The Brancatelli File



August 2, 1993 -- On an average weekday night, every other hotel room in America is empty. Thatís great news for business travelers looking to cut a bargain on a hotel room because low occupancy makes the nationís innkeepers amenable to making a deal. After all, getting you to book their room at 30, 40 or even 50 percent off the tariff printed on their rate card is better than leaving the room empty.

But donít expect to hear this kind of information from the reservation clerks manning the phones of the 800 numbers of the nationís largest hotel chains. They are trained to try to sell you rooms at the highest possible price. The best and most reliable way to cut a deal is bypassing the chainsí central reservation services and calling the hotel you wish to book directly. Clerks working the reservation desk at the hotel have more power to offer a discount and they are almost always willing to make deals.

The basic rule when negotiating a room rate is never pay the published rate. Virtually no one else is paying the ďrack rateĒ--so named because it is the published price listed on the rate cards placed in the literature racks at travel agencies and in hotel lobbies--so why should you? At a minimum, you can ask for the standard corporate discount (about 10 percent) even if your firm doesnít have a deal with the hotel. At a maximum, you can slash about 30 percent off the nightly rate by asking the clerk whether there are any special packages available. Hotels offer everything from honeymoon deals to multiple-night discounts and will usually allow you to book at those prices rather than lose your business.

On the rare occasion when a hotel isnít willing to discount, ask what amenities you can expect if you book at the published rate. An upgrade to a suite or the best available room is often available for no extra charge; many hotels will throw in a chit for a free breakfast, complimentary use of an on-site or nearby health club, free parking, or even the free use of a hotel limousine.

Some hotel chains publicly offer notable deals without the private haggling. For example, a free continental breakfast is part of the room rate at the low-priced Hampton Inn chain. All-suite hotel chains like Embassy Suites also throw in free breakfasts and evening cocktails. And Stouffer Hotels offers a slew a extra bonuses, including U.S. Savings Bonds for frequent guests.

One last bit of advice: Always ask if youíre getting the lowest price available or the best package being offered.

Trite and obvious as it might sound, the reservation agents on the other end of the phone donít have your best interest at heart. Their job is to sell you something at the highest price you are willing to pay. itís not their job to volunteer that there are lower prices or better deals available.

So do what your clients always do to you: Ask for a better price. Never close a deal for an airline ticket, a hotel room or a rental car until youíve specifically asked if you are receiving the lowest price available. Youíd be surprised what kind of deals are found after youíve convinced the reservation clerk to check the computer just one more time.

Q:I recently booked what I thought was a British Airways flight to London. But when I arrived at the airport, I was directed to a USAir jet. What happened?
A: The USAir-British Airways shuffle is one of dozens of so-called "code-sharing" arrangements in effect around the world. Although critics find them just this side of bait-and-switch, code-share deals allow airlines to put their two-letter computer identifier code on flights operated by other carriers. The tactic is most commonly used when major jet airlines put their codes on flights operated by independent commuter carriers with small, prop-driven aircraft. But code-sharing is increasingly being used on international flights. Besides British Airways, USAir operates some flights under the code of All Nippon Airways. Continental has a similar deal with SAS Scandinavian. Northwest and KLM Royal Dutch operate flights for each other. And American Airlines puts its code on flights operated by Malev Hungarian Airlines and South African Airways. From the airlines' point of view, code-sharing deals allow them to claim they have flights to destinations they do not actually serve. Government regulations, such as they are, do require that code-sharing flights be disclosed on the computer systems your travel agent uses. So be sure to ask before you book.

Q: After a day of wall-to-wall calls with no time for breakfast or lunch, I boarded a 6:45 P.M. flight expecting to be served dinner. But all I received were those ubiquitous bags of peanuts. Don't airlines serve real food anymore?
A: It could be argued that the airlines never served "real food," but, gastronomic sensibilities aside, traditional meal service is a fast-disappearing perk on domestic flights. After years of record losses, airlines are pinching pennies everywhere, and food service is an easy target. Meals and snacks have disappeared on most flights of less than two hours duration. And the "window" when airlines offer a full meal during traditional dining hours has been drastically reduced. One example: United Airlines once served dinner on all five of its evening flights between Chicago and Washington. Now, however, only passengers on United's 5 P.M. departure receive a meal.

Q: How come flight attendants are suddenly hassling me when I try to use my laptop computer?
A: Although the evidence is strictly circumstantial, airlines have become concerned that electronic emissions from laptop computers, CD players and even dictating equipment interfere with sensitive aircraft instruments. So most carriers have recently imposed restrictions on the uses of electronic devices during takeoffs, landings, and/or at altitudes below 10,000 feet. Check with your airline before departure about its current policy.

This column originally appeared in Selling magazine.

Copyright © 1993-2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.