Consumer Reports survey reveals best and worst hotel chains

In time for the summer travel season, Consumer Reports Thursday announced Ratings of 44 of the nation's biggest hotel chains based on a survey of more than 22,000 readers.

Econo Lodge and Americas Best Value Inn were rated among the worst hotel chains. Respondents handed them low scores for attributes like value, upkeep, comfort and service. Microtel Inn & Suites by Wyndham was the highest-rated of the budget hotels, according the Consumer Reports survey.

The report is available online now at www.ConsumerReports.org and in the July 2012 issue of Consumer Reports, which goes on sale Tuesday, June 5.

The Ritz-Carlton bested all other luxury hotels in Consumer Reports' Ratings, earning top marks from survey respondents across the board. However, less ostentatious chains like Westin, Hyatt and Embassy Suites Hotels were near the top of the Ratings, receiving Excellent or Very Good scores on all attributes. Consumer Reports notes that while Ritz-style marble bathtubs might be rare, chains are catching up on long-delayed improvements, freshening rooms, replacing worn mattresses and tattered wallpaper, and updating furnishings.

"No one would ever confuse Microtel Inn & Suites for the Ritz, but each does a great job of pleasing its particular customers," said Tod Marks, Senior Editor, Consumer Reports. "Satisfaction depends on what you're seeking. And our survey clearly shows that across all price points, there are superb hotel choices to fit any guest's needs."

Overall, hotels have improved, according to the Consumer Reports survey. Fifty-three percent of respondents said their check-in and checkout process was excellent, up from 42 percent in 2006. Additionally, 44 percent rated their service as excellent and 43 percent said the same for upkeep - both up 7 percentage points respectively from 2006. On the flip side, 27 percent of respondents had at least one complaint during their stay, such as unattractive beds and outdated decor.

Guide to a great rate

This year, an overnight stay is expected to cost an average of $107, up 5 percent from 2011, according to lodging analyst PricewaterhouseCoopers. To help travelers get the best possible deal on their lodging expenses, Consumer Reports has come up with the following techniques:

Give opaque sites a shot.

Travelers who are not loyal to a particular hotel chain and are willing to choose from among a number of brands at a certain price level should consider opaque websites such as Priceline (Name Your own Price option) and Hotwire (Hot Rates). Consumer Reports has discovered through years of experimenting that they are the single best way to save money.

Haggle.

Only 28 percent of survey respondents tried bargaining, yet 78 percent of those who did won an upgrade or a lower rate. Ask about non-advertised specials, and use free parking or a different bed size as a bargaining chip.

Find Internet-only offers.

Terms such as "best available" and "corporate" used to indicate an unbeatable rate. Today the cheapest advertised rates tend to be on the Internet. But they come with strings: full payment when booking, no cancellations, and no changes. Wyndham offers discounts of up to 25 percent off the otherwise best available rate for advance purchases. Other Internet specials come and go, so check often.

Get in touch if a better deal is found.

Almost every chain and online travel site makes the same boast: If a customer is already booked but finds a cheaper advertised price on the same date at the same hotel for the same type of room, they can submit an online claim within 24 hours of booking and they'll receive a refund of the difference plus a bonus. Hilton offers a $50 bonus. But chains won't match prices from opaque sites.

Be loyal.

Most programs are free to join, and members can earn free nights, future discounts, room upgrades, airline miles, and rental-car savings.

Show your age or affiliation.

A 10 percent discount is the norm for older guests, particularly at lower-prices hotels. Similar discounts often apply to those in the military, government employees, and members of groups such as AAA.

Take a gamble.

Hoteliers quietly maintain a "fade" rate, the minimum they'll accept per room for walk-in guests. If you're ready to walk after hearing the lowest rate, the clerk may use the fade rate to earn at least some revenue from a vacant room.

The Consumer Reports National Research Center's 2011 Annual Questionnaire included a section asking subscribers about their recent visits to national hotel (and motel) chains. Respondents reported on stays that took place from January 1, 2010 through June 2011.

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