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Changing supply and demand makes prices a moving target, so it still takes a savvy shopper to unearth the best bargains.
"I'm sure that some hoteliers have run for the exits and slashed their prices as a consequence of the Great Recession, but others are being more strategic," said Glenn Withiam, executive editor of Cornell Hospitality Quarterly, a publication of that university's School of Hotel Administration. "Many factors contribute to each hotel's rate-setting decision, including the supply of rooms in a particular market, competitors' activities, brand identity, seasonality, and the financial realities of each particular hotel's situation."
Like airlines, hotels use intricate formulas to set prices based on projected demand. If you want to stay at Walt Disney World Resorts in Florida over a winter holiday or spring break, expect to pay more than you would in October. Similarly, if there's a forecast of bad weather, an elevated terror alert, or a last-minute conference cancellation, rates might drop. It's all about timing.
Although you can't control the weather or other external forces, you can take steps to keep more of your cash:
Adjust your arrival date, search for lodging in several adjacent areas, or choose from among several hotel chains instead of one.
If you're willing to roll the dice and show up late in the day without a reservation, you could hit the jackpot—or end up sleeping in your car. Respondents who appeared unannounced paid about $20 less per night for comparable accommodations, on average, than those who made a reservation ahead of time.
If you really want to play "chicken," ask the desk clerk for the lowest possible rate, then say you're taking your business elsewhere. If occupancy is exceptionally low, the clerk might invoke the "fade" rate, an option coming into play more often. It's the bare minimum the chain will accept for a room, as an alternative to leaving it unoccupied. Whatever rate you're quoted, it never hurts to ask the clerk if he or she can lower the price a bit.
Consider a discount-travel Web site
Our survey showed that discount sites such as Priceline and Hotwire were the only surefire way to reap substantially lower room rates. Respondents who reserved a room at an upscale hotel through a discounter paid an average daily rate of $80. Those who phoned the hotel or booked online by other means paid about $120 for a comparable room. But discount Web sites aren't ideal for everyone because the identity of your hotel doesn't become known until after you complete a nonrefundable transaction.