Changing supply and demand makes prices a moving target, so it still takes a savvy shopper to unearth the best bargains.
"I'm sure that some hoteliers have run for the exits and slashed their prices as a consequence of the Great Recession, but others are being more strategic," said Glenn Withiam, executive editor of Cornell Hospitality Quarterly, a publication of that university's School of Hotel Administration. "Many factors contribute to each hotel's rate-setting decision, including the supply of rooms in a particular market, competitors' activities, brand identity, seasonality, and the financial realities of each particular hotel's situation."
Like airlines, hotels use intricate formulas to set prices based on projected demand. If you want to stay at Walt Disney World Resorts in Florida over a winter holiday or spring break, expect to pay more than you would in October. Similarly, if there's a forecast of bad weather, an elevated terror alert, or a last-minute conference cancellation, rates might drop. It's all about timing.
Although you can't control the weather or other external forces, you can take steps to keep more of your cash:
Adjust your arrival date, search for lodging in several adjacent areas, or choose from among several hotel chains instead of one.
If you're willing to roll the dice and show up late in the day without a reservation, you could hit the jackpot—or end up sleeping in your car. Respondents who appeared unannounced paid about $20 less per night for comparable accommodations, on average, than those who made a reservation ahead of time.
If you really want to play "chicken," ask the desk clerk for the lowest possible rate, then say you're taking your business elsewhere. If occupancy is exceptionally low, the clerk might invoke the "fade" rate, an option coming into play more often. It's the bare minimum the chain will accept for a room, as an alternative to leaving it unoccupied. Whatever rate you're quoted, it never hurts to ask the clerk if he or she can lower the price a bit.
Our survey showed that discount sites such as Priceline and Hotwire were the only surefire way to reap substantially lower room rates. Respondents who reserved a room at an upscale hotel through a discounter paid an average daily rate of $80. Those who phoned the hotel or booked online by other means paid about $120 for a comparable room. But discount Web sites aren't ideal for everyone because the identity of your hotel doesn't become known until after you complete a nonrefundable transaction.
In recent years, we've seen a smaller range in rates for the same room. That parity began when hotels started offering a "best-rate guarantee" for any room booked directly with the chain. (If you can document a lower price for the same date for a room you've already booked, you'll get a refund of the difference and possibly a bonus. But there are caveats: You must fill out a claim form within 24 hours of the original booking, and the guarantees don't cover rooms purchased through sites such as Priceline, rooms that are part of package deals, or those already reduced in price through AAA and other discounts.)
Still, it's worth checking sites such as Travelocity, Expedia, Hotels.com, and Orbitz, which offer promotions and their own low-price guarantees and rewards programs. Those sites let you compare rooms and rates across a variety of chains. You can also read user reviews, see photos of the properties, and build trip packages that include air travel and car rentals, at claimed discounts over the à la carte rate. TripAdvisor and Kayak will search all the sites at once, looking for the best deals.
Is the reservation refundable? The cheapest rates often aren't, so be sure before you book. Don't assume that the corporate rate, which is open to anyone, not just business travelers, is the best deal. And always inquire about special Web bookings or other promotions.
If you're traveling to a popular destination at a peak time, call around and surf the Internet for price quotes from three to five hotels long before your trip. Then lock in the lowest refundable rate. As your departure date nears, try another sweep. If you find something better, cancel your original reservation in time to avoid a penalty.
Given the poor economy, hotel Web sites are loaded with limited-time offers. Among those that caught our eye: a $100 Amazon.com gift card for every two nights' stay at a Westin; an additional night at half-price for every night you stay at a Sheraton Four Points; and a 15 percent discount when you book at least eight days in advance at Super 8.
A 10 percent price break is the norm for guests 50 and older, members of the military, government employees, and those who belong to groups such as AARP or AAA.
Free brochures such as the Traveler Discount Guide are at visitor centers and gas stations along highways. They have coupons for hotels in most price ranges. You can also download coupons from sites including RoomSaver.com, EHotelCoupons.com, and Stingier.com.
Frequent travelers who join a loyalty program (at no charge) are entitled to perks such as free nights without blackout dates, future discounts, room upgrades, and airline miles. Depending on the membership level, Hyatt's Gold Passport program, for instance, offers members late checkout, complimentary Internet access, special bed requests, expedited check-in, and a full hot breakfast. Marriott Rewards gives members a 10 percent discount on weekends, free fax transmissions, and access to a lounge with drinks and snacks.
More chains are becoming involved in social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. If you become a fan or follow a chain, you'll be notified of upcoming promotions and specials as soon as they're available.