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Expedia Won't Expedite Cheaper Hotel Deals

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Dawn Ledet says she doesn't understand why more travellers don't do the most obvious thing to save money on their hotel bill. That being: making a phone call before booking a room.

When you use the Internet to rent a room, as 62 per cent of North American travellers now do according to HotelMarketing.com, the amount you pay is split between the hotelier and the online travel site you used. As Ledet points out, it's beneficial to you and her to cut out the middle man.

"The secret in the industry is we would be happy to give a discount to our guests because that way we don't have to pay the commission," says Ledet, director of sales at the Dauphine Orleans, a historic French Quarter hotel in New Orleans. "It never hurts to call and ask."

Once you find an online hotel deal that you're happy with, you should always call the hotel's reservations desk and see if they will beat it. Some may not. I tried with three larger corporate chains and was told the best they could do was match the rate -- and one of the three couldn't even do that. Certain rooms are released at certain rates to the online discount sites, I was told by that hotel's manager, and the reservations desk couldn't book me a room at the rate I was quoted by Expedia. That didn't make much sense. I believe it was one of those internal policies made at a head office somewhere to encourage consumers to complete their bookings online, thereby saving the hotels' human resources for other chores.

Smaller hoteliers are more willing to do what Ledet suggests: Beat the price. With commissions paid to online booking engines routinely hitting 20 per cent and sometimes soaring above 30 per cent, it makes good sense for hotel operators to sign up the guests themselves. Savvy hoteliers will also realize that if they take just five per cent off a price -- even an already discounted one -- and book a guest directly, they will already have delighted a customer before he or she enters the property. It also returns a personal touch to the reservations process. Such communication has dwindled dramatically as more and more of us enlist to stay somewhere without ever getting in touch first. A phone conversation adds both a sense of reassurance and anticipation.

Do you really want to stay at a hotel that doesn't welcome your phone inquiry beforehand?

Here are five tips on how to save money when booking a place to stay.

1. Follow these three steps.
Find the online hotel deal you want, phone the hotel and ask if it can beat the price, and have one or two competitors in mind just in case your top choice fizzles.

2. Book using a reliable opaque travel tool.

The one time when you're not going to call the hotel before you book is if you use a service like Priceline.com or Hotwire.com's "unnamed hotels" search tool. These services leave you blind until you've completed your booking, giving a new meaning to buyer beware. Although it's understandable if that gimmick makes you anxious, it can work in your favour. For instance, if you know the city where you will visit well, you can likely make a good guess at which hotel you will end up booking.

A recent Hotwire.com search for a hotel in the east end of downtown Toronto returned a four-star property for $80 a night before taxes. That's a huge saving of more than $100. By using the map function, you could see that the hotel choices fell within the city's prime real estate, bordering University Avenue on the west, Yonge Street to the east, Lake Ontario to the south and Yorkville to the north.

Four-star hotels in the area would include the Downtown Hilton, the Sheraton Centre, the Royal York, the Intercontinental Toronto Centre and the Westin Harbour Castle. All of those are appealing, and at $80 a night at the end of May, that's one of the best hotel deals you'll ever come across.

3. Take advantage of your CAA membership.

Our era is obsessed with collecting points and loyalty rewards. Yet, when we go to make a hotel booking, many of us still turn to our computers and mobile devices first rather than to the CAA/AAA card in our wallets. The Canadian Automobile Association has more than five million members and 300 merchants within the country that offer discounts; several hotels are among them. Find out what hotels in your destination offer CAA discounts and look at their prices and amenities first.

4. Have you checked for all the deals?

In June, you can book a two-night stay at the Southway Hotel and Conference Centre in Ottawa and receive 50 per cent off the second night (a savings of roughly $75). Your surest way of getting that deal though, is if you book directly through the hotel. If you used an online booking engine, you would pay the full price. That's not the hotel's fault, nor the fault of the booking engines. Hotels have special promotions all the time, and you should check directly on the sites of the ones you would like to visit to see what's on offer.

5. Know your definition of a deal.

A low price shouldn't be the only factor that compels you to book. The most important consideration, especially if you're on vacation, is how to maximize your enjoyment of your time away. Where you sleep is key to satisfaction. If you've had mixed experiences at three-star hotels, book only at a four-star. If you want a boutique hotel experience with a concierge who can help direct you around town or make dinner reservations for you, don't settle for an impersonal hotel where you might feel frustrated waiting in line to talk to someone for help. If you want to avoid transportation costs, spent the extra $20 a night on a hotel that puts you where you need to be instead of spending $30 a day on cab fare.

Personalize your travel experience as much as you can, in every way you can. Knowing what you want to get out of a vacation is always the key to a successful one. The first person you should strike a deal with when trip planning is always yourself.

TRAVEL TIP OF THE WEEK

Get ready for the Wallenda Watch. Come June 15, the continent and some other curious parts of the world will have eyes trained on Niagara Falls, where daredevil Nik Wallenda of Florida will attempt to tightrope his way across the natural wonder. With all of the bizarre criminal incidents making news these days, the magnitude of Wallenda's try at history hasn't quite registered with the media or the public yet. But it will as the day approaches. The 32 year old will balance himself on a five centimetre-wide cable and aim to walk across approximately 1,800 feet in 40 minutes. (No word yet if a customs officer will be on standby to see what he's bringing into the country.)

To avoid the possibility of having its network's cameras filming him plunging to his death, ABC TV has ordered Wallenda to wear a harness -- which will limit the rubber-necking, for sure. He's also received flack from critics because he's trying to raise money from the public to cover his costs. Still, this is a once-in-a-lifetime event, and if you're able to get there, you'll want to make your way to the Niagara Region for a visit. Whether Wallenda's successful or not, you and he will need a drink afterwards. I suggest visiting Stratus Vineyards, where I was last weekend, for a glass of its lush, caramely and utterly delicious Wildass Rose. There will be no walking of straight lines after you finish a bottle of that.