Condos on Alabama's Beaches

How to pick the best value for your beach vacation stay

For as long as I can remember, searching for vacation value has been my “job.”

As family CFO, planning trips to get the most bang for the buck, so to speak, has always been a goal. After all, the better the vacation value, the more vacations we can take!

The problem is knowing where to find the best value. Right?

Pre-internet, the best value was found through travel agents. It was so easy back then: here’s my budget and here’s where I want to go. What’s the best deal out there? The agent would present a few options, and we would pick one. Simple!

Condo Pool in Orange Beach AL

Online booking sites

Once the internet got going, the rules changed. Money saving travel websites popped up. Not affiliated with a particular brand, these sites sell a block of rooms at a discount to travelers. For years, those sites were a great way to find bargains.

Be sure to understand the drawbacks:

  • Discounters may not get the best rooms at hotels, so expect the noisy, lower level rooms, usually near the laundry or the elevator.
  • Understand cancellation fees. You can’t cancel directly through the hotel, but must cancel with the discounter. Often, cancellation is limited (or not allowed). Sometimes, there is a non-refundable cancellation fee.
  • Review the accommodations carefully. The discounter might only offer bookings on a room for two when you need a room for four.

Independent vacation rentals

The next big wave, particularly near major tourist destinations, was the independent vacation rental. People with a spare bedroom in their homes or a vacation property list those places on independent booking sites to make some extra income on space they aren’t using. The advantage here is that families can book larger spaces, often with a kitchen, laundry and separate bedroom for the kids.

But, like online hotel booking sites, there are things to watch for:

  • Some property owners are more dependable than others. Be sure to read reviews of both the property and the owner before booking. Once, we booked a property for two separate weekends. Two weeks before the first trip, the owner canceled both reservations leaving us to scramble for a place to stay for our son’s college graduation.

If you find an independent rental that looks good, be sure to check for added fees.

I almost booked a place, thinking it was a great deal, until I realized they had a steep housecleaning fee ($40 per person) and an extra guest fee ($10/guest over two for EACH night, or $60 for our three-night stay). To top it off, we had to bring our own bedding, towels, bath supplies and kitchen towels and soap. When all was said and done, that great rate was — well — not!

Hotel with Pool in Gulf Shores AL

Book direct with hotels

Hotel brands realized that to compete with the online discounters, they had to make a change. Today, booking direct is often a better overall value than booking through a third party.

Many hotel chains guarantee the best price when you book direct. They offer price matching if you find the same room online for less within a certain amount of time after booking your stay. I’ve checked many times the past few years, and the hotel price always wins.

Beyond that, hotels offer perks that aren’t available through discounters.

Some common perks include:

  • Early check-in and/or late check-out when requested
  • Free room upgrades to past guests when available
  • Room location requests
  • Free breakfast coupons (at hotels that don’t offer free breakfast for all)
  • And others.

Hotels also offer reward programs where guests accumulate points to redeem for discounts or free nights in the future. Some offer a free night after staying a set number of nights (get your 11th night free).

Hotels also offer vacation packages, including free attraction tickets with your stay, which stretches the vacation budget even further. Traveling in “shoulder season,” which means spring and fall for most beach destinations, is a great way to find super savings with awesome vacation package deals.

Book direct with local vacation rental management companies

Following the lead of hotel brands, vacation rental management companies offer great perks for booking direct. Also, many of the businesses here at the beach are locally owned — and the owners care about this community.

When you book direct with local vacation rental management companies, you can expect certain benefits:

  • Booking directly with a local means you’ll be talking with someone who is knowledgeable about the area and is dedicated to providing excellent customer service.
  • Accommodations will meet cleanliness and safety standards. We may not want to think about such things, but we sure do notice if a property is not clean.
  • You often save on booking fees which third party companies regularly charge.
  • Vacation rental management companies regularly offer vacation packages that aren’t provided through independent companies focused only on lodging.
  • Many properties offer perks like free use of beach towels, early check-in, late check-out and discounts that aren’t offered to those who rent through third party sites.
  • Dealing directly with a local company means if there is a problem with your room, management is onsite or near to address it quickly.

I booked a vacation last year, weighing the choice between booking through a third party or booking direct with a local vacation rental management company. It turned out that booking direct included some great perks that helped me save on vacation, including discounts on paid activities such as paddle board rentals and kids’ club activities, a mid-afternoon checkout which allowed us a full morning at the pool before heading home, and a dining discount of 15% at onsite restaurants.

The best vacation value is not always the one with the lowest rate. Be budget savvy and check for things like hidden fees when you find that “too good to be true” rate. When you weigh all the options before booking, you’ll find the best value for your vacation!

Share This