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When it comes to hotel rooms, the quoted price is like a car's sticker price: It's only the starting point. "Smart shoppers ask all kinds of questions to see what they can get," confided a clerk at New York's posh Plaza Hotel.

Accepting the first rate you're offered can be expensive. Over the last five years, the average room rate in the US has gone from $67 to $82 even though the number of rooms has grown to 3.7 million while the occupancy rate has been flat at around 64%.

In cities with the highest occupancy San Francisco and New York rooms average $129 and $180, respectively.

Like airlines, hotels use a yield-management system to set prices. The goal is to maximize occupancy when business is weak and hike rates when business is strong. Pilling rooms in lean times means off-season deals at resorts, half-price weekends at downtown hotels that cater to business travelers and cheap rooms in the summer at hotels booked with conventions the rest of the year.

When you reserve online, you shouldn't commit until you've checked the cancellation policy and called the hotel. Twelve of 18 comparison calls produced rates as low as the ones we got on the Net or lower. When it comes to getting the cheapest price, the computer has not yet made the phone obsolete. Even snail-mail can deliver a deal with your credit-card bill. The American Express Membership Rewards program, for instance, lets you redeem points at 20 hotel chains.

To get an idea of what deals are available, go to Hotel Reservations Network, the largest of the consolidators' sites and the best, especially for major cities. If you book a room now through June 30, you'll get a rebate of up to $50. If you get a lower rate from another source, call HRN at 800-715-7666 and say so. HRN will matched that rate and take another 10% off.

Once you've looked at the HRN site, check the websites by specific hotel chains for specials. Holiday Inn (www.holiday-inn.com; 888-224-2424), for example, lists last-minute weekend 40%-off Holideals.

You can also sign up with an airline site to get a weekly mail about hotel discounts, including the last-minute weekend deals. Many consolidators' sites offer the same service.

Get your Just reward

Programs that give you points for hotel stays have such complicated redemption policies and so many blackout periods that you may find it difficult to save much. One exception: Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide's free-nights-anywhere-anytime plan (1+888-625-4988). More than 600 hotels participate, including Sheraton and Westin.

Then there are the so-called half-price hotel membership deals. Consider Travelers Advantage Entertainment (three-month trial for $1; $59.95 a year; 1+800-548-1116) or "Ultimate Travel and Savings Directory," ($64.90 a year, 1+800-374-4464). Remember, though, that your actual savings may be modest if the discount is based on an inflated list price.

Call the hotel and don't be shy

No matter what the source or how attractive the deal, always call the hotel directly. If you use an 800 number, be sure you're speaking with someone at the property where you want to stay. "Chains often have reservation centers that may not be up to date," explains Chuck Ross, vice president of Smith Travel Research in Hendersonville, Tenn. "There may be a cancellation that hasn't been fed into the computer yet."

Once you reached the right person, ask about discounts - corporate or senior discounts, special prices for members professional societies or AAA, group rates for family reunions. There's probably something you are or do or belong to the entitles you to a lower price, but you'll have to ask for it.

If you need a room for a wake-up call and shower but not much else, make that clear. Ask for a smaller room, a low floor, a room without a view. California travel agent Sandy Verdugo suggests asking for the "run of the house" (ROH) "Tell the agent you want what's most affordable with the possibility of getting the ROH when you check in," she say "Sometimes that gives you an advantage over the person standing at the counter asking for an upgrade."

Who needs a travel agent?

Anyone who doesn't have a lot of time. Many agents buy in bulk (or belong to a consortium that does) and can offer you deeply discounted rates if you make it clear that's what you want. Travel agents are also expert at travelers' rights should you have any problems with your reservation or stay. If you haven't done business with a particular agent, get a quote then call the hotel. If you can't do better, go with the agent. After all, you will have that much more time to pack.

Beware those fees!

Faced with flat occupancy rates, hotels are increasingly tacking on fees to make up for empty rooms. Watch out to these five, which are most common at upscale hotels and resorts.

Early departure - Leaving ahead of schedule can cost you as much as $50.

Late cancellation - If you don't cancel at least 24 to 48 hours in advance (72 for some conferences and resorts and for reservations that were made online), you could be charged for the room.

No-show - You'll pay for the night you miss.

Automatic gratuities - Some hotels automatically add gratuities to your bill.

Baggage checking - Want to leave your luggage behind the desk after you check out? That may run you $2 or more at some hotels.

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