Welcome to a new era in shopping for a hotel


Everyone knows that shopping for airfares has become complicated. Price is just one consideration. Cancellation policies, charges for rebooking and refund policies come into play.

Finding a hotel room has become the same. I was reminded of this when I browsed the Web recently for a room in San Francisco.

I found a hotel I liked, checked the prices on a few Internet sites that offer discounts, and called the hotel directly to ask for its best corporate rate.

The hotel's lowest price was $25 a night more than on Expedia. com, but its payment and cancellation policies were more flexible.

The hotel required 24 hours' cancellation notice to avoid paying for one night's stay; took a credit card to hold the room but wouldn't charge the full amount until checkout; allowed reservation changes at no charge; and had no penalty for early checkout.

Expedia required prepayment of the full amount on my credit card; had a three-day cancellation policy; charged $25 to make changes to the reservation; and stipulated a no-refund policy for early checkout.

I called the hotel again.

"I saw a lower rate on Expedia," I told the reservation clerk. "Could you match it?"

"Of course," he said.

Not all hotels will match prices offered by online discounters, but with vacancies up due to the economy, SARS and terrorism fears, companies are looking for ways to cut commission costs.

Hotel policies are almost always more flexible than those of online discounters, but some hotels are starting to attach restrictions to their lowest Web rates.

Always read the fine print on travel Web sites, and if booking directly with a hotel, ask about the details on its cancellation policies.

When you book with Internet discounters, you're usually booking through a central reservations agency that negotiates rates and handles thousands of bookings, often for the same sites.

Expedia uses Travelscape, Inc., a subsidiary based in Las Vegas; others use the Alliance Reservations Network, a company with online booking connections to 40,000 hotels worldwide.

If you have problems or want to change your reservation, you'll be dealing with customer-service agents for the online sites, rather than directly with the hotel itself.

To minimize hassles, take along the toll-free customer service number in case of a missing reservation or other problem, and always reconfirm your reservation directly by calling the hotel yourself a few days ahead.

Because of the volume of bookings that hotels receive from the big reservation networks, some hotels request that online discounters not submit guest names until seven days before check-in, Expedia warns.

Here are a few other suggestions for booking a hotel room:

* To find out what others have to say about hotels you're considering, check sites such as www.fodors.com and www.trip advisor.com, which post customer reviews and comments.

* When booking with a hotel directly, check its Web site and call its 800 number. (Web rates are usually less, but in doing research for this column, I found at least one case where the Web rate was higher than what was quoted over the phone.)

* Ask for discounts that apply to you, such as corporate, AAA and senior citizen or AARP rate.

Hotels that don't price-match might offer other incentives if you book with them directly.

* Keep in mind that initial rate quotes almost never include taxes. Always find out the bottom-line price per night with taxes and, if booking with online discounters, be aware of added service fees.

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