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Time for a splurge in S.F.

In a buyers' market, you can get luxury for less at some of the city's finest lodgings.

November 17, 2002|Beverly Beyette | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — Luxury hotels in this city all but have "on sale" signs tacked to their doors. All things are relative, of course, and at the four- and five-star level, a room for two at $200 and lower is a steal.

These days, it's also a reality.

So if you're fed up with bounce-back foam pillows, coat hangers permanently affixed to their rods and other annoyances of mid-priced hotels, it may be time for a splurge in San Francisco, where tourism has been hit hard by the dot-com collapse, the Sept. 11 fallout and a resulting hotel room glut.

To splurge is to step into a world of down pillows and duvets, padded satin hangers, complimentary newspapers and shoeshines, 24-hour room service, luxurious linens and thirsty terry robes, lighted magnifying mirrors, nightly turndown service and bonbons on your pillow. Some of these hotels will even take Fido, though that may add up to $75 to your bill.

Although not all image-conscious establishments are eager to advertise that they're doing deep discounting, anyone with a computer and/or an auto club or American Express card can find good rates. Some bargains are Internet only; a telephone call directly to hotels often will yield rates that match those on the Web. But you must ask.

Late last month I checked into five luxury hotels on five nights, Monday through Friday: two grandes dames, the Fairmont and the Palace, both of which have had multimillion-dollar renovations; the Clift, transformed under new ownership; the recently renovated Campton Place, a boutique hotel; and the year-old Four Seasons.

My quest for good deals began on the Internet, where sites such as Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity post a dizzying range of rates for the same rooms, typically moderate or standard doubles with king-size beds. (Other good Web site sources are www.quikbook.com and www.hotelres.com.) I then telephoned the hotels -- never identifying myself as a Times travel writer -- and asked for their best rates. The first rate quoted was rarely the best rate available. It took a little persistence to get to the bottom line, but once I did, the savings were substantial.

Why this windfall? For two years straight, San Francisco has been the hardest hit of any U.S. city. And with about 31,000 hotel rooms to be filled, the dramatically decreased demand has created a buyers' market.

"People can come up from L.A. and get great hotel rates and probably will be able to do so through the middle of the year," says Gary Carr of PKF Consulting, which tracks such matters for the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau.

PKF figures released last week show that, year to date, the average daily room rate citywide is down 15.7% from 2001, and occupancy is down too. In September, rates at high-end hotels ($160 a day and up) averaged $199.62, down from $208.39 last year.

Flying to San Francisco, I pondered how a bargain hunter would be received at these posh hotels. Would I be treated like a refugee from Motel 6, shuffled off to a dark cubicle next to the ice machine?

The reality: Although several rooms were on the small side, all were luxurious. All had down pillows -- usually four -- and most had duvets. At most of the hotels, bells and whistles included in-room high-speed Internet access, voicemail, irons and boards, in-room movies ($10.99 to $12.99), CD players, two or three telephones, including one in the bath, and mini-bars with overpriced snacks and drinks (and, at the Clift, condoms). All but the Clift had ice machines on each floor. Fitness and spa facilities ranged from a canopied terrace with the standard exercise equipment (Campton Place) to the state-of-the-art, 100,000-square-foot Sports Club/L.A. and Splash spa at the Four Seasons.

"Extras," such as overnight parking rates up to $45 and add-ons as high as 75% for long-distance telephone calls, can quickly pad room rates. It's good to keep in mind that the room rates do not include a 14% citywide tax.

Here's what I found:

*

Cozy, classy Campton Place

Any fears of being treated like a second-class tourist were dispelled the moment I walked into the 110-room Campton Place, a little gem wrapped around an atrium with a Zen-inspired garden. This boutique hotel, just off the newly spiffed-up Union Square, opened in 1983 in the former Drake-Wiltshire space and underwent a $15-million renovation in 2000.

Published rates began at $335, but I paid $195.

I was warmly welcomed by name and taken to my fifth-floor room, which made up in amenities for what it lacked in space. Minimalist in shades of beige, with rich pear wood, it had a spacious bath, wonderful lighting and a double-paned window that shut out city sounds.

It was noontime, so I ducked around the corner to Maiden Lane, where at Mocca, a little cash-only Italian cafe, the sandwich-and-salad crowd included shoppers bearing bags from the chic stores around Union Square and along Post Street.

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