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Ask A Travel Nerd: Is it Cheaper to Book Hotels Last-Minute?

Ask A Travel Nerd: Is it Cheaper to Book Hotels Last-Minute?

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A majority of the time, it's cheaper to book a hotel room 15 days out rather than four months out, according to NerdWallet data.

In an era where mask requirements flip back and forth, rules are relaxed and then restricted, and COVID-19 cases increase after they just decreased, you’re probably not keen on booking travel too far in advance. And there’s one more reason why you might not want to book in advance anyway: It’s often cheaper to book a hotel last-minute.

NerdWallet looked at more than 2,500 hotel room rates in 2019, 2020 and the first half of 2021. Hotels were spread across the world, ranging across class and brand, and room rates were compared for nights 15 days out versus four months out.

And 66% of the time, it was cheaper to book a hotel room 15 days out versus four months out.

The difference is even starker thus far in 2021, where you’re even more likely to get a deal booking last-minute. The same rooms we analyzed for 2021 were cheaper 73% of the time when booked 15 days out versus four months out.

How much can I save booking last-minute?

While it’s almost always cheaper to book a room last-minute, how much cheaper is it, really? Turns out, though a bit cheaper, don’t expect the bargain bin here. Rooms average 13% less when booked last-minute than booked four months in advance.

Here’s the year-by-year breakdown of savings when booking a hotel last-minute, based on average room rates:

  • 2019: 6.5%.
  • 2020: 26.3%.
  • 2021: 13.9%.
  • All three years: 13.0%.

What about international vs. domestic hotels?

You might be inclined to book a last-minute weekend hotel getaway in Las Vegas, but you’re probably not spontaneously shipping yourself off to Spain.

Alas, don’t expect much difference in booking strategies for international versus domestic hotels. We didn’t see any notable deviation in hotels when we grouped them by properties in North America (12.7% savings) compared to all other countries outside of North America (13.5% savings).

What about booking luxury hotels last-minute?

There's one area where you will likely see bigger discounts for booking last-minute: fancy hotels. We grouped the hotels in our analysis into three tiers — high, medium and low — as determined by their average price as well as their brand. So a Hampton Inn would generally be in the low tier, a Hilton Garden Inn would be medium and a Conrad would be a high-tier hotel.

And as it turns out, low-tier hotels had a minimal price difference based on when you booked — just a measly 5.5% across all of the hotels we analyzed in 2019, 2020 and the first half of 2021.

But when it comes to high-end hotels, you’ll more likely nab a significant deal when booking last-minute. Hotels classified in our highest tier averaged nearly 22% cheaper when booked 15 days out.

If you generally book budget hotels, don’t expect to see much savings by holding out to book last-minute. But if you have a taste for luxury, then you could more than likely snag a deal if you’re willing to bet on booking with short notice.

Why you may not want to book last-minute

Despite the possible savings, we don't recommend booking last-minute in most cases, for a couple of key reasons.

1. The savings could be negligible

The average savings in booking a room 15 days versus four months out was 13%. Sure, that’s $260 saved on a $2,000 hotel budget (whether for one trip or for the entire year), but keep in mind that 13% is an average, and some savings are going to be much smaller (and rooms could feasibly cost more if you book last-minute).

Don’t discount the headaches you may encounter for procrastinating, either. The hotel you want might already be sold out. Or it might have rooms available, but only the larger suites with views, which are going to be more expensive anyway.

2. You might be able to book in advance and rebook later

Hotel cancellation policies have always generally been pretty flexible, and they’ve only gotten more so since the pandemic.

Most Hilton hotels allow you to change or cancel up to 24 hours before your arrival day. While Hilton is on the generous end of cancellation policies, it’s not uncommon to see free cancellations made 48 or 72 hours in advance.

Other brands offer flexible cancellation policies, but only if you have status. For example, if you have World of Hyatt elite status, you can cancel your reservation up to 24 hours in advance of check-in at most properties.

At those hotels — and others with similarly flexible cancellation policies — it might be worth it to book the room as early as possible. Then, periodically check the rates. If they drop lower than what you paid, you can always cancel and rebook.

If you’re debating when to book your hotel

Unless you’ve got your eyes on lavish lodging that otherwise has a fickle cancellation policy, you don’t save a whole lot by holding out in hopes of a better deal.

On average, properties are about 13% cheaper when booked 15 days out versus four months out. The biggest difference in pricing comes from high-end hotels, which average nearly 22% cheaper. But since budget properties are only 5% less expensive, no-frills travelers have little reason to procrastinate on booking hotel rooms.

Double-check the fine print because there’s a good chance you can book and lock in a rate now, then cancel and rebook later if the rate drops.

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