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Destination Guide

Big-City Discounters

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

was arranged.

 

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

three ways:

 

• 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

short-term.

 
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,

or location.

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.

 

Tips

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

and refunds.

However, other things aren't always equal. Frequently, a whole-

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

as good.

 

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

in advance.

 

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

and quality.

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.