The Brancatelli File



November 1, 1994 -- The question is simple and direct: how do you get the best deal on an airline ticket, a hotel room, or a car rental? Unfortunately, the answer is neither simple nor direct. Finding the best bargain is more art than science, more persistence than technique. But here are some tips to help you find the best business-travel values.

Airlines As a general rule, airline fares are lower on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Moreover, the airlines offer their lowest fares for roundtrips that includes a Saturday-night stay at your destination. And greater discounts are usually available the farther ahead you plan your travel.

Armed with that knowledge, prepare to be flexible. Ask the airline or your travel agent if there is a lower fare available if you fly several hours--or perhaps several days--earlier or later. For example, consider a nonstop Delta Air Lines flight between Atlanta and San Francisco. If you purchase a ticket just before a departure scheduled for Friday, October 7, the one-way fare is $389. Buy your ticket just three days in advance, however, and the fare drops to $329. Buy a roundtrip ticket 14 days in advance and stay over on a Saturday, and you'll pay only $249 one way. And if you can depart on Tuesday, October 4, instead of Friday, the one-way fare is just $229.

Also be prepared to switch airlines. Consider a flight between San Francisco and New York, for example. United Airlines' unrestricted, one-way coach fare on the route is $724. By contrast, Tower Air's unrestricted fare is just $149, a savings of 79 percent!

Hotels Airlines post virtually all their fares on computerized reservations systems, but hotels have no such central marketplace. For your own protection, always know the hotel's published or "rack" rate for a standard guest room. That's where the negotiating begins; depending on your skills and how many empty rooms the hotel has on a given night, your nightly room rate can drop 50 or 60 percent below the rack rate.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a hotel chain's toll-free 800 reservations number usually quotes the highest prices. Worse, the clerks at these numbers are rarely empowered to negotiate rates. To get the best deal, call directly to the hotel you wish to book.

When you reach the reservations desk at the hotel, let them know you'll book a room only if you are offered a special deal. Once the hotel makes its best offer, keep negotiating: ask for a free upgrade to a higher floor, a room with a better view, or a suite. How do you know when you've gotten the best rate? When the reservations clerk is prepared to let you hang up rather than take your reservation. As long as the clerk is still talking, there's still room to negotiate.

Car rentals By the standards of airlines and hotels, car rentals are already a bargain. In fact, the advertised rates are usually the rental firm's "loss leader" specials. The trick is not so much to find a lower price, but to avoid being socked with ups and extras. So when you consider an advertised price, make sure it includes unlimited free mileage and is not subject to any surcharges.

Two last tips Never end a negotiating session without bluntly asking, "Are you sure this is the best price available?" You'd be surprised the extra savings that simple question yields. And never negotiate endlessly; consider the value of your time. Bargaining an extra hour for a $10 reduction might yield the lowest price, but not the best deal when you factor in the cost of your time.

The Millenium Hilton (212-693-2001) across from the World Trade Center in New York offers business travelers a unique amenity: room service delivery from Brooks Brothers. The hotel offers around-the-clock delivery of shirts, ties, underwear, and socks for men; and blouses, scarves, panty hose, and faux pearl necklaces for women....The Condado Plaza Hotel & Casino (800-468-8588) in San Juan, Puerto Rico, doesn't think its laundry and valet service is enough for business travelers. The hotel has also installed coin-operated washers and dryers for the use of guests....The swanky Ritz-Carlton in Aspen has lowered rates to $149 per night through November 23.

This column originally appeared in San Francisco Focus magazine.

Copyright 1993-2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.