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.
Among the other big players, Orbitz found us bargain rates at two hotels but didn't have many of our international choices in its database. Spokeswoman Terri Shank says the site is constantly adding more hotels and discounts. Travelweb, backed by five hotel chains (Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, InterContinental, and Starwood), wasn't fully operational at press time, and quoted us the lowest price at only two hotels. The site should be live this month.
SKIP THE PHONE Calling got us prices equal to or higher than we got on-line, save in one instance: we were able to reserve a $325 weekday room at the Clift in San Francisco, $60 less than what we'd been quoted at Ianschragerhotels.com. Typically, not only were prices higher on the phone, but we also had to sit through lengthy hotel and room descriptions, which we hadn't requested, as well as hard sells.
A Ritz-Carlton sales agent told us about a $395 deluxe room at the company's Battery Park property in New York, and then pushed the $435 room with a window onto the harbor—"as opposed to just a drab city view." At least she did offer us the lowest-priced option. We had to ask about prices three times before St. Regis's toll-free operator told us that the Aspen property had a standard weekday room for $225; she had immediately tried to book us into a $495 Junior Alpine Suite.
If you do call—which may be necessary if you want to inquire about room types or request a specific location or view—you'll usually get better prices from toll-free numbers. All but once, that got us either the same rate or a lower one than did calling the hotel directly.
One exception: If you're set on a hotel that seems to be booked up. When we searched for a weekend room at Chewton Glen, a Relais & Châteaux property in England, the group's 800 number and Web site told us the hotel was full, and even the hotel's own Web site turned up nothing. The same was true of most third-party sites we checked. But by calling Chewton Glen directly, we discovered we could get a room.
Still, even in this instance, diligently surfing the Web paid off. We found that Expedia and All-Hotels were also able to secure a room—and to save us almost $30. Every little bit counts, right?
This is what we found in one of our tests, when we tried to book a room at 10 different hotels for a single night more than a month in advance, using a variety of sources. We've highlighted the lowest prices at each.
Ritz-Carlton, Battery Park New York
HOTEL PHONE NUMBER $395
TOLL-FREE NUMBER $395
HOTEL WEB SITE $395
The Clift San Francisco
HOTEL PHONE NUMBER $325
TOLL-FREE NUMBER $325
HOTEL WEB SITE $385
St. Regis Aspen
HOTEL PHONE NUMBER $225
TOLL-FREE NUMBER $225
HOTEL WEB SITE $215*
Kauai Marriott Resort Hawaii
HOTEL PHONE NUMBER $309
TOLL-FREE NUMBER $309
HOTEL WEB SITE $289
HOTEL PHONE NUMBER $142
TOLL-FREE NUMBER $142
HOTEL WEB SITE $132**
Cape Grace Cape Town
HOTEL PHONE NUMBER $458
TOLL-FREE NUMBER $369
HOTEL WEB SITE $356
Grand Hyatt Bali
HOTEL PHONE NUMBER n/a
TOLL-FREE NUMBER $100
HOTEL WEB SITE $100
The Peninsula Hong Kong
HOTEL PHONE NUMBER $305
TOLL-FREE NUMBER $266
HOTEL WEB SITE $266
Four Seasons Hotel Milan
HOTEL PHONE NUMBER $672
TOLL-FREE NUMBER $731
HOTEL WEB SITE $622
Chewton Glen England
HOTEL PHONE NUMBER $552
TOLL-FREE NUMBER $458
HOTEL WEB SITE n/a
* special rate, usually prepaid and with cancellation restrictions and/or penalty
** special prepaid rate, no cancellations, includes taxes
VALUE ADDED: THE TRAVEL-AGENT FACTOR
Although the Web proved the best source of low prices in our tests, don't rule out travel agents. Not only can they save you time, but in many cases they also have access to additional booking options. "Most of the time, agents subscribe to a service that offers discounted room rates," says Chris Dane, a spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents. However, those discounts will vary, and savings may not offset the consulting and booking fees many agents charge. You'll also generally fare better if you're a regular client, since the agent may do a more careful search for you.
Of course, low cost isn't the only plus. Members of the high-end agent consortium Virtuoso (800/401-4274), for example, have preferred status at more than 400 hotels worldwide. "We hardly ever negotiate for the lowest, bare-bones rate," managing director Michael Enberg says. Instead, the group secures clients extra benefits, such as free breakfasts or activities, or automatic room upgrades.