Would it surprise you to learn that I have already booked my team’s hotel stays through May of 2012? It shouldn’t. Because most hotel reservations can be cancelled from 48 hours before arrival to as late as 6:00 PM on the day of arrival, there is little reason to hold off on booking. You can always cancel or change your reservation if a better deal comes along, or if you end up canceling the trip. Just be sure that you are not booking a non-refundable rate.
Booking early will often give you access to the lowest rates. It gives you the best shot at membership rates like AAA and Entertainment. Sometimes, when you need to book during a special event for which hotels usually jack up their rates (homecoming, a sporting event, a major convention, etc.), booking early will let you snag rooms at the regular rate before the hotel adds the higher special event rate. This is how I got my rooms for next year’s Tournament of Champions for $107 per night, within walking distance of the campus. A couple of days after I reserved my rooms, that rate was up to $189.
Booking early is yet another reason to focus your stays on a single hotel group. If you book with several different groups, it is harder to keep track of your reservations, and much easier to fail to cancel a reservation that you will not use. Failure to cancel by the deadline can mean a serious penalty, usually a charge of one night’s stay per room. If you concentrate on a single hotel group, the reservations for all of your upcoming stays will be recorded in one place (in your account on the hotel group’s website), making them easy to keep track of.
How far in advance can I book my hotel rooms?
That all depends on the hotel group, and sometimes the specific hotel. The list below includes the best information that I’ve been able to glean on this subject.
Carlson (Radisson, Country Inns & Suites, Park Inn, and Park Plaza): 12-18 months, varies from hotel to hotel.
Choice (Comfort Inn, Comfort Suites, Quality Inn, Sleep Inn, Clarion, Cambria Suites, MainStay Suites, Suburban, Econolodge, Rodeway Inn, and Ascend Collection): 50 weeks (according to reservations), but the website is currently allowing booking 355 days in advance.
Hilton (Hilton, Waldorf Astoria, Conrad, Doubletree, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn, and Homewood Suites): 50 weeks in advance, with a full week’s inventory added on Sundays.
Hyatt (Hyatt, Andaz, and Summerfield Suites): One year in advance, according to reservations, though really 365 days (there is a difference in 2012 due to leap year).
Intercontinental (Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza, Indigo, Staybridge Suites, and Candlewood Suites): 350 days in advance.
Marriott (Marriott, Renaissance, Ritz Carlton, Courtyard, Residence Inn, Springhill Suites, TownePlace Suites, and the Fairfield Inn): 50 weeks, with a full week’s inventory added each Friday at midnight (in the time zone of the hotel in question).
Starwood (Meridien, Four Points, ALoft, Westin, Sheraton, St. Regis, and W): 550 days–approximately 18 months–in advance.
Wyndham (Wyndham, Wingate, Hawthorn Suites, Planet Hollywood, Ramada, Days Inn, Baymont Inn & Suites, Super 8, Microtel, Howard Johnson, Travelodge, and Knights Inn): 6 months to one year, varies by property (according to reservations). Despite this, I was able to get a rate at a Wyndham in San Francisco for December of 2012.
As a Marriott loyalist, I make it a habit to book my stays for next year’s competitions two weeks after returning from this year’s events. It’s an easy habit to get into, and it keeps me from being overwhelmed with travel booking right before the competition season begins.
It is not, however, enough to book early. To get the best possible rate, you must keep checking. Though the best rates are often available right when the hotel first adds the rooms to its available inventory, this is not always the case. Sometimes a hotel group will announce a sale for a limited time, usually during a slow period. Marriott, for example, often has sales with discounts off of its weekend rates. The minute I hear about one of these sales, I check the rates for my reservations during the promotion period. If I can get a better rate, I book it. Once I have booked the lower rate, I cancel my initial reservation.
Important tip: Be sure to book the new rate before cancelling your initial reservation. You do not want to cancel rooms that you booked at a good rate, only to find that the better rate is no longer available when you try to reserve it.
Even when there is not a sale, I try to check the rates for my future stays on a regular basis. Hotels change rates based on room availability projections. If business looks like it will be slow, or a planned special event is canceled, rates may drop. Sometimes new package rates (including parking, breakfast, a certificate for a future stay, etc.) get added. When the new rate is better than the old, re-book and cancel (always in that order).