The newlywed daughter of a friend phoned home to report a tiff with her husband and asked whether she could come home immediately. A ticket would have cost $800, so my friend called one of the less-popular airlines, asked to speak with a supervisor and explained the problem. "We'll call it a 'family crisis fare,' " said the airline official, who then authorized a waiver of the usual advance-purchase rule. The tearful daughter flew home for $400 round trip.
"Ask, and it shall be given you," the Bible says. Nowhere does that admonition work more effectively than in travel. Many Americans receive substantial travel discounts each year simply by requesting them from an airline, cruise line or hotel. It's called bargaining.
To most Americans, bargaining is unthinkable, something done only in rug bazaars. Few other nationalities of travelers regard it this way. Stand in the lobby of a large Venetian hotel during Italy's off-season, and you will observe one European after another engaged in bargaining. "We are looking for a room that costs no more than $49," a proper Englishman says to the front-desk clerk. In fact, that tourist knows that there is no such thing as a $49 room in that hotel; he is bargaining. He is saying, in effect, "We will stay in your hotel if you reduce your rate to $49; otherwise, we will walk down the block to another hotel."
In other words, you can bargain with dignity. Often the smartest travelers call a hotel and ask if it has a "teacher's rate," a "student rate," a "military rate," a "corporate rate," an "airline employee's rate," whatever.
It does not matter what category you choose. The hotel usually doesn't care; you could ask for a "housewife's rate" and still get a discount if the hotel were empty that night. What you are doing is bargaining. You are telling the hotel, politely, that you know it is a slow night and that here's a chance to fill an empty room by cutting the price to you; otherwise you will walk down the block.
Note that these tactics work only in off-season or during slow cycles of the week. Business hotels tend to empty out on weekends, when bargaining can be extremely effective; the same hotels tend to be fully booked from Monday through Thursday nights, when bargaining often doesn't work. And the tactic works only if you are speaking with someone authorized to discount (someone working directly for the hotel), not with an agent staffing a nationwide 800 number.
In the United States, where hotels tend to be scattered, not clustered (as in our Venice example), bargaining is best conducted from a phone booth or by a phone call from the airport on arrival, or by a long-distance call from home before you leave on the trip. The hotel then knows that you can easily make a call to another hotel if it doesn't accede to your request. Bargaining usually doesn't work if you are already in the hotel lobby; the desk clerk knows it's unlikely you will walk out and travel the long distance to another hotel if he or she refuses the discount.
Does bargaining work for travel products other than hotel rooms? You bet. Tales circulate in the travel industry of well-dressed people who walk from ship to ship in the port of Miami on a Saturday afternoon, asking pursers whether they have any unsold cabins they'd like to fill at 50% off. They have their luggage, traveler's checks and proof of citizenship--and are ready to board immediately without knowing or caring where they are going. They simply want a week's cruise at a good price. I've heard of the same thing happening at the Manhattan pier from which the Queen Elizabeth 2 embarks for transatlantic crossings.
Charter flights are another object of bargaining. When I was a charter tour operator in the '70s, I sent young staff members to see off our flights at the airport; they were directed to sell off any remaining seats for any price that did not injure our dignity. If a bargainer offered $59 for the one-way crossing to London leaving in 20 minutes, we'd stamp off in righteous indignation; if he offered $99, that was another matter.
More prudent travelers would phone our office the day before a charter's departure to determine whether there were empty seats. Although we could not provide them with hotel space at that point, we'd welcome the calls as a means of squeezing out a few last dollars of profit. Hard bargainers continue to make such calls to tour operators or consolidators who have committed themselves to blocks of air tickets and would rather cut the price on unsold seats than have empty seats.
The travel industry consists of perishable products (seats, rooms, cabins, cars) that must be sold for a particular departure or their value is lost forever. That is why most travel suppliers will react positively to your requests for a discount. Ask, and it shall be given you--more often than you'd suspect.