Whether you’re booking a flight or a hotel room, there’s always a sneaking suspicion that the person in the next seat or the next suite paid less than you did. Like airlines, hotels use complex formulas to set rates based on projected demand, and they rise or fall based on various factors: weather, school holidays, the threat of terrorism, high gas prices, a canceled convention, or when a major sports team suddenly qualifies for the playoffs, sending fans scrambling for rooms.
The key to getting the best possible deal is flexibility: changing your arrival and departure dates by a day or two; a willingness to stay a few miles out of town; or choosing from among several brands instead of one. And don’t forget to haggle and ask about non-advertised special offers or discounts such as free parking. Here’s how to tip the balance of power in your favor.
Know where to find the lowest advertised rates. Terms such as “best available” or “corporate” rate used to be synonymous with an unbeatable price. You’d call the chain’s corporate headquarters or the individual property and lock it in. Today, the cheapest rates tend to be advertised online as Internet specials. Like supersaver airfares, the rates come with strings: full payment when booking, no cancellations, no modifications. But the rewards for advance bookings can be handsome, for instance, discounts of up to 30 percent at Holiday Inn hotels and 20 percent off the best available rate at Comfort Inn properties.
Take the 'best-rate-guaranteed' challenge. Almost every chain—and even the online travel sites—make the same boast: If you can find and document 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, for instance, offers a $50 bounty, and Starwood (parent of Sheraton and Westin) will knock 10 percent off the rate or credit 2,000 “Starpoints” to members of its loyalty program. The guarantees exclude a price match for purchases through Priceline or Hotwire, in which you don’t learn the identity of the hotel until after you make the purchase. As always, read the fine print.
Be loyal. Frequent guests can earn free nights without blackout dates, future discounts, room upgrades, airline miles, and save on rental cars. If you’re loyal to a particular brand, you can generally accrue points by staying at any of the chain’s brands. Thus, if you belong to Hilton Honors, for example, you benefit whether you book at the chain’s flagship Hilton nameplate or at DoubleTree, Embassy Suites, Garden Inn, Hampton Inn, or Homewood Suites. Other perks of loyalty programs: expedited check in and check out, exclusive access to club lounges featuring a full or continental breakfast and evening hors d’oeuvres, early check in or late checkout, weekend discounts, and free Internet access.