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A Frugal Traveler's Guide to Cheap Lodging

Daniel Bortz

Whether you're looking for a hotel with great amenities, a cozy room that can fit you and the kids or just a place to rest your head, it takes a savvy traveler to find cheap lodging.

But "cheap" doesn't mean you have to settle for a subpar experience. According to a recent AAA survey of 1,007 U.S. adults, 85 percent of respondents cited overall value as their top consideration when choosing a hotel. Sarah Gavin, director of public relations and social media at Expedia.com, says given the high demand for affordable lodging, many hotels and resorts are slashing prices this summer to fill vacancies.

Before booking a place to stay, here are some money-saving strategies to consider:

Vacation during the shoulder season. Mid-June to late August is the busiest time to travel during the summer, and also a period when hotels charge steep rates. That makes the "shoulder seasons" of late May to early June as well as early September the best times to find great deals on lodging.

Gavin says consumers can get an average discount of about 25 to 40 percent if they travel during a shoulder season. People who vacation during the week can earn additional savings, Gavin says.

[Read: Smart Ways to Save On Your Summer Road Trip.]

However, booking too far in advance could prevent you from getting the best rates. In general (for peak and off-peak times), Gavin says it's best to book hotel rooms either 21 to 28 days out or within 24 hours of your stay. Some hotels offer same-day discounts of up to 70 percent off through the mobile app Hotel Tonight (available on Android and iPhone).

Travel to off-peak destinations. While many Americans head to the beach in the summer, Arnie Weissmann, editor-in-chief of Travel Weekly, a newspaper that covers the travel industry, recommends venturing to cooler spots for low rates. Weissmann says ski resorts in the summer are ideal for families, offering beautiful mountain scenery, hiking opportunities and outdoor concerts. One location he predicts will have good deals on lodging this summer is Steamboat Ski Resort in Colorado. The town and ski area include more than 100 bars and restaurants, as well as a scenic gondola.

Jeremy Branham, who blogs about frugal travel at BudgetTravelAdventures.com, says this year, summer travelers can find inexpensive lodging in Pittsburgh. Branham says the city is a good fit for museumgoers, as it's home to the Andy Warhol Museum, the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History and Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, a seven-story museum that documents more than 250 years of Western Pennsylvania history.

Purchase a package deal. Deals that bundle airfare, hotel, transportation and meals often offer "super, super low rates" on hotel rooms, says Robert Firpo-Cappiello, executive editor of Budget Travel. However, Firpo-Cappiello says a number of consumers don't realize how good these deals are since hotel rates are buried in the overall cost. (The same goes for airfare, transportation and food, as most websites don't typically list costs on packages individually.)

"So many people try to game the airfare system and then the hotel system, but you can usually only save about $20 to $30 when booking them separately," Gavin says. Meanwhile, the average savings on Expedia on a weeklong package deal for two, which includes airfare and hotel, is around $525.

You can find packages on websites such as Kayak.com, Hotwire.com and Expedia.com. You can also sign up for alerts on DealBase.com, which lets you select specific destinations to receive daily emails with the latest packages offered for those cities.

[Read: Best Affordable U.S. Destinations.]

Some packages, though, are only available when you book with a travel agent, Weissmann says.

Use online reviews sensibly. Before booking a hotel, look at online reviews from former guests. Websites like TripAdvisor.com contain millions of customer reviews of hotels throughout the world and are a good resource, but be careful - Gavin says although it's uncommon, some hotel managers post fake reviews.

In May, a scandal broke involving the Accor hotel in Sydney, when the hotel's general manager of communications, Peter Hook, admitted to anonymously posting more than 100 reviews on TripAdvisor. Some were glowing reviews of Accor, while others criticized competitors like the Intercontinental Hotel in Adelaide, which Hook wrote is "stuck in a time warp and rather expensive."

Some websites like Expedia only publish verified reviews, meaning the reviewer purchased the reservation on Expedia and stayed in the hotel. Nonetheless, Firpo-Cappiello says consumers should focus on reviews that speak to what they care about. "If several reviewers say the housekeeping was shoddy and that's important to you, believe it and move on," he says. "If several reviewers praised the complimentary breakfast for its friendly service and fresh food, believe it and book it if that's what matters to you."

Gain favor with the concierge. Firpo-Cappiello says most travelers don't cozy up to the hotel staff, which hurts their chances of getting a cheaper rate. "Bonding with a customer service rep and asking for what you want is really important - and most travelers are too shy to do it," he says. "Traveling with kids? Ask for a late checkout. On your honeymoon? Tell everybody." If you don't speak the native language, use a mobile app like Google Translate to break down the barrier.

Look into hostels. While they once conjured images of small, dingy rooms crammed with beds, there's now a large shift toward more stylish hostels. "The rise of the design-led hostel, which bridges the divide between boutique hotels and low-cost accommodation, means travelers no longer have that age-old predicament of whether to choose between style or affordability," says Carl Michel, executive chairman of GeneratorHostels.com, a hostel-booking website for consumers traveling to European cities.

Young adults in particular are attracted to hostels, Michel says. In terms of prices, a standard four-bed room at Conty's Motel in Naples, Fla., is currently listed on Hostels.com for around $76 per night; a standard one-bed room at Abraham House in Dublin, Ireland, is currently listed at around $42 per night. In addition to lower rates than hotels, hostels typically shelter a range of international travelers. Many have a common room, where fellow travelers from different countries can meet and hang out. Hostels may also offer guests a free walking tour of the city.

[See: Free Mobile Apps for Cheap Summer Travel]

Michel says hostels in Dublin and Berlin offer great summer deals. However, he recommends booking two to three months ahead if you're traveling with a group and want a certain size of room, like a four-bed room with a private bathroom. (The ones with private baths tend to go quickly.) Private rooms in hostels cost, on average, 40 percent more than shared rooms, according to booking website HostelBookers.com.

Don't get caught up in free perks. When offered complimentary breakfast, a welcome cocktail or courtesy shuttle service, it's easy to forget you're ultimately looking for safe, comfortable, budget-friendly lodging. "At the end of the day, if you give me free Wi-Fi but the bathroom isn't clean, I'm not going to [enjoy my stay]," Gavin says.

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