How to avoid getting fleeced at hotels
It's difficult to comparison shop on the price of a hotel room if there are fees you didn't anticipate.
As individual and corporate travelers watch their budgets more carefully, hotels are getting more creative in their quests to maintain profits. A thorough fleecing at your favorite hotel chain is enough to ruin an otherwise great trip and take your travel budget from black to red.
Here are some tips to make sure you get the most from your hotel stay. (See also: "40 most useful travel websites.")
Nix the in-room safe fee. If your hotel offers an in-room safe, you can be relatively sure there'll be a corresponding fee attached to it. It's typically just a buck or two, but if you haven't used the safe, it's a buck or two less you'll have for your own coffers. The fee can usually be voided, even if you wait to dispute it until checkout. But be pre-emptive: Ask if there's a standard room safe fee or safe usage fee when you register and explicitly opt out.
Avoid mini-bar minefields. Surely the brainchild of an evil genius, mini-bars are the hotel industry's version of the grocery store checkout lane. Impulse rules the day. Get ready to be tempted by adult beverages, salty snacks and candy -- all with an average markup of 300% over store prices. If the profit margin on this stuff doesn't ruin your appetite, your bill the next morning will. Tiptoe around the mini-bar minefield by eating regularly, staying hydrated, packing a few snacks of your own, and going to bed early.
Understand Internet and parking fees. This is where the true nickels and dimes come into play, and hotels rejoice in customer ignorance. It's difficult to comparison shop on the price of a hotel room if there are fees you didn't anticipate. Begin to ask standard questions like, "Is a high-speed Internet connection included in the room rate?" and "Do you charge extra for parking?" These two simple questions can help you compare apples to apples and will expose sneaky little profit centers that hotels conveniently forget to mention until the bill is delivered.
Negotiate. Here's the most important lesson I've learned as a budget-conscious consumer: Within a broad range, individual prices are highly arbitrary. Hotels, like most businesses, have quite a bit of latitude in room pricing, and landing at the cheaper end of the range just requires asking the right questions and exercising a bit of fortitude.
Test the waters the next time you make a reservation over the phone; it feels less confrontational if you're new to negotiating. Become familiar with key phrases like, "Is that the best price you can offer?" or "I'm on a very tight budget for this trip. Do you have any special discounts I might be able to take advantage of?"
Hotels can offer a "walk-out" or "walk-away" rate if they feel they may lose a customer on price alone. The walk-out price is the lowest price the hotel will let the room go for in order to prevent the customer from -- you guessed it -- walking out. I've even heard of some bold customers ask directly, "What's your walk-away price?"
Keep in mind, it's harder to negotiate rates during busy nights, peak travel holidays, or early in the day before the hotel can gauge its bookings. Remember, it never hurts to ask.
Pick your room carefully. When it comes to hotel real estate, the familiar adage still applies: Location, location, location. The positioning of your room within the hotel can add to or detract from its value considerably. Try to exercise a bit of control over the room you're assigned. I typically try to avoid rooms that are near elevators or staircases, near the ice machine or vending machine, facing the parking lot, or near the main entrance. All of these spots tend to be noisy throughout the night for obvious reasons. Areas near the kitchen or lounge will see a lot activity early in the morning as folks fill up on their complimentary breakfasts.
Remember, someone is getting the quietest room. Optimize your chances by knowing the difference between prime hotel real estate and the slums. (See also: "Tips for sounder sleep at hotels.")
Check in early, check out late. Since I'm not an early riser, I have a bit of a different view of the purpose of a hotel. I like to get a solid night's rest and not be compelled to wake up early when the housekeeping staff comes a-knocking. If a hotel's value lies in the sheer amount of hours you get to enjoy a little R&R, optimize your time there by checking in early and checking out late.
Hotel proprietors will typically let guests check in an hour or two early if there are clean rooms available. Likewise, with a polite call to the front desk in the morning, you can usually score a later checkout time. It never hurts to ask, and it just might keep you from that mad morning rush.
As the economy continues to limp along and businesses begrudgingly adjust to tighter profit margins, their inventiveness will be matched only by their boldness. Vigilance in the new age of "recessionomics" means maximizing the dollars you must spend and closely guarding what's left. Safe travels ... and watch out for the mini-bar!
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