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It helps to speak the language when looking for a hotel

Terms that look simple can cause lots of confusion

SHARE It helps to speak the language when looking for a hotel

Somebody once said that the Americans and the British are separated by a common language. So it is, too often, with travelers and the hotel industry.

This truth was underlined for me recently when I called a bed-and-breakfast in San Francisco to ask whether it had a minimum-stay requirement for weekend guests in July.

"You're not going to like this," the reservations person at Inn 1890 began in an apologetic tone. "It's five nights. During the week we accept four-day reservations, but even that's becoming more rare. . . More and more people are staying longer and longer."

To my mind, five days isn't a weekend. It's most of a week with a weekend attached — the sort of requirement one usually finds at high-priced, isolated resorts, not an $89-to-$119-a-night B&B in the Haight-Ashbury district.

Of course, a hotelier or innkeeper is entitled to test the market with whatever minimum-stay conditions he or she likes. (San Francisco remains a tight market: about 30,000 rooms, compared with about 45,000 in San Diego or Phoenix.) But that conversation got me thinking about the many terms that may mean one thing to an industry insider and something quite different — or perhaps nothing at all — to a consumer.

Here, drawn from hotel industry insiders and trade publications, is a quick guide to lodging trade terms:

Continental breakfast: Many travelers hear those words and imagine croissants, fresh fruit, juice, yogurt, bread, bagels or muffins, cereal, milk, tea and coffee — nearly everything but meat. Some innkeepers deliver exactly this. But to others, a continental breakfast means a communal basket of hard little doughnuts and an industrial-size coffee urn with a little tower of disposable cups. At any lodging that offers any kind of breakfast with the price of a night's stay, ask specifically what that breakfast includes.

En suite: A fancy way of saying you'll have your own bathroom.

Limited-service hotel: This phrase makes some travelers suspicious immediately. They imagine weekly maid service or incoming calls that go unanswered while the night manager is out sweeping the parking lot. But limited service just means a hotel that's sticking to the lodging business — no in-house restaurant or lounge or banquet service.

Rack rates: Drawn from the retail phrase "off the rack," this means the prices a company lists in its brochures. If you make a habit of paying these prices, you will go broke quickly and reservations agents will giggle behind your back. The priciest chains may resist discounting, but most lodgings undercut their brochure rates with weekend specials, weekday specials, auto club discounts, senior discounts, student discounts, military discounts, corporate rates (getting these sometimes requires merely that you flash a business card) or plain old discounts because it's 7 p.m. and only half the rooms are rented. When booking a room, be persistent in asking for the lowest rate and seeking guidance in what special rates might apply. You might even ask, "How can I beat the rack rates on this?"

Subject to availability: It may seem obvious that you can't get a $100 standard room if all the standard rooms are sold out, but availability is more complicated than that.

Just as the airlines use "yield management" to juggle inventory and maximize revenue, a hotel might offer 20 standard rooms at $100 and more rooms at $150. Once the 20 low-priced units are taken, the price goes up.

Suite: That word used to make me think of a two-room unit: one room with a couch and perhaps a desk or TV, the other with a bed. But, I have learned, some hoteliers call any fairly large room a suite.

Walk to beach: Those words demand these follow-up questions: In how much time? Across what streets? Amid what perils after dark? Is this a sandy beach where I can lie down? Can I swim safely?