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How to get a great hotel rate

I love to travel, and I love to travel in style. But with hotel prices rising at record rates, it's becoming more difficult for me to afford a stay at a beautiful property and to budget for other aspects of my trip (I love well, too!). However, with a little effort and a few tricks up my sleeve, I can usually get a satisfying rate at hotels. Here are a few of my secrets.
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I love to travel, and I really love to travel in style. But with hotel prices rising at record rates, it's becoming more difficult for me to afford a stay at a beautiful property and to budget for other aspects of my trip (I love eating well, too!). However, with a little effort and a few tricks up my sleeve, I can usually get a satisfying rate at hotels. Here are a few of my secrets.

Know what you want. Is it important for you to get the lowest possible rate at your destination? Is it important to find a reasonable rate, but at a decent hotel with some minimum level of service? Or do you want to stay at the most fabulous and fashionable property in town, but not pay top dollar for that room? Your expectations greatly affect the rates you'll pay. Let's face it: If you're trying to find a $50 room at a five-star property, chances are you'll be looking forever! So figure out what's most important to you; then you'll know where to look and where to book.

Be willing to work. You must take the time to do research. Check rates online at the third-party booking Web sites, such as Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz. Also check meta-search Web sites, such as Mobissimo and Kayak. Call your favorite travel agent to see what he might dig up. If you know you'd like to stay at a particular hotel, check its Web site, call its main reservation line (usually an 800 number) and call the property directly. You may find that the Web site is offering an online special, or that an agent at the hotel can view unpublished rates. All this may seem like lots of work, but what's a couple of hours if you save lots of money?

Buy in bulk. Guests qualify for special group rates in two situations: (a) they will be booking lots of rooms for one stay, or (b) they will be booking many individual stays over a certain period of time. If you think you might fall into either of these categories, call the hotel's sales office to see if you qualify for a lower rate. For example, if your extended family is hitting the beach for a reunion, a resort might very well offer you a discount for booking a large block of rooms. Some properties extend group rates to guests booking as few as five rooms at a time. Or maybe you visit the same destination regularly, and you know you'll be staying at a certain hotel many nights each year — you don't have to be a business traveler to be considered a frequent guest. It never hurts to ask for a deal in these circumstances.

Think off-peak. Visit Las Vegas in the summer or Hawaii in the rainy season. Or plan your trip for midweek instead of a weekend. At some hotels, certain months of the year or days of the week are especially busy, and rates will always be high at those times. If your schedule is flexible, call the hotel and ask the agent when business is slowest. If you can avoid traveling at peak times, you can stay at some pretty amazing properties for surprisingly low prices.

Understand yield management. Yield management is a fancy term for guessing how many people are going to be staying at the hotel and how much they'll be willing to pay. When hotels practice good yield management, their rates are constantly fluctuating. For example, if you call about a visit a year away, the hotel may assume they'll be full at that time, and they'll quote you a high rate. Similarly, if you're calling to make a last-minute booking and the hotel is close to selling out, they'll also quote you a high rate. It's sometime in the middle that things get fuzzy: Hotels may worry that they won't fill the rooms at the rates they've been quoting, so they drop their prices. Here's what I do: I make my reservation well in advance, and then call back on a regular basis to check the rates in case they have dropped. If the rate is lower, I'll simply book a new reservation and then cancel my old one (provided there's no cancellation penalty, of course). There's no rule against this!

Don't get hung up on discounts. I once had a regular guest who insisted on being given the discount for a certain motorists' club every time he booked a room. Even though my hotel often offered regular rates that were better than the club's "discount" rate, he demanded the motorists' rate. When negotiating these discount rates with organizations, hotels often agree to discount their "rack rate" by 25 percent or so. But the rack rate is the highest rate a hotel can ever charge for a room, and its everyday rates are usually much lower. So that discount may not save you money after all. In fact, that guest of mine has probably overpaid thousands of dollars at hotels over the years because he thinks he knows better than the reservation agents.

Be patient when booking your room. And speaking of those reservation agents — give them time to do their jobs. If they have time to talk with you, they might find out something about you (or your visit) that allows them to extend a special discount you didn't know existed. They can also look for certain dates when rates are really low. But it takes a while to look up all those dates and rates in the computer. If you want your reservation made in five minutes, you'll most likely get the standard rate.

Once you've found a great deal and booked the room, there are two things to remember:

Be happy with what you get. The key to happiness is being satisfied. Book a rate you're satisfied with, and then forget about it. Staying at a hotel isn't a competition — you're not there to outwit the hotel or outdo the other guests. There will always be someone staying for less than you; in fact, there's usually someone staying for free for one reason or another. You can't beat that, so stop comparing!

I was once checking in at a property when I heard a woman berating a front desk agent. She was angry because she overheard the agent quote the man ahead of her a much lower rate than hers. The agent explained that the man had been offered a bereavement rate, as he was in town for a funeral, and that if she wanted to arrange for her uncle to die in a car accident, then he could look into getting that rate for her, too. Was that good customer service? No way. But did that woman learn a lesson about being satisfied? I hope so!

Be prepared for the worst. Rock-bottom rates often get you rock-bottom service. No, I don't mean that you'll walk around with a "Cheapskate!" sign taped to your back, or that the employees will be allowed to treat you poorly. But when push comes to shove, the person paying a higher rate will always get more than the person paying a lower rate. What does this mean? Well, you know that upgrade you're hoping for? You're not getting it for $39 a night. And you know that one lousy room sandwiched between the elevator and the housekeeping storage? Well, madam, that glorified closet is yours.

Finding a great rate may not be easy, but it can definitely be worth the effort. Enjoy the hunt and enjoy your savings!

Amy Bradley-Hole has worked in the hotel industry for many years in many different positions and at all types of properties -- from small luxury boutique hotels to large resorts, both in the United States and abroad. or on!