I am not actually a janitor, I work the hotel audit. I have been doing the audit for six years. I might not have much to say about what you should do in your room. But I have learned what to do to get the absolute best prices.
The first thing I should explain is the concept of the rack rate. This is like the sticker price on a new car. It is an inflated price that no one pays, so everyone gets to feel like they are getting a discount. Oh, you are an AARP member, well you get 10 percent off the rack rate. Guess what, that is a sucker's price. What we are aiming for is 30 to 50 percent off the rack rate, and you can do it (with my help).
First thing I can tell you is that you can forget all about that precious internet of yours. Never make your reservations online, you can't negotiate online and hotel prices are very negotiable.
As a matter of fact, Priceline is the only one that will ever get you a price better than what you can negotiate with the property itself. But they don't let you pick your hotel, and the price you are paying the priceline is usually equivalent to the hotels bargain basement price anyway. You can sometims manage to get it, and sometimes not. But sometimes even my Priceline people are actually paying more than the average person in my hotel. Using almost any other service is basically a guarantee of a higher price.
Now I would like to talk about travel agents. A travel agent is much like a realtor. They are not working for you, they are working for themselves, and getting commissions on it at the same time. Rooms booked by travel agents at my hotel average about 15 percent higher than rooms booked by other methods. Travel agents will never really get you the good rates, as they don't have access to them, and couldn't get commission on them if they could. Travel agents handling corporate accounts for wasteful companies will often book rooms at the highest available rate possible, simply to get that extra bit of commission. The hotel can never give you a good deal if you are using a travel agent, as they have to pay the travel agent a commission for booking your room, and who do you think ultimately pays for that?
The next thing you can start forgetting about is the 1-800 number for the hotel chain. You see hotels are largely independently owned, and the individual hotel owners pay franchise fees for the name and services of the chain. The person staffing the 800 number only has access to those same rates that the internet and travel agents can get to. So they can't get you the good price to begin with. Second off the hotel has to pay a fee when you book with that number, more fees for them means less bargaining room for you.
Do you have a loyalty card for the chain? Good, so does every one else. The loyalty card is not a bargaining tool, it is a liability. Guess what happens when you whip that sucker out? The hotel is hit with a five percent commission. If you have such a card wait until check out time to present it. Never whip it out at the start of negotiations. It won't get you a better price, it just tells the hotel they are already taking a hit on you.
You are about to start making your phone calls. Before you do let me stress one thing. Until the final price is fixed you are getting a non-smoking room and you are paying with credit card. You can change this after the price is fixed. The reason for this is the fact that problem guests in hotels almost exclusively pay cash, request smoking rooms, or both. Some people won't want to negotiate a cash room, or smoking room quite as well. Just reserve the basic room, you can usually get the upgraded room for no extra charge when you check in. Just say "can you give me one of the rooms with the couch and the microwave". They might not have couches, they might not have microwaves, but they will likely have one or the other, and that phrase makes it pretty likely that the clerk can change you into one of the better rooms.
Best strategy for reservations is to call the same place multiple times, 8 hours apart (so you get 3 different people), try to negotiate each time, write down all the prices you get, and the names of the people you got them from. You will probably get 3 different prices. You can use this information to develop the pricing structure of the hotel. If you are quoted $69, $75, and $79 then you can be pretty sure there is a $59 price as well, and somewhat sure there is a $65 price. Most places like prices ending in 9.
After you have taken a guess at the pricing you are going to want to try to make your reservation, if Shanna on 2nd shift quoted you $69 then call on 3rd shift and say that Shanna quoted you $59. Shanna won't be there, and the person will probably just take the reservation at that price. If they won't, then call back first shift and say that the overnight guy quoted you $59. You pretty much have 3 tries at this (one for each shift).
This trick is a little sneakier, but can get you the absolute lowest price in town. Only use this one for single night stays when you will be checking in after 6 PM.
Find out where you want to stay, then web search to find the parent company of the hotel chain. For example, Cendant owns Howard Johnson, Super 8, Days Inn, Fairfield, Ramada, Wingate, Amerihost and about 10 other brands.
Call in your reservation sometime between 6PM and 6AM. Be very businesslike, and simply put in your reservation and say "I need that at the Cendant rate". Insert whatever parent company owns the chain you are making your reservation at. This will work about 90 percent of the time, provided you make your reservation during evening or overnight hours, and arrive after the day staff has gone home.
Don't ask what the host rate is, at least not on the same phone call with your reservation. Do it on a different phone call, a different day, "Hi, this is Bob with Cendant, can you please tell me what the Cendant rate is at your property".
The reason you don't want to make your reservation during the daytime, or arrive during the daytime is that you don't want to run into a chatty general manager who might actually ask you what you do for Cendant (or whatever the company is).
Even if you are unsuccessful at making a reservation at the parent company rate, finding out that price tells you the absolute lower limit that you could ever negotiate to, in reality you can probably get about $10 over that price with negotiations.
Finally, you should never ever claim to be an employee of the actual hotel chain, they tend to use verification certificates and such for those rates, but no one verifies the people getting the parent company rate. I don't even suggest claiming to be a parent company employee when making your reservation, just say you need it at "that rate".
If you find yourself having to get a room without a reservation then try to get a look at the desk clerk from outside. If the desk clerk is male then send in the youngest prettiest woman in your group to get the room. Send her in all by herself. What she has to do is pretty simple, once she is quoted the price, she is supposed to knock $20 off it, and say, but I only have "X" amount, what am I supposed to do. The success rate with that tactic is nearly 100 percent.
If there is a woman behind the counter (or you have no young women in your group), then send in the most clean cut looking male in your group to get the room. This person should not make any small talk, nor should they present any stories. This person should never approach with their wallet already out. They should simply attempt to negotiate a lower rate. The most successful tactic is simply to try chipping off $10 or $20 from the price and claiming you paid that last time. If the clerk still won't budge on price then you can start walking out. They might give you a better price as you leave, if not then you probably got the best one. Thus you can go get your luggage and come back in for the price you did manage to get.
The reason you want to send in the most respectable looking man and avoid small talk is because of who the majority of the people who stay in hotels without reservations tend to be. You want to seem like a businessman who had an unexpected stop, not some slimeball, gambler, unemployed loser, or criminal. Small talk is to be avoided because there is almost nothing you can gain from it price wise, and it is very easy to say the wrong thing and make the clerk dislike you. You see the people who tend to be the most trouble in hotels are the ones who show up without reservations.
I wish you good luck with all your travels.
Update for Summer 2006
One thing I forgot to mention in my original node is the "sunday" trick. Hotels almost never sell out on sunday nights, they usually don't even reach half occupancy, not even during the busy season. Lets say you want to stay friday and saturday for a weekend trip, or monday-thursday for a business trip. Do all your phone calls and negotiate your price on a room for just the sunday night. Reserve the room for the sunday night adjacent to when you will be coming. Then call back later and add the other days on, then finally call back a third time and get rid of the sunday part of the reservation. At almost anyplace you try this at you will end up getting that cheaper sunday price for the days you will actually be there, since normally the person making a change to a reservation is not supposed to change the price when doing so.