This is a guest post by Wendy S. Goffe, a trusts and estates lawyer with Stoel Rives in Seattle. You can follow her on Twitter.
As Spring break approaches, some travelers are scouring the Internet for one last ski trip or a warm weather getaway to replenish vitamin D levels. I am on Maui, attending an estate planning conference held at the 5-star Grand Wailea, part of the Waldorf Astoria chain.
Room rates here begin at almost $500 a night, and for a view of something other than the parking lot, accommodations get substantially more expensive. Professional meetings tend to be designed for attendees with generous expense accounts and leisure time. Since I have neither, I am economizing by doubling up in a $440 per night room with my friend Karen Boxx, a professor at University of Washington School of Law.
By rooming together, we figured we could save enough money to ensure that we have something left for fruity drinks and a trip to the spa. Without these perks, in our effort to economize, Boxx and I could begin to resemble a bickering old married couple by the end of the week. Even when picking up the tab ourselves, we share the belief that money spent shopping for shoes and scouring consignment stores for designer labels far outweighs the value of an ocean view or a private room.
By rooming with a colleague at a professional conference on Maui, Wendy Goffe figured she could save enough to pay for a visit to the swank hotel spa.
Also attending is our colleague, David English, a University of Missouri Law School professor, and the gold standard of meeting frugality. He has a reputation for always finding the cheaper alternative. This time he is staying at a 3-star hotel a few miles down the road.
Finding a hotel room on any budget can be a time consuming project. Comparing advertised rates is tricky. Like airlines, which have long unbundled their fees, hotels have joined the bandwagon with costs that can quickly add hundreds of dollars to your tab.
Here are nine tips, from Boxx, English and other seasoned travelers, for navigating hotel charges and finding bargains.
1. Abandon nostalgia. Forget about in-room coffee makers. Even in a 5-star hotel, you may need to pay for your morning Joe. Those cute little soaps and shampoos that everyone likes to take home are going down the drain, too. Hotels have figured out it’s cheaper to use wall dispensers.
Boxx recalls an experience at the Ritz Carlton in Washington, D.C. during the 1980s that would be hard to duplicate today. The desk clerk, who heard her sniffling the morning after she arrived, asked, “Miss Boxx, are you not feeling well?” She was impressed that he remembered her name from when she checked in the night before. But the personal touch didn’t end there. “Would you like the bellman to go to the drugstore for you? What is your preferred cold medication?” Not only did he deliver what she asked for, but there was no charge.
2. Compare prices online. Expedia, Kayak (an aggregator of other search engines), Orbitz, Priceline (an auction style site that allows you to name the price you are willing to pay) and Travelocity are just a few of the places to start your search. If Internet access is key, check out HotelChatter, which rates the quality of access in thousands of hotels around the globe.
Web sites don’t always list the tacked on fees and regulatory surcharges. Call the hotel and ask before you book, or your bargain may be a bust.
3. Be flexible about travel dates. You will get the best bargains this way. Google Hotel Finder will tell you the best time to stay at a destination. Or you can input parameters including your budget, desired travel dates, and geographic limits using various filters, and it will give you a list of destinations to consider.
4. Budget for amenities. If you got a screaming deal on the room, be prepared to pay for the extras. Your request for what has historically been standard with a room may, without warning, end up as an additional cost on your bill.
Resorts may charge additional resort fees to cover nothing in particular. Then expect to pay extra for a cabana or a beach umbrella.
Other extra charges that are showing up on hotel bills include use of the workout facilities, the pool, or even an ironing board. You may also have to pay for: using the business center for anything more than printing a boarding pass; Internet access ($30 a day at the Ritz on top of the pricey room fee); mandatory valet parking; or calling even an 800 number. And don’t expect a free newspaper with that $5 cup of coffee in the morning ($13 for a pot at the Heathman in Portland, Ore.).
5. Search for hidden discounts. If you are you a member of AARP, AAA, a professional group such as the American Bar Association or the American Medical Association, you may be entitled to a discount. You can also search the Internet for discount codes on sites like Hotels.com, Retail Me Not, Orbitz.com or Coupon Heaven.
Hotel web sites advertise packages and deals. If you like a particular chain, sign up for its e-newsletter with the latest information on discounts and package deals. The Ritz Carlton in Chicago American Girl Doll Suite package includes a doll bed with its own turndown service, and cookies for your child as well as the doll. In my experience, the room isn’t the nicest, but it can make a little travel companion happy and the room is $20 less than the price of a regular room with a king size bed.
6. Consider less expensive hotels. Ironically, they tend to provide more for less, even in the same chain. For example, Hampton Inn and Embassy Suites typically provide breakfast, Internet and free local calls. Their more expensive sister chains–Hilton, Waldorf Astoria and Conrad–all charge for these privileges. The same is true of the Fairfield Inn by Marriott, which offers fee Internet, breakfast, coffee and newspaper, unlike its pricier relatives, The Ritz Carlton, JW Marriott, and the Bulgari Hotels and Resorts.
7. Join a loyalty program. With this investment of a few minutes, you can reap continuing dividends. At the Fairmont President’s Club and the Kimpton InTouch loyalty program, members get free Internet. The same is true for the Omni and the Wyndham hotels. The more points you accrue, the more freebies and upgrades you are entitled to. Travel Zoo keeps an updated list of popular loyalty clubs and their perks.
8. Don’t hesitate to negotiate. Hotels with vacancies are often willing to negotiate to fill a room. Don’t be afraid to ask for a free breakfast, Internet, parking or use of the workout facilities. Hotel managers would rather make a little less on an occupied room than leave it empty for a night.
9. Look for packages. You may get a better deal with a package, even if you don’t need or want all of the components, says English, who travels on business almost two dozen times a year, and is a devoted Orbitz fan. He rarely needs or uses the free parking, round of golf or the hotel breakfast they offer, but still comes out ahead.
With all you’ve saved from being frugal, you may be able to justify a splurge now and then. A luxury hotel room can make a vacation really memorable. Boxx fondly recalls a stay last April at the crazy expensive Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich. Even the mini bar was free, and each time she walked through the lobby, the staff greeted her by name. “It was worth every penny,” she says.
Craig Mason, a Seattle architect and frequent business traveler, waxes rhapsodic about the night he spent in the Lloyd Hotel Amsterdam, built in a renovated penitentiary. He is also a devoted fan of Andaz Hotels (a division of Hyatt) that include a gourmet breakfast, a host of other luxuries, and surprising design features, like the glass-surrounded tub in the middle of the room in San Diego. Pleasant memories of such a fling can linger long after the sting of the bill has worn off.
Do you have a tip to save on hotel fees or an experience that was worth the sticker shock? Please comment in the space below.