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Deciphering the hotel rate confusion

While published hotel sales usually offer decent savings off rack rates—the highest possible rate—be aware that most major hotel chains offer special discounts for travelers willing to book online rates. These Internet-only rates require a full or partial prepayment, but often afford deeper discounts. However, they usually come with heavy restrictions.

Here are some tips to help you determine which rate is the best option for your next hotel stay.

Online-only rates: The best deal?

As the editor of SmarterTravel.comÃ?’s hotel section, itÃ?’s my job to analyze hotel sales to make sure theyÃ?’re of considerable value. Many times, in putting a sale to the test, IÃ?’ll find that the hotel company offers Internet-only discount rates that are significantly cheaper than its sale rates.

However, these online-only prices usually carry extra restrictions, such as no cancellations or a hefty cancellation or change fee, and a 100 percent nonrefundable pre-payment. As such, if you know your travel plans are unlikely to change, online-only prices may be a worthwhile option.

Hotel chains that currently offer discounted online rates include Best Western, Choice Hotels, Days Inn, Hilton, Hyatt, Intercontinental Hotels Group, Loews, Marriott, Omni Hotels, and Ramada.

The perks of hotel sales

However, if you need flexibility, promotional sale rates, which come with fewer restrictions, can still be a bargain. They can often be used during peak travel times, off-season months, and might even come with an extra perk or two, such as free breakfast or complimentary parking.

In addition, sale rates can often be used in conjunction with a hotel rewards program or airline frequent flyer program, thus giving you an added incentive. And although they may have date restrictions by season, sale rates typically allow travelers to cancel or change their plans without major penalties, a bonus if you need to alter your itinerary.

But perhaps the largest sale rate perk is the significant savings it provides over rack rates. Rack rates are the highest possible rate charged per room and vary by room class, day of the week, and amenities. As such, with sale rates, you’ll at least have peace of mind that you wonÃ?’t be paying full price for your stay.

Nevertheless, in todayÃ?’s competitive marketplace, youÃ?’ll want to do some research to make sure that rate (sale or otherwise) you found is as good as it seems.

Which rate is best for you?

When booking a hotel, be sure to compare all available rates at the property. Steps include:

  1. Check all rate classes for the hotel where you wish to stay (usually on the hotel’s website).
  2. Compare those prices to offers on major travel providers (visit SmarterTravel’s price-comparison tool to check rates simultaneously). Note that with most of the majors, youÃ?’ll pay an extra booking fee (typically $5).
  3. Call the hotel directly (not the central reservations line) to see if better rates are available by phone, mentioning the lowest rate you found.
  4. If applicable, ask about lowest-price guarantees.

Do a bit of research into the type of property where youÃ?’re planning on staying. For example, hotels that position themselves as business class (getting most of their income from weekday business travelers) often have lower prices for weekend stays, as Fridays and Saturdays are considered off-peak. Tourist- and luxury-class properties, however, will usually have inflated rates for weekend stays, as those days appeal to leisure travelers. By knowing who the hotel property caters to, and if you have flexibility, you can arrange your trip over dates that will provide the greatest savings.

In addition, if you hold a membership in AAA, AARP, StudentAdvantage, or a similar organization, be sure to check if additional discounts are available. Many hotels have partnered with these organizations to offer low rates that may undercut both sale and Internet-only prices.

If youÃ?’re taking a vacation, or need airfare and a rental car in addition to your hotel, consider booking a package rather than each of the components separately. Often rates for bundled vacation packages cost less than if you were to buy each element on its own.

By becoming an informed consumer, doing your research, and comparing rates, youÃ?’ll be able to get the best price for your next hotel stay. While initially this may seem more time-consuming than just calling a hotel and booking a room, the extra money youÃ?’ll pocket will be well worth it.

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