Even if you don't work for a big company with its own travel depart-
ment or you haven't signed on with a discount travel service, there is an easy way to nab some low rates on hotel rooms.
Consolidators, which sprang up in the early 1990s when hotels were routinely operating at 60% capacity, book blocks of rooms at huge discounts and pass on the savings to customers. Reservations services, which get volume discounts, have similar benefits: By calling an 800 number, an agent will find a hotel within your price range that's near where you want to stay, often at a savings of 40% to 60% off the hotel's standard "rack" rates. "The best part is, you dmn't have to pay to join," says Christopher McGinnis, author of 202 Tips Even the Best Business Travelers May Not Know (Irwin, $10). "It's especially appealing to individual business travelers who don't have a corporate travel manager going to bat for them."
BE PREPARED. Increasingly, price isn't the only reason to consider these services. Often, consolidators will still have rooms available--though not always at a discount--when hotels are otherwise sold out because of a big convention or local festivities. Hotel Reservations Network (HRN), one of the biggest, has started buying up blocks of space in cities during such special events as this April's Jazz Fest in New Orleans. Now that the hotel business is picking up, sell-outs will be an increasing problem, predicts HRN President Robert Diener. "Business travelers who don't plan in advance may be in for a shock."
Most discounters deal with large hotels in downtown business centers, offering a range of prices, from economy to luxury. But keep in mind, cautions McGinnis, that hotels wouldn't sign up with these programs if they didn't need the business. For that reason, he says, "a lot of the hotels are a bit older and may be ready for renovation."
But most consolidators evaluate the hotels and their surroundings and make sure that they meet certain standards, so you shouldn't get stuck in a dump in a dangerous neighborhood. Express Reservations specializes in hand-picking hotels in Los Angeles and New York and in giving expert travel advice. Many other large cities have their own reservation services that can provide a wealth of information along with cheap rooms. Call the local convention-and-visitors bureau to find out if there's one where you're headed.
In contrast with local services, Room Exchange has 23,000 hotels worldwide on its roster. "The criterion is that a hotel has to have a minimum of 100 rooms," says Mike Beer, the company's managing director. "We don't represent or recommend hotels. We guarantee the lowest rate."
FINE PRINT. Be aware that the programs vary. Some services require payment by credit card at the time you book. Quikbook lets you pay when you arrive at the hotel. RMC Travel Center is one of the few to include in its rates local tax, which can exceed 15% in some cities.
Make sure to check a service's cancellation policy before you give your credit-card number. At Room Exchange, rooms are fully refundable only up to 48 hours before the arrival date in the U.S. and up to seven days before arrival abroad. Also, members of frequent traveler programs should ask if they still qualify for mileage points at participating hotels. HRN recently started granting 500 miles toward United Airlines' flier program when you reserve five nights at a time. It plans to negotiate similar deals with other airlines, Diener says.
To be sure, there are many other ways to get reduced hotel rates. Amoco Motor Club comes with an automatic membership to Quest International, which provides rooms for 50% off. And those Entertainment Publications coupon books sold by local nonprofit groups for $30 to $50 often have great hotel deals. Even calling a chain and pushing for rate breaks over the phone can prove fruitful. However, if you don't like to haggle or are unfamiliar with the city you're visiting, booking your room through a consolidator or reservation service may be the way to travel.
Where To Find A Hotel Deal
800 356-1123 Specializes in picking hotels in New York and Los Angeles and providing expert travel advice.
HOTEL RESERVATIONS NETWORK 800 96-HOTEL
Handles rooms in 20 U.S. cities, plus London and Paris. Grants frequent-flier credits when
booking five nights at a time.
QUIKBOOK 800 789-9887
Serves business and leisure travelers. Offers discounts in 22
cities, from Maui to Montreal.
RMC TRAVEL CENTER
800 782-2674 Represents more than 700 U.S. hotels, from deluxe to economy.
800 846-7000 Deals with 23,000 hotels in the U.S., Europe, Caribbean, and Asia.