New York hotels: Recession bites the Big Apple

Whether you fly all-business class or strictly economy, bag a New York hotel bargain

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when Lehman was the name of a bank rather than the symbol of a global crash, a time when it was hard to sleep a night in Manhattan for less than $500. All that has changed – for now. It's been a great year for visitors to New York, thanks – ironically – to the economic recession.

Faced with parades of empty rooms, most hotels in the city decided that lowering room rates – even to the level of covering the marginal costs (and keeping all those cleaners, concierges, porters and so forth on the payroll) – was better than standing nearly empty.

Want a deal this autumn in New York? Go for it. And if you are a regular visitor to the city, change up. There are lots of new hotels opening their doors for you to try.

What's changed?

In short, business traveller traffic is way off, because so much of it in this city is tied to the fortunes of Wall Street. Hotel occupancy rates in Manhattan fell 9.5 per cent in the first seven months of the year, while room rates dropped 26 per cent, according to Smith Travel Research. That's why the previously exorbitant room rates just won't fly any more.

Still, it is not all gloomy for the New York hotelier. Many Americans are eschewing going abroad for their holidays and are staying close to home, and New York remains one of the largest domestic hotel destinations. Those double-decker tour buses are still looking pretty packed. But it's still a traveller's market, meaning you will have many more options for your budget, even if you are trying to be fairly frugal. Hotels that were out of reach may not be any more. And on top of that there are all the newcomers on the blocks.

Such as?

If you are looking to enjoy a place that once seemed miles too pricey for your pocket check out Ian Schrager's Gramercy Park Hotel (001 212 920 3300; gramercyparkhotel.com). There was a time when getting a room for less than $1,000 here was a challenge whereas today they are posting special offers for just over $420 per night.

If you are still in an expansive mood financially and want something super high class, you could sample The Mark (001 212 772 1600; themarkhotel.com) on the Upper East Side on Madison Avenue. It is in the process of reopening after a sprucing under the tasteful eye of French designer Jacques Grange. And it will have its own Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant soon.

For a more sassy experience give The Standard (001 212 645 4646; standardhotels.com) a spin. Literally striding the new High Line Park – a strip of green in the trendy Meatpacking district that was once an elevated rail track – this is the latest achievement of hotelier Andre Balazs. With floor-to-ceiling glass walls in every room, the views are spectacular and the social scene even better. Best of all, if you book ahead, you can usually nab a room here for $227 a night. The same goes for the Ace Hotel (001 212 679 2222; acehotel.com) on 29th and Broadway, which has a pleasing gritty chic quality, or the MAve (001 212 532 7373; themavehotel.com), a 72-room boutique hotel open imminently in the Flatiron district; the MAve is right next to the Museum of Sex.

This week, meanwhile, sees the opening of the Crosby Street Hotel (001 212 226 6400; firmdale.com) in SoHo. Conceived by the Firmdale chain, it is the group's first hotel outside London. They know it had better be good, because the competition in New York is fiercer than ever.

What is the best way to get the lowest rates?

Try nycgo.com, the official website of NYC & Company, which is the main tourist promotion office for the city and works with many hotels in getting the lowest rates. On the hotels page you will see a "real deals" heading under which you can enter your dates and see what it spits out. Alternatively there is always hotels.com. Many UK tour operators, from Opodo to Trailfinders, are packaging hotels in Manhattan with cheap air fares this autumn.

Consider visiting New York around major public holidays when even fewer business travellers will be around and Americans are likely to stay close to home. These periods include the week running up to Christmas and also the period immediately before Thanksgiving at the end of November. The cheapest times of year are generally the coldest: January and February. Nice if you like sales and don't mind the city pretending to be a freezer.

Area has an impact, too: Midtown Manhattan tends to be cheaper than Lower Manhattan, though the superb Greenwich Hotel in TriBeCa (001 212 941 8900; thegreenwichhotel.com), part-owned by Robert De Niro, is never going to be cheap. You may even want to consider sleeping in Brooklyn – subway connections to Manhattan are fast and many, and boutique hotels are starting to take off here too. Try the Nu Hotel (001 718 852 8585; nuhotelbrooklyn.com), which opened last summer.

When is a bargain not a bargain?

Cities around the world are looking for cunning ways to scoop money from the travel industry through tax hikes, and New York is no exception. Under new regulations signed by Mayor Mike Bloomberg and brought in this month, any intermediary selling a hotel room to you must now pay a re-seller's fee to the city based on the difference between what you paid and what the hotel gets. The resellers, who include tour operators and travel agents, are going to have to expand their margins to make up for it.

Watch out for conventions and big events in New York like the twice-yearly Fashion Week, when rates will spike. And please don't assess value for money by the number of square feet in your room. In this town, small and tight is the way it goes always. Swing a cat, yes. Your spouse? More tricky.

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