For travelers seeking lodgings of a particular type, hotel groups can make the search easier. Those seeking discount prices or premium and budget rooms can turn to hotel brokers.
High End: Hotel Groups
Travelers baffled by the range of lodging choices--but loath to book into a cookie-cutter chain hotel--can often find the right room by tapping into a hotel group. These collections of hotels or inns, most independent of major chains and conglomerates, are organized around the needs of particular kinds of travelers--design-conscious aesthetes, history buffs, beachcombers seeking small-hotel charm and so on.
Using niche groups can take away the guesswork that comes with reserving a place you have never seen or heard much about. By offering a certain style, amenity set and type of service in a variety of forms and locations, the groups help travelers avoid those awkward moments at the front desk when you realize this is not the kind of place you wanted to stay in at all. The managers of niche hotel groups establish the standard and collect properties that meet that standard.
The 11 inns in Passport to New England, for instance, are spread across the northeastern United States, with a couple each in Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Some are in villages, others in the countryside. Still, certain criteria were used to form the group, spokesman Elizabeth Davis says. "They are all less than 20 rooms, all owner-operated, all of a high standard, all nonsmoking," she said. And all are suitable for guests in search of that quaint New England experience, she added.
Among the more interesting niche lodging groups:
The Kimpton Group (1-800-214-4220, www.kimptongroup.com): This is a collection of 33 boutique hotels, most fashioned around a different theme. Although initially based in Kimpton's home town of San Francisco, it's expanding to middle America. The latest properties, called Monaco hotels, are located in Chicago (1-800-397-7661) and Denver (1-800-397-5380). All Kimptons offer complimentary wine and coffee in the lobby. But some have special touches, such as "tall" rooms.
Passport to New England (1-800-981-3275, www.passport tonewengland.com): Just in time for the fall foliage season, this group is offering a special: one complimentary night in the Passport inn of choice to anyone who stays in all 11 member inns within two years. The Maine-based Lodge at Moosehead Lake is particularly delightful.
Historic Hotels of America (202-588-6295, http://historichotels .nationaltrust.org.): Associated with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, this group requires every one of its 145 properties to be at least 50 years old. Most easily meet that criterion, such as the venerable 92-year-old Plaza Hotel in New York City or the 111-year-old Hotel del Coronado near San Diego, Calif. Be aware that some properties have added modern wings, so guests may end up in a contemporary room.
Design Hotels International (415-332-4885, www.designhotels.com): The 27 properties in this collection are distinguished by their bold architectural designs. One Aldwych in London and the Buci Latin in Paris rank among the most visually stunning hotels I have stayed in. Only two in the group are U.S.-based: the Hotel Triton in San Francisco and the Plumpjack Squaw Valley Inn in Squaw Valley, Calif.
The Leading Hotels of the World (1-800-223-6800): With 173 members in 120 different destinations, this is the largest collection of luxury hotels. It includes many of the finest properties I know, such as the Peninsula in Hong Kong, the Hay Adams in Washington and the Kempinski in Hamburg, Germany. You can't expect much of a bargain here, but then, most leading hotels guests aren't looking for one.
Island Outpost (305-987-6843, www.islandoutpost.com): Small is beautiful could be the motto of this group of 13 properties in South Beach, Jamaica and the Bahamas.
Relais & Chateaux (1-800-860-4930, www.relaischateaux.com.): The collection of 415 hotels includes many of the world's most exquisite residence. Often there is a fine dining restaurant attached to the hotel.
African American Association of Innkeepers International (877-422-5777, www.african americaninns.com): This collection of 25 black-owned bed-and-breakfasts and guesthouses includes properties in such cities as New York, New Orleans and Atlanta, as well as the Caribbean and off-the-beaten trek places such as Ashland, Ore. There are some inspiring properties in this group, such as the Akwaaba Mansion in Brooklyn.
Low End: Hotel Brokers
On the other end of the lodging market, meantime, are discount hotel brokers, which are proliferating as the Internet and computerized reservation systems help match vacant hotel rooms with discount shoppers. Some buy hotel rooms in bulk and sell them direct to the public at a discount price; others specialize in selling unsold inventory to last-minute travelers.
Quikbook (1-800-789-9887, www.quikbook.com): This no-nonsense agency concentrates on well-established business hotels in seven major U.S. cities, including New York, Washington, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angles, Miami and Chicago. Hotels such as the Drake in New York City or the Mondrian in Los Angeles allow Quikbook to reserve a certain number of their rooms at a discounted rate, which is almost always well below that offered directly by the hotel.
Hotel Reservations Network (1-800-964-6835, www.hoteldiscount .com): This firm offers rooms in 38 cities--a far broader range than Quikbook--including Paris, Berlin and other places in Europe and Asia. They also have ties to a wider range of hotels, including many in the budget category. Be aware that HRN charges a nonrefundable fee of $50 for making the reservation. A recent study by Consumer Reports Travel Newsletter found that nearly half the time it was possible to get a better rate than HRN's simply by calling the hotel directly.
Central Reservation Service (1-800-950-0232, www.reservation -services.com): This group specializes in mid-range hotels in 10 U.S. cities, including New York, Washington, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, Boston, San Francisco and New Orleans. They can sometimes find a room in "sold-out" cities.
1-800-USA-Hotels (1-800-872-4683, www1800usahotels.com.): This company boasts the widest range of any broker-- 11,000 properties in a total of 1,500 cities worldwide. Rates are often not much lower than what the hotel offers, though.
Accomodations Express (1- 800-444-7666, www.accomodations express.com): This broker books rooms in 20 U.S. cities, including some popular places not covered by the competition. They charge a $5 fee for making reservations, and a $25 fee for cancellations.
Priceline (www.priceline.com) and Expedia (www.expedia.com) both let travelers bid for hotel rooms. In both cases, travelers visit the Web sites, indicate general location, price they are willing to pay, dates of travel and numbers of quality stars desired. Sometimes, first-rate hotels become available at vastly discounted rates. But the bidder is committed to accepting any hotel the service can find to match the criteria, sight-unseen.