College graduation: 3 tips for parents to avoid expensive hotel rates

  • College towns often struggle with accommodating visitors during events like graduation day, leading to a shortage of hotel rooms and inflated prices.
  • Parents of college kids often endure inflated prices, not only during graduation season, but also during events like family weekends or homecomings.
  • Tips for avoiding graduation day nightmares include booking early, exploring alternatives like Airbnb and checking secondary markets for hotel room availability.

If you think getting tickets to a Taylor Swift concert or the World Series is tough, try booking a hotel room in an American college town for Graduation Day.

Toni Milbourne faced this before her daughter’s graduation from West Virginia University in May. Hotel room rates in Morgantown doubled before the local event. In a nearby town, prices more than tripled to $350 a night.

“It absolutely feels like price gouging,” said Milbourne, managing editor for a West Virginia newspaper. “People need to be aware that companies are taking advantage of people in times that should be a celebration.”

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Parents of college kids often suck it up, and not just around Graduation Day.

Cadets graduating

Graduating cadets toss their hats into the air at the end of the 2023 graduation ceremony at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, on May 27, 2023. (REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/File Photo)

Whether for Family Weekends or Homecomings, smaller communities often get swarmed by visitors far beyond their ability to handle them. Meanwhile, pricing algorithms for airlines and hotels do what they were designed to do – crank up prices when demand arises.

“A lot of smaller college towns might have 20,000 or 30,000 people, and maybe 2,000 hotel rooms,” said Professor Chris Anderson, who researches pricing, at Cornell University’s Nolan School of Hotel Administration.

“With crazy high-demand dates, like a college graduation, all of a sudden you have 40,000 parents and guests arriving for multiple days of festivities. Now you have a real imbalance of supply and demand.”

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As a result, parents must pay super-high prices for hotels and flights, if they are available at all.

To avoid this quandary, Shama Diegnan, a digital marketer from South Orange, New Jersey, sprung into action for Parents Weekend at a Midwestern college even before her younger son had accepted the school’s offer.

“It never occurred to me that these hotels may cost more than in a major metropolitan city,” said Diegnan. She was amazed that one local hotel charged over $1,000 a night, up from its usual room rate of about $100.

How can parents avoid Graduation Day nightmares? Here are a few tips.

PREPARE EARLY

Many hotels typically take reservations a year in advance. If your child is scheduled to graduate next year, start booking now. As for Parents Weekends in the fall, you should have already booked. If those dates are still not set, check the university parents’ Facebook group for updates.

Note that for such high-demand dates, hotels may be stricter than usual, and may require prepayment for nonrefundable bookings or set a minimum number of nights, Anderson said.

CHECK OUT ALTERNATIVES

Hotels have a fixed number of rooms, but homeowners on Airbnb or VRBO may offer extra rooms, apartments or houses on high-demand dates.

For Parents Weekend, Diegnan booked a $300-a-night Airbnb 10 minutes from campus, instead of a local hotel room at $500 or more.

One caveat from Anderson: Some parts of the country, like New York City, are stricter about short-term rentals, limiting homeowners’ ability to absorb huge influxes of visitors.

LOOK FOR SECONDARY MARKETS

Parents wishing to cancel nonrefundable hotel rooms are in a tight spot. That is why online hotel marketplaces have sprung up.

“They specialize in having hotel rooms for high-demand dates, and allowing people to offload prepaid rooms that they don’t need anymore,” Anderson said. “It’s like a StubHub secondary market, but for hotel rooms.”

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Milbourne gave up on local hotels and plans to bunk at the home of family members instead.

“I don’t think hotels should be able to jack up prices in moments like this,” she said. “Not only is my daughter graduating, but she spent four years on active duty in the Army. This is a big deal for us.”

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