I’ve always liked checking in to fancy hotels with room service, white-gloved bellmen, and deep soaking bathtubs. Unfortunately, my travel budget is more often aligned with the rack rate at a budget hotel or hostel down the street.
Many of us get so fixated on finding the cheapest air travel, we forget that it’s so easy to spend exponentially more on lodging once we get to a destination than we did to arrive there.
I’m very guilty of this, so to keep my spending on accommodations in check, my personal rule of thumb is to always try to sleep in the nicest hotel I possibly can for under $100. And, if I can’t find anything I like (or won’t have time to enjoy the hotel), I opt for whatever is the cheapest safe and clean option.
This isn’t a foolproof rule, but it’s led me to some amazing hotel experiences (as well as a handful of hostels where I’ve saved a bunch of money).
Last year, for example, I made a quick trip to my fatherland of Italy, which required three overnight stays in Rome – one night on arrival and two nights on departure.
On the arrival night, I knew I didn’t have much time to explore or enjoy a nice hotel, so I found a budget hostel near the train station. For $50, I had a clean bed to sleep in and a super easy transit for my late arrival.
On the return night, however, when I had multiple days for exploring, I opted to stay at the St. Regis, where I was upgraded to a suite with my own butler and had free-flowing champagne at breakfast.
This room runs about $500 on an average night, but because of my credit cards rewards points, I actually paid less to stay here than I did to stay at the hostel! (Thank you, Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Business Card.)
Here are four tricks I use to get the best hotel rooms for under $100 whenever I can:
1. Squeeze the maximum value from your hotel points
You can use your credit card rewards points to stay at any hotel, but I have found the best value is when you use them to stay at the most expensive hotels.
Consider this math problem: If a $100 hotel room costs you 10,000 points, and a $1,200 hotel room costs 30,000 points, is it better value to get three nights for 30,000 points or one night for 30,000 points?
Monetarily, you’re getting the most bang for your rewards buck by booking the most expensive hotel for the higher number of points. Value can be subjective, however, if you need shelter for three nights.
2. Use points and cash options to stretch your dollars
Another trick I use to get fancy hotel rooms for under $100 is to use points and cash redemption options offered by hotel loyalty programs.
Here’s another math problem: At the Hyatt Regency Kowloon in Hong Kong, a $400 room costs 15,000 points for a free night, or 7,500 points plus $100 cash. Is it a better value to get one night free and pay for one night? Or to book two nights using points and cash?
There’s no subjectivity in this case: Points and cash is the better value. For 15,000 points and $200 you can get $800 worth of hotel nights! If you combine a free night and a paid night, you’re actually paying $200 more!
3. Tap the free elite status you earn from your card rewards
One of my very favorite benefits of hotel credit cards – and the main reason I keep hotel cards in my wallet year after year – is that these cards give me mid-level status in a hotel group’s loyalty program.
One consistent benefit I rely on from credit card earned status is knowing I’ll almost always be upgraded to a better room if there is one available.
When shopping for hotel rooms, you’ll often notice that sometimes rooms with queen beds have cheaper rack rates than king rooms, and ADA-accessible rooms are often the cheapest option by far.
No matter which room I actually want, if I have status in that hotel property group, I’ll always book the cheapest option. This sometimes saves me $30-$40 per night (almost half of my budget!), and nine times of 10, I’ll get the room I want just by adding in the notes that I prefer a room with one bed and a bathtub if it’s available.
Note: This is never guaranteed, so if you’re traveling with a family and actually need to have two beds, you might not want to take this risk.
4. Follow the ‘Pay here, stay here, play here’ rule
I often get asked when it’s a good enough value to use your hard-earned credit card rewards points to get a free hotel night, and when you should just pay.
As I mentioned before, it’s a subjective decision. If you have more points than money and need a place to sleep, you should probably book the free night. If you have too many options, I often suggest my “Pay here, stay here, play here” rule.
If a hotel room costs under $100 (or your own designated maximum budget), I usually pay for the hotel night. If the hotel is over my budget, and the math makes sense based on the cost of points, or points and cash option, I will opt to use my free stay.
And if the hotel is way out of my budget and I can’t figure out a way to make the points options or free nights work for me, I’ll find a way to play at the property so I can still experience some of it.
For example, while I may not be able to relax in a deep, soaking tub in a suite on my budget, I can still visit the hotel for high tea, a champagne breakfast, or even sometimes a seat by the pool with a cocktail with an umbrella.
Bottom line: Even if your budget is small, your experience doesn’t have to be. Use these tips and put your hotel credit card points to work, and you, too, can sleep in luxury on a budget.
See related: 5 ways hotel cards add up to big savings, Hotel credit card reviews, 5 ways your credit card’s concierge can help on your next trip