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HOTELS

Dialing for Dollars to Get Cheaper Sleeps

November 15, 1998|GARY LEE | WASHINGTON POST

Even though demand for hotel rooms across the United States dropped slightly last year, the price of lodging at popular destinations continues to edge upward, making discount room rates more elusive, particularly at the best hotels. With some wise shopping, however, smart travelers can still obtain decent accommodations at a discount--and sometimes even get a five-star room at a Holiday Inn price.

For serious hotel room shoppers, a handful of discount reservation services are a big help. By using the services carefully, I have managed some great feats, such as getting half off a room at New York's swank Drake Hotel and snagging a bed in downtown Chicago after having been told that the whole city had been booked solid by conventioneers.

For anyone seeking a rate break on a room, regardless of which service is used, I suggest reserving as early as possible. Another key to obtaining the best possible room at the lowest possible price is knowing how the reservation services work and what their strengths are. The three best-known companies featuring discounted rooms nationwide--Quikbook, Hotel Reservations Network and Central Reservations Service--have developed different specialties. In some cases, smaller companies like California Reservations, telephone (800) 576-0003, which assists with lodging exclusively on the West Coast, may be a better bet.

* Hotel Reservations Network, tel. (800) 964-6835, offers accommodations in 400 properties in 17 cities in the United States and Europe. Like the other services, HRN promises 10% to 60% off the rack rate, or the standard price most hotels initially quote to callers. After deciding on a property, HRN will make a reservation, guaranteeing the room with a credit card. Payment for the room must be made directly to the hotel, and cancellations must be made at least 24 hours in advance.

But HRN seeks to outshine its competitors in three ways. Its state-of-the-art Web site (http://www.hoteldiscount.com) makes it very usable for Net-savvy travelers. It provides easy online comparison of properties and, if you're interested, direct booking via the computer.

HRN is also adept at finding rooms in cities that are said to be sold out. The reason is that the hotel secures blocks of rooms before conventions or other special events are planned and then releases them to callers. The service already has hundreds of rooms reserved in convention-infested New Orleans a couple of years from now, for example. Finally, HRN is one of few discounters offering cut rates in Paris and London, the two European destinations that Americans frequent most.

* Quikbook, tel. (800) 789-9887, Internet http://www.quikbook.com, is a service that I use frequently, particularly when traveling to popular U.S. cities. Its operators reserve rooms in urban areas such as Atlanta, San Francisco and Chicago. Payment is made directly to the hotel, and cancellations must be made a day in advance.

One Quikbook specialty is reducing the cost of deluxe hotels. Over the years I have used the New York agency to reserve at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta, the Mondrian in Los Angeles and the SoHo Grand in New York for up to half off what I might otherwise have paid. Quikbook also books at some of my favorite boutique-type hotels, such as Manhattan's Shoreham and the Henley Park in Washington, D.C.

Quikbook arranges the discounts with individual hotels across the country and passes them on to its patrons. No extra fees are required.

* Central Reservation Services, tel. (800) 548-3311, Internet http://www.reservation-services.com, another major discounter, operates much like the other services. Its agents offer rooms in a dozen or so American cities. Bookings require a credit card. Cancellations must be made 24 to 72 hours in advance.

CRS seems to be best at getting mid- to low-priced rooms in New York City and other destinations. When I called and told the agent I wanted a room for under $125 in Manhattan, she offered a half-dozen choices. When I asked about higher brackets, she ticked off another six options. I later called the hotels and found almost all the CRS rates cheaper than I could negotiate on my own.

I recommend calling CRS as early as possible before a New York trip to find out what its agents offer. Then do a bit of research--using guidebooks, the Internet or friends--on the hotels and the neighborhoods where they are located. When you are comfortable with a choice, call CRS back and make a reservation.

For travelers headed abroad, discount hotel services are rare. One reliable firm is Utell International, tel. (800) 448-8355, Internet http://www.utell.com. A reservation service for almost 8,000 hotels in the United States, Europe, Latin America and other parts of the world, it usually quotes the non-discount rate the hotels offer most callers. But if specials are available, they will usually be quoted.

I've found Utell's operators to be patient when giving detailed information about the hotels. After the World Cup recently ended in Paris, for example, Utell offered good examples of hotels featuring end-of-summer price breaks.

Those who prefer guest houses or B&Bs usually must negotiate their own discounts. Being straightforward about the fact that you would like a price break is the best policy sicne B&B owners are as interested as big hoteliers in filling their rooms.

Travelers also might like to know that hotels in Hawaii, suffering from the Asian economic crisis, are likely to be cheaper this winter.

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