Whether you plan to stop along an interstate or jet to a fancy resort, now's a terrific time to book a hotel room. In 2009, almost half of the rooms in the U.S. were empty on any given night: The occupancy rate averaged just 55 percent (the lowest in 38 years), according to Scott Berman, leader of the U.S. hospitality and leisure group at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Overall, guests who did check in paid 9 percent less than they had in 2008.
At top-tier chains, nightly rates plummeted by as much as 35 percent. When we checked recent promotions, we encountered bigger bargains than we've ever found: a flat discount of 25 percent (Fairmont), a $25-per-night credit toward activities and amenities (Grand Hyatt), a free third night (Four Seasons), and a $400 credit if you extend your stay to three nights in a suite (Ritz-Carlton).
"If you were asleep for two years you wouldn't believe what has happened to the lodging sector," Berman said. "All channels from luxury to economy have taken a hit."
One result of that hit is that many chains have postponed improvements. You're more likely to notice worn carpeting, tattered wallpaper, or mattresses in need of replacement, says Bjorn Hanson, professor of hospitality and lodging at New York University's Tisch Center. Some hotels are even cutting back on basics such as soap and shampoo.
As a result, where you stay might be as important as what you pay. That's where our latest hotel study comes in. Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed 27,506 subscribers who spent a collective 124,000 nights at 48 chains, from the Ritz to the economical Econo Lodge. Here's what we found:
Expectations differ, of course, but some moderate hotels pleased readers almost as much as the epitome of ritz, the Ritz-Carlton. Even the budget category had one winner: Microtel Inn & Suites, which topped its class as in our last survey.
Only 35 percent of respondents tried to negotiate for a better deal, but those who did were rewarded with a lower rate or room upgrade 80 percent of the time. That's a slightly higher success rate than readers experienced in our 2006 survey. Those who called ahead to do their haggling were even more successful than those who tried to negotiate in person.
There was no correlation between respondents' happiness with their hotel stay and how they booked it. Satisfaction was similar whether they called the hotel directly, used the hotel's Web site, phoned the chain's toll-free number, used an independent travel site, or walked in off the street without a reservation.
For approximately the same price as a regular room, the lodgings in an all-suite hotel give a more spacious, homey feeling. A suite usually has separate living and sleeping quarters, plus a kitchenette, sleeper sofa, and work area. Most provide high-speed Internet and a hot breakfast at no extra charge. Respondents singled out Homewood Suites and Drury Inn & Suites as well-maintained and exceptional values. Suite hotels come in different price levels, and suites are sometimes an option at standard chains.
Many high-end chains boast about their plush mattresses and lush linens. Survey respondents cited the Ritz-Carlton, Renaissance, and Westin as having the best beds and bedding. Conversely, at least 11 percent of guests (three times the average) at Howard Johnson, Travelodge, and Americas Best Value Inn complained that their beds were so uncomfortable that they couldn't get a good night's sleep.
Respondents who stayed at a budget hotel said they were drawn by cheap rates. But except for Microtel, budget hotels continue to earn the lowest scores for value, upkeep, and checking in and out. They also generate a disproportionate percentage of complaints about bedding, lighting, décor, and heating and air conditioning. Travelodge, Econo Lodge, and the misnamed Americas Best Value Inn, a newcomer to our Ratings (available to subscribers), were consistently among the most trouble-prone.