the lobby. A few minutes later, my room was ready-and a front desk employee had upgraded me to a suite for understanding. All the more reason to keep booking last-minute.