So much of your next trip-whether for business or for pleasure-rests on your hotel experience. Unless you're staying with friends or at a hostel or crashing at a YMCA or camping or just throwing down a sleeping bag in a public park, your hotel will have an indisputable effect on your trip. A noisy hotel room can turn you into a sleepless mess. Theft can cause you to spend an entire vacation just trying to recover your valuables instead of, you know, vacationing. And bed bugs...well, I won't even go there. On the other hand, finding the right hotel room and making the right moves to get the most out of it can leave you free to have the best vacation or business trip you've ever had. Needless to say, not enough can be said about securing and maximizing your investment in a good hotel room. Fortunately, you have a lot of tricks and tips at your disposal to get the most from your next hotel experience. Here are the top 20: 1. Safety first Usually, when you book a hotel, unless you're a returning guest, you don't know much about the area or the hotel itself-and that includes safety and security. This makes sense, since hotel reservation sites typically provide plentiful slideshows of luxurious accommodations, but go light on body scanners and barbed-wire fences. And, let's face it, we consumers prefer not to see security features for all the dangers they imply. Regardless, being the victim of a crime can quickly overshadow whatever amenities a hotel has to offer. While it's not quite as breathtaking to research a hotel's safety features, safety should be a paramount concern, especially when you're considering a hotel overseas. So how, without actually visiting a hotel, can you know if it's safe or not? IndependentTraveler.com makes the following safety recommendations: Check government websites for terrorism threats in the country/city you plan to visit. Do a Google search for crimes against tourists in the country/city you plan to visit. Research the specific neighborhood in which your hotel will be located (upscale residential=good; seedy commercial=bad). Locate the nearest police department to your hotel (closer=safer). Find out if the front desk is staffed 24/7, if security personnel are present on site, and if there are security cameras in place. Find out if access to guest room floors is restricted to guests only. 2. Read the reviews You knew this was coming. As a review site, we believe in the power of consumer reviews to help people make smarter purchasing decisions-and this is as true as ever for hotels. Reviews will tell things you just can't find in the hotel-approved copy. For instance, a quick perusing of reviews on a site like Hotels.com or Expedia will tell you in short order if that staff at a hotel are rude or courteous, if the carpets stink, if the room service always comes late, etc. Thankfully, with an average 238 reviews online per hotel, there are more than enough reviews out there to give you a reliable picture of what a hotel has to offer. And travelers say all of this extra information is much appreciated; 89% of travelers worldwide say that online reviews are important to making reliable booking decision, according to Skift Travel's 2014 State of Travel report. "People often think that reviews are fake, but mostly they're absolutely real," says travel guru Anthony Melchiorri. "The reviews are like the comment cards of the 21st century - they give power back to guests..." 3. Stars matter You know those star ratings awarded to hotels by, um, somebody important? They actually mean something, and you should be paying attention to them. Yes, they are awarded for the quality and breadth of a hotel's amenities and accommodations, but they also tell you a lot about how secure a hotel is. Explains JC Lightcap at 1000TravelTips.com: "A higher star rating means more security measures, luggage scanners, full body scanners, vehicle checkpoints at the entrance, plus more and better-equipped security staff. So while you might be expecting more of the finer touches, remember that you are also getting a safer experience." 4. Go right to the source Despite all the offers and so-called discounts offer on third-party sites like Expedia or Travelocity, the real home for low hotel rates is going to be the hotel itself. And hotels have to pay a commission to third-party sites-commission they'd rather not have to pay. Also, only the hotel itself has the power to negotiate pricing with you and secure you the exact room you want. For this reason, travel experts agree that you're better off contacting the hotel you're interested in (not the hotel 1-800 number, which usually goes to corporate) rather buying through a third-party site. "You can do your initial research online, check out the 3rd party travel sites, etc. but getting a live person on the phone at the hotel is the best way to find out all the extra deals you can get for little to no money," says Jonathan Bentz at WanderWisdom. "After all, they WANT to rent you a room - and they've got the decision makers right there to be able to match prices you may find online, upgrade your room, or offer free meals." 5. Be courteous You know how you've always heard the Golden Rule? Well, there's a reason for that: when you're nice to others, they're nice back. In the hotel world, this equals better service, better accommodations, and sometimes some sweet freebies. For the most part, hotel employees love to go above and beyond for gracious guests. On the flip side, they tend to drag their feet for arrogant, unkind guests. And, yes, they talk about which kind of guest you are. So, no matter how bad your flight or how terrifying your taxi ride, be cool to all hotel employees, from the doorman all the way up to the general manager. 6. Don't check in too early If you're thinking of pushing for an upgrade, you might want to hold off on checking in until later in the afternoon, when hotel managers have cleared the mid-day rush, and have a better idea of what's open. 7. Take advantage of price matching Who doesn't love price matching? You might not be aware of this, but many of the major hotel chains now offer price matching, literally matching the lowest price you can find on Expedia, Travelocity, or any of the other third-party booking sites. "Some hotel chains like Marriott and Hilton will match the lowest price you can find and give you freebies or further discounts on top of it," explains Deia Bong at Nomad Wallet. "Each hotel chain has a different system for handling price-matching requests, so check their website before making a claim. If your claim is approved, the extra discounts are added automatically." It's just one more reason why you should book directly with the hotel itself-the third-party sites sure won't tell you about this feature. 8. Get social Hotels are starting to use social media to discover and respond to customer needs faster. In that post, I recounted a recent story where a Delta Hotels customer tweeted about the lackluster view from his room. Within the hour, the Delta Hotels social team tweeted back, offering to move him to a better room. By all accounts, this is steadily becoming the norm at all major hotel chains. What is partly driving this trend is that millennial travelers love it. According to the aforementioned Skift Travel report, 39.6% of 25-34-year-olds prefer social media to resolve a travel problem over working with customer service staff. The experts at Travel + Leisure echo this sentiment, recommending: "If you need a timely response on a customer service issue, sharing the story or even posting a photo can get you a quick answer. Be sure to use direct channels (an @reply tweet on a hotel's Twitter handle, or a direct message on Facebook)." 9. Bundle, bundle, bundle If you have to go through a third-party booking site, look for opportunities to bundle hotel reservations with airline tickets, rental cars, or other services. CNN's Travel + Leisure staff reveals, "Hotels drop rates when they can disguise them in travel packages offered by websites such as Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz." 10. Don't fall for "nonrefundable" rates If you look at nearly any booking site nowadays, you'll see them offer rooms at a lower rate, but with a catch: these rooms are "nonrefundable." The idea here is that the hotel is guaranteed to get paid for that room, whether you show up or not, and you get a lower rate. But there can be a downside to this seemingly win-win situation. Anyone who has tried to book a trip that ultimately never happened knows that life can be unpredictable. Your pipes can explode. Your kid can require a last-minute trip to the emergency room. You can find out that you're not your fiance's only fiance and break off that engagement. If you've gone for the nonrefundable rate and then are forced to cancel your trip, this arrangement could come back to bite you. Sometimes, it's worth the flexibility to pay just a few more dollars. 11. Let them know it's a special occasion Assume for a moment that your special trip plans come to fruition, be it a honeymoon, an anniversary, or a birthday, and you find yourself at your hotel. What you might not know is that the hotel also wants to make your special occasion, well, special. Bentz recommends that you let the hotel staff know: "You'll definitely want to mention if you're traveling for a special occasion - anniversary, bachelor/bachelorette party, etc. Knowing you're traveling for a special occasion makes it more likely the hotel will honor your request for a corner room or one with a great view. They might even throw in some champagne and chocolate covered strawberries for free!" 12. Stay off the ground When it comes to the subject of safety, not all rooms are created equal. Experts across the board discourage travelers from taking ground-floor rooms if they can help it. The idea here is that being on the ground floor makes it much easier for would-be intruders to break in and commit a crime. "Many safety experts recommend staying somewhere between the third and sixth floors-where rooms are high enough to be difficult to break into, but not so high that they're out of the reach of most fire engine ladders," says Independent Traveler. "If you're staying in a motel where doors open directly to the outside (rather than a hallway), see if you can get a room overlooking an interior courtyard instead of a parking lot." 13. Do a bed bug check While some attackers might be lurking outside, others could be secretly nestled in your hotel room bed. I'm talking about bed bugs, which have broken out in alarming numbers in large cities like New York, plaguing travelers and residents alike. Nothing can ruin a perfectly good hotel stay like discovering you've been sleeping with the enemy. Amanda Macmillan at Health.com recommends that hotel guests make bed bug detection their first order of business upon first entering their room. "Pull back the linens, and check all the way around and under the mattress and behind the headboard." Other experts recommend that guests look for other telltale signs of the creepy crawlers, like tiny blood stains or "small black dots that look like mold or ground pepper" on linens. "If you see any suspicious signs," says Macmillan, "alert the hotel staff immediately." 14. Put your room on lockdown As much as you might like to think that your room is your own domain during your stay, the truth is, it's far too easy for someone to get into your room and grab anything that hasn't been secured, like your purse or wallet, ID, or electronics. The key to preventing this is to acknowledge the possibility and then secure your valuables every time you leave. Travel Insurance Review recommends: "Lock the items you won't be carrying with you, such as your laptop or other electronics, in the room safe. Modern hotels with a safe that lets you select your own combination are safer than those with keys. Don't leave your passport behind." 15. Ask for the breakfast buffet On the lighter side of things, a complimentary hot breakfast buffet (which usually costs extra), as opposed to the typically free continental breakfast, might be more within reach than you thought. According to Michelle Crouch at Reader's Digest, if guests ask if they can get a hot breakfast buffet with their room, hotel clerks will very rarely tell them no. 16. Don't tell people you're not there Now back to the scary, but absolutely essential, stuff. If you can help it, you never want to signal strangers, whether in the lobby, in the parking lot, or in the hallway, when you're going to be away from your room. This is especially true if you are a female traveling alone, but it really applies to all. So how do you keep strangers from finding out when you're not present? You can start with these tips, from PeterGreenberg.com: Cover your peephole with duct tape. Don't hang the housecleaning sign on the door. Hang the "do not disturb" sign, instead, and turn on the TV before you leave. 17. Get friends in high places No one has more power at a hotel than the general manager. Reaching out to this person with questions and concerns can yield some real benefits. One frequent traveler told of emailing her hotel's general manager about her lukewarm stay. In response, the general manager offered her a huge discount and an upgrade to a king suite if she would come back. This also confirms that hotels, for the most part, want to make their guests happy, as long they're courteous about it. It's good for their reputation and their business, but it's also part of what lures them into the hospitality business in the first place: they're people-pleasers. 18. Push for a corner room If you're looking for roomier accommodations, and the hotel isn't offering you a free upgrade, experts recommend asking to be moved to one of the hotel's corner rooms. Melchiorri confirms this: "In most hotels, the best rooms are found in the corners - particularly in a vertical city like New York." 19. Keep your room number secret "Request that your room number and location be kept private," says Evelyn Hannon at Journeywoman. "A good desk clerk will write your room number down rather than say it out loud." 20. Request clean linens Bed bugs aren't the only that could be lurking in your towels or bedsheets. We could collectively come up with a list of possible offenders that would turn your stomach, but we'll exercise our better judgment and leave that well enough alone. Needless to say, you don't want to trust, on blind faith, that your hotel room linens are clean. "While all hotels change sheets daily, many only change blankets and bedspreads weekly - or even monthly (unless there's a visible stain)," says Bentz. "Always ask for clean linens at check in!"
Who doesn't like convenience? And to save money on top of it? Stayful, a travel company that helps customers negotiate prices at independent, boutique hotels, is aimed at giving its customers both. With today's launch of their iOS application, customers can negotiate and book hotel rooms in major U.S. cities at their convenience, even last-minute. The company operates much like Priceline, but with a slightly different clientele. The service works with independent, boutique hotels to fill unsold rooms. Users enter the date, place, price range, and type of hotel (classic, hip, kid-friendly), and the service returns a list of vacancies and a suggested bid. Of course, that bid is only a suggestion. Users can low-ball an offer and get immediate results, much like Priceline. The site only books 30 days out, and the closer you are to the booking date, the more likely the hotel is to accept a low bid. The company reports that its users save an average of 32%. And this new app is making it more convenient to do so. Maybe "boutique" doesn't have to equal expensive after all.