What to do when there are no vacancies--anywhere

Last year a lot of travelers found that their favorite hotels--and sometimes an entire city's worth of rooms-were sold out for the dates they requested. Many destinations (New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Las Vegas) were fully booked for days, even weeks, at a time. Overseas, hotel rooms were scarce in London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong.

The room shortage is no less severe in 1997. Business and leisure travel are both on the rise, but only a handful of new hotels are being built in most U.S. cities.

Vacationers can often reschedule trips around sold-out times. But what can you do if you must attend a meeting or convention out of town, maybe on short notice?Travel agents and hotel managers make these recommendations:

Use Hot Lines
Find out whether your destination has a hotel-room hot line, such as the one sponsored by the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau during the city's busy fall season. These services have access to most of the available rooms.

Use Hotel Consolidators
Contact a hotel consolidator. Such companies buy blocks of rooms months in advance in selected cities and resorts, so they can sometimes come up with a vacancy. n Build a relationship with the management at your favorite hotels. "If you're a loyal customer who has an existing relationship with hotel staff, you have a better chance of getting a room than by going on a wait list," says Ted Ratcliff, general manager of the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago. Some hotels actually hold back rooms for preferred clients during anticipated busy times.

Consider Nearby Locations
Stay at a well-located airport or suburban hotel that has easy access to your ultimate destination. "The hotels near O'Hare Airport, for example, are thirty to forty minutes and $1.50 away from the Loop by train," says Peggy Kaz of Beale Travel in Chicago.

Have Determination

Keep trying. "Cancellations happen all the time," says Ratcliff. Keep Checking Back
Learn the hotel's cancellation (or release) time for any reservations that are not guaranteed by a credit cardÑusually 4 p.m. or 6 p.m. on the day of arrival. Don't resort to this strategy unless you have to. Obviously, you won't get a room until the last minute, and since more hotels are requiring credit-card guarantees, fewer rooms are freed up.

Change Your Meeting to Another City
"During really busy times last year, we couldn't get some of our frequent guests off the wait list or find them space in other suitable London hotels," says John Scanlon, of the Lanesborough in London. "So they moved their meetings to Paris."