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Hotel news

By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency

The main hotel story this summer is the tug-of-war between hotels and third-party online agencies for your business. If you book directly — either online, through a smartphone app or by phone — and join their frequent-stay programs, which are free, they promise at least minimal discounts:

  • Hilton claims you will enjoy the “lowest price anywhere,” including “up to 30 percent off,” in most parts of the world, plus free base Wi-Fi.
  • Hyatt promotes discounts “up to 10 percent” at participating hotels in the U.S., Australia, Canada and the Caribbean.
  • IHG’s “Your Rate” promotion says you “save time and money,” without specifying the exact amount.
  • Marriott’s “Member Rates” promise “our lowest rates, all the time,” along with free Wi-Fi. According to published reports, the discounts range from 2 percent to 5 percent — not overwhelming, but still better than nothing.

So far, I haven’t seen similar promotions from Starwood or Wyndham, but you can be sure that they’ll do so soon. And even absent any particular membership benefits, hotel websites typically feature senior and membership deals that OTAs often don’t post.

The reason hotels want you to book directly isn’t hard to figure: On average, third-party online travel agencies (OTA) reportedly skim something like 15 percent to 30 percent off bookings, although the big OTAs claim something more like 9 percent. Still, that’s a lot more than chump change, and more than enough to justify fighting for direct bookings. And just the Wi-Fi is enough to move some travelers to direct booking.

But no matter what the hotel chains say, direct booking isn’t always best. I ran a test about a month ago, and I found that direct booking worked best most of the time, but, especially at non-chain hotels, OTAs occasionally do better. The take-away is simple: Always check both third-party sources through a metasearch engine such as on TripAdvisor, as well as the hotel’s official site before you buy.

If you’re headed for London this summer, you might find the results of a new study on average hotel rates in London’s various boroughs useful:

  • The least expensive borough is Newham, at 99 pounds, but it’s quite remote.
  • The least expensive borough popular with tourists is Hammersmith and Fulham, at 114 pounds, but even there you’ll spend a lot of time and money on buses or in the tube getting where you really want to be.
  • Among the more central areas, Kensington and Chelsea, at 173 pounds, and Westminster, at 204 pounds, are a lot more expensive, but they’re in the thick of the action.

Fortunately, you can stay in the popular areas at well under these average rates. The concentrations of B-and-Bs and small hotels around Paddington, Victoria and Earl’s Court continue to offer plenty of options for budget travelers.

And if you’re heading outside London, a new-to-me website, hostunusual.co.uk, displays an amazing range of off-the-beaten-track accommodations. From elegant architect-designed houses and private islands to caves, treehouses, towers and forts, you can track down and book some truly far-out places to stay. I don’t know of a similar operation in the U.S., but if there is, I’m sure the sponsor will let me know — kindly, I hope.

Two new reports delve into the ethical morass of getting special hotel treatment. One source notes that when you check into a big Las Vegas hotel, a $20 bill wrapped around your credit cards nets you an upgrade as much as 88 percent of the time. There’s no guarantee, but the technique seems to be a good gamble.

Another source notes that you can sometimes buy high-level “elite” status in a hotel’s frequent-stay program — status that often includes automatic upgrades, late check-out, occasional freebies and other perks. Apparently it works this way: You pay someone who already has top-level elite status to “recommend” you for status — a “status match” process hotel chains often use to poach frequent travelers from each other. You see offers on eBay and possibly Craigslist. Your new status usually lasts no more than a year, but you may find it worth the cost.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at Rail-Guru.com.)

Tribune Content Agency — June 21, 2016

(c) 2016 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

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