Searching for bargains in hotel room rates Costs: Prices are rising, especially in popular tourist destinations, and travelers have to do some research to get the best deals.

Strategies

May 10, 1998|By Alison Arnett | Alison Arnett,BOSTON GLOBE

Finding a home away from home - that hotel room for a pleasant three-day stay in a major city - has become much more costly in the last few years. Anyone who's called a favorite place and been sent reeling from the phone when quoted a room rate approaching $400 for a double knows this, of course. The same room that was $100 in 1996 can easily be $200 and up today.

It's not a trend that's likely to change in the next year or so, at least in popular destinations like New York City, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago. Hotel room rates have been rising 6 percent each year for the last three years, says Mark Lomanno, president of Smith Travel Research in Nashville, Tenn., a company that charts hotel rates. That's twice the rate of inflation, Lomanno said. But rates in the most popular markets have risen more drastically: 12 or 13 percent a year in Boston and New York and a whopping 15 to 20 percent a year in San Francisco. In the prime hotels, a room (not a suite) can go for $500 a night.

Paying that much for essentially four walls and a bed for eight hours or so sounds surrealistic, but supply and demand are shaping the market, says Arthur Adler, a partner at Cooper & Lybrand Lodging and Gaming Consulting Group. The economy is strong and people are traveling more for business and leisure, he says. However, since the recession of the early '90s, the supply of hotel rooms has not substantially increased. So the occupancy rate can average 86 to 89 percent over the year.

The story doesn't just end with rising rates but the fact that hotel rooms are now rented along the same lines that airline seats are sold. Air passengers have by now gotten used to the fact that while an aisle seat to Philadelphia may be sold for $200, the seat next to it may have cost more than $350, and the window seat, gained through frequent-flier miles, may have been free to the customer.

That technique doesn't work quite the same way for hotels, but "yield management," which means trying to get as much as possible on a given day for a room, is widely practiced.

The shifting playing field, especially for the leisure traveler, means a new set of rules. There is a little sticker shock at first, but then travelers can resolve to work at avoiding top rates.

The first thing is to realize that not all rates are the same, so be prepared to research first and then bargain. Hotels of all price ranges offer everything from American Automobile Association and American Association of Retired Persons membership discounts to corporate discounts (even if the guest is not visiting on business) to weekend specials to winter rates. However, a reservations clerk doesn't offer this information unless asked. If the customer balks when quoted a rate, the hotel representative will usually begin the bargaining process there, suggesting a room with a lower rate.

The Internet is a good source of information, the experts say. Large hotel chains often will post their bargain rates exclusively on their Web sites, preferring to reach a smaller audience that way than through a broader-based ad. Booking through the Internet is popular with hotels right now: They consider it a good way to move inventory.

Maria Martinelli, marketing director of Garber Travel, also suggests that travelers begin research on the Internet. Then a travel consultant can help, she says, because agencies know about available bargains and discounts. Also, in busy travel times, travel consultants wait-list clients so that any cancellations can be snapped up.

It's a good idea to plan and book as early as possible, all the travel sources said. And then several added that sometimes good bargains can be snagged at the last minute when the hotel is eager to fill an empty room.

One last resource is to check with a hotel reservations service. These organizations buy up blocks of rooms throughout the year with participating hotels and then market them to companies, tours or individuals.

Bob Diener, the president of the largest, Hotel Reservations Network (315-358-8333), says his group can guarantee rooms in tight periods, such as the Boston or New York marathons, as well as low rates in popular cities such as Orlando, Fla. Because the hotels gain sales even in slack winter months, they're willing to give over rooms at reduced rates, such as $75 to $100 a night in 25 hotels in New York City or under $100 a night at 12 in London. The network also handles referrals for convention and tourist bureaus such as Boston and Chicago.

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