By Mak Mun San
Do early birds always get the best worms? When it comes to hotel bookings, it would appear so - if you look in the right places.
To find out how the best options for travellers narrow as you get nearer to the date of travel, Life! tracked hotel rates in five cities over two months using Sept 6 as the check-in date.
These five cities are Singapore, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Sydney.
Room rates for one night's stay in a standard double room for the check-in date of Sept 6
Three hotels were picked randomly from the high-end, mid-range and budget categories in each city.
The lowest rates for a standard double room at each hotel were monitored periodically via four sources: a travel agent, calling the hotel by phone, through the hotel's website and through a third-party booking site, Asiarooms.
The first check was conducted two months before the check-in date and the final one just three days prior to it.
Prices were updated one month and two weeks before the date, but are not reflected in the chart as the differences were not too significant.
At the Sydney Marriott Hotel, for example, the rates obtained by calling the hotel and booking through its website remained the same - $317 - and dropped to $240 only when Life! made the final check three days before the travel date.
The survey results showed that generally, it does pay to book early as prices tend to go up nearer the travel date and the cheaper the hotel, the higher the likelihood that it will be snapped up faster.
For example, at the mid-range Crowne Plaza in Shanghai, the room charges rose by as much as $50 within two months.
Over at Ascent Shinjuku hotel in Tokyo, the cheapest deals were all snapped up three days before the check-in date for bookings made through the travel agent and the hotel, although Asiarooms still showed vacancies.
Mid-range Singapore Hotel
GALLERY $210 - $340
However, there are exceptions to the rule. You can actually get a better deal by calling Singapore's Gallery Hotel or booking via its website if you left it late. The price dropped from $283 to $245 (hotel phone rate) and from $257 to $210 (hotel website rate).
Its director of sales Dino Lim explained that rates are subject to change depending on the daily occupancy.
"It may occur when the reservation was made way ahead of time and rates were higher as the hotel was running at a high occupancy," he said.
"Closer to the date, more rooms became available due to group bookings not coming through. Thus, rates would be adjusted to capture revenue."
The survey also revealed that there is price parity at most five-star hotels. This means you are quoted more or less the same price whether you call them directly or reserve a room online.
This was the case for The Ritz- Carlton, Millenia Singapore, Hilton Tokyo and Sydney Marriott Hotel.
The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore's public relations executive Tina Chia confirmed that its guests are quoted prices consistently regardless of booking through the hotel or its website, but travel agents do enjoy special rates for bulk bookings.
However, sometimes you can get the cheapest deal by calling the hotels directly or booking via their websites, although more often than not, third-party websites offer the best deals.
Take Renaissance Kowloon Hotel in Hong Kong, for instance. Asiarooms offered a room for $214, while it was $250 through a travel agent, $291 on the hotel website and $361 by phone.
Engineer Kelvin Heng, 35, books his hotel rooms entirely online these days as he finds he can usually snag the best deals this way, even if he makes a booking just two weeks before departure.
Last December, Mr Heng managed to get a heavily discounted room at a five-star onsen resort in Hokkaido for just $210 by booking directly via its website. A similar room booked through a travel agency would have cost him at least 50 per cent more.
"It can be quite time-consuming, surfing and hunting that one sweet deal that suits my budget and travel preferences. But at the end of the day, I feel the extra effort is well worth it," he said.
The avid traveller has also made frequent use of booking sites such as Zuji, Wotif and HotelClub.
The catch is the attractive prices offered on third-party sites may not always guarantee a room as many bookings are on a "on request" basis where it might take days to confirm a reservation, subject to availability.
Such sites also offer rooms which can be confirmed instantly, but usually at a higher price.
For that reason, some people still prefer to book their rooms through "brick-and-mortar" travel agencies, said Chan Brother's senior marketing communications executive Jane Chang.
The one-stop service, personal touch, reassurance of physical service staff, payment security and support in an emergency are all factors that make people stick to travel agents, even if the rates may be comparatively higher, she said.
"Our rates are valid over a longer period of time versus some which offer lower rates for a very limited period, with very limited room allotments and more restricted terms and conditions," she said, adding that her agency does run special promotions for selected hotels from time to time.
Many hotels also offer early-bird discounts if you know where to look.
At the Hilton chain of hotels, guests who make bookings at least 21 days in advance at any of its branches enjoy $40 off the best available rate, depending on room availability.
Marketing communications manager Joyce Moo of Hilton Singapore said this offer is available through all channels, including third-party websites.
As a result, most of the bookings by leisure travellers are placed two months in advance to take advantage of the discounts, she said.
According to Chan Brothers' Ms Chang, most customers make their bookings with her agency two to three months ahead of their travel dates, especially for mid- to long-haul travels, but it is one month in advance or less for short-haul trips.
Budget Hong Kong Hotel
RAMADA $119 - $300
"During trade shows and peak travel periods such as Christmas or festive holidays, customers do make hotel bookings more than six months in advance," she added.
Ms Alicia Seah, senior vice-president for marketing and public relations at CTC Holidays, said travellers should book as early as possible once their plans are firmed up, especially for peak seasons.
"It definitely makes more economical sense to book early as prices can go up if the occupancy rate is high and to avoid disappointments," she said.
But if you are travelling during the low season, travel consultant Steve Tan from Country Holidays pointed out that it may be a case of "the later you book, the better."
"During the low season, even five-star hotels will cut their rates, so you can afford to leave it late," he said.
He added that it is difficult to predict which booking option and timing will give you the most competitive prices as hotels have different allotments for different channels.
"When one channel is not doing so well, the hotel may take the rooms back and sell them through a different channel at a cheaper rate when it gets too close to the travel date," he said.
Of course, if you are travelling during the high season and especially if you are heading to a place with a short travel season, it is always advisable to book early.
Said Mr Tan: "For destinations such as Egypt, where the travel season lasts only from October to March, it is not a matter of cost but securing a place to stay. If you delay, you may end up coughing up more money to get a room."
So, take your chances if you do not mind having to settle for less ideal choices, be it in terms of prices and locations.
But do plan ahead if you can. Chances are you save more. And even on the odd occasion where you end up missing out on a better deal later on, what is a few extra dollars compared to your peace of mind?
This article was first published in The Straits Times on September 09, 2008.