While even cars have gone the way of reliable sticker prices, hotel accommodations remain a haggler's game, with arcane and confusing rules and terminology that seem aimed to sneak dollars out of your pocket even when you think you're making out well. Take the term "corporate rate," for instance. Corporate employees travel a lot; they must get a good rate, right? Well, some of them do, but probably not the ones who ask for the corporate rate.
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Following are some tactics for getting the best hotel rates any time you travel. Your mileage may vary, and some hotels are more flexible than others, but these 13 tricks should keep you on the winning side of the bargaining table.
1. Ask for a lower rate
This sounds simple, even doomed, but very often works like a charm. Ask whether the hotel is currently running any promotions or packages, and then see if any of the following special rates might apply: AAA, senior, family, hotel membership, weekend, government discount, frequent flier, convention, shareholder or corporate. Hotels sometimes even have what is called a "fallback" rate for travelers who are resisting the quoted rate.
2. Shop around online
For the latest hotel deals in locations around the world, be sure to check our comprehensive Bargain Box daily. In addition, check the Web sites of your favorite hotel chains; often they will run promotions exclusively for Web bookings.
Hotel discount reservation services like Hotels.com can also help you save considerably on hotel rates, as can general travel booking sites like Expedia and Travelocity. Note, however, that these sites often charge booking fees, so often your best strategy is to shop around to find the lowest rate and then call the hotel directly to see if they can match it.
You may also want to check aggregator sites like Kayak and Mobissimo, which search a wide range of hotel chains and travel sites, and then send you directly to the provider for booking.
3. Book by price, not by property
If you care less about a specific hotel than getting the cheapest deal, you may want to consider choosing your own price on Priceline or shopping the anonymous (but deeply discounted) hotel inventory on Hotwire. On these sites you won't know which hotel you're staying at until it's booked, but you can request the general location and quality (three-star, four-star, etc.) — and you could save a significant amount of money over other booking sites.
4. Call the hotel directly
Many times specials are offered at the hotel that can't be submitted through the 1-800 central reservations system. The 800 agents have no direct access to room availability, and are often not authorized to negotiate. Hotel agents are generally more in touch with availability and specials, and are therefore more flexible with rates.
Many chains allot only a select number of rooms to the central reservations system, so 800 agents may even tell you a hotel is sold out when in fact the hotel is discounting rooms because of low booking rates!
5. Be flexible with your dates
Hotel rates can vary widely based on the time of year and the time of week when you travel. If you're staying at a property that serves mostly business travelers, you may find great weekend deals, while B&B's and other leisure properties tend to have lower rates midweek. On a broader scale, know when the peak seasons to visit your destination are — such as wintertime in the Caribbean or summertime in Europe. Rates will be sky-high at those times of year, so scheduling your trip for a less popular travel time could save you big bucks on your hotel.
6. Take advantage of last-minute specials
If your travel plans are flexible, you could get a great rate by waiting to book your hotel until the last minute. Hotel managers are often willing to lower their rates to fill their last remaining rooms.
7. Consider a package deal
If you're looking for both airfare and hotels, shop around and see if it's worth booking the two together as a package deal. You may not have as many hotel choices as you would if you were booking your lodging separately, but the discounts could be worth the lack of flexibility.
8. Look beyond the big hotels
If you're seeing high rates at big chain hotels, consider some alternatives. These could include bed and breakfasts, vacation rentals, hostels or independently owned small hotels — most of which can't be found on big booking engines. For advice on how to research these, see our guide to finding hidden hotels.
9. Know the full cost
You may think you've found a great deal, but keep in mind that the base rate isn't the only thing that will determine your total bill. Be sure to ask what taxes, resort fees, parking costs, energy surcharges, and other odds and ends will apply to your final tally. Even if one hotel has a lower base rate, it may end up being a more expensive option once all the extras are added in.
10. Keep an eye on your credit card statements
Occasionally, buried in all that junk stuffed in with your credit card statement are vouchers or guarantees for good hotel rates offered in conjunction with your credit card company. Typically, you have to request a specific rate code, included in the "literature," and reserve and pay for the room with that particular credit card (or one issued by the same bank or company).
11. Use coupon and voucher books
The number of discount coupon and voucher companies, both in print and on the Internet, is almost mind-boggling. Everywhere you look, you can tear off, cut out, download, print out or merely mention a discount coupon rate, and you can save on just about every aspect of travel. Do a Web search for "coupons" for your destination or hotel chain, or take a look at Yahoo's coupons section for some links to local and online coupon distributors.
But in the midst of this abundance, one discount book stands head and shoulders above the rest: the "Entertainment Books" published by Entertainment Publications. The great majority of discounts available come in at half price, whether they're two-for-one meals or movies, or straight 50 percent discounts on hotel rooms. The company publishes books annually for dozens of major U.S. and Canadian destinations. They can be purchased online for $25 to $45.
12. Follow up
Once you've booked your hotel, don't just rest on your laurels. Call back or check online in another month or so and see whether rates have gone down. If they have, cancel your booking and rebook your stay at the lower rate. (Read the hotel's cancellation policy carefully before doing so to make sure you won't have to pay any penalties.)
13. Leave your bags in the car
Planning to negotiate when you arrive? Don't haul a huge piece of luggage into the lobby and then tell the agent that you'd just as soon go elsewhere if they can't bring their rates down. You'll look tired, hassled, sick of lugging bags and, to a shrewd hotel clerk, ready to pay handsomely to unpack that suitcase.