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Hawaii on Sale (sort of)

On a quest for a hotel room bargain, knowing where to look and how to ask sometimes can lead to deep discounts, sometimes to big disappointments.

January 13, 2002|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

HONOLULU — At the front desk of a Sheraton last month, I asked for a rate sheet because I wanted to know the published price of a room there. Known in the travel industry as a "rack rate," the tariff printed in a brochure is generally the highest price a hotel charges. The clerk frowned and told me to wait, rooted around in a cabinet, then walked down the long, curving counter and consulted a colleague.

When she returned, she said, "I'm sorry, we don't have one."

"Then can you tell me the rack rates?" I asked.

"The rack rates don't exist since the World Trade Center," she said.

I doubt this is Sheraton's official line. But it was just what I wanted to hear as I began a quest for bargain room rates in Hawaii.

The time was ripe. With fewer people traveling in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and Hawaii tourism down more than 27% in November compared with the previous year, hotels and resorts seemed certain to be going begging--and thus might be ready to deal.

But the results of my search for deals were as mixed as a good mai tai. On Waikiki it was a wide-open playing field for bargain hunters. But on the Big Island and Maui, hotels were generally reluctant to haggle, although they were amenable to selling me a nicer room at a discounted price.

I got ocean-view or partial ocean-view rooms in the three hotels where I stayed during my five-day scouting trip at deep discounts--about two-thirds of the brochure rate at Waikiki's pink-painted Royal Hawaiian on Oahu and the Outrigger Waikoloa Beach on the Big Island, and half off at the Hyatt Regency Maui.

But other places wouldn't budge. The price was the price. Period.

To compare rates before I left on the trip, I tracked prices at about a dozen hotels on Waikiki Beach on Oahu, on the Big Island and on Maui, Hawaii's three most visited islands. I checked Web sites, contacted travel agents and called the hotels' toll-free reservations lines.

Then, on Dec. 16, I flew to Hawaii to see whether the prices would come down further if I showed up in person. Granted, only adventurers travel without reservations, but I've snagged good deals that way in the past.

Success was not assured. I was traveling just before the holidays, when rates all over Hawaii go up. Furthermore, Kimberly Grant, author of "Best Places to Stay Hawaii" (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), told me that Hawaiian hotels aren't set up to bargain with walk-ins.

And then there is the "rate integrity" factor.

"Rate integrity" means that a hotel quotes the same prices whether guests call an 800 reservations line, contact the hotel directly or show up at the front desk.

"In the last five years, hotels probably did maintain some rate integrity because times were so good. They could establish rates and pretty much hold them," says Harvey Chipkin, a New Jersey-based hotel industry expert. "Now, even though times are bad, chains are trying to hold rates because the common wisdom is that if you heavily discount, guests won't pay the freight when the rates go up again."

In other words, hotels don't want guests to start expecting low prices, so many resist cutting rates across the board.

Nonetheless, experts say that front-desk personnel sometimes have authority to offer deals to walk-in customers, especially if it's late in the day and rooms are still empty. But it's unrealistic to expect you'll get a $250 room for $50. Moreover, if you try what I did, you may be quoted rates that are different from those I got. That's because prices are affected by a variety of factors, such as occupancy and the time of year you visit.

But I did find walk-in wiggle room on prices, especially in Waikiki. And even when desk clerks wouldn't come down on rates, they were often willing to upgrade me to a higher accommodation category--an ocean or partial ocean view--for the price of a standard double, which usually has less desirable vistas, called, variously, "garden," "terrace," "mountain," "city" or "golf view" rooms. (See related story.)

Here's an island-by-island breakdown:

Waikiki

More than 4 million people visit Oahu each year, mostly heading to the fabled crescent beach at Waikiki. Japanese tourists favor Waikiki especially, accounting for half of the visitors here, and that's bad news for the tourism industry. "Japanese arrivals were down 50% in September and October," says Rick Humphreys, executive director of the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

So Southern Californians who think of Maui or Kauai when planning trips to Hawaii may want to set their sights on Waikiki. As soon as I got here, I started finding deals.

From a phone booth at the Honolulu airport, I called my chief targets: the Sheraton Moana Surf- rider (one of four Sheratons in Waikiki), Royal Hawaiian, Hilton Hawaiian Village and Halekulani. At two of the four resorts, the rates I was quoted in those airport calls were lower than the lowest I found in my pre-trip research.

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