I'm currently in the middle of planning a summer trip to the Czech Republic to revisit some of my old haunts and check out the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. The plan is to spend a few nights in Karlovy Vary before returning to Prague. This gave me the occasion to do something I haven't done in years: book a non-chain hotel!
Chain hotels are great
For many people, it's become easier and more desirable than ever to avoid chain hotels. AirBNB is a popular option for parents traveling with kids since you often get more space and the use of a kitchen, and in many places it's also cheaper than whatever chain hotels are available. And of course if you're going on safari, camping with bedouins, or hiking Kilimanjaro you're not likely to have options when it comes to accommodations.
But personally, I like chain hotels. Of course there are exceptions, but you can generally count on clean beds, hot water, and decent service. Manufacturing spend on Hilton Honors and Ultimate Rewards-earning credit cards lets me prepay for discounted stays at Hilton and Hyatt properties, and those two chains account for the overwhelming majority of my annual stays.
While there are a lot of hotels in Karlovy Vary, not one of them belongs to a chain. That means while planning this trip I got to brush up on the art and science of booking independent hotels.
Booking independent hotels is tricky
The biggest problem going in is that there's no floor for hotel quality. While hotel chains impose standards (that are occasionally not met), non-chain hotels don't even have standards to fall short of, so filtering a search by number of stars is the beginning, not the end, of finding a suitable room.
I started my search on TripAdvisor to get a sense of the price range available during our stay. After filtering for four-star and five-star hotels, it became a game of trying to make an optimal choice across the variables of price, location, and quality. The third-ranked hotel in town costs $196 per night while the fourteenth-ranked costs $148. I'd surely pay something to move up 11 spots, but would I pay $50 per night? Probably not.
TripAdvisor is a decent way to get a sense of prices and narrow down your options, but you probably don't want to book directly through TripAdviser. That's because you want to lower the final price you pay as much as possible. There are two obvious ways to do so.
Book using credit card rewards
The premium Ultimate Rewards-earning credit cards, US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card, Citi ThankYou Premier, and I'm sure some other cards offer increased value when you redeem your points for travel booked directly through the credit card company. That means if a property is available for the same (or a lower) price through a credit card portal, you can get more than 1 cent per point in value.
In my case I'd like to redeem my Ultimate Rewards points for 1.25 cents each for my stay, but the property I identified as the best value wasn't available through Chase's travel portal (in such cases you may still be able to book by calling the bank in question).
Book through a shopping portal
Another great option is using a shopping portal like TopCashBack to click through to a online travel agent like Hotels.com. When you do that, you're able to earn both cashback and Hotels.com Rewards free nights. TopCashBack pays out less when you choose to collect Rewards nights (5% instead of 9%), but the two programs together still offer the equivalent of 15% off the price of your stay (once you accumulate 10 Hotels.com Rewards nights).
A drawback of making reservations at chain hotels through Hotels.com is that you typically don't get elite status benefits. But if you're staying at an independent hotel, that's no drawback at all!
Pay with discounted gift cards
Finally, you can save even more by paying with Hotels.com gift cards bought at a discount. For example, the cashback portal Lemoney pays 11% on the first $100 in Hotels.com gift cards you buy each month (and you can stock up when Lemoney periodically lifts the limit on the number of times you can earn "Turbo Cashback"), and Hotels.com gift cards are available through Raise for 7% off.
You can apparently combine the balances of Hotels.com gift cards on this page, although I've never used that feature myself.
So, that's how I plan on booking our independent hotel in Karlovy Vary to hopefully get the equivalent of a 26% discount off the room rate. What other tips are there for saving money on independent hotels?