It was a beach town late on a Saturday night, and after a long day's drive I stammered instead of spoke. But, yes, the motel could take me - and did. It was only the following day, when I came to, that I realized I was paying $4 a night more than I'd needed to.

All I'd have had to do to leave more money in my own pocket was ask one extra question: "Do you have anything for less?"

In the book I'm writing called "Mistakes and How to Make Them," there will be an entire chapter on Funny Things, I Forgot to Say to the Room Clerk. "Do you have anything for less?" tops the list for two good economic reasons. The first is that instead of prices being determined solely by the number of people, more and motels now follow the hotel pattern and use grading systems - that is, different rates for different rooms according to whether they're regarded as standard, superior or deluxe. In plain English, that's "good," "better" and "best," and not surprisingly room clerks are generally instructed to sell the highest-priced first.

The second reason becomes important when you're sampling luxury living. Grander hotels often have a handful of cheaper rooms for which they don't accept reservations. So newly arrived guests who simply stand before the desk and ask "What's the cheapest room you have available?" may be in for a pleasant surprise. They're likely to lack a view and could find an elevator living next door, but the savings can be so substantial (as much as $20 a night in some of New York City's finest) that small spenders might well go to sleep smiling.

But just as airline rates have taken off in all directions, so have U.S. hotel and motel prices. Grading isn't the only thing to watch for. Tinkering hasn't yet reached the stage of half off for red-haired missionaries from Micronesia, but start comparing family plans and it could make your head ache.

"Do you have a family plan?" is of course one of the other key questions to ask if you like questions that can have money-saving answers. Four in a room for the price of two is usually easy to get even when the "kids" are 17 and 18, but it's far better to ask the broad question first and state your needs later. That way you get an idea of what's negotiable, and occasionally you may reel in something you wouldn't have thought to fish for - two double-bedded rooms for the price of one, for instance.

For approximately the same reasons, it's a wise hotel guest who also asks "What's included in that price?" at places that look as if they have more than beds to rent. Parking is a key itme if you're driving, since a number of bif-city hotels have parking charges. Even where the space is free, the mandatory use of car jockeys - "valets" in classier surroundings - may require heavy tipping. Still, asking often brings good news too, things like "We serve free coffee in the lounge to early risers" or "Our tennis courts are free and the private golf course down the road is open to guests."

If you're arriving by plane and are minus a car, there's a potential moneysaver to ask about before you even leave the airport. It's "Do you have free airport pickup?" and more than a few lodgings operators do. You might also ask, "Do you also give free return trip?" because lately some corner-cutters are playing it a little differently in that department.

"Do you have weekend rates?" is another good question. Particularly in summer, big cities empty out at weekends, so hotels that hurt will often run "specials" for anyone staying two or three of the weekends nights.

Of course, you'll need to look beyond the fancy wrapping and see what's inside, a weekend package. Sometimes it's a room all dressed up with expensive breakfasts and dinners you don't want or need, at the other times it's just the highest-priced rooms marked down to something that's still more than the lowest.

On the other hand, there are places that wouldn't dream of offering family plans at other times but do blossom out on weekends, and sometimes the one hotel you've always dreamed of will grow weekend rates that spell out "we want you."

Poor old passengers on red-eye night flights may also find it worth their while to mouth a single five-word sentence to room clerks. "Do you have day rates?" If what they really want is an immediate daytime lie-down before pressing on, they may get it from nearby hotels or motels for a lot less than the usual 24-hour fee.

In advance of any trip, the right words include "Do you have any promotional rates?" That's "discount" spelled differently, and asking ahead means you may still have time to do some adjusting. If it's a resort where rates are higher on weekends, you might prefer to hit it mid-week. If there's a fly-drive offer going, that might be nice to know, too. If there are lower rates for longer stays - say, five nights for the price of four - you might hate to find this out a little too late.

Current and choice promotional deals? Well, it all depemds on your circumstances. But just now Holiday Inns, for one, is offering an "advance purchase" plan (where have you heard that before?) that might pay off for careful planners who can work the rules to allow a saving. And for senior citizens, there can be benefits in joining the American Assoication of Retired Persons, since members get room rate discounts at a lengthy list of hotels and motels.

All around the nation, though, lodgings prices are rising so often that the American Authomobile Association no longer gives members a guarantee on all the rates listed in its tour books. You may never be able to get prices down to the levels you'd like, but as McLuhan might say, questions are the answer.