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In New England, the end of the nice weather (not the beginning of summer) is when we start thinking about getting away, cringing at the thought of those nasty winter months up ahead and starting to save, plan, daydream, and book our next big vacation.
So, for our annual budget travel issue this week, we reached out to George Hobica, president of the new hotel booking site Tingo.com and the founder of Airfare Watchdog, both owned and operated by TripAdvisor.com.
Listen to our podcast with Mr. Hobica, who explains what Tingo is all about and shares his top tips for getting the lowest rate on hotels any time of year — even peak season! — or read on below for the highlights of our interview:
What is Tingo?
Tingo.com is a money-back hotel booking site, which constantly checks rates for you for lower prices and issues credit card refunds if the price of your hotel room drops at any time between when you book and when you check out — totally unique from other hotel comparison sites because it takes no effort from the consumer. On average, Tingo customers received $33 in savings per booking on a two-night stay, and since launch Tingo has refunded more than $75,000 to hotel booking customers.
"It's kind of like playing the lottery, but it's free — and your chances of winning on Tingo are much, much greater," says Hobica. "Book with us three times, and chances are you'll get a refund of some sort on at least one." Refunds are credited after checking out of your hotel stay.
How can travelers maximize their chances of getting the lowest hotel rates available?
"There's no penalty to booking farther in advance," Hobica says. "As hotels get fuller closer to your stay, they will go up or down. If you use a service like Tingo, then it doesn't matter if you're traveling during peak season [like "leaf peeping season" in New England or summer in Seattle or Chicago]."
He advises booking as far in advance as possible, and don't be afraid of missing the window of rates dropping.
"More than 50% of travelers never once check the rates again after booking their hotel (or airfare)!" Hobica says.
Beware of honors & reward program incentives.
"Many times these 'perks' are non-refundable and non-transferable, locking you in to your 'deal'," Hobica says.
Recession lessons: Ignore the star system.
"Due to a lack of new hotel construction," Hobica says, "supply and demand is driving hotel room rates up, esepcially at budget-friendly hotels. Fewer hotels have been built during the Recession than in recent decades, and many that were in progress have been converted into condos. Everyone still has to travel for family events, however; like weddings and reunions, so don't expect to always find a great deal at a budget hotel chain."
Hobica mentions that "budget hotels" like Courtyard by Marriott & the Fairmont Gardens have "upped their game" and can now be as comfortable as a luxury hotel.
"The towels might not be as fluffy as the Ritz-Carlton, but they can still be glamorous," he added.
Are there hidden fees that travelers should watch out for when booking hotels?
"Some hotels require valet parking, which can cost an extra $30 or $40," Hobica says. He advises keeping an eye on the budget hotels, which generally offer free parking.
"This isn't really a perk, as many of the breakfasts are horrible," Hobica says. "Kimpton Hotels generally have a fine breakfast, but even then it's just coffee and a bagel and I'd rather go to Starbucks for the same price, though I did see one hotel that offered a DIY waffle making bar, which was interesting." He advises checking the reviews of breakfast and other free offerings from other travelers on sites like TripAdvisor before considering these free meals a booking perk.
"In places like Las Vegas, in particular, these are prevalent," Hobica says. "If you're not making use of the casino, tennis courts, and other resort amenities during your stay, book elsewhere to save."
Look for perks such as shared kitchens and other homey amenities to save big over the course of your vacation by cooking even one meal at your hotel. "Some chains, like the Hilton Garden Inn, have replaced vending machines on each floor with apartment-like galley kitchens," Hobica says.
"Premiums are often included in hotel rates for amenities like gyms, free morning newspapers, and other extras, but if you're not going to make use of them, again it's not really a perk," Hobica says.
"This isn't really a hidden fee, but I like to remind travelers to remember to always leave $5/night (at the very least $5/stay) for the maids, and to build that into their budgets!"