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Getting the Best Hotel Room for the Best Price

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Comparison shopping on the Web can save big bucks, but there's more to getting a great price on lodging than just plugging in a date and seeing what comes up. We spoke to TripAdvisor's Brooke Ferencsik and BedandBreakfast.com's Marti Mayne to get tips on how to save on accommodations:

· Timing is everything. If you're planning to visit someplace popular with conventioneers, your first stop should be the area's convention and visitors bureau Web site (often designated "cvb," as in http://www.charlestoncvb.com), which should have a calendar of events. Find out when the big conventions and festivals are; that's when rooms will be priciest, so you should plan your trip for another time.

When is lodging less expensive: during the week or on the weekend? It depends. In resort towns such as Las Vegas and Orlando, weekend rates tend to be higher. Likewise, as Mayne points out, "B&Bs are more getaway destinations, so they're usually more expensive on the weekends." On the other hand, hotels popular with business travelers during the week, such as those near Wall Street in New York, or in downtown Washington, for that matter, slash their prices on the weekends once the suits clear out. For instance, at Embassy Suites New York, a room can be at least $100 less on a Saturday night than on a Tuesday.

As for which time of year offers the best deals, traveling off-peak can yield the biggest savings. "You'll find that the rates in the winter in New England will be much lower than at other times," Mayne says. Ditto Florida in the summer. Plus, Ferencsik says, now's a good time to book hotels for spring (and sometimes even early-summer) travel. "January is a good time for deals, and sometimes they'll go through March."

· Do your homework. There are so many Web sites out there offering deals on hotels, it's hard to know where to start. Guidebooks and newspaper and magazine stories often have lodging suggestions. Search http://www.washingtonpost.com/travel by state or by country to find recommendations for lodging at a range of prices. Also see our story (Page P5) on Web sites.

TripAdvisor ranks hotels and B&Bs by user reviews, which Ferencsik says the company screens closely for legitimacy using fraud filters and dozens of editors, as well as TripAdvisor users. "Our community is really passionate and active, and if something doesn't look right, they'll flag it," Ferencsik says. "The average hotel has 15 reviews, so you'll really get an idea of what to expect."

Convention and visitor bureau sites can help, too. For example, New York City's tourism Web site, http://www.nycgo.com, offers such deals as free Sunday nights at select hotels.

· Consider alternatives to hotels. "Bed-and-breakfast" is no longer synonymous with "death by doilies." Small-town inns are still abundant, but B&Bs are now popping up in big cities and are becoming more popular with budget-minded vacationers and business travelers alike. Why? First of all, there's that second "b": The cost of breakfast is factored into the room price. Plus, as Mayne says, "it's often a gourmet breakfast," with three or four courses. Then there are the amenities. A recent survey found that nine out of 10 B&Bs have free WiFi, Mayne says. And forget those hotel mini-bar charges: The same survey, Mayne adds, found that a whopping 93 percent of B&Bs offer complimentary refreshments, such as bottles of water, coffee, wine, cheese and bottomless cookie jars.

Vacation rentals are also a good money-saving option. Try HomeAway.com, which lists 118,000 private homes and apartments around the world; Zonder.com for rentals in North America, Central America and the Caribbean; or RedWeek.com for time-share sublets. Families and other groups, especially, can save big on meal costs, thanks to the fully equipped kitchens in most rentals.

· Downtown or suburbs? Sometimes being just a few miles from the action can add up to significant savings. Take parking, for instance. Given that the price of parking at downtown hotels can sometimes rival the price of a room in the suburbs, casting a wider net for accommodations is highly recommended. But transportation costs can add up. If you're staying in the suburbs where trains and buses don't run, you might get stuck with high taxi fares, canceling out the savings on the room. (It also sometimes doesn't work out in a city such as London, where the high cost of taking mass transit into the center of town adds up quickly.) When in doubt, call the hotel, B&B or rental and ask about local transportation options.

· Beware hidden costs. When it comes to hotel mini-bars, Ferencsik says, "my rule of thumb is stay away." In-room fridges sometimes contain motion sensors that automatically add charges to your bill every time you open the door or move an item, so forget storing your leftovers in there. Also, Ferencsik says, "if you see a bottle of water on your bed, don't assume it's complimentary."

Although there's no way to avoid paying taxes and other mandatory lodging fees, avoid the extra charges hotels tack on by asking questions before booking: Are there property maintenance or resort fees? How much do Internet access and parking cost? Asking upfront will help avoid sticker shock upon checkout. As for checkout, make sure to give yourself a little extra time so you can examine your bill and contest any fees you think don't belong.

Mayne says that although B&Bs have fewer hidden costs, taxes are rarely included in the advertised room rate, so be prepared to add as much as 15 percent to the final bill.

· Shop around. Once you've zeroed in on a place to stay, try several booking sites to find the lowest price. Then go to the hotel or B&B's Web site and search for specials or membership rates, such as AAA, or choose between different types of rooms that might cost less. Finally, calling the property directly can sometimes yield the best deal, since some hotels pledge to match the best price on hotel booking sites.

In general, as Ferencsik says, "it's all about doing your homework and doing your number crunching."

-- Christina Talcott

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