When reporter Tod Marks, who writes our Tightwad Tod blog, tried different tactics to book a room in Philadelphia for a recent Saturday night, the quotes he received varied widely.
Marks started at Hotwire, a site selling deeply discounted rates on rooms that would otherwise go unoccupied. You enter your travel date and destination, and the site lists unnamed hotels at various luxury levels, a general location, the daily rate, and a rating based on customer reviews. Hotwire is similar to Priceline's Name Your Own Price option and Travelocity's Top Secret Hotels in that the hotel's identity isn't revealed until you complete the nonrefundable transaction.
On Hotwire, Marks found a room in a hotel whose description he liked for $109 per night. It turned out to be the Sheraton Society Hill. From there, he backtracked and sought the best possible rate for the same accommodations by calling the hotel and speaking with a clerk, trying the chain's Web site, and using independent travel sites including Travelocity and Expedia.
Do your homework. When you call the hotel, don't just ask for the "best available rate." Had Marks stopped there, he would have received a ridiculously high rate of $209 per night. Instead, he asked about an AAA discount, and the rate dropped to $177, refundable. When he asked for the cheapest nonrefundable rate, the price fell to $159.
But Marks did even better by asking if there were any limited-time specials or package deals. After putting him on hold for a few moments, the clerk came back with a "Philadelphia Overnight" promotion rate of $134, including parking, otherwise an extra $35. If Marks had been traveling by car, that deal would have come out cheaper than even the Hotwire rate. And the Philadelphia Overnight rate was refundable, too.
Be aware also that rates on travel sites are sometimes outdated by the time you're ready to book. When Marks tried to lock in a $109 offer on Travelocity, it was gone. Then he called a customer-service agent, but the price had jumped to $159.