Even the most experienced travelers may not realize that room rates are often open to negotiation. Although there is an authorized top limit to the price of a hotel room, there is no official bottom. We got a dramatic introduction to hotel bartering when another traveler suggested that we stay in a very nice jungle lodge near Palenque.
"Cant afford it," I answered automatically. "Well camp at the Maya Bell." When we learned that the lodge was virtually empty, however, and begging for guests, Lorena decided to check it out as a possible end-of-trip splurge. Her encounter with the manager was a classic example of "nothing ventured, nothing gained."
Lorena (smiling brightly): "Hello, how much is a double room?"
Manager (hesitating just slightly): "We have a special price on private cabins for $55". (I felt my scalp tingle. Well take it!)
Lorena (frowning and shrugging): "Oh.... Well, would there be something even more economical?"
Manager (fussing and pondering): "Hmmm... we may have something in back that I could offer you for... $40. But Ill have to check." (Dont bother, I wanted to say, well take it!)
Lorena (giving me The Eye): "Thank you, but please dont bother. We hoped for something less expensive."
Manager (sighing): "Such as....?" ( ...A damp tent at the Maya Bell Campground again? Was she serious?)
Lorena (smiling and edging away): "It isnt important. Perhaps on another trip."
The manager followed us through the door. (You mean we really wont take it? I was crushed.)
As we passed through the garden, he "remembered" a $30 room that bottomed out at $25 when we reached the lodges conspicuously empty parking lot.
Lorena gave us a serene smile. "Thats nice, but wed like to look at the room first."
Bartering for a room isnt quite like haggling over a wood carving or a handmade blanket. The counter-offer is best made in the form of indecision: "Well . . . I dont know . . . that sounds a little expensive . . ." or the classic "Dont you have a smaller room? Something cheaper?" Dont rush; it may take the desk clerk five minutes or more to recall that theres an alternative to the Bridal Suite.
In "better" hotels I ask for the "commercial" rate or for a cheaper room without a television. In most cases, I'll get a discount on a regular room, with television. You might also ask for the student rate, the "professional" rate or an even vaguer, "discount rate". One of my favorites is the woman who told the manager, "Im a teacher. Would there be a special rate?" There was, and as the hotel was almost empty, the "educator's rate" was a bargain.
Bartering is usually easier in large hotels and in resorts during the off-season, when rooms often go begging. In hotels with a wide variety of room sizes and types, there will be a correspondingly greater range in individual room rates. For example, there may be an upper floor with small simple rooms, with or without baths. In smaller places, barter with care -- the cheapest price might get you a damp broom closet or some other truly grim alternative to a regular room. Always check the room out before accepting it, no matter how generous the discount.
If the price doesnt drop far enough, dont hesitate to ask for a recommendation to a cheaper hotel. This is not only the ultimate bartering maneuver, its also a good way to get directions. Mexicans are very casual in this regard and desk clerks will usually offer advice quite freely.
Longer stays make a good bartering point. Ill give it a one or two-night trial, however, before suggesting to the manager that a discount on a longer stay would be very tempting. My ears are still ringing from the "perfect" motel room in Mazatlán that turned out to share a thin wall with a body shop specializing in midnight bus repairs.