Tourists can bargain for beds

Often, negotiating can lead to better rates on hotel rooms


April 27, 2003|By Gerry Volgenau | Gerry Volgenau,Knight Ridder / Tribune

You should never pay full price for a hotel room, especially during this downturn in travel when hotels are hungry for customers.

Getting a good hotel rate can be the most important element of your total travel budget because on most trips, the price of several days' lodging is likely to exceed even your airline ticket.

What many people, even some veteran travelers, do not realize is that hotel rates are negotiable: You can bargain for a better deal. And you should.

From the hotel manager's perspective, rooms are perishable, meaning if one sits empty for the night, that income is forever lost. So the manager knows it's far better to have an occupied room at half price than an empty room at full, or rack, rate.

Hotel prices go up and down constantly. Many chains as well as individual hotels are using a technique pioneered by the airlines -- computerized yield management: Prices go up and down as the hotel or hotels show increases or decreases in the number of guests for a particular night.

Right now, you are in a great position to get great deals because demand is way down as people travel less because of the war and the struggling economy.

Hotel room revenues in March were down 8.4 percent from the year before, which wasn't that great a year, anyway. Big-city luxury hotels were down 10.3 percent, Smith Travel Research reports. The weekend after the Iraqi war started, PricewaterhouseCoopers reported 20 percent room cancellations for the following week.

So you can bet hotel managers are ready to bargain.

And after the war is forgotten, your good bargaining position does not end. Travel is not likely to reach its old highs for at least eight months, perhaps longer.

What's more, even during times of extended peace, which we all hope for, you can still use these techniques to get lower hotel prices.

The techniques

So how do you get deals and discounts? There are two steps:

* Conduct research. Get on the phone, log on to the Internet. Contact the hotel chain and the individual hotel.

* Ask for cheaper rates. If you do nothing else, just asking for a lower rate often will save you money. The worst the reservation clerk can do is say no.

There is no trick to this. In some cases, the hotel manager will have set the lowest prices that can be offered and the desk clerk or reservationist will stick to that.

If you don't get the deal you want, walk away.

If the hotel is part of a chain -- Hilton, Sheraton, Holiday Inn, Radisson, for instance -- check the Web site or call the toll-free number. Chainwide sales often will be available, but they might not represent the best price you can get. Use it as a base upon which to judge other deals.

You can also go online or call brokers or discounters, who arrange with hotels to handle rooms that are likely to go unsold. The discounts can range up to 70 percent.

Discounts vary, of course, from hotel to hotel. But I have found that the prices you get from the brokers are often as good as the hotel's best price, sometimes better.

One of my favorite discounters is It covers some 7,000 hotels in North America, the Caribbean, Europe and Asia. will immediately charge your credit card for the entire bill. If you change or cancel, the charge is typically $20.

In addition to booking flights, some travel Web sites include hotel rooms, along with rental cars and package deals. and, online bidding sites, let you set the rate you're willing to pay for lodging and then will find a hotel to match it.

Priceline built its reputation selling airline tickets, but I have never been a great fan. You can pick only the day you want to travel, which means you can wind up on the red-eye when no one else wants to fly.

With hotels, it's somewhat better. You can pick the city, often the section of the city and the grade of hotel, such as two, three or four stars. But you still do not know the hotel name until you book.

After your research, you will have base prices upon which to begin negotiations when you call the hotel. Some weeks, conventions are in town or there are big events that crowd out bargain shoppers. But for those slow times, hotels often are willing to bargain independently.

Calling to negotiate can get expensive if you're booking a room in Europe or Asia. In those cases, online searches or toll-free calls to chains or discounters might save you the most money.

If you are a member of AAA, AARP or the government, you often get a 10 percent to 15 percent break on price. But don't mention the affiliation until after you've secured a cheaper price, and then try to get the membership discount tacked on. In many cases, the hotel will give you either the discounted price or the member price but not both. But it's worth a try.

If you have any sort of business card with your name on it, you ought to qualify for the corporate rate, which can be a savings of about 10 percent.

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