In these financially unsettled times, everybody is looking for a deal. So, for your next trip, how does half-price for a hotel room and a big discount on restaurant meals sound?
Savings such as these at hotels, motels and resorts throughout the country are the bread and butter of several unusual travel firms that negotiate special room rates and then make the rates available to fee-paying customers. One of the firms, Entertainment Publications, also offers substantial bargains on dining and sightseeing.
Because there is an annual fee, ranging from $21.95 to $99, these lodging and dining programs are not for everyone. But they could pay off handsomely for many travelers on business or vacation trips.
The major drawback, in the case of discounted rooms, is that they are invariably "subject to availability." You don't get half-price when the hotel expects to be full. And the half-price discount applies only to a property's standard rate, called the "rack" rate, and not to other discounts that may be offered.
Basically, all the half-price programs work this way: Each of the travel firms puts together its own printed roster of participating hotels, motels and resorts. The firm's roster may list from a few hundred to 2,500 or more lodging properties.
Some programs focus on low- to mid-priced lodgings, others from mid-priced to upscale places. Travelers pay an annual fee for a copy of the roster and an identification card. The card must be presented at the time of check-in to obtain the discount. In most cases, advance reservations are required.
The bulk of the half-price lodgings are in the United States, and most of the major hotel and motel chains are among the participating properties. But some of the programs have expanded into Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Europe and Asia.
Travelers must be somewhat flexible to use the programs. The hotel you prefer may not be a participant, and you might have to choose an alternate that is not as convenient. Or if the date you want is not available, you might have to postpone the trip a day or two. But the savings may be worth it.
Hotels and motels benefit, too. They join the programs as a way of filling rooms that might otherwise go empty. In the lingo of the industry, it's called "yield management." They make the discount available to card-holding guests as a way of stimulating business without blatantly advertising cut-rate prices. Thus, they can continue to charge higher rates to other customers. International airlines do much the same thing through air-fare discount firms called consolidators.
Whenever reserving a room, travelers should ask for any special discounts for which they may be eligible. Conceivably, a hotel might be offering half-price weekend rates to everyone who asks. And with occupancy levels unsatisfactory at many hotels these days, try negotiating your own reduced rate. While most national chains are represented in these programs, not every property in each chain honors discount cards.
Entertainment Publications is the biggest player in the hotel-restaurant discount game. For 30 years, the Troy, Mich., firm has published thick coupon booklets offering 2-for-1 deals on restaurant meals and other savings in many U.S. cities.
Currently, the firm sells 115 different city books, including several for the Southern California area. In all, about 4.5 million are published annually, says spokesman Robert E. McHenry.
From this base, Entertainment has expanded into a variety of lodging and other discount programs, including "Travel America at Half Price," "Half Price Europe," "Travel America at Half Price for Government Employees" and the "Bed and Breakfast Plus Club" directory, which lists 600 country inns offering a 25% discount to card-holders.
In January, the Consumer Reports Travel Letter rated Entertainment's half-price hotel programs in the United States and Europe as among the "outstanding values" for travel in 1992.
And Entertainment is now marketing another series of city coupon booklets aimed at traveling teen-agers. Called the "Gold C Saving Spree," they offer 2-for-1 or other discounts at fast-food outlets, sightseeing attractions and shops that appeal to this age group. Selling for $10 each, the booklets are available for 35 cities.
Among the firm's lodging programs:
* "Travel America at Half Price": 50% off regular room rates at 2,500 properties in the United States, Canada and Mexico. A wide range of choices is offered. Annual fee, $32.95.
* "Half Price Europe 1992": 50% off rates at 500 hotels in 25 European countries. Offerings remain uneven. A full 13 hotels are listed for Dublin, Ireland, but all of Austria has only six. Annual fee, $42.
* "Bed and Breakfast Plus Club": 25% discounts at 600 inns primarily in the United States but also Canada, the Caribbean and Great Britain. Annual fee, $21.95.
* "Travel America at Half Price for Government Employees--Federal, State, County, City": 50% off at 1,500 hotels in the United States, with a selection in Canada and Mexico. This program is similar to "Travel America," but cheaper and with a separate customer-service number. Annual fee, $28.
Entertainment Publications booklets are frequently sold for fund-raising purposes by charitable organizations or youth, church, service or other groups. They also can be purchased directly from the publisher: 2125 Butterfield Road, Troy, Mich. 48084, (800) 477-3234 or (313) 637-8400.
Many other firms offer similar discounts:
* Quest has about 1,800 hotels and motels listed in its directory, most of them in the mid-price or above category--Marriotts, Radissons and Sheratons, for example. Most are in the United States, but there are a few in Canada, Mexico, Australia and Europe. The offer is 50% off at these properties on a space-available basis. Annual fee, $99. Chinook Tower, Box 4041, Yakima, Wash. 98901, (800) 325-2400 or (509) 248-7512.
* Great American Traveler, one of the least expensive programs, offers 1,500 properties in 700 cities in the United States, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Canada. Featured are Howard Johnsons, Holiday Inns and Ramada Inns at 50% off. Annual fee, $21.95. P.O. Box 36535, Birmingham, Ala. 35236-9952, (800) 548-2812 or (205) 979-1000.
* The Privilege Card program differs in that the discount is not a flat 50%, but ranges from 30%-50% off. About 3,000 properties are enrolled in the United States, Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean, among them Embassy Suites, Hiltons and Best Westerns. Also, there's a 50% discount off weekly condo rentals at many resort locations. Annual fee, $49.95. 5395 Roswell Road NE, Atlanta, Ga. 30342, (800) 359-0066 or (404) 256-3300.
* America at 50 Percent Discount, based in Baltimore, lists 1,200 lodging properties in the United States, from budget to upscale. First-year fee, $49.95; annual renewal, $24.95. Taste Publications, 1031 Cromwell Bridge Road, Baltimore, Md. 21204, (800) 248-2783 or (410) 825-3463.
* Encore of Lanham, another Maryland firm, lists 3,000 hotels in the United States, Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean, Central America, Europe and Asia. About 1,800 of the properties offer a 50% discount; the others offer a two-night stay for the price of one or a seven-night stay for the price of five. The annual fee is $48, but you can get a 30-day free trial enrollment. EMI, 4501 Forbes Blvd., Lanham, Md. 20706, (800) 638-8976 or (301) 459-8020.
* Concierge, under new ownership, is attempting to re-establish itself in the upscale international market. About 400 hotels are currently listed, including 60 in Europe. The goal for this year, according to owner Kirk Condon, is to offer at least two hotels in all major markets worldwide. In the United States, the discount generally is 50%; in Europe, it's 25%-40%. Annual fee, $70. P.O. Box 2320, Boulder, Colo. 80306-2320, (800) 346-1022 or (303) 444-2724.