Major hotel chains behave like airlines. An unoccupied hotel room, like an empty airplane seat, is revenue forever lost. And like airlines, hotels use advance bookings to determine future occupancy rates. As soon as the crystal ball predicts empty beds, the discount programs are trotted out. That's why, for example, one can book a double room at the Hotel Sofitel (now the Continental) in Zürich this summer for $138 when the lowest "rack" or published rate for the cheapest double room is about $215.

These larger chain hotels have a variety of discount programs ready to dust off anytime the house isn't full. They are so numerous it becomes difficult for in-house and outside reservations services to be consistent in their price quotes.

A San Francisco television station recently performed a hotel booking experiment. Though limited to large, chain hotels in San Francisco—Hiltons, Marriotts, Hyatts, etc.—the results are instructive to anyone reserving a hotel room anywhere in the world.

The survey first called each hotel's 800 toll-free booking number to ask the double room rate on a specific date. The next call was to the hotel directly, again requesting a double room on the same date. The third call, like the second, direct to the hotel, differed in that the caller aggressively sought the best possible price, such as AAA or AARP membership discounts, corporate discounts or any other special rates that might lower the price. Four hotels were surveyed. The results?

Except in one instance, where the 800 quote and the quote direct from the hotel were exactly the same, no two calls to the same hotel yielded the same price quote (though even in this case the aggressive, discount-seeking caller later got a lower price).

In all cases the lowest price was obtained by the discount-seeker. In one instance, the 800 toll-free service quoted a $185 rate, the hotel slightly less and the discount seeker was offered a rate of $69.

In every case but the one mentioned above, the price quoted by the hotel was lower than that quoted by the 800 toll-free service.

Here's how it played at one hotel. The 800 toll-free service said the hotel was fully booked. The "non-discount" direct-to-the-hotel caller was told rooms were available and given a quote. Finally, the discount-seeker was not only told rooms were available but was quoted a substantially lower rate than the second caller.

One thing seems crystal clear: in order to obtain a discount you must ask for it. Last month, for example, we called to book a room at a Hilton Hotel in San Diego. "Yes sir," said the toll-free booking service, "we can offer you a queen-size room for $139." We next asked this simple question, "Don't you have a better rate than that?" "Well, sir, the best I can do for that room is our special bounce-back rate of $109." Had we not asked for the lower rate we would have paid the extra $30. And who knows, we might have done better calling the hotel directly.

The San Francisco results coincide with our own experiences over the past nine years. We have always recommended getting a price quote from both the hotel in Europe and from any U.S. reservation service, especially when booking well-known chain hotels. We suggest a fax inquiry seeking the lowest rate for the type of room desired. Ask about special rates: weekend rates, senior citizens rates or any other discounts that might be available. (A word of caution: this could not only get you the cheapest room but the least desirable one as well. If you need a quiet room, a view room, a balcony, etc., be sure to specify that in your inquiry.).

Smaller, family-operated European hotels don't offer the variety of discounts one finds at a Sofitel, a Steigenberger or a Hilton, but still they are often open to negotiation. In April, we were at the Hotel Landhaus in Saanen, Switzerland, about three kilometers down the road from chic and expensive Gstaad. The hotel was virtually empty, the manager complained, because certain affiliations with other hotels in the region including Gstaad forced her to agree to rates higher than she felt necessary. She strongly indicated a willingness to cut room prices on a case-by-case basis in times of low occupancy.

The moral of all this is: ask for the room you want, then ask for the lowest price.

Easy Money In Europe

We had just been presented with the bill following dinner in a Lausanne restaurant. There were six of us. Foolishly I had assumed the restaurant would accept one of my credit cards. I was mistaken, the bill required more cash than I had. So what now? Not surprisingly—remember we were in Switzerland—only a few steps up the street from the restaurant was a bank. It had an ATM that accepted my Citibank Visa. In two minutes I had the cash I needed. Now, back in the office nearly a month later, my Visa bill discloses that the 600 Swiss francs the machine spit out cost me $535. That's an exchange rate of 1.12, considerably better than the over-the-counter rate of 1.10 or 1.09 in effect at that time in Switzerland. In addition there was a $10 transaction fee (2% or maximum $10, minimum $2) and about $3.00 interest figured from the transaction date. In the past couple of years ATMs have proliferated in Europe. We recommend their convenience and the favorable exchange rate. On our April trip we took a few traveler's checks but didn't cash a single one; our sole source of local currency was ATMs. Use a debit card instead of a credit card; you won't pay interest and the transaction fee will likely be less (make sure your credit card doesn't charge a conversion fee).

Traveler's checks are not yet extinct and you will still want to carry some. If you buy them in a foreign denomination, be sure to shop the exchange rate. Traveler's checks from American Express or Thomas Cook may be free but a bank is almost certain to offer a better exchange rate.

Odds & Ends

The May issue of the excellent Consumer Reports Travel Letter (subscriptions $39, phone orders 800-234-1970) evaluates hotel voucher programs. Among those in which the average voucher costs more than the hotel's rack rate are: MinOtel (11% higher), German Hotels' Wundercheck (2%); Best Western's Euro-Guestcheque (1%). Not all vouchers were above rack rate. CRTL noted these good deals: Best Western-Darmstadt, Germany $91 and Nürnberg $104; Holiday Inn-Frankfurt $135, Hamburg $135, Munich $107; Geneva $135; Wundercheck-Baden-Baden, $112.

Vienna's Kursalon im Stadtpark has reopened and concerts will again take place each day, April-October, at 4-6 p.m. and 8-9:30 p.m. Mozart's birthplace, at Getreidegasse 9 in Salzburg, has been completely renovated and is now open daily.

Travelers who want to see Berlin's historic Reichstag for the first time are advised to skip the town during the period June 17 to July 6 when the famous old building, bullet hotels and all, will be covered in a silver polypropylene fabric, courtesy of the artist Christo. Those who have already eyeballed the Reichstag, but who would like to see what it looks like gift wrapped, may encounter difficulty finding accommodations. The city's hotels are rapidly filling for this event.

May 1995