Sunday, July 28, 2013

MTQ hotel booking tips

One of the perks of Old Fart Syndrome (OFS) is that you pick up a few tricks and strategies for successful hotel and travel.  Yes, I appreciate that there are many "experts" who widely share their advice, often reflecting the latest wiz bang way to get the best price but I would venture to guess that many of these folks haven't planned travel for a family of 5 and may not be quite as vested in saving a buck.  Here is the strategy that I have found that seems to work well for me:

1.  Get the lay of the land:  In this step I take a quick peek at travel reviews and price ranges.  I like to use  Yelp is another quickly emerging review site.  I like to skim the reviews and get a flavor for what others have said.  Yes, you will find some vindictive reviewers, but you should look for emerging patterns either positive or negative.  A bargain isn't a bargain if it doesn't satisfy your expectations.

Next, I take a peek at what typical price ranges.  In this step, I currently use  In the past, I've used, Orbitz, Trevelocity and Expedia.  As Kayak advertises, "one and done"; Kayak is an aggregate site that actually searches many of these other sites that I have used in the past.

2. Go to directly to the hotel site(s).  Usually after taking a quick look at Kayak, a couple of good quality hotels will fall out as having both good value (less expensive than average) and good quality (better quality than average).  For these I go directly to the hotel site to check the price.  Oftentimes, the hotel site will offer the same low price that you will see offered on the travel sites.  Maybe its the OFS, but I like to know directly who I'm working with.  It seems like some of these travel sites bounce you from one resource to another so if a problem arises I can foresee those involved pointing the fingers to one of the others, if you are able to figure out who you're really dealing with at all.

In this step I also carefully check the cancellation policy.  I learned this lesson the hard way, after experiencing a appendicitis after booking a non-refundable charter to Cancun.  (And yes, I experienced my usual fun with insurance companies, but I will put in big plug for Blue Cross / Blue Shield.  BC/BS has sent one of those form letters informing me of my $500 penalty for not informing them... I sent them a flaming letter back letting them know that after being sent directly to their network facility emergency room and being freshly fish filleted, calling them wasn't the first thing on my mind.  BC/BS reached out with a personal phone call.  The representative was very kind and empathetic and the penalty was waived).  While the experience with the insurance company turned out positive, we still lost a very large amount of the travel money.  Despite this experience, I would still avoid travel insurance for typical hotel travel; I might consider travel insurance for travel such as cruises or non-refundable travel.  Thus, I take a serious look at the cancellation policy and prefer dealing with one person if I need to cancel as opposed to being confused as to whether I need to go onto some travel site to cancel or cancel directly with the hotel.

3.  Evaluate what discounts you may be eligible for:  Some of these may be fairly obvious.  Most of us know about automobile association (AAA or CAA) discounts and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) discounts.  Other discounts may not be as obvious.  For example, if you are a member of a labor union, some hotels offer discounts.  Or, if you are a government employee, you might be able to get a government rate (sometimes the government rate is cheaper and sometimes it isn't).  Government rates are primarily set for travel on government business, but many hotels will extend the government rate to government employees on leisure travel.  I have found that it sometimes pays to check specifically for an Entertainment club discount.   These are the coupon books are commonly sold by local schools or clubs as a fund raiser.  They typically cost $35 to $40 and most people make their money back by savings in 2 for 1 restaurant coupons.  What may not be as apparent is that they have hotel savings, one of which is a save up to 50% section.  I have found the Entertainment site a little tricky to navigate, but it is worthwhile to explore whether a desirable hotel in the area you are traveling might extend the 50% discount to you.  Sometimes even if they aren't, the hotel may still offer a rate to Entertainment club members less than is commonly advertised.

4.  Call the hotel directly:  What, in the age of the internet you are saying that I should actually call the hotel?  Yes, that is exactly what I said.  When calling try to fish for buzz words such as "Is there any Manager's specials?"  or "Do you have any local specials?"  When you call, kill them with kindness - the more pleasant you sound the more likely they will be to extend themselves to help you (and catch more flies with honey).  If you have a sense of humor and can make them laugh, go for it... ask them if they have any "cheap old fart on the phone discounts" or any other discount they can think of...engage, engage, engage!

I have found that this strategy works better for hotels like Best Western that are independently owned versus something like the Hilton line that are tightly regulated by corporate policy.  Regardless, you're probably never going to pay more by calling so don't be shy.  Also, calling is a very good idea if you have unique situations such as when I have had to book travel for a family of 5.  By calling I am able to get a much better feel for whether they will be able to accommodate our needs or whether someone will end up sleeping in a chair.  In some instances, I didn't necessarily score a better price, but I was able to ensure that I was placed in a room that would work better than a standard luck of the draw room.

5.  Email the hotel:  Again, I know some of you may be thinking, "you've gotta be kidding."  Well, no, I'm not.  Emailing the hotel may be a good strategy if you have special needs like family of 5 travel or if you are staying multiple nights.  Also, keep in mind that an email might get the eye of a manager whereas when you call, you typically reach the front desk where they may or may not be getting overwhelmed with other demands and might not have the same flexibility that a manager may have.  This strategy worked great for our family when we traveled to Disneyland, CA.  I had written a very polite email which was responded to by a manager and we were able to work out 4 or 5 nights at a rate far below what was advertised elsewhere.  (And yes, this was one of our first pick hotels being across the road and within easy walking distance of Disneyland).

I will add a comment that in some cases, it is becoming more difficult to find a local email address for some hotels as I believe it is the strategy of the hotel to avoid being overwhelmed with emails that they cannot keep up with.  I always start with the "contact us"; sometimes I will Google "email for xyz hotel" and sometimes I might need to be creative such as using the email address for the event planner (yes, they will more than likely forward it on if needed and it is possible that this strategy may expose your inquiry to more manager types).

6.  Evaluate price, quality and risk and make a decision.  Only you can assess the likelihood of you actually making the trip so you should weigh the risk of cancellation and any related penalties accordingly.  Similarly, your lowest price may not equate to your best choice.  Sometimes it is worthwhile to pay a few dollars more and get more.  For example, if you are a family of 5, a free breakfast has definite value.  Consider other hidden amenities.  You might not think of parking as an amenity, but if one hotel is going to charge you $20 and another is not, parking is an amenity!  For our family, free wireless internet and a pool are also strongly desirable amenities.

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