Sunday, 3 May 2009
The Amazing Race 14, Episode 10 (China travel and more on online hotel discounts)
Guilin (China) - Beijing (China)
The latest two-part episode of The Amazing to Race 14 was spent entirely in China, punctuated by advertisements from online travel agency Travelocity.com for discounted hotel rates, and for part of the time with the teams of racers required to carry half-meter (18") high Travelocity mascot dolls with them through the streets.
Which gives me two things to talk about: travel in China, and online hotel discounts .
In my previous column I talked about the "merchant model" of hotel discounting, how it works, and how and why it has developed since 11 September 2001. Finding hotel discounts is, however, as much about finding the best-value hotels (and knowing where to find them) as it is about finding the lowest prices at those hotels.
Most travel in the USA -- and for that matter in China and many other countries -- is domestic. Online travel agencies based in the USA typically have quite limited listings of hotels in other countries, especially outside the biggest cities and the destinations most visited by travellers from the USA. In places where USA-based Web sites list only a few hotels, these are likely to be the most expensive hotels in town.
This is why, outside the First World and unless you insist on five-star "international" hotels, the best hotel values are rarely found on the Web sites of companies based in the USA. You'll find more options, including many more lower-category hotels, on local and regional Web sites like those listed below .
Both business and leisure travellers have cut back on their spending (if they are still traveling at all), and are staying in less expensive hotels. As each group of travelers downgrades their accommodations, that leaves the highest vacancy rates at the most expensive hotels. As a result, the largest dollar and percentage discounts are currently being offered on four and five-star hotels.
Even in the most expensive big cities around the world, you can currently find at least a four-star hotel room, and often a five-star one, for no more than about US$100 per night -- the price point being advertised most heavily by Travelocity during "The Amazing Race 14". That's what I paid for four-star hotels in London and Brussels in recent months (although through Hotwire and Priceline, not Travelocity), even during the busy Easter travel week in London, a normally expensive city where rooms would have cost twice that much a year ago -- or this year if I'd been a walk-in guest who didn't haggle and paid the rack rate..
But what's the best value for you depends on your destination, your budget, and your preferences. In a less pricey destination, or if your standards aren't as high, you may get a better value, even with less of a discount (or none at all), at a three-star hotel for US$59 such as Travelocity switched to advertising this week.
Many of the fittings and components that go into a hotel in the USA are made in China. They're cheaper at the source in China, as is the labor to assemble them into a hotel. Even before the current wave of discounting, you could get ample comfort, comparable to the facilities of a four-star hotel in the USA, in any city in China (including little-touristed provincial cities of "only" a few million people) for no more than half of what similar facilities would cost in the USA.
The teams in "The Amazing Race 14", for example, changed planes in Guangzhou without leaving the airport. What would it have cost them to spend the night?
Right now, the semi-annual Canton Trade Fair is entering its third and final week. It's the world's largest trade show, where 200,000 buyers from around the world descend on Guangzhou ("Canton") to place their wholesale orders with 20,000 Chinese manufacturers for tens of billions of U.S. dollars worth of every conceivable type of export goods.
Normally, hotels in Guangzhou triple their prices during "trade show season", and are fully booked weeks in advance. Rates double and hotels fill up in Dongguan, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and other cities throughout the Pearl River Delta as well. I was in Hong Kong a year ago, just before the start of the Canton Trade Fair, but couldn't afford the hotel prices to stay there once the flood of foreign buyers began to arrive.
With the Canton trade fair still going on, you could get a room tonight at the Customs Hotel , my favorite boutique hotel on semi-pedestrianized and relatively peaceful Shamian Island, ideally located in the center of Guangzhou, for CNY435 (about US$64) including taxes, fees, and breakfast, through Ctrip.com. Last year during the trade fair this same hotel was charging almost US$150 per night. Check out the room photos if you haven't been in a Chinese hotel recently. (Some hotels, naturally, use misleading photos or exceptional rooms in their ads, but these are true to my experience of this hotel.) A computer with high-speed Internet connection and flat-panel monitor is provided free for guest use -- subject to the filtering of the Great Firewall of China, of course -- on the desk in each room, among other amenities. Next week, after trade show season, prices go back down to their usual CNY277 (US$41) for a room with two twin beds, or CNY346 (US$51) for a king room.
Prices are similar on eLong.net -- always check both Ctrip and eLong before booking any hotel in China, as there's no clear pattern to which has better rates or lists which hotels. These are also among the best Web sites for booking domestic flights within China. (See my previous articles on flights and train travel in China.)
If you prefer a larger hotel where there's a better chance of finding a staff person who speaks English, the four-star Guangdong Victory Hotel nearby has a range of room types available at similar prices.
If that's not deluxe enough for your tastes and budget, there's the White Swan Hotel just a few blocks away, also on Shamian Island. Once the most prestigious and expensive hotel in the city, it's lost some of its U.S. business since the U.S. Consulate, formerly next door, relocated to a more secure fortress further from the city center. While the White Swan has been upstaged by several newer high-end hotels, they are mostly in business neighborhoods less attractive to tourists. So what's the price of five-star high-rise luxury in the best tourist location in town? CNY678 (US$99) during the trade fair, CNY574 (US$84) at other times, half what it cost a year ago.
You can find similar deals today throughout China. Speculative real estate investment in new hotels has been as widespread in China as anywhere else, and was boosted by exaggerated expectations for an Olympic tourism boom that didn't materialize or persist after the games. The global economic crisis has impacted not only Chinese exports and business visits to China by foreign buyers, but domestic travel by the new upper class of Chinese whose wealth and ability to afford those hotels came from export-oriented businesses whose sales have plummeted.
China offers exceptional value, this year more than usual. If you've been putting off a trip to China, now is the time to go. I expect that the Chinese economy, and Chinese hotel occupancy and rates, will recover sooner than the USA or Western Europe. For more, see my previous articles on communicating in China; navigation, logistics, and hotels; and recent changes to Chinese visa rules. (More background on the visa changes here. The key new rule that remains in place is that you can't get a Chinese visa in Hong Kong any more unless you live there. You have to get your visa in the country of your citizenship or residence, before you leave for China.)
The cheapest and best-value accommodations, in China or anywhere else, aren't necessarily in hotels at all. (Although three-star hotels in China, or the USA, cost hardly more than two hostel beds.) Across the street from the White Swan Hotel, you can get a dorm bed in the Guangzhou Youth Hostel (all ages welcome) for CNY60 (US$9), a single room with private bath for CNY138 (US$20), or a room with a double bed and private bath for CNY178 (US$26). Riverfront double rooms with views on the upper floors are only slightly more.
In other places, apartment rentals are better value than hotels, even for stays as short as a week. Last year in Buenos Aires, we spent two months in a one-bedroom top-floor apartment in a high-rise sliver building with a doorman, a block from the Subte in the Palermo district. It currently rents for US$285 a week (equivalent to US$41 per night), fully furnished, including all utilities (cable TV, high-speed Internet, etc.) and weekly maid service. By the month, it's even cheaper, of course. That's a price in line with the local market: there's a glut of condos for rent to foreigners by local people who took out mortgages denominated in U.S. dollars before the Argentine Peso collapsed in 2001-2002, and who are desperate to get enough rent (in dollars) to keep up their payments. Meanwhile, with tourism to Argentina booming but little local capital available for new hotel construction (and foreigners scared to invest), a good hotel room in such a great location would be likely to cost more than twice that much, for much less comfort.
Regardless of where you find what seems to be a good deal on a hotel, always check directly with the hotel, to see if they'll match the price, before you make your reservations through an agency or intermediary. Anywhere in the world, all else (including the price) being equal, it's better to make your reservations directly with the hotel, for two reasons:
First, there is much less risk of showing up to find that the hotel has no record of your reservation, which is always a risk when you book through any intermediary. Even if you make your reservations online, that doesn't mean they're instantly or automatically transmitted to the hotel or entered into its own room inventory management system. Frequently, bookings made through online travel agencies are transmitted to the hotel by individual faxes, which can easily be misplaced or overlooked by front desk or reservations staff. Whenever possible, print out your reservation confirmation to show to the hotel when you check in. If that's not possible, be prepared to show the front desk your confirmation on the screen of your laptop, or in a pinch to use their computer, or go to a cybercafe, to show them or print out an e-mail confirmation.
If you made your reservation through an agent or intermediary, and the hotel has no record (or an erroneous record) of your booking, your ultimate recourse is with the company with whom you have a contract (and in whose name your credit card was charged, if you paid in advance). In most cases, especially with discounted or merchant model hotels, that's the company behind the Web site, not the hotel. If you can't tell before you confirm your reservation who to call, at what phone number, if you show up late at night at the hotel and they say they've never heard of you, that's not a Web site you should be using to make your booking. Always write that phone number down, and be sure you have it handy when you try to check in.
Second, making your booking directly with the hotel means that the hotel gets 100% of your payment, rather than as little as 50-60% if you book through some discounters or packagers. Hotels don't necessarily treat you differently depending on how much you've paid, but those that do are guided by the amount of revenue they receive (the wholesale net price paid by the discounter, packager, or tour operator), regardless of how much it's been marked up for retail sale to you. Some hotels will give you the best room available after they've accommodated higher-paying customers, while others will assign you to the worst remaining room, no matter how many rooms they have empty, in the hope of getting high-paying last-minute walk-in customers for their better rooms. In my experience, this is the sort of decision in which front desk staff tend to have a lot of discretion. So if you booked a room at a deep discount, it's especially important to be on your best behavior when you check in. If you have a confirmed reservation, you are entitled to a room. Anything else, or any better than the worst room in the house, is at the hotel's discretion. Demands or argument will be entirely counterproductive.
The first place I usually look for hotels in the USA, or business hotels in major cities in Western Europe, especially when I'm travelling on business and/or with a car, and thus don't care as much about the exact location of the hotel as when I'm on vacation and on public transit. Not much use in the rest of the world. Like Priceline, Hotwire gets lower wholesale rates from hotels because they hide the name of the hotel until after you've paid. Usually you can figure out which hotel is being offered from the list of amenities in the hotel description, the number of TripAdvisor reviews, and by using BetterBidding.com to see which hotels other customers have gotten recently in that category and location. Never use either of these Web sites, however, unless you are genuinely willing to accept any hotel in that area and approximate category. Usually the cheapest hotel is cheapest for a reason: maybe it's under renovation, or maybe it's just changed its affiliation form one hotel chain to another. Hotwire is a division of Expedia, but its hotel listings and prices are completely different from those on Expedia.
Watch out! For the hotels in the USA and Western Europe on which it has discounted prices, Priceline typically has the lowest price through it's "name your own price" scheme -- but only if you don't bid too much. Because Priceline makes you make the first offer -- the worst possible negotiating system for the consumer -- it's easy to offer more than necessary, giving Priceline a windfall profit. Never make an offer on Priceline without first checking the lowest prices for hotels in the same category and location on Hotwire. BetterBidding.com also has bulletin boards of other travellers' bids and which hotels they got. If you have time to make several bids -- you can make a new one each day, if your initial bid is too low -- start about 20% below the lowest price on Priceline, and work up gradually if your initial bid is rejected. It's harder to guess in advance which hotel you'll get with Priceline than with Hotwire. I've often been guessed correctly with both, but you shouldn't count on any specific hotel with either. Only the "name your own price" hotels on Priceline are worth bothering with -- the other hotel listings you get if you start with the search form instead of clicking first on "name your own price" are at the same prices you can get directly from the hotels. Not much use outside the USA and Western Europe. More about Priceline hotel bookings here .
Expedia's standalone hotel or standalone airfare prices are generally poor compared to what you can find elsewhere (although generally better than those on Travelocity or Orbitz), but Expedia's prices for "packages" in the USA are often quite good, if you need a car or flight in addition to a hotel anyway. Especially useful for business trips in the USA, when you can get a "vacation" package including discounted airfare without needing advance purchase or a Saturday-night stay. Expedia has integrated the hotel listings and prices from its Hotels.com division into Expedia, along with Expedia's package prices, so it's generally a waste of time to check prices on Hotels.com if you've already done so on Expedia. Not much use for anywhere outside the USA -- yes, it has some listings, but usually not many and not at preferred prices.
Booking.com (a division of Priceline)
Venere.com (a division of Expedia)
Despite having been acquired by online travel agencies in the USA, these two European hotel booking agencies remain largely separate from their parent companies' USA Web sites. The prices on these sites aren't always less than what you can get directly from the hotels, but they list many quite adequate 2-star (and sometimes below) hotels, including traditional European budget hotels with shared bathroom and toilet facilities, that you won't find on USA-based hotel booking sites. And of course they let you book hotels throughout Europe in English, even at places where not everyone who answers the phone speaks good English.
One of the largest online agencies for discounted UK hotel bookings, both in London and throughout the country. Hotels in the UK that participate in Hotwire or Priceline, especially those affiliated with USA-based chains, may offer better deals through those USA-based agencies than through this or other UK agencies. But LateRooms.com has a much wider selection, including fully-furnished "serviced apartments" that you can rent for as little as a two or three-day stay, and 2-star and below hotels and B&B's that aren't listed on most USA-based Web sites. Prices vary widely, from deep discounts when rooms are still unsold at the last minute to well above rack rate during peak travel periods or special events.
A division of Travelocity. The LastMinute UK site offers "top secret hotels" (like the offerings from Hotwire, with which you should always compare them) and other discounted hotels in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. The quite different and less useful USA site "US.LastMinute.com" (formerly "Site59.com, which I've written about before), offers mainly packages in the USA. [Having noticed how much of the Expedia group's recent profits have come from its Hotwire division and its sales of "opaque" hotels, Travelocity is trying to get in on the windfall by adding "top secret hotels" sourced from Lastminute.com to its offerings on the main Travelocity.com web site. As of now, it's still in the early stages with too few "top secret" hotel offerings on Travelocity.com to tell how they will compare with those from Hotwire and Priceline.]
eLong.net (a division of Expedia)
Targeted primarily at Chinese domestic travellers, but with English-language interfaces (and, one reader commented recently in my blog, adequate English-language telephone customer service, which didn't used to be the case) so you can get the same prices as locals, even if you don't speak Chinese. Be aware, though, that these sites list many hotels where few of the staff -- sometimes none at all, or sometimes only one or two members of the staff who aren't always on duty -- speak English. You shouldn't have any trouble checking in if you show your passport and a printout of your confirmation, but don't expect an English-speaking concierge or an easy time explaining complex service requests if you can't make yourself understood in Chinese. More in my earlier article about dealing with these Web sites and communicating in China.
International Tourism Center of Japan
International Tourism Center of Japan (ITCJ), also known as the Welcome Inn Reservation Center (WIRC), operates both an online English-language booking service for accommodations throughout Japan, and hotel booking counters at Narita (Tokyo) and Kansai (Osaka) airports and a few other locations. It was established on the instigation of the government's Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), "to help individual overseas travelers who have difficulty in finding reasonable accommodations in Japan because of the language barrier". It's a way for Japanese hotels to fill their empty rooms without undercutting the higher prices they offer domestic Japanese customers, since the service is only offered in English and only to travellers with non-Japanese passports. Listings include a wide range of Western and Japanese style hotels, B&B's, and hostels, in all price ranges. As with Ctrip and eLong in China, many (but not all) of these are places where few, if any, of the staff speak English, so be sure to bring a printout of your confirmation to show when you check in.
[Update: The ITCJ/WIRC service described above was discontinued as of 31 March 2012. See this more recent article for other sources of information about budget accommodations in Japan.]
Wotif has more than 80% market share in Australia and New Zealand as an online hotel booking agency. If a hotel in Oz says their lowest prices are "online", that almost invariably means that they are on the hotel's own Web site and/or on Wotif.com -- you rarely need to look anywhere else. More than once last year in Australia, I walked into a hotel, was quoted a price, then sat down in the lobby or went around the corner to a cybercafe and booked the same hotel for that same night for less on Wotif.com. Of course, that only works on dates and in places when there are plenty of empty rooms -- Wotif.com won't accept reservations more than a month in advance.
Well-established locally-owned reservation service for accommodations for expatriates and foreign visitors in Argentina, mainly furnished apartments in Buenos Aires for rent by the week or month. There are agencies like this in many cities and countries, typically with many more listings and better customer service in-country than international Web sites. The difficulty is in finding them, and figuring out which are reliable (and, if you don't speak the local language, which are able to provide services in English). If you have recommendations of agencies like this that you've dealt with in other countries, please share them in the comments.
Hostelling International / International Youth Hostel Federation claims to be the world's largest accommodations provider, and definitely offers the cheapest reliable accommodations for solo travellers in many expensive world cities. (Couples can often, although not always, find a hotel room for not much more than the price of two hostel beds.) "HIhostels.com" offer online booking for HI hostels in major international gateway cities and some other destinations. "IYHF.org" links to member associations around the world (such as HI-USA), which sometimes list additional hostels is less-popular destinations that can only be booked by phone or e-mail.
Online booking agencies for private hostels, as well some bottom-end budget hotels that compete with hostels for business, or in places where there are no hostels. Both these Web sites list some HI hostels, but if you're booking an HI hostel it's best to do so directly through the HI Web sites above.
I'm not sure what distinguishes these two rival organizations, both of which claim to be the HI affiliate in Russia and which list many of the same member hostels. The important thing is that you need confirmed reservations at approved accommodations, or a local sponsor, to get a visa to Russia. If you reserve a bed at one of these hostels, they can sponsor you (more or less legitimately) for a Russian visa, for much less than the cost of pre-booking a hotel.
AsiaRooms.com (TUI Travel)
I haven't used any of these three services (unlike all the rest of the Web sites listed above), but they all seem to have a pretty good selection of hotels in Southeast Asia (and to a lesser extent in the rest of the continent), at reasonable rates. I haven't usually found it necessary or desirable to book hotels in advance in most of these regions, especially in South and Southeast Asia, but these can at least give you some idea of what to expect. All three of these Web sites are operated by travel agencies and tour operators. Don't be surprised if the hotel has the reservation held in the name of the agency or operator, not in your own name. DirectRooms and AsiaTravel are both owned and operated by agencies in Thailand, and have more smaller and lower-priced hotels. AsiaRooms is a service of Europe-based mega-agency and tour operator TUI Travel, with more emphasis on higher-end "international-class" properties.
For more options, such as listings of home and hospitality exchange services, see the resource guide in The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World . Remember that many of the best values are at places that aren't listed on any Web site, and that when there are lots of places nearby that all have empty rooms, the lowest prices are often those negotiated in person, on the spot.
Bon voyage!Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 3 May 2009, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)