Sunday, January 6, 2013

Free Hotels through Best Rate Guarantees

As detailed in Cheap Chicago 2013, we're currently booking a Chicago trip, trying to find the lowest out-of-pocket price possible.  Today, I'll detail how to take advantage of Best Rate Guarantees to get free hotel stays.

Chicago is a big city with an extremely competitive hotel market.  The result is that Chicago hotels are willing to do just about anything to get customers through the door, often in the form of special negotiated rates with businesses, companies, and online booking sites.  For the big corporate hotel chains, negotiated rates are not good when they make it out to consumers, since consumers will potentially bypass the corporate booking sites and get lower rates elsewhere.  As a result, the corporate chains miss out on commissions and their credibility is eroded.

Starwood's Best Rate Guarantee

Enter the "Best Rate Guarantee" concept (often referred to as BRG in the travel hacking community).  You'll find them all over the place -- hotel chain booking sites, online travel agency sites, and even your reservation confirmation page for some hotels.  While it may outwardly appear that these are consumer-friendly marketing ploys to establish trust and credibility, they typically have a more sinister purpose.  Basically, by incentivizing consumers to scour the web for lower rates, then forcing the individual hotels to pay out when the lower rates are found, the hotel chains can effectively penalize hotels for listing their rooms cheaper on competing sites.

Over the years, many hotel chains and online travel agencies have provided BRGs, typically providing room discounts or gift cards if a lower rate is found.  While these discounts can be lucrative, I'll focus mostly on the BRGs that actually provide free rooms.

Before going on, I should probably re-state that individual hotels are often penalized when you take advantage of a BRG.  They're typically going to be the ones eating the cost of the discount or other incentive.  As a result, they may be less than thrilled when you show up at their doorstep to take advantage of a heavily discounted (or free) room rate.  If you want to play this game, you should understand that you're ultimately serving as an "enforcer", and the hotel's dissatisfaction with your BRG is a price you may have to pay to get the discount.

Because of the penalty on individual hotels, I typically play by the following rules while taking advantage of BRGs:

  • Only use them for hotels I actually plan to stay at.  There are ways to get BRG incentives and then cancel the reservation, but doing so could penalize a hotel without even giving them a stay.
  • Use in moderation.  Don't nail the same hotel over and over again with the same guarantee.
  • Provide good reviews for the individual hotel following a free stay.  This lets me "pay back" my stay through positive word of mouth (assuming the hotel staff members were respectful during my stay).
  • Don't go overboard.  For example, if both a standard room and presidential suite qualify for a free room through a BRG, don't take the hotel's only presidential suite.
There are plenty of stories online detailing hotels that will not provide agreed-upon incentives, or literally go so far as to yell at a customer for taking advantage of a BRG.  I've never experienced anything like this, and I assume a lot has to do with being polite and ethical.  If a hotel does act unprofessionally, it's probably best to simply pay for the room and take it up with the corporate chain after the stay.  They'll typically pay out and bill the hotel later.

Over the years, a number of hotel chains have experimented with providing free rooms if a lower rate is found elsewhere.  Wyndham was one of the first chains to provide free rooms, and I remember the first time I was able to get a free stay at an airport Ramada.  I was so excited about the successful claim I failed to read the hotel reviews.  The hotel was basically being used as a halfway house for the local law enforcement agencies -- not exactly the "enforcer" role I wanted to play.  Fortunately, I was able to cancel my reservation and book elsewhere.  As of the writing of this post, Wyndham no longer provides free rooms.

There are currently two hotel chains that provide free rooms -- Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG) and Choice Hotels.  Both chains have a number of hotel brands, including upscale properties like Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza, and Ascend Collection.

IHG Best Rate Guarantee
IHG Brands
IHG's most well-known properties include Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express, although they have many brands.  When you book a one night stay and find the same room for cheaper online, they'll give you the night for free.  They do not typically charge taxes or other fees.

Choice Hotels Best Rate Guarantee
Choice Hotels Brands
Choice Hotels are typically known for their budget accommodations (Comfort Inn, Sleep Inn, Quality Inn), but they also have some higher-end hotel brands.  When you book a one night stay and find the same room for cheaper online, they'll give you the night for free.  They do not typically charge taxes or other fees.

Before going any further, you should familiarize yourself with the terms and conditions of each guarantee:
If you want to get a free room, it is very important that you play by the rules.  I cannot overemphasize this point.  No one likes to hand out free rooms, and if you don't adhere to the terms and conditions of the offer, your request will be denied.    This is especially important if you book a non-refundable rate, because you won't be able to cancel your room if your BRG claim is denied.  As a rule, I don't typically book non-refundable rooms unless I'm prepared to pay the full rate.

Next, you need to find the same room on both the hotel chain site and another online site.  This includes the dates, room description, bed types, number of people in the room, amenities such as free wifi or free breakfast, currency, and cancellation policy.  There is only one notable exception to this rule -- with IHG, the cancellation policy on the competing site may be less restrictive (for example, the competing site may have a $25 cancel fee while the IHG has a 100% cancel fee).

Typically, you need to book the "Best Available Rate" on the hotel chain's website and the competing website.  No AAA rates, corporate rates, coupon rates, etc.  Also, you should ensure the price difference between the hotel chain site and competing site is at least $1.  For IHG, the difference must be $1 or 1%, whichever is higher.  The difference must exist for both the published rate and the rate including taxes/fees, so watch out for competing sites that charge a booking fee.

With IHG, you also need to ensure that you're picking the lowest rate offered for the room.  In other words, if a Deluxe King Room is offered for $89 advance purchase (100% cancel fee) and $99 flexible (no cancel fee), you must book the advance purchase rate.  This restriction often forces you to select a non-refundable rate with IHG, significantly increasing the risk that you may not get a free room.

Different amenities constitute a different room, so you can sometimes get around IHG's "lowest rate offered" restriction by booking a room with breakfast, which is less likely to require an advance purchase rate.  However, you must find the same breakfast offered on the competing site.

Typically, higher priced hotels are most likely to have negotiated rates, and are more likely to be good candidates for BRGs.  Holiday Inn Express, for example, is almost never a good candidate for a BRG since their rates tend to be consistent across all booking channels.

In the coming weeks, I'll post some examples of successful BRGs.


  1. This is really interesting. I didn't know that any of the BRGs featured free stays. I had only ever seen the points or percentage off the cheaper rate.

    I will keep this in mind in the future.


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