AARP is adding Hyatt hotels to its hotel discount list for 2011. As I've noted before, those AARP discounts continue to decline in their appeal and utility: You should continue to view any mass-group discount (AARP, AAA and such) as a fallback position to be used only when you can't find a better deal some other way.
The number of hotel participants in the AARP hotel program for 2011 has increased to 43 brand names, mostly elements of four big multibrand chains:
*Discounts this year at the 10 mostly midprice and budget Choice Hotels brands are now 10 percent off the best available rate, something of an improvement over last year's "up to 10 percent off," a meaningless promise: Ascend, Cambria Suites, Clarion, Comfort Inn/Suites, Econo Lodge, MainStay Suites, Quality Inn, Rodeway Inn, Sleep Inn, and Suburban Extended Stay.
*Discounts this year at the nine mostly upscale Starwood brands are 5 percent to 15 percent off the "best available" rate, another vague promise, and a bit stingier than last year's 5 percent to 25 percent off: Aloft, Element, Four Points, Le Meridien, Luxury Collection, Sheraton, St. Regis, W, and Westin.
*Discounts this year at the 11 Wyndham brands in all price ranges are mostly a vague "up to 20 percent off," with Hawthorn at "10 percent off the best available rate": Baymont, Days Inn, Hawthorn Suites, Howard Johnson, Knights Inn, Microtel, Ramada, Super 8, Travelodge, Wingate, and Wyndham.
*Discounts at the mostly upscale Hyatt brands, new this year, are "up to 10 percent" on most; "up to 20 percent" at Summerfield, Andaz, Grand Hyatt, Hyatt, Hyatt Place, Hyatt Regency, Hyatt Summerfield and Park Hyatt. Discount programs are also seasonally limited.
*Sandals and Beaches all-inclusives offer "spa credit" rather than discounts.
Among the other three participating chains, Best Western offers "10 percent or more," Hampton (the only Hilton brand in the AARP program) offers 10 percent off "the best available" rates, a firmer promise than last year's limitation to "select" rates, and La Quinta's discount remains a puny 5 percent.
Although other big chains and individual hotels do not formally participate in the AARP program, many nevertheless offer senior discounts. Most are in the same range as AARP's deals; qualifying ages range from 50 to 65; some even accept AARP identification.
AARP has recently added vacation rentals to its travel smorgasbord:
*Members get 10 percent off posted rates at more than 200,000 listings on Endless Vacations, a Wyndham operation that rents mainly timeshare units but also lists some individual properties.
Members get 5 percent off bookings through The Right Vacation Rental, specializing in Europe but with a few U.S. listings, and $75 per person discount on packages from the affiliated Untours program.
Your strategy for finding your best hotel deal remains the same: Start by looking for special promotions and "sales" available to travelers of any age. You can do that easily through any of the big online agencies, such as Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline and Travelocity, or use Mobissimo or Smartertravel's booking engine to search multiple sites. Chances are that you'll find some really good prices that way. But if those any-age deals can't beat AARP, use AARP.
If you're sure you won't cancel, aren't committed to a specific address, aren't fussy about room location, and don't require twin or double/double bed arrangements, your best hotel deal is usually an "opaque" buy through Hotwire or Priceline. Even if you add in the price of cancellation "insurance," those opaque rates can be a lot lower than the best openly posted deals.
AARP is also expanding its other travel discounts. In general, like the hotel deals, they're often no better than those available to anyone, but some provide other advantages -- notably the improved insurance coverage you get on car rentals through AARP.