Comparing hotel rates: Sleep easy... and cheaply
Comparing hotel rates can be a nightmare, so follow Nick Trend's tips for a restful night
How much should a night in a hotel room cost? Last week, the first British hotel of an Asian chain called Tune opened in London. It charges extra for towels, watching television, using the hair drier and so on -- the latest development in a trend that has been afflicting hotels for the past three or four years: a tendency to follow in the footsteps of the no-frills airlines.
Until recently, it was pretty straightforward to attach a price to a hotel room. Sure, you might get a discount if you shopped around at the last moment, but there was always a standard or 'rack' rate published on the website and on the tariff sheet handed out at the front desk. The amount charged varied according to season, but if you knew when you were going, you knew what you would have to pay.
Now, as with short-haul airfares, trying to quote a meaningful rate is becoming virtually impossible. Many hotels are now raising or lowering their rates daily according to how many rooms have been booked. I see this happening every week because I have to book a room in a well-known chain of budget hotels every Tuesday. The price varies by about 25pc.
But why are they doing it, and is it good for consumers? The hoteliers argue that they have no choice. None likes to admit to slow bookings or having to sell 'distressed stock' cheaply. But I have talked to several recently off the record and they are all facing the same problems. Customers are booking much later than they used to and they are shopping around more carefully to make sure they are getting the cheapest possible deal. If a hotel doesn't respond to this trend, it will lose bookings.
But does this mean we are getting a good deal? I'd argue that it depends what sort of person you are. Some of us relish the process of hunting for bargains; others resent the time we have to spend making sure we don't pay too much. In particular, we don't enjoy the sense that we might have got it wrong and paid far too much for something we might have got at a bargain price.
This brings up the question of price confusion. When prices are no longer fixed, it is easier for hoteliers to dress up promotional prices as attractive savings, and much harder for guests to know whether they are being offered a fundamentally good rate, or just being seduced by clever marketing.
We consumers do now have one advantage on our side: the rise of price-comparison websites that show current offers from the hotels which subscribe to them.
However, the news of the opening of no-frills hotels risks undermining even this advantage. Sure, if you are prepared to bring your own towel you can 'save' money. But the more extras that are stripped out of the base price, the harder it becomes to compare rates offered by different hotels, and the easier it is to be drawn in by super-low headline prices which turn out to be much less attractive once the extras have been added in.
In my view, confusion and complication is the enemy of the consumer -- it makes buying things more time-consuming and less straightforward.
Hotels have long made money by charging through the nose for extras that aren't essential to most, such as drinks from the minibar and Wi-Fi access. We don't want them to start charging separately for the things we do need.
In the meantime, here's a guide to how to find the best-value hotel room with the minimum of fuss.