The rough economy has taken its toll on the hospitality industry, and Consumer Reports' hotel survey found good hotel choices for every budget. Readers found the Ritz-Carlton, Homewood Suites, Renaissance, Drury Inn & Suites and Microtel Inn & Suites were among the most satisfying of 48 chains in their respective categories.
CR's hotel ratings are broken into five categories: fanciest, luxury, upscale, moderate and budget. Travelers' expectations differ by category, but some moderate hotels pleased readers almost as much as the epitome of ritz, the Ritz-Carlton. Even the budget category had one winner: Microtel Inn & Suites, which topped its category again. Microtel was top of its class in CR's last hotel survey.
The Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed 27,506 subscribers who spent a collective 124,000 nights at 48 chains across all five categories from January 2008 to April 2009. Here's what CR found:
*It pays to haggle. Only 35 percent of respondents tried to negotiate for a better deal, but those who did were rewarded with a lower rate or room upgrade 80 percent of the time.
*Booking method doesn't affect satisfaction. There was no correlation between respondents' happiness with their hotel stay and how they booked it.
*Suites have advantages. For approximately the same price as a regular room, the lodgings in an all-suite hotel give a more spacious, homey feeling. Respondents singled out Homewood Suites and Drury Inn & Suites as well-maintained and exceptional values.
*Some beds are better than others. Many high-end chains boast their plush mattresses and lush linens. Survey respondents cited the Ritz-Carlton, Renaissance and Westin as having the best beds and bedding. Conversely, at least 11 percent of guests (three times the average) at Howard Johnson, Travelodge and Americas Best Value Inn complained that their beds were so uncomfortable they couldn't get a good night's sleep.
*Most "bargain" hotels aren't. Respondents who stayed at a budget hotel said they were drawn by cheap rates. But except for Microtel, budget hotels continue to earn the lowest scores for value, upkeep and ease of checking in and out. Travelodge, Econo Lodge and the misnamed Americas Best Value Inn, a newcomer to CR's ratings, were consistently among the most trouble-prone.
Finding a great rate
CR offers these tips for finding a better hotel rate and saving some cash:
*Wing it. Respondents who appeared unannounced paid about $20 less per night for comparable accommodations, on average, than those who made a reservation ahead of time. For travelers who really want to play "chicken," ask the desk clerk for the lowest possible rate, then say you're taking your business elsewhere. If occupancy is exceptionally low, the clerk might invoke the "fade" rate, an option coming into play more often.
*Become a fan. More chains are becoming involved in social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Fans or followers of a chain will be notified of upcoming promotions and specials as soon as they're available.
*Consider a discount-travel Web site. CR's survey showed that discount sites such as Priceline and Hotwire were the only surefire way to consistently reap substantially lower room rates.
*Lock in a rate. If you're traveling to a popular destination at a peak time, call around and surf the Internet for price quotes from three to five hotels long before your trip. Then lock in the lowest refundable rate. As your departure date nears, try another sweep. If you find something better, cancel your original reservation in time to avoid a penalty.
*Look for specials. Given the poor economy, hotel Web sites are loaded with limited-time offers.
By the editors of Consumer Reports at www.consumerreports.org.