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Hotel rooms

Hotel room buying guide

Last updated: November 2013
Getting started

Getting started

If you're planning a hotel stay, you might find that the welcome mat is out. Chains have been catching up on long-delayed improvements, freshening rooms, replacing worn mattresses and tattered wallpaper, and updating furnishings. Groceries delivered to your door? Try an upscale Residence Inn. An indoor pool? Even the budget-level Red Roof Inn has it. A butler to draw your bath? OK, that's over the top, but you'll find one at the Ritz-Carlton (and the tub is marble). At more and more hotels, lobbies look a bit like cozy living rooms, wireless Internet is in public areas, and hot buffet-style -- even cooked-to-order breakfasts -- and evening munchies are offered. To demonstrate their commitment to service, some chains even say that you can stay free of charge if you have a problem they can't resolve.

But the wooing of guests stops at the price tag. This year, an overnight stay is expected to cost an average of $111, up 4.2 percent from 2012, according to the lodging analyst PricewaterhouseCoopers. You'll probably have to work harder to land a deal; asking the desk clerk for the best available rate no longer does the trick. That's where we can help. Through reporting, dickering with clerks, and visiting hotels, we've identified techniques that stretch your lodging dollar. And through our survey of 22,481 subscribers who spent a collective 94,981 nights at 44 chains, we've identified America's best and worst hotels. Among our findings:

  • Overall, hotels have improved. In our latest survey, 53 percent of readers called check-in and checkout excellent vs. 42 percent in 2006. The numbers for service rose from 37 percent to 44 percent; for upkeep, from 36 percent to 43 percent.
  • No hotel chain matched the scores (or price) of the Ritz-Carlton, but satisfaction depends on what you're seeking.
  • Upscale and moderate hotels give a lot of bang for the buck, but most budget hotels earned low scores for value, comfort, service, and upkeep.
  • At all price levels, you'll find more suites. Many suite hotels include hot breakfasts and evening socials in the price, along with laundry centers and a workout room open around the clock.
  • You'll see more boasts about beds: Hyatt has its Grand Bed, Westin its Heavenly Bed, and DoubleTree its Sweet Dreams Sleep Experience. Some hotels sell their bedding and linen collections to the public. A comfy bed is good for business: 10 percent of respondents cited a luxurious bed and linens as an important factor in choosing a hotel.

Hotel hierarchy

The lines between hotel types have blurred because of "amenities creep," the trickle-down of niceties from expensive chains to less-expensive ones, but there are basic differences.

At budget hotels, expect a hair dryer, radio, safe, TV with a few premium channels, and exercise room. Furnishings tend to be more functional than fashionable. Selecting a moderate hotel usually gets you fluffier bedding, more stylish furnishings, better-equipped fitness and business centers, and a free hot breakfast. Internet service is often free--worth noting because Internet service was the second-most-used amenity in our survey, behind parking. Business travelers tend to favor upscale hotels, where many rooms have ergonomic chairs and large desks. Luxury hotels, usually in big cities and exotic locales, have round-the-clock white-glove service. Expect spas, personal trainers, massage therapists, baby-sitting, and expensive restaurants. Oddly, luxury hotels are most likely to nickel-and-dime guests on such basics as Internet access (usually $10 to $20 per day).

Once you've picked a price level, consider whether you've liked the chain before (63 percent of survey respondents said a good previous experience was important in deciding where to stay). And go to the hotel's website, not only to research rates and availability but also to see photos of rooms and amenities, get directions, and scope out local attractions. Check online travel sites such as Travelocity and Expedia or aggregator sites such as TripAdvisor (it lists accommodations and prices from many travel agencies), along with travel guides.

User reviews can be helpful, and 21 percent of readers consulted them, up from 17 percent in 2009. "They're highly influential and a really important way for travelers to determine how well a hotel performs relative to expectations," said Carroll Rheem, research director at PhoCus Wright, a travel-research firm. But parse them carefully to weed out bogus reviews. Our advice: Consider the number of evaluations. The more there are, the smaller the impact of an oddball review. Check a site's fine print or contact the company to find out who's allowed to write a review. Some sites let anyone comment, whether they've stayed at the hotel or not. Focus on comments about what matters to you, such as the pool or restaurant.

Sneaky fees

Consumers were expected to shell out a record $2.1 billion in hotel fees and surcharges in 2013, according to Bjorn Hanson, divisional dean of New York University's Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management. The increase is due to several factors: higher room occupancy rates, new fees, and higher fees for existing services, according to Hanson. The fancier the hotel, the more likely it is to add fees beyond room occupancy and sales tax. The most common:

Resort

Charged by hotels with hiking trails, golf courses, or tennis courts, the resort fee usually ranges from about $20 to $50 per day. It applies whether you use the amenities or not and is very difficult to have removed from your bill. Most resorts automatically add staff tips.

Minibar

Guests expect to pay princely sums for chips, nuts, and candy bars but might be startled to see a minibar "restocking" fee of $2.50 to $6. Hotels are also doing away with locked minibars, instead displaying overpriced items in an unlocked fridge or in baskets in the open, where they're more difficult to resist.

Early check-in/late departure

Time was, you might talk your way out of paying extra if you arrived early or left late. Then many chains started charging a $50 penalty or imposed a "day" rate of about 60 percent of the nightly rate. Now more chains charge for a full extra night. To encourage guests to join loyalty programs (usually free), hotels might waive the fee and offer members other perks such as a dedicated, faster check-in/checkout line.

Bag storage

Figure on paying $1 to $2 per bag if you arrive early or need to stow luggage after checkout. Joining a loyalty club might let you avoid that fee, too.

Cancellation

Chains routinely require 48 to 72 hours notice to avoid a charge equal to one night's stay. If you cancel a prepaid stay during a peak period, you could forfeit the entire amount.

Room service

Ten dollars for a croissant is just the start. There might also be a mandatory tip, often 18 percent, and a $2.50 to $5 service, or tray, charge.

Assorted extras

You might pay to use an in-room safe, send a fax, or have a package delivered to your room.

Guide to a great rate

Because approximately 38 percent of hotel rooms are vacant on any given night, bargains remain, whether you're seeking a spa or a no-frills place to crash for the night.

People who plan ahead and don't mind a little uncertainty can take advantage of the cheapest option of all: an opaque site such as Hotwire or Priceline, where you inquire about a type of room in a certain area and either say how much you're willing to pay or are given a price--and don't find out the hotel's name until you've paid.

But opaque sites aren't everyone's cup of tea. People who like more control over where they stay can call the hotel directly, book through the hotel's website, or use a travel website such as Expedia, Orbitz, or Travelocity. Even Priceline and Hotwire also offer convetional booking options, too. Such sites are less likely to undercut hotel prices now that most major hotels guarantee a rock-bottom rate if you book directly. But there might be other reasons to consider a travel site. "Consumers come to us for a quick and easy way to comparison shop within their price range, read reviews across brands, and check out smaller and independent hotels that we give exposure to," said Joel Frey, a spokesman for Travelocity. In addition, travel sites let you book a hotel along with a flight and a rental car, often at substantial savings over the cost of booking separately.

However you make your reservation, you'll get the best deal by being flexible. Hotels set rates based on projected demand, and rates rise or fall based on any number of factors: weather, school holidays, the threat of terrorism, higher gas prices, a canceled convention, and when a major sports team qualifies for the playoffs, sending fans scrambling for rooms. Start looking far ahead and nab a room if the price is right. If possible, avoid high-demand times. Change your stay dates by a day or two, book a few miles out of town, or choose from among several chains instead of one. Other tips:

Haggle

Only 28 percent of survey respondents tried bargaining, yet 78 percent of those who did won an upgrade or a lower rate. (Success rates were higher for people who haggled over the phone than for those who did in person.) When we challenged 16 students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to get hotel rates reduced, all succeeded, scoring discounts of 5 to 32 percent. Ask about nonadvertised specials, and use free parking, a different bed size, or room location (for example, if it's next to the laundry station) as bargaining chips.

Find Internet-only offers

Terms such as "best available" and "corporate" used to indicate an unbeatable rate. Today the cheapest rates tend to be on the Internet. But they come with strings: full payment when booking, no cancellations, and no changes. But they can be lucrative. Wyndham, for example, offers discounts of up to 25 percent off the otherwise best available rate for advance purchases.

Other Internet specials come and go, so check often. Starwood Hotels (Sheraton and Westin) features weekly "Starpicks" destinations, giving at least 20 percent off to guests who stay between Wednesday and Saturday.

Get in touch if you find a better deal

Almost every chain and online travel site makes the same boast: If you've already booked but find a cheaper advertised price on the same date at the same hotel for the same type of room, submit an online claim within 24 hours of booking and you'll get a refund of the difference plus a bonus. Hilton offers a $50 bonus; Best Western, a $100 gift card. But chains won't match prices from opaque sites.

Be loyal

Frequent guests earn free nights, future discounts, room upgrades, airline miles, and rental-car savings. Among other perks: access to hotel club lounges (Hyatt Gold Passport) and weekend discounts, fast check-in, and late checkout (Marriott Rewards). And you generally accrue points at any of a chain's brands. Thus, if you belong to Hilton HHonors, you get points and receive benefits at the flagship Hilton nameplate or at DoubleTree, Embassy Suites, Garden Inn, Hampton Inn, or Homewood Suites.

Show your age or affiliation

A 5- to 10-percent discount is the norm for older guests, particularly at lower-priced hotels. The discount might require an AARP affiliation. At Best Western, you need only prove you're at least 55. Similar discounts often apply to those in the military, government employees, and members of groups such as AAA. Try mentioning other affiliations. At Ramada, for example, members of B.A.S.S., the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, land 20 percent off the best available rate.

Take a gamble

Hoteliers quietly maintain a "fade" rate, the minimum they'll accept per room for walk-in guests. A few years ago, it applied when occupancy was less than 30 percent, but Bjorn Hanson says some hotels may invoke the rate even if at 60 percent. If you're ready to walk after hearing the lowest rate, the clerk may use the fade rate to earn at least some revenue from a vacant room. You could score a great rate, but be prepared for disappointment.

A surefire way to save

Ads for Priceline's Name Your Own Price option*, Hotwire's Hot Rates, and Travelocity's Top Secret Hotels promise discounts of 45 to 60 percent off regular room rates. They're called opaque or blind websites: You don't learn the identity of your hotel until after your bid has been accepted (Priceline) or you've agreed to the site's price (Hotwire and Travelocity). The savings are substantial because hoteliers consider the rooms "distressed," meaning that they'd otherwise go unoccupied that night.

To see how much we could save using one of the services, we requested a room at a high-end hotel near Chicago's Magnificent Mile. One of Hotwire's selections seemed good, based on the description, a rating of four and a half out of five stars, its general location, its standard amenities, user reviews (they don't identify the hotel, though Sherlock Holmes might figure it out), and the price: $133 per night before tax. It turned out to be the boutique James Hotel.

We then backtracked to find a better deal, using every trick in our arsenal. We started by searching BookIt.com, Expedia, and Hotels.com. We also revisited Priceline and Travelocity to see what they charged for rooms at the James on the side of the sites that lets shoppers search for hotels by name. Next, we sniffed out discount and promo codes, contacted AAA, and looked for discounts through other affiliations. Whatever we tried, the price was far higher than Hotwire's--about $230--and didn't budge. We thought we'd hit pay dirt with a rate of $125 through Affinia Hotels, a chain that has a business affiliation with the James. But the rate was a promotion for travel agents.

We called the hotel's corporate toll-free number, and then contacted the hotel itself. The price remained about $230. Might we get free parking (a $52 add-on for valet service), a room upgrade for the same price, or a free breakfast? Nope. And if we wanted a $20 AAA discount, it would be deducted from the standard rate of $259. The clerk said our $234 rate was already a discounted price; that rate required payment up front and was nonrefundable.

Bottom line. If you're not loyal to a particular hotel chain and are willing to choose from among a number of brands at a certain price level, consider an opaque site. We've discovered through years of experimenting that they offer some of the lowest rates around, along with enough information about location, amenities, services, and guest feedback for you to make an informed decision. Remember, though, you can't cancel or change a reservation. Opaque travel-site users share strategies, advice, and experiences on several websites. Consult BetterBidding.com, BiddingForTravel.com, and BidLessTravel.com.

*Priceline is unusual because you set your own price. You bid on a hotel in one or more categories in one or more areas and wait a few seconds to see whether you've won. If you don't, you must wait 24 hours to rebid unless you alter your search to include another area or a different level of hotel.

   

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