Hotels can be a ripoff.

You know I'm right.

For example, I don't understand why the more you pay for a room, the more you pay for all the incidentals that go with the room. I stayed at an expensive Four Seasons resort at a conference a few weeks ago and had to pay $15 a day for Internet access. Then I stayed at a Marriott Courtyard at half the price and Internet service was included for free.

I've paid 50 percent more for the same hotel room in the same city depending on the time of year and day of the week I visited. I'm ashamed to say I've paid $12 for a bottle of water. And $20 for a quarter-filled glass of mediocre wine at a hotel bar one night. My wife is always convinced that the previous people who used our room urinated in the coffee maker, so I'm forced to pay $4 for a cup of Starbucks in the lobby, which is twice the normal exorbitant price.

Hotels can be a ripoff.

Recently I had to stay overnight in New York for work. Have you been to New York City recently? In case you didn't know, the recession there is officially over, particularly for the travel industry. Knowing that I would be there a few weeks in advance I searched and searched for an affordable room. And I couldn't find a decent three-star hotel in the city for less than $450 per night. The bedbugs were provided for an extra charge. As a penny-pincher, spending that kind of money per night on a stupid hotel room is like paying $25 for one of those horsemeat burgers you get from room service. It kills me.

But in this case I found a solution: the subway. Because directly over the 59th Street Bridge is the three-star Holiday Inn City View in Long Island City, Queens. Two stops from Central Park on the R train. Sure the neighborhood was sketchy. And yes, the location was uncomfortably close to the Mets' home stadium for me.

But the cost? $182.50 per night. Of course, after paying New York City taxes the rate went up to $2,565 per night, but I won't include that amount here.

Which brings me to Penny-Pinching Tip No. 1 for avoiding get ripped off by hotels: Avoid the city center. Most major cities have subways and bus systems. Some of them are even safe to use.

I've been to New York countless times and I still can't figure out how to use the subways. (Do I take the express or local?) But that's OK. I always plan out my adventure using Hopstop.com first. This site is the MapQuest of public transportation, giving step-by-step directions for using public transport in just about every major city in the country. Even a taxi ride from a suburban hotel is probably less than the extra dollars you're paying for staying downtown. Smart penny-pinchers I know look for hotels on the outskirts of the city and save big bucks by staying there. By the way, if you're looking to stay in NYC, also consider Jersey City. The hotels there are much less than Manhattan and only a short subway ride into town. Yes, I know it's in New Jersey. But it's even farther from where the Mets play, so that's a plus.

There are more ways to avoid getting ripped off by hotels too.

So here's Penny-Pinching Tip No. 2 for not getting ripped off by hotels: Always make your reservation by calling the hotel directly. Of course, check the pricing online beforehand so you know where to start. But that's just to start. Always ask for a discount. And always be nice. The girl answering the phone isn't the one ripping you off. Considering what she's paid, she's probably being ripped off too. Acting like a jerk with the hotel clerk is a guaranteed way to get the highest rate in the place.

Try to avoid the hotel's toll-free line, where reservation clerks are like robots. If you've stayed in the hotel before, go ahead and mention it and lie about how much you loved the place. Oh, just say you did anyway and see what it gets you. The biggest advantage you'll get by dealing directly with the hotel is that it's easy to change the reservation. Some hotels pay up to a 30 percent commission to sites like Expedia, so they're more accommodating to customers who reserve directly with them. By the way, belonging to the hotel's traveler program doesn't hurt either. It's almost always free to sign up.

Penny-Pinching Tip No. 3 for not getting ripped off by hotels: Have a good imagination - and no morals. Like me. Always ask for the corporate rate. And try to name a specific local company too. Before traveling to a town, search on Google for larger companies or universities near to the hotel where you're staying. Then ask the hotel if they have a rate for that organization. It almost always works. If you strike out the first time, wait a few hours and call back when another shift of clerks are on duty. Or go to the university's Web site and see if they have "recommended" hotels in the area.

Dishonest?

Maybe. But these are hotel chains we're talking about. These are the guys who charge you $5 for a Snickers bar in your room. Or $22 for use of their "spa," which is nothing more than a tepid whirlpool and two treadmills. If you want to sleep better at night, try to avoid claiming that you work for the company or university. Just let the clerk make their own assumptions. Trust me - you'll sleep like a baby knowing you saved 10 percent to 30 percent off the rate they originally quoted. If you can't find a corporate or university rate nearby, always have your trusty AAA card handy. Just about all of the hotel chains honor them.

Penny-Pinching Tip No. 4: Continue the negotiations when you arrive. Question the rate again. Ask if anything lower has been offered. See if you can "sneak in" at something lower. Sometimes it works. Oh, and always asks for a corner room too - they're usually the biggest in the building.

Here's Penny-Pinching Tip No. 5: Before booking directly with the hotel, first check out to see if there are any online deals. The major travel sites like Expedia offer specials that may be enticing. And I admit I still find the best deals on Priceline.com. Of course with Priceline you don't know the hotel you're bidding on until you've paid for it, but I've usually had pretty good success. I try never to pay full price online. I visit Retailmenot.com and look for coupon codes for major hotel brands. I also get alerts from PlasticJungle.com. This site lets users sell unused gift cards and buy other people's gift cards at a serious discount. Whenever a gift card comes available for Marriott or Best Western I snap them up and then use one the next time it's time to pay.

I don't have sympathy for the hotel chains. Not when I feel guilted into leaving a $10-a-night tip for the housekeeper to make up for the low wages they're getting from their employer. I'm a penny-pincher. And I'm always, always looking for other ways to save a few bucks when staying away from home.

Any more ideas?

 

Gene Marks, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service, and financial management tools to small and midsized businesses.

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