Why it pays to negotiate

Illustration: Michael Mucci
Illustration: Michael Mucci 

To get the best travel deals, it's time to sharpen up your haggling skills.

You might have noticed, when searching for hotel deals on the internet, that the rates seem to be pretty much the same wherever you look.

Even for last-minute bookings, it is now rare to find a big difference in prices on booking websites.

This is due to the widespread use of "channel managers", which enable hotels to manage their inventory and rates across a range of websites and distribution channels, rather than having to deal with each one individually.

It makes life a lot easier for the hotels, but for consumers it has made shopping around somewhat unsatisfying.

One way of getting a better deal is haggling directly with the hotel, to see how low they will go.

If you are not comfortable with haggling you can do it online, where there is no embarrassment.

The website GraysEscape.com, which claims to be Australia's only hotel haggling site, says consumers are getting well below the "best available rate" by negotiating online.

The company monitored deals booked through its site in December and says the average booking was 15 per cent below the rates on other websites.

The general manager of GraysEscape, Gary Berman, says the confidentiality of one-on-one haggling allows hotels to discount below their "best available rate" without publicising it.

Hoteliers are always worried about devaluing their product, but a room is usually better sold at a lower rate than not at all.

"There are more than 100,000 hotel rooms left vacant every night across Australia, which costs the industry hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue," Berman says.

The option of haggling direct with hotels and other travel suppliers has always been around but very few Australians do it, as haggling is not a big part of our culture.

Berman says the ability for consumers to ring a hotel and ask for a better deal has also lessened over recent years, with hotels locked into "best rate guarantees" and wary of upsetting selling partners by undercutting them.

"There are a lot of restrictions around discounting for hotels these days," says Berman, who has been a hotel manager.

Haggling has also entered the flight arena in a small way, with the auction site One Cent Flights (onecentflights.com) launching in Australia last year.

This site operates on a different model to GraysEscape, with consumers paying for bids (once they have used up the five free bids they get when they join) and bidding against each other in a public auction, rather than direct with the supplier.

One Cent Flights says it has sold more than 175 international flights since it started in August, with auctions launched every few days.

Flight bargains picked up by consumers have included New York for $58.69, London for $15.21 and Hawaii for $4.63 (prices do not include the cost of bidding). Most of the flights sold are individual tickets, but the site last month offered its first double-ticket auction, with two tickets to Paris auctioned in a Valentine's Day promotion.

Gary Berman admits both consumers and suppliers are still getting used to the idea of haggling, but says bookings on the GraysEscape site jumped 300 per cent from November to December.

There are now more than 1200 hotels on the site, which was previously known as Ubid4rooms.com and relaunched under the GraysEscape banner late last year.

Berman says more than 60 per cent of consumers' bids are accepted by hotels and in the case of an offer being rejected, the hotel will come back with a counter-offer.

The site lists a minimum price to save time-wasting, and also lists the average rate that has been accepted, with hotels expected to respond to offers within three hours.

Berman says the best deals are found by travelling outside peak times, booking well in advance, and  staying multiple nights.

Users of the site also have the option of haggling with three hotels at once, in what is called a "linked haggle".

The first hotel to accept the offer will get the booking, so it encourages hotels to respond quickly.

An important aspect to understand is that all deals booked through haggling have to be paid upfront, with no changes or cancellations accepted.

jane@janeefraser.com.au

Grab the spare toothbrush

Another way to pick up bargains is to be prepared to drop everything and go at the last minute.

Unsold tour packages and cruises are often available at 50 per cent discount or more, either through the operators direct or through websites such as Cruisesalefinder.com.au.

Heavily discounted deals can be released weeks or even months before departure, so it pays to sign up for email newsletters or make a phone call and see what is available.

One downside is that you are likely to have missed the best flight deals, so check fares before you jump in.

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