At the Last Minute, or in Advance, Sites Offer Wide Choice and Bargains

Procrastination may be the thief of time, but not necessarily that of money, as Bob Tedeschi of the New York Times reports.
There are plenty of times when procrastination pays great dividends. (More on that later, if I get around to it.) But one situation that often breeds pain - fiscal and otherwise - for procrastinators is hotel booking. I learned this lesson last summer as I tried in vain to find a hotel in New York so I could attend a conference I`d known about for three months. It was two days before the conference was to begin. I had travel agents scouring Manhattan for rooms that might squeeze into my allotted budget. They came up with nothing. I was ready to call friends and pack the sleeping bag when I resorted to an Internet search.
I hit pay dirt. Sort of. On the Hotel Reservations Network,, I found a room at what the site described as a three-star property, the Hotel Pennsylvania across from Madison Square Garden, for about $150. Compared with the other available places, it was a bargain, so I hit the “reserve now” button, stashed the sleeping bag and patted myself on the back.
The Web is fast becoming the tool of choice for making hotel reservations, whether at the last minute or well in advance. PhoCusWright, an industry research company, estimates that 11 million Americans booked hotels online last year, spending $2.6 billion in the process. It predicts that the number will more than double in the next three years. For consumers, the more relevant fact is that the bigger online travel agencies like Expedia and Travelocity have focused increasing attention on hotel bookings in the past year, as they search for ways to make money on things other than airline tickets.
The Hotel Reservations Network, or HRN, is both a competitor to and partner of many online travel agencies. According to its president, Robert Diener, more than 3,500 Web sites use its service to sell discount hotels to consumers, including Travelocity,, and others. Unlike HRN, many sites that book hotels are storefronts for computerized reservation systems, or CRS, which are essentially reservations networks for travel agents. Well-known CRS companies, like Sabre and Galileo, distribute all their hotel rates to agents on and off the Internet. Rather than show consumers the everyday rates for rooms available through the CRS companies, HRN negotiates blocks of rooms with hotel owners. It secures rooms at a wholesale rate from about 3,100 hotels in 118 North American markets, Diener said. (Hotels in more than 30 international cities are on the site, too.) He resells them at a discount of between 20 percent and 40 percent off the hotels` corporate rate. Since that relationship ensures a steady supply of bookings for a hotel during nonpeak seasons, hotels allot HRN rooms during peak periods when they are otherwise booked.
Which leads me back to the Hotel Pennsylvania. On the HRN site last summer, there were a number of possible openings, but this was the only one in midtown Manhattan with a three-star rating (out of five) and a relatively low rate. I had to pay for the room in advance, so if I backed out I would have been charged a $50 cancellation fee. When I arrived, I was less than thrilled. The wallpaper was peeling, the carpet and furniture were stained, and the bedding was, shall we say, a bit long in the tooth. Admittedly I didn`t complain, feeling lucky to have a roof over my head at all, but fell asleep to the sounds of midtown traffic and the crowds around Madison Square Garden.
Once back home, I looked up the hotel again. It was described as a “first class landmark hotel” that was “built in 1919” and was a “vision of elegance.” But, awash in optimism, I`d overlooked a key phrase: “These rooms have not been renovated.” I should have known better. (But now, according to Steve Leonard, director of sales and marketing, a $45 million renovation is scheduled to be completed by Labor Day.)
HRN`s closest competitor, Quikbook,, operates in a similar manner. Quikbook`s chief executive, Ray Vastola, said the site lists rooms in more than 600 hotels in 40 American cities, with new cities added monthly. The site does not charge your credit card when you book the reservation, nor does it charge a fee if you cancel - although the hotel may. The Web site also offers customers more detailed - and presumably more objective - hotel information than many competitors. Not only does it offer its own ratings on the rooms, the service and other aspects of the hotel, but it also displays customer ratings, even when they are not entirely positive.
For instance, the site quoted customers as saying that the Metropolitan Hotel, on Lexington Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets, had small rooms and long lines at checkout and check-in. Joseph Graham, a radio executive who works in Manhattan but lives more than two hours away in Connecticut, said he had relied extensively on the Quikbook site this year. Because his job often requires him to attend late-night or early-morning functions, he said, he had considered renting an apartment in New York for those nights when a commute made no sense. Instead, he uses Quikbook, sometimes on the day of his trip (since it`s within two days, he has to use an 800 number to make the reservation). “I tell them what my price range is,” he said, referring to the pull-down menus on the site`s front page, “and I usually get something for between $99 and $139. And for the hotels I end up getting, those are good prices.” Graham said he “used to do the Priceline thing, but it drove me crazy, with the waiting and all that.”
Indeed, Priceline is not necessarily a great fit for those who have no time or stomach for uncertainty, since you commit to buying a hotel room before you actually see what you`re getting, and you must wait 15 minutes for an answer. But the company offers rooms at roughly 6,000 hotels in 1,500 cities, and you can find great prices.
The company declines to say what the average final price is for a hotel room, but Brian Ek, a Priceline spokesman, said, “You have a reasonable chance of success if your offer is 40 percent below the retail price. That`s particularly true with the recent slack-off in business travel.”
While the site was the target of some consumer complaints last year charging that its hotel descriptions did not match reality, Priceline has created a “2.5 star” category in its one- to four-star system, to help solve the problem. It has also instituted a feature allowing travelers to specify the area within a city where they would like to stay, and in recent months it began allowing customers to book hotels as late as 6 p.m. on the nights they are traveling.
Hotel bookings are also available through the better-known online travel agencies, like Travelocity, Expedia, and TravelNow, each of which lists at least 40,000 properties to choose from.
There`s a good deal of overlap, but these sites have been vying to offer customers deals, à la Quikbook and HRN, by negotiating lower rates with hotel properties.
If I`d given myself more time last summer, I might have done well to search these sites for the best rates, then see if Quikbook or HRN could return cheaper results for comparable hotels. Then, perhaps, I could have tried Priceline, requesting a low rate on a four-star hotel and seeing what my luck brought - an approach only a true procrastinator could reject. I`ll have to put some more thought into that, at some point.