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Beating the Rising Cost of Hotels and Resorts
November 15, 1995 -- Feeling a little light in the wallet lately? Maybe it's the rapidly rising cost of hotel accommodations.

For eight years, deep discounts at elegant hotels were available just for the asking. "There was an oversupply of hotels in the United States and real room rates were declining, not keeping up with inflation," says Randy Smith, the nation's leading lodging analyst. "Hotels were subsidizing a guest's stay."

Now the tables have turned. Few new hotels are being built and existing rooms are filling up fast. As a result, hoteliers have been able to impose price increases that far outstrip the national inflation rate. Smith says that travelers paid an average nightly rate of $65.79 this June--12.6 percent more than they paid in June 1991.

But take heart: Good hotel and resort deals are still available. Just use the following 10-step guide.

1. CONTACT A CONSOLIDATOR
Hotel consolidators are the lodging-industry equivalent of the outlet store: They buy up excess rooms and sell them to travelers at deep discounts. Most consolidators restrict their offerings to only one or two cities, but three firms--Quikbook (800-789—9887), Hotel Reservations Network (800-964-6835) and RMC Travel (800-782-2674--offer hotel rooms in many major destinations.

2. CALL THE HOTEL DIRECT
Those toll-free reservations numbers advertised by the nation's leading hotel chains are convenient, but they are not a good source of discounts. To get the lowest price for a room, call the property's own reservations desk.

3. INSIST ON THE LOWEST RATE
"Reservations agents are trained to quote the highest rates for the most luxurious rooms first," says Bob Gilbert, vice president of Richfield Hospitality Services. Then they offer a panoply of special rates--weekend deals, corporate rates, seasonal promotions, honeymoon discounts, and more. If you are 50 or older, be sure to ask about a seniors discount. (The seniors rate at the Peabody Orlando, for example, is $89 a night, a 58 percent discount on the $210 published rate.) But remember that none of these may be the best deal available. The only way to get the lowest price is to keep asking, "Is that the lowest rate you have?" until the reservations agent says that nothing cheaper is available.

4. CONSIDER A PACKAGE
Keep in mind that the lowest price doesn't always make for the best lodging value. Some package rates--theater deals, bed-and-breakfast offers, museum promotions or all-inclusive prices--may cost a few dollars more but be bundled with valuable amenities. One example: The $145 nightly package at the Franklin in New York City includes free parking ($22 if purchased separately), free video rentals (in-room movies usually cost about $7 each) and a continental breakfast.

5. TRY A HALF-PRICE PROGRAM
Companies like Entertainment Publications (800-445-4137), Quest International (800-742-3543)and ITC (312-465-8891) promote programs that promise 50 percent off hotel room rates. That's slightly misleading, however. The discount is usually deducted from the hotel's published, or "rack," rate, which few travelers ever pay. Still, half—price programs may be good deals if you shop carefully. One example: Quest charges $99 annually if you order direct, but you can get its discount program free as one of the benefits of joining the National Travel Club for $21.97 a year (800-564-6682).

6. DON'T FOLLOW THE CROWD
Hotels and resorts offer their best discounts when they are the least crowded. Big-city hotels cater primarily to business travelers and are busiest during the week. They are often empty--and available at deep discounts--on weekends. Resorts, especially those within easy reach of major population centers, are busiest on weekends. They are substantially less crowded and less expensive during the week--and even better bargains in the off-season.

7. HEAD FOR THE SUBURBS
If your destination is a major American city, slash your travel costs by staying in a nearby suburb rather than the city center. In San Francisco, for example, the Runzheimer International research firm estimates per diem costs at $208 downtown but only $129 in the suburbs. A similar strategy applies to resort destinations like Orlando. The farther from the major attraction, the lower the cost.

8. REASSESS YOUR NEEDS
First-class and luxury hotels offer a full spread of amenities: fancy lobbies, expensive furnishings, concierges, elegant restaurants, and round—the-clock room service. But how often do you need those pricey perks? You can save substantial sums--up to 67 percent, says Runzheimer--if you adjust your lodging requirements. Economy chains such as Super 8 and Hampton Inn eliminate the perks but offer clean, comfortable rooms at a fraction of the price the upscale properties charge. And all-suite hotels like Embassy Suites and "extended-stay" properties such as Residence Inn offer suites or apartments for less than what full-service hotels charge for a traditional guest room.

Hotel companies are moving to match their rooms inventory with travelers' real needs. In Miami, for example, Marriott International has reconfigured its 782-room, full-service hotel into three distinct properties: a 125—room Courtyard by Marriott, a midpriced hotel; a 285-room budget property called Fairfield Inn; and a 365-room, full-service Marriott.

9. FIND AN ALTERNATIVE
If your budget is exceptionally tight, consider college dormitories and student residences or religious-retreat houses. For information on staying in college housing, most often available during the late spring and summer, contact the institution's housing office or send for On Campus USA and Canada (Key Guides, Box 130, Grafton, Ontario Canada KOK 2G0; $5.95 plus $1.30 shipping). A new book, U.S. and Worldwide Guide to Retreat Center Guest Houses (CTS Publications; 714-720-3729; $15.95), lists more than 740 retreat houses that accept travelers. Prices average $30 to $40 a night, including three meals daily. You might also consider a B&B. Consult Pamela Lanier's Bed & Breakfasts, Inns & Guesthouses (Ten Speed Press, 12th ed.; $16.95).

10. BE CAUTIOUS
No one type of hotel or pricing service always offers the lowest price or the best value. Before booking any room, be sure to call several sources and compare their offerings and price quotes.

This column originally appeared in Travel Holiday magazine.

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