Five years ago most hotel room rates were fixed. Not anymore. One guest may pay $99 for his room, while the guy across the hall is shelling out $175.
Why the discrepancy? In recent years, many hotels have adopted a more fluid pricing model that helps them fill rooms and maximize profits.
"Rates can vary tremendously for the same room on a given night based on when each room is sold and also how it's sold, whether over the phone, by an online retailer, or via the hotel's Web site," says Rob Delamater, vice president of creative services for Joie de Vivre, which operates 21 boutique hotels in the Bay Area. "The good news for consumers: You can save 25 percent or more if you're strategic about looking."
Hunt for cyberdeals
Start by checking the hotel's Web site for Internet-only specials. Booking rooms on the Web is cheap, and hotels tend to pass the savings along to online customers. Even budget hotels are starting to get into this game.
"If you book one of our rooms on the Internet, you could get a discount of 15 percent," says David Nix, senior director of pricing for Motel 6, Studio 6, and Red Roof Inns.
Once you've checked the hotel's site, hit the big online travel retailers. Expedia, Travelocity, and Hotels.com promise to book a certain number of a hotel's rooms in exchange for deep discounts. The upshot: Many times they can offer lower rates than the hotel's reservationist.
You'll also want to take a look at the Quick Getaways in the travel area of csaa.com.
Go straight to the source
Next, phone the hotel directly. "Call the 800 number and say, 'This is what I got from Expedia. What have you got?' " says Jeanne Datz, Hilton's director of brand communication. And be sure to inquire about discounts— AAA, American Express, AARP. Finally, see if the hotel is offering any special packages. Reservationists may not volunteer this information up front, but they'll tell you if asked.
Keep in mind it's all about supply and demand. If you're hitting town the week of a convention, don't expect discounts. "If you're flexible on dates, you can save," Datz says. "The next week that room could be $60 less."
And remember that persistence can pay off. "If you don't like the rate you've been quoted, hang up and try again," Datz suggests. "You could call just 10 minutes later and get a better deal. There may have been some cancellations that caused the rates to drop."
Wheel and deal
When you call the hotel, don't be shy about dickering. Reservationists at most hotels are trained to do something called "fading." When a prospective guest resists a rate, they're allowed to roll it back a bit.
Terry Graff, a seasoned traveler who has negotiated great hotel deals everywhere from Prague to Pasadena, rarely accepts a hotel's initial offer. A recent coup was at Portland's 5th Avenue Suites, where a reservationist quoted him a rate of $150. Graff asked for a better price and got the room for $120.
"I went back a half hour later, and there was a new guy at the desk," Graff says. "I said, 'I was just here and they quoted me $120.' He said, 'I would have given you $110.' I said, "How about $100?' He said, 'No, but we'll give you an upgrade.' "
Confidence is key. "You shouldn't feel intimidated," Graff says. "Hotels are in the hospitality business. They want to make a good impression. If a hotel has rooms available, they'll usually give you a break."
Photography by Terrence McCarthy
This article was first published in November 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.