Noisy nosedives by financial institutions and markets seemed to mark almost every day of September 2008, so it’s no surprise if you missed news of a quieter decline taking place in August: hotel occupancy had fallen, during a month that’s traditionally very busy for U.S. leisure travel.
Fast forward to 2009 and we’re still not checking in as much as we used to. According to Smith Travel Research U.S. hotel occupancy was 45.9 percent in January 2009, a 5.6 percent drop from last January, and bookings fell noticeably in vacation hotspots like Florida and Hawaii in February.
If there’s not a silver lining in this news for the travel industry, there might be one for you. With the supply of rooms outweighing the demand, room rates in most cases are dropping, too. And whether you’re trying to find a sweet hotel deal in this economy or a better one, there’s probably more you could be doing to keep money in your pocket when you’re booking your room.
Know when to go. If you’re traveling for pleasure you’ll save money by booking at off-peak times in popular business travel destinations, according to frequent traveler Jonathan Spitz, vice president of business development at Travelscream. A getaway over a two-day weekend, or even the entire Friday to Monday span in some cases, can be less expensive in such cities as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, Paris, and London, because most of the suits have cleared out. The reverse is true in leisure destinations like the Caribbean and Hawaii, Spitz says, when traveling mid-week, after many pleasure-seekers have gone home, can yield a better deal.
Just be sure to avoid your destination’s crazy time, cautions frequent business traveler Ken Walker, a blogger at AllBusiness.com. Unless you’re heading to Boston for the marathon or New Orleans for Mardi Gras or are otherwise inflexible with your dates, investigate what’s happening in your destination: a little-known local festival, convention, or seasonal event might be driving room availability down and prices up at the precise time you’re hoping to travel.
Explore all options before pulling the trigger. Will you find a better deal at an online travel agency like Expedia, Priceline, or Orbitz, or directly through the hotel? It just depends. There’s not a “golden nugget that works every time at every hotel,” says Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, co-founder and editor-in-chief of WeJustGotBack.com. “But it only takes a few minutes to scan a few major booking sites to see what the going rates are and then compare them to the published rate on the hotel's own Web site,” she offers.
While doing your homework, Spitz advises to think local. “Look at destination guides on Web sites you trust,” he says, adding that if you scan Web sites for local magazines, newspapers, and other media outlets in your destination, you’ll discover more than on-the-ground sightseeing and dining information: “Special deals being offered by hotels in those destinations,” he says.
Hardcore travel planners are often “trying to game summer pricing, booking early in order to try to secure the best rate,” notes veteran travel journalist Laura Powell, a blogger for The Daily Suitcase. And while booking early can often pay off no matter where you find the deal, Powell notes that one advantage of making a reservation directly through a hotel is that in most cases “it can be cancelled 24 hours in advance. So, if you see a great rate today and want to secure it, and then see that three months from now that the rate has dropped, you can cancel and re-book at the lower rate with no penalty.”
If you book directly, ask for a better rate. Walker always calls his hotel and asks to hear all possible available rates. “I routinely find some hotels that offer corporate business rates that are better than my company's negotiated rate. AAA and other organizations often have good rates as well.” Once you find a rate that you like, Kelleher says to take the additional step of negotiating directly with your hotel. Remind yourself that weak hotel occupancy gives you leverage, she says. “When a hotel isn't fully booked, reservationists are often empowered to beat any other rate — even its own online rate.”
Have your research at your fingertips as you prepare to bargain, Kelleher says, and remember that “the conversation is a bit like a dance. You ask how much, and the reservationist gives you the rack rate. I always ask ‘Is that the very best price you can offer?’ One of two things is going to happen. The reservationist might hold firm and tell me it's the best she can do. If I've seen a better offer on the Web, I say so. Very often, this works like a magic password. I've had reservationists at major chain hotels shave as much as $40 off their initial quote, simply because I'd done my homework.”
Derek Gale, senior editor at Hotels magazine, notes that you don’t have to limit your research to your own hotel. “Personally, I’ve had luck with calling a property and explaining what another similar property is offering to see if the hotel can match that offer or come up with a better one.”
Nibble at other fees while booking. Once you’ve locked in a nightly rate you can live with, take time to explore while booking whether any other charges — such as “mandatory” resort fees — can be eliminated from your bill ahead of time. “Getting rid of these charges can easily save hundreds of dollars on a multi-night stay at a high-end resort,” Kelleher says. Resorts often tack on fees for such services as gym access, Internet usage and, perhaps most insidiously, parking. Kelleher notes that she has seen resorts “set on enormous grounds charge $27 a day for valet parking and not offer self-parking as an option. You can understand high parking fees in a city, but for a resort to charge you for parking when there’s a mammoth parking lot outside the entrance is just plain nasty.”
Spitz adds that if you’re at a resort on business and know you’ll seldom see the outside of the conference center, challenge a resort fee by simply saying to the reservation agent, “I’m not here as a leisure traveler and I’d like to have that fee waived.”
Don’t wait until checkout to negotiate. Unfortunately, the first time many of us wrap our minds around our expenses is when we glance at that receipt that quietly crept under our door in the night. If you do wait until checkout to challenge charges on your bill, “ask for the manager on duty,” Spitz says. “If you have a real dispute, you don’t want to have that conversation with the first person you see behind the desk.”