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Looking for a hotel discount? Just ask

Nobody pays the sticker price for a new car, and nobody pays "rack" or list price for a hotel room _ not if they ask the right questions, anyway.

Reservations agents aren't always forthcoming with the lowest room rate, however, even when you ask for it. Or so I've found after years of jockeying for the best possible rates in hundreds of hotels.

To complicate matters, hotels seem to have almost as many different rates these days for the same room as airlines do for the same seat.

There are corporate rates (often 15 percent to 20 percent off the "rack rate" _ the basic, published rate) that anyone can get simply by asking; corporate rates that are limited to employees of companies that have arrangements with the hotel; discounts that come with membership in groups like the American Automobile Association and the American Association of Retired Persons; advance-purchase rates; frequent-guest program rates; and specials that hotels introduce at slow times _ among other deals.

Moreover, the rates you're quoted by calling the hotel directly may be different from the rates you're cited when calling a central 800 reservations number.

I've found that to get the lowest rate, you have to let the words "Anything cheaper?" be your mantra. And don't be shy about repeating it. When I called for reservations recently at five Pittsburgh hotels, I got up to eight rates in response to this initial request: I need a double room for one night with one bed.

If you're a member of AAA, AARP or any other organization that might bring a price break, remember to ask the hotel if they honor those discounts _ don't expect the reservationists to offer the information. And be prepared to produce proof of membership upon checking in.

Corporate rates are another matter. You don't necessarily have to work for a company that has a corporate arrangement with a particular hotel or even be on a business trip, for that matter, to get a corporate rate. The discount might not be as great as the AAA or AARP rate, but it's certainly less than the rack price.

Still, one of best sources of lower hotel rates comes from the relatively new crop of so-called hotel consolidators, who buy blocks of rooms from hotels at a lower price and pass on a portion of those savings when they re-sell the rooms to travelers who book through them. These discount reservations services are kind of like outlet stores for hotel rooms and were spawned by a hotel industry in which supply exceeds demand in many cities.

For more information, call:

Room Exchange: (800) 846-7000.

Hotel Reservations Network: (800) 964-6835.

RMC Travel: (800) 245-5738.

Quikbook: (800) 789-9887.

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