With lodging prices in New York at record levels and nudging upward (averaging $243 in 2005), the biggest hurdle is getting a rate that leaves enough cash for a show, a nice dinner or a day of sightseeing. Even at exorbitant prices, New York hotels book up quickly; the occupancy level, also edging up, was 85 percent last year.
Still, there's hope for the bargain hunter. Last week, you could have snagged a double at the Sheraton Manhattan on Seventh Avenue, an easy walk to Broadway theaters, for $120. A bed at the Park South, a chic property near Union Square, was going for $179. A room at the handsome Mansfield, right off Fifth Avenue, was $219 -- including a buffet breakfast and complimentary espressos.
You just have to know where, when and how to hunt.
· Check the online discounters. Quikbook ( http://www.quikbook.com/ ), one of the most reliable booking agencies with NYC rooms, is where the Park South offer popped up. Like most of the rooms on Quikbook, that rate was well below the $259 quoted on the hotel's own Web site. One of the virtues of Quikbook is that, with the exception of a small number of prepaid rooms, bills are settled at checkout (no fee is charged for booking and none for canceling, as long as reservations are voided at least 24 hours in advance). But not all of its hotels are top-notch. As a general rule, steer clear of what are described as two-star properties.
Other online agencies worth checking are Hotels.com ( http://www.hotels.com/ ), Expedia ( http://www.expedia.com/ ), Travelocity ( http://www.travelocity.com/ ) and Orbitz ( http://www.orbitz.com/ ). Hotels.com charges for rooms at the time of reservation, while the other agencies offer some prepaid rooms at deep discounts (most hotels, however, can be paid at the end of the stay). With the exception of Orbitz, the agencies charge a reservation fee that's rolled into the rate. They also charge fees ranging from $10 to $25 for canceling or changing reservations on the prepaid rooms.
Besides their usual slice off standard hotel rates, these discounters occasionally come out with grab-it-quick bargains. Hotels.com, for instance, is advertising a Memorial Day special featuring discounts from May 23 to June 5 at properties in New York and elsewhere. Doubles at the 2 1/2-star Newton Hotel, located on Broadway on the Upper West Side, are going for $147 a night during that period, down from the usual $185.
We found the Mansfield -- whose rates usually start at $269 -- at Travelzoo ( http://www.travelzoo.com/ ), which compiles discounts from sources throughout the Web and regularly offers hot hotel deals. Sign up for Travelzoo's weekly Top 20 alert; that and other sites' newsletters will give you a heads-up on hotel deals in New York and elsewhere.
· Check an aggregator site. Simplify your search and try a Web aggregator such as SideStep ( http://www.sidestep.com/ ) or Kayak ( http://www.kayak.com/ ). Aggregators compile information on hundreds of properties from other Internet sites. Punch your travel details into the aggregator site and you'll get a list of all the New York hotels on their roster, including prices.
To book, you'll often have to go to the Web site of the travel provider offering the room. Kayak, whose hotel inventory is unsurpassed, is a good place to start.
· Try Hotwire and Priceline. Priceline ( http://www.priceline.com/ ) offers rooms at 20 to 70 percent off the hotel's price. The agency gives bookers the option of reserving a specific hotel at a discounted rate or using the "hidden provider" option -- travelers input the city, part of town, level of stars and amount they want to pay and see which hotel accepts the bid. The independent site http://www.biddingfortravel.com/ gives Priceline patrons guidance and tips. A BiddingForTravel user posted a note last week saying she'd snagged that $120 Sheraton Manhattan room.
Hotwire ( http://www.hotwire.com/ ), which also offers discounts of up to 60 percent, works a little differently. Users are told the price, star rating and neighborhood -- but not the hotel name. After you agree to book the room and punch in credit card info, Hotwire tells you where you'll be staying.
Shoppers at both sites should tread cautiously. Once they hit the final button, the charges won't be refunded if they're not thrilled about the property.