You never end up paying the sticker price at a nice hotel. Like every other sector of the modern travel industry, hotels amplify the bottom line by pelting customers with a barrage of extra charges, but if you're savvy, you can plan ahead and get out of many of the most annoying ones.
That's a pretty satisfying feeling, but it's even more satisfying when you can do it using the tools that the hotel itself gave you.
We plot and scheme in order to save a few bucks on the room rate through discounting sites such as Travelocity and Hotels.com, but in the time it takes to take your key out of your car's ignition, the hotels can make back whatever deal you sweat to scrounge up. For one night's parking in a city, you can be charged $15 to $30. Multiply that by the number of nights you're staying, and you'll feel the pain.
Here's the trick: Find your hotel in Google Maps. One you find it, clear the name of your hotel in the search box and search in the same page for "parking." The nearest parking lots will spring up. Then just use one of those (shop around for the best rate if you're the type who does homework). You'll pay a price that's half to 75% off the jacked-up rate the hotel would hit you with.
Funny enough, many hotels have done this themselves ahead of your departure. Smaller or older urban buildings (Miami Beach's famous Deco hotels are a good example) often don't have their own parking garages, and they often instruct their valets to bring your car to a local lot while charging you a grossly inflated rate for the privilege. Do it yourself without the markup.
Pay $15 a day? You could. The better solution is to favor hotels that don't charge you for Wi-Fi at all. Hampton inns is one brand, and so are Radisson and Hyatt Place. In fact, countless mid-priced and budget hotel chains have stopped charging at all for Internet access.
It's the so-called "full service" hotels that actually don't supply this service for free. Then again, if you're shelling out $400 for a hotel room in a market that supports lots of $125 options, perhaps you're not in it for value, eh?
For the pricey options, some computer users already know about "tethering," which is the ability to use a smartphone's signal to hook into the Internet on a laptop. If you know how to do this and you already have purchased the expensive hardware that enables it (it's reportedly coming for iPhone users later this year), then great. Remember to do it if you can.
Alternatively, go to Starbucks. If you buy so much as a single coffee with one of its free Starbucks Cards, you can get free Wi-Fi for a month.
And if you're already an AT&T Wireless customer, you don't even have to buy the coffee.
Lots of other chains, including Panera Bread, also offer free Wi-Fi. Comb online directories of free Wi-Fi hotspots (such as Wi-Fi Free Spot) before you hit your destination. Then use Google Maps again to find the spot that's nearest your hotel. You can just enter the name of a free-access chain (for example, "Starbucks Coffee") and that will bring up the closest locations.
Don't touch the phone on the nightstand unless it's for a wake-up call. Tales of $15 local calls are legendary.
The key is, of course, your cell phone. Many of us have national plans. As long as you can catch a signal from your cell phone provider, there's no need to play into your hotel's usury.
There's another trick that provides precious salvation to iPhone users: Skype. As long as you can cop a Wi-Fi signal on your iPhone, you can use Skype (free to download) to call anyone for pennies around the world. If they've got Skype, too, the call is free. I've sorted out bungled airline tickets on hour-long overseas calls for less than a dollar using Skype.
You can't use Skype on the AT&T-provided network, though, because old Ma Bell doesn't like sharing her network with freeloaders: You have to make sure that little fan-shaped scallop of arced lines appears in your menu bar, signifying Wi-Fi is in play. Then you're good to go. Skype for Blackberry is a little less economical, since you have to dial an access number using your plan's minutes in order to plug into the system.
The trick of being able to use Skype for free is a good reason for iPhone users to make sure their hotel uses Wi-Fi, and not Web delivered by ethernet cords, to deliver signals to guests in their rooms. Then they can just piggyback on the free access and yak away. So it pays to call your hotel candidates and ask: Do rooms get wi-fi internet or corded internet?
It happens all the time. In the morning, it isn't until I'm running out the door to do whatever it is I'm in town to do that I remember that I want some coffee. I pick some up at the lobby restaurant, and it costs $3 to $5 dollars.
Increasingly, every hotel -- from budget to luxury-level -- provides free coffee-making facilities in the room, often stuck under the bathroom counter or near the mini-bar that you should otherwise ignore. Almost always, it's free, and a single-brew sachet of coffee is provided.
The problem, though isn't that we don't realize there's a coffee maker. It's that we forget to use it. Plan 10 minutes ahead and get your free brew out of it. Turn it on while you're showering, if that helps. (And if you're one of those people who frets about their cleanliness, remember that boiling water kills cooties. Bring your own cup if that makes you feel better.)
The hotel has already given you to means to save that five bucks, so take advantage of it.
Another way hotels stick it to you is by charging ridiculous fees for the mere act of printing or faxing something. Six bucks for a single page? It happens, and it hurts.
If you absolutely have to have something printed (or signed) and can't get to a FedEx Kinkos or the like, and if the hotel's business center (if it has one) isn't available or if it charges, then you're probably stuck. Short of bringing your own mini-printer, you must pay for the convenience.
But simple faxing is another matter. Both Macs and PCs support a myriad of programs that allow you to send faxes of PDFs from your laptop. Some paid services will even hook you up with a phone number that will route documents to your e-mail in-box.
Just knowing these resources exist, and having an account ready to use before you leave home, can be the difference between getting bled by a hotel and taking care of yourself. You're also likely to keep using them even when you're not on the road, if not for the convenience, than for the paperless existence they enable.
For Mac, I've used PageSender and liked it. PC World recently ran down a few programs for Windows, and the overview might make for a good starting point.
Five pesky hotel charges and how to outsmart them