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Interactive Traveler: Low Rates at the Last Minute

Aesop has led us to believe that those who plan (the ants) fare better than those who don't (the grasshoppers). But the Web has changed everything; and when it comes to travel, those who wait often get the better fares. Last year, in an effort to fill seats that would otherwise go empty, airlines started offering bargain airfares on the Web to anyone willing to travel that very weekend. Hotel companies, which know better than anyone else that vacant rooms make no money, are following suit. So get going, grasshoppers: this is your moment.

Hilton (www.hilton.com) has a Value Rates area on its Web site, updated weekly, with low prices at specified properties for the coming weekend -- and sometimes farther in advance. When we checked, the site listed reduced nightly rates at 34 properties around the country, among them $70 at the Embassy Row Hilton in Washington, D.C. (almost half off), $69 at the Los Angeles Airport Hilton, and $59 at the Dallas Parkway Hilton. Hilton also has special rates posted with American Airlines' NetSAAver Fares, which are E-mailed weekly to those who sign up (www.americanair.com).

On TravelWeb, a site created by 14 hotel chains, Hyatt and Sheraton post Click-It Weekend prices every Monday (www. travelweb.com), available for stays during the upcoming weekend. Sample rates when we looked in: $95 at the Sheraton Boston (the rack rate is $245) and $69 at the Hyatt Regency Suites Perimeter Northwest in Atlanta.

In its Hot Deals area, Radisson (www. radisson.com) has lowered rates for as far as two weeks ahead. Some are tied in with Northwest's on-line airfare discounts. Typical offers: the Radisson Hotel South in Minneapolis for $72 a night (regularly $139); the Radisson SAS Hotel in Amsterdam, $124; the Radisson SAS Hotel in Hamburg, $184.

On-line room brokers are your best bet for good rates when you're planning farther ahead (though the deals aren't usually quite as attractive). Hotel Reservations Network (www.180096hotel.com) has special rates in more than a dozen major U.S. cities, as well as London and Paris, for weeks or months in advance. We found doubles at the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan for $213 to $238, when rack rates started at $304. Quikbook (www.quikbook.com) has negotiated discounts at hotels in Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. At the Mark Hopkins Inter-Continental in San Francisco, for instance, Quikbook was citing a price of $100 to $149 for a double room, versus normal rates of $250.

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