The Brancatelli File



November 1, 1996 -- If your travel budget is feeling the pinch, it's probably the rapidly rising cost of hotel accommodations. After years of living the lodging lush life--when deep discounts on extravagant rooms at elegant hotels were available just for the asking--Americans are now scrambling to find an affordable place to lay their heads.

"The party is over," says Randy Smith, the nation's best-known hotel analyst. "For about eight years, there was an oversupply of hotels in the United States and real room rates were declining, not keeping up with inflation. Hotels were subsidizing a guest's stay."

Not anymore. Few new hotels are being built and travelers are quickly filling up the existing rooms. Hoteliers have responded by raising prices at a rate that far outstrips the national inflation rate. Last year, for example, the average hotel room in America cost 10 percent more than it did in 1994. Worse, the price increases are escalating: Average hotel rates this past summer were another 8 percent higher than they were last year.

But take heart: Lodging deals are still available. Try following this seven-step, cost-cutting guide:

1. CONTACT A CONSOLIDATOR Hotel consolidators are the lodging-industry equivalent of the outlet store: They buy up excess rooms, then resell them to travelers at 40, 50 or even 60 percent below the published retail price. Most consolidators, like Meegan (800-332-3026) in Boston or San Francisco Reservations (800-677-1550), restrict their deals to one or two cities. However, companies like Quikbook (800-789-9887) and the Hotel Reservations Network (800-964-6835) offer a selection of hotels in many major destinations.

2. CALL HOTELS DIRECT The toll-free central reservation numbers and Internet booking systems advertised by the nation's big hotel chains may be convenient, but they are not reliable sources for discounts. As the chart reveals, you may pay less if you call hotels directly and book through their reservations desks.

3. LEARN TO NEGOTIATE It's sad, but true: Hotel reservation agents never offer their lowest price immediately. "Agents are trained to quote the highest prices for the most luxurious rooms first," explains Bob Gilbert, a long-time hotel executive. "You've got to keep probing and negotiating to get the lowest rate."

I learned that lesson when I compiled the chart. Even though I began every conversation with the same blunt phrase--"I want the least-expensive room available"--agents always quoted prices for a deluxe or upgraded room. One example: The reservation agent at the Pan Pacific chain's toll-free number initially quoted a daily rate of $230 and claimed it was the lowest price available. But when we asked, "Don't you have anything cheaper?", he promptly found a room for $169 a night.

4. ASK ABOUT SPECIAL RATES Never book a room before asking about special packages and short-term promotions. One example: The clerk at the reservations desk of the Hyatt at Fisherman's Wharf repeatedly insisted the cheapest room available cost $199 a night. Yet when I inquired about promotional rates, she found a "romance package" that cost $20 a night less and included a bottle of champagne and a basket of strawberries!

5. DON'T FOLLOW THE CROWD Hotels and resorts offer the best discounts when they are the least crowded. Big-city hotels are busy during the week, but empty, and willing to discount, on weekends. Resorts are usually busiest on the weekend, but offer great bargains to travelers willing to book mid-week stays.

6. REASSESS YOUR NEEDS Full-service hotels offer a spread of lavish amenities: grandiose lobbies, concierges, elegant restaurants and 24-hour room service. But do you really need those pricey perks? If you don't, you'll save a bundle when you adjust your lodging requirements. Limited-service chains such as Courtyard by Marriott (800-321-2211) and Hampton Inn (800-426-7866) eliminate many of the perks, but offer consistently clean, comfortable and spacious rooms at a fraction of the prices charged by upscale hotels.

7. ASSUME NOTHING As the San Francisco chart clearly indicates, no single booking method always yields the lowest price or the best value. Before reserving any room, be sure to call several sources and compare their offers.

BAY AREA BAZAAR: Pricing Five San Francisco Hotels

Booking Source

Mark Hopkins Inter-Continental

San Francisco Hilton & Towers

Fisherman's Wharf Hyatt

Holiday Inn
Union Square

Pan Pacific San Francisco

Published Rate






Via the Internet






800 Number






Hotel Direct












Chart reflects daily room rate for two people on November 11. (a) includes continental breakfast for two; (b) includes $25 food and beverage credit; (c) includes champagne and strawberries; (d) includes $12 breakfast credit, champagne, strawberries and chocolates.

This column originally appeared in Frommer's Travel Update.

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.