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Best hotels for any budget
35,000 readers say where to get a good night’s sleep

llustration of hotel room
Illustrations by Jason Schneider
It’s getting tougher to score a sweet deal on a hotel room. With both leisure and business travel on the rise, vacancies are down and rates are up. Even worse, some hotels are tacking on fees for everything from maid service ($5 to $18 a day) to the chance to use a tennis court and other resort amenities ($12 and up). That’s right--you’ll pay even if you don’t play.

What’s more, Web sites such as Travelocity and Expedia are no longer no-brainers for lower rates.

"It used to be consumers could call the hotel and visit the brand Web site and other travel sites, and find a dozen different rates," says Bjorn Hanson, lodging consultant for industry analyst PricewaterhouseCoopers. “That’s not true anymore. Consumers aren’t overpaying as much as they did before, but they’re not getting as many great deals, either.”

You might say that hotels have taken back the night. For one thing, they’re less willing to strike deals that let online travel sites undercut the hotels’ own prices. Hotels are also using software that lets their agents track room availability up to the minute and make immediate adjustments. The result: fewer empty rooms for hotels and potentially fewer big bargains for you.

If you’re seeing fewer bargains nowadays, it’s even more important that you like where you stay. That’s where our survey comes in. Almost 35,000 subscribers who answered the Consumer Reports National Research Center’s 2006 Annual Questionnaire told us about spending 139,000 nights at 48 hotel chains, from the opulent Ritz-Carlton to the convenient Red Roof Inn. The results reveal differences even within the same price level. Among our other findings:

"Upscale" hotels offer value. As a group, hotels that fall just short of luxurious--Homewood and SpringHill suites, Residence Inn, and Walt Disney Resorts, for example--provide a lot of bang for the buck and earned high scores for upkeep.

Suites are sweet. For about the same price as a standard room, you get at least 20 percent more space, including up to two bedrooms, kitchenette, living area, and sleeper sofa. Suites are available at most quality levels and may be an option at chains with no “suite” in their name.

Budget hotels aren’t a bargain. The least expensive hotels generally earned the lowest scores for value, upkeep, and service. Readers complained about bad lighting, outdated décor, and poorly functioning heaters and air conditioners. Those who stayed at budget hotels were generally most likely to report getting a poor night’s sleep because of noise or a bad bed. Microtel was the star of the budget bunch. It typically builds new hotels rather than converting older properties from other brands.

Choose a category

Wherever you stay, you’re apt to benefit from what the industry calls "amenities creep," the trickle-down of niceties from pricey hotels to less-pricey ones.

Budget hotels often have a pool and a fitness room, and your room is likely to include a hair dryer, a radio/alarm clock, a safe, voicemail, and a TV set with premium channels. You may get free local and, in some cases, long-distance phone calls, wireless high-speed Internet access, and continental breakfast. Budget hotels are the best bet if you’re traveling with pets.

Moderate-price hotels often offer a hot breakfast buffet at no extra charge, free wireless access in your room and sometimes in public spaces, at least a modest business center, a two-line speakerphone, an iron and ironing board, a coffeemaker, and fluffier-than-budget towels.

Upscale hotels, which often cater to business travelers, are likely to provide oversize work desks and ergonomic office chairs; two two-line speakerphones; a refrigerator; a microwave oven; valet and self-service laundry; a 24-hour pantry; an evening reception with food, snacks, and liquor; and upgraded bedding and linens.

Luxury hotels make much ado about plush beds, high-thread-count sheets, oodles of overstuffed pillows, and down comforters. Some luxury chains sell their beds and bedding online. You’re apt to find 24-hour room service, free shuttle transportation, bellhops, and concierge service. Bathrooms are often marble, with multijet showerheads, bathrobes, and fancy toiletries. Bedrooms may have large, flat-screen TVs.

Fanciest of all are a few hotels that resemble luxury properties but are concentrated in big cities or exotic locales. The Fairmont in Chicago offers baby-sitting, a 24-hour concierge, twice-daily maid service, a “hand-drawn” bath, and a “hand-poured” martini served bedside. At the Ritz in lower Manhattan, expect a DVD home-theater system and Bulgari toiletries. The Four Seasons, also in this category, didn’t garner enough responses to be rated this time, but the data we do have suggest that it’s an excellent choice, as in past surveys.

Oddly enough, the fanciest hotels dole out fewer freebies than the rest. According to survey respondents, they were also most likely to charge excessive fees for phone calls. Sixty percent of high-end hotels charged for an Internet connection, compared with about 10 percent of budget hotels.

decide how to book

If you call the hotel (or just drive up), you’ll get instant feedback on availability, price, and amenities. Survey respondents who arrived without a reservation actually paid less than those who booked in advance. If the hotel has beds without heads (the trade’s phrase for empty rooms), you have the upper hand. If they’re full, you’d better hope there’s another hotel in town.

But more and more people are reserving rooms online, through hotel sites or independent travel sites such as Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity. Web sites are convenient for comparing prices and should be consulted even if you end up booking in a different way.

The hotels' own sites give the most detail about properties. They’re likely to feature special Internet rates as low as you’ll find published anywhere, even lower than rates for AAA and AARP members, government employees, and military personnel. Hotels don’t charge booking fees and usually don’t impose blackout dates during peak travel periods. (You might find both booking fees and blackouts on independent sites.) There’s also reason to book on a hotel’s site if you belong to a loyalty program: Some of the travel sites no longer issue points toward free nights and other perks.

Although independent sites are no longer likely to feature better deals, and won’t list every hotel in a given area, they let you read user reviews, download maps, and build travel packages, which the sites claim cost less than if you booked each component alone. You’ll also find descriptions of the properties, but readers said they were less accurate than those at the hotel sites.

Like many hotels, travel sites offer best-rate guarantees: If you can document a lower price for the same date for a room you’ve already booked, you’ll get a refund of the difference after your stay. But guarantees come with caveats. You’ll need a receipt (a screen shot might do), and you typically must fill out a claim form within 24 hours of the original booking. Guarantees don’t apply to discounts for seniors, AAA or AARP members, or to rooms reserved through sites such as Priceline or Hotwire. Nor do they apply to rooms booked with a car or flight.

Be aware that the very best rates, whether at a hotel or travel site, usually make you prepay and aren’t refundable.

Priceline and Hotwire are a different breed of site and can be a source of big bargains if you don’t demand a certain hotel brand. With Priceline, you pick a location and luxury level, then bid. With Hotwire, you get a price and a property description, without the hotel’s name. Both sites reveal where you’ll be staying only after you’ve paid. Other sites with late-breaking deals include site59.com (for travel packages) and lastminutetravel.com.

You can cut research time by using search engines such as Kayak.com and TripAdvisor.com. They list a range of hotels, plus prices, for the requested city and date. They don’t book for you, but link to the site offering the deal you’ve chosen.

Try these tips to save more

Hotels may be more fully booked than in the past, but roughly one in three rooms is still vacant every night--which gives you some room for negotiation. As you’re choosing a hotel and exploring the booking options, try these strategies to eke out a lower rate:

  • Join a loyalty program. Frequent guests earn free nights, future discounts, room upgrades, and airline miles. Other perks include express check-in, late checkout, free Internet and phone calls, and at the Wyndham, for example, your own pillow type.

  • Be flexible. By bypassing a holiday, changing the length of your stay, or avoiding weekdays (when business travelers, who pay a premium, tend to be on the road), you have more leverage. By booking for a Friday or Saturday instead of a Thursday, our reporter could have saved at least $139 a night at the Crowne Plaza Phoenix Airport. At budget hotels, on the other hand, weekends may be most crowded.

  • Book early. Hotels are sometimes willing to give a good rate far ahead of time to lock in business or at the last minute if there’s a spare room. To hedge your bets, find a decent unrestricted rate early, then call back 24 to 72 hours before you arrive. If the rate has dropped, you usually can cancel and rebook without penalty.

  • If you call, ask for the lowest rate. That may sound obvious, but you’ll make sure you’re getting a good quote. The “corporate” rate is often the lowest the clerk is authorized to offer, and you don’t have to be on business to qualify. Ask if there’s an even lower Internet price.

  • Speak up. More than 70 percent of readers who haggled scored a rate reduction or room upgrade, especially if they negotiated face-to-face. Their success came at all types of hotels, including the Ritz-Carlton, the most expensive in the Ratings (available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers).

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