Your toughest hotel challenges are in big cities and popular resort areas.
That's where you find the highest list prices and the most buying options.
Rack rates at the best-known upscale chains, such as Hilton, Hyatt, Inter-
continental, Marriott, Radisson, and Sheraton start at around $125 to $150
in dozens of large and midsize cities. Once you get down around $80 a
night, you're likely to find the options either somewhat scruffy or at a fair
distance from the city center—or both.
Rates in the world's top visitor cities are even higher. In London, New
York, Paris, San Francisco, and a handful of other comparable cities, you're
looking at $200 to $400 per night in one of the upscale chains, $100
to $150 a night in one of the midpriced spots. Even the fabled budget
London B&Bs charge close to $100 a night these days.
Of course, these figures are rack rates. Generally, hotels establish their
rack rates at the highest levels they might ever expect to charge—for ex-
ample, when the Super Bowl or a major convention is in town.
Like the airlines, big-city hotels know that they can't often fill their
hotels to capacity at rack rates, so they offer a variety of discounts. Know-
ing how they arrange these discounts sometimes helps you navigate the
marketplace more smoothly.
Big-city hotels routinely cut rates using one of three different kinds
of discount systems. Often, when you deal with an Internet (or any other)
discount agency, you can't really tell which system is in use. But you prob-
ably don't care, either; what's important is the size of the deal, not how it
Broker a Deal
Hotel brokers act for hotels in much the same way that consolidators act for
airlines: They provide a low-profile channel through which hotels can un-
load rooms they don't expect to sell at full price. As is the case with air-
line consolidators, several discount brokers operate extensive Internet sites.
Most brokers handle a limited number of hotels, usually midpriced
and high-priced. You'll find relatively few choices in airport locations and
virtually none in small cities and along the highways.
Unless you find a really good hotel promotion, a broker is probably
your best bet for finding a really good hotel deal in a big city. However,
not even a broker can do much for you when hotel space in the city you're
going to visit is tight. And, as with so many other travel buys, you're bet-
ter off angling for the best deal in the city rather than first selecting a hotel
and then trying to get a deal on a room.
However, broker deals aren't always the best you can find. You might
do better with a half-price program (see the section "Half-Price Programs"
later in this chapter). The only way you can be sure that a broker's rate (or
any other discount) is a good deal is to compare it with the hotel's own
best price for a room during the time you're considering visiting.
Discount Booking Agents
Some brokers operate as discount booking agencies: They arrange deals
with hotels that need to fill rooms. Often, these deals are short-term and
fluctuating: Reductions can be as high as 60 percent when a hotel is hun-
gry, but they dry up when room availability is tight. Most big booking
agencies sell through the Internet as well as by phone.
Brokers in the discount booking group act strictly as agents: They
make reservations for you at the discount rates they've prearranged, but
they can also negotiate individual rates (see "Negotiate a Rate," later in this
chapter). In fact, when you're booking, you really can't tell the difference
between a short-term rate the broker might have negotiated individually
and a rate the broker obtains through one of the large negotiated-rate
programs. But you really shouldn't care, as long as the deal is good.
Most brokers in this group handle hotels in only a limited number of
cities. Among the largest of the discount booking agencies is Quikbook
(www.quikbook.com), with hotel deals in 18 major U.S. business centers.
Once you have selected a city, you can access Quikbook's deals in
• If you have a specific location preference, you can click a hotel's icon
on the city map and view a detailed description of that hotel. From
the hotel page, you can specify dates and number of occupants, sub-
mit your request, and determine availability and price—sometimes
a single price, sometimes several prices depending on the type of
room. If the hotel is unavailable (or at least unavailable at Quikbook's
price), the page lists alternative hotels that are available.
• If you're looking for the best deal, regardless of location, you can start
an "Express Search," entering dates, number of adults, and a general
price range. The site displays a list of hotels that meet your needs. You
can then select one of the options and make your reservations.
• A third option takes you to a combined list of "special" deals, usually
Another large broker in the discount booking group is Central Res-
ervation Service (www.reservation-services.com). It handles hotels in 10 major
cities. As with Quikbook, most are midpriced or high-priced and are located
in the central business districts, with a few airport locations as well. The
Appendix lists other similar discount booking agencies. It also lists several
brokers that specialize in only one or two cities.
Discount booking agencies also operate overseas; British Hotel Res-
ervation Centre Online (www.bhrc.co.uk), a booking agency for London and
the vicinity, is one such example. It operates in exactly the same way as
its U.S. counterparts. You can access its database by name, quality rating,
They Can Get It for You Wholesale
A different cluster of brokers acts as wholesalers: They contract to buy
rooms at wholesale rates and resell them to travelers. You reserve through—
and pay through—the broker. The broker sends you a voucher that you
exchange for your accommodation when you arrive.
Wholesalers' price reductions are in the same ballpark as those of dis-
count agencies—up to 65 percent off in a few cases, 20 percent or so at
many locations. But you find one big difference between wholesalers and
discount booking agents: Wholesalers require that you pay the entire
amount, up front. You can cancel only through the wholesale broker (not
directly with the hotel), and you usually face a cancellation fee of at least
the first night's cost.
Other things being equal, you're better off with a discount booking
agency or a negotiated rate than with a wholesaler. Having to pay your
full bill up front limits your flexibility and seriously impedes cancellations
saler's deal is the best you can find. So you either have to accept the
risks of full prepayment or find a more flexible deal, even if it isn't quite
The largest wholesale hotel broker, of any stripe, is Hotel Reservations
Network, or HRN (www.hoteldiscount.com). In addition to its own sites, HRN
has arranged to be linked by dozens of other travel sites. In fact, whenever
you see a link to "hotel discounts" on an agency site, gateway site, or home
page, chances are you'll reach HRN.
Negotiate a Rate
Large travel agencies and consortiums of smaller travel agencies (that have
banded together to increase their buying power) have negotiated reduced
rates with thousands of hotels, worldwide. Reductions range anywhere
from a few percentage points to as much as 40 percent to 50 percent off
rack rates, depending on the hotel.
Negotiated rates are most common with city hotels in the midpriced
range and higher, with the occasional budget hotel listed. You can also
find negotiated rates for airport-area and suburban hotels, as well as for
resort centers. The largest negotiated rate programs list thousands of
hotels, worldwide, so you can find at least a few participating hotels in most
medium-sized cities. However, you don't see many listings along the major
highways and in rural areas.
As with discounts in general, you find far more hotels with small
discounts than with big cuts. However, most negotiated rate programs
usually include at least a few hotels in each city where the reduction is on
the high end—these deals are sometimes called preferred rates. Obviously,
for the best prices, you should head for the hotels that give these big dis-
counts. On the other hand, if you insist on a specific hotel, you might or
might not get any sort of price concession.
For the most part, negotiated rates are not highly restricted: As long
as a hotel isn't sold out, you get the deal. However, some negotiated rates
are seasonal, and many are blacked out during special events.
With negotiated rates, you arrange a reservation through just about
any travel agency—online or storefront—including the agency Web sites.
The agency makes your
reservation, probably asking for a charge card guarantee. When you arrive,
you register in the normal way, and then pay by charge card, cash, or check
when you leave the hotel. You usually face no cancellation penalty as long
as you cancel before late afternoon on the day of arrival. However, during
busy times, the cancellation period might be longer—as much as 24 hours
Name Your Price
Reverse auctions such as Priceline.com also handle hotel accommodations.
The system works much as it does with airlines:
You specify a city (and for big cities, a location within the metro
area); you provide the dates of your visit, a general price category, and the
amount you're willing to pay; and you give a charge card number. The
system checks your bid against the available inventory and price guidelines
of participating hotels. If your bid is accepted, you automatically buy the
hotel room. If not, you can try again after you make a few adjustments.
Priceline.com gives you a choice of four classes: 1-Star Economy
2-Star Moderate, 3-Star Upscale, and 4-Star Deluxe, and it provides an ex-
planation of that rating scale, as defined by rack rates in the particular city
you're checking. Overall, it's a pretty good approach to the problem of price
In one important way, a reverse auction works better for purchase of
hotel rooms than for air tickets. With an air ticket, you can't specify flight
times and you might have to accept connections; in effect, you risk con-
siderable inconvenience to get your price. There are no equivalent limi-
tations and risks to a hotel bid. You get the city, area, quality level, and price
you want, with no real risks or inconveniences. Frequent travelers I know
have been far more pleased with Priceline.com's performance on hotel
accommodations than on air tickets.
As with purchasing airline tickets, if you use Priceline.com or a com-
petitor, it should be your last stop: You really can't lose if you bid a bit under
the best discount price you were able to find elsewhere.