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The Hotel Rate Game

Searching for the lowest rate at a hotel can sometimes be a test of patience, not to mention a little embarrassing. When we recently called the Four Seasons Hotel in Milan and asked for the "cheapest rate," the reservationist burst out laughing.

Fortunately, you can avoid such trials—and the expensive international calls. To find the most effective booking strategies now, we chose 10 hotels around the world and tested more than a dozen options for three types of stay (a Tuesday night, a Saturday night, and a Thursday-through-Sunday weekend). We called the hotels' toll-free reservation numbers and the properties themselves. On-line, we checked the hotels' official Web sites as well as 11 other consolidator, discount, and general booking sites.

The good news is, prices have become much more consistent than they used to be. When we last tested hotel-booking methods in 1999, we often found differences of more than $100, but this time around that rarely happened. In two of our tests—at the Grand Hyatt Bali and the Ritz-Carlton, Battery Park—we were quoted the same nightly rate at every Web site and phone number we tried.

Overall, we found the best prices on the Internet. But it's not quite so simple. To get the best price every time, follow these three easy steps.

FIRST STOP: THE HOTEL'S OWN WEB SITE If you're doing one-stop shopping, this is the place to go. More often than not, the official site found us the lowest available rate.

What's more, many companies have introduced rate guarantees—find a better price elsewhere on-line within 24 hours and they'll meet or beat it. Starwood and InterContinental Hotels Group, for instance, will offer you a rate 10 percent lower than the one you were quoted at another site. They didn't have to in our tests. InterContinental's site offered us $132 a night for one of our dates at the InterContinental Sydney, whereas every other site came up with $142. Starwood's rate for the St. Regis Aspen, $215, beat everyone else's by as much as $80.

Of course, there is a catch. To get those deals you often must pay in advance and sometimes agree to more restrictive cancellation policies. St. Regis required us to cancel 14 days in advance; InterContinental wouldn't allow us to cancel without penalty. And keep in mind that with pre-payment, if you arrive at the property and realize you don't like it, you're out of luck.

CHECK THIRD-PARTY WEB SITES Other sites also consistently found low prices for us. Of these, two of the biggest names on the Internet were the most useful: Travelocity and Expedia tied for finding the best prices most often. But generally, if one site had good rates, so did several others. And many offered the same kinds of rate guarantees as the official hotel sites. In terms of selection, Expedia was the only site at which we could book every one of our 10 chosen hotels.

Again, some of the lowest prices come with strings attached. Most of the major booking sites, including Expedia and Travelocity, offer specially negotiated discounts, but you often have to pay up front to get them. Expedia has discounted rates by up to 50 percent at more than 9,000 hotels worldwide, almost double the number it had last summer; Travelocity has deals with 7,000 properties.

Be aware that, in addition to the room rate you're initially quoted, there will often be an extra charge for taxes and services. And, even more important, you may have to pay a penalty if you cancel, even a few days in advance—usually between $20 and $30.

In our tests, discounter and consolidator sites fared best with international hotels. Three of them (Hoteldiscounts.com, All-Hotels.com, and Hotels.com) found us the lowest price at Cape Town's Cape Grace hotel, for example—even if it was a saving of just $5. Like the general booking sites, many discounters require pre-payment, and usually have additional cancellation and change fees. Our verdict: Because of their more limited selection, these sites are better when you know where you're going and are flexible about where you will stay.

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