By Lesley Alderman

(MONEY Magazine) – Wouldn't you rather have a hotel suite with a view of the sea for the price of a puny room overlooking the parking lot? Or a sporty compact convertible instead of a dull economy-size rental, at no extra charge? Or how about a fall cruise through the Caribbean for half the published fare? These and other great deals are available. You simply have to ask. Why? Because the travel industry dearly needs your business. Still struggling to recover from a slump fueled by the recession and the gulf war, the industry has seen its growth in real sales fall from 6% six years ago to 0.1% in 1992. U.S. airlines and hotels, for example, are operating with more than a third of their seats and rooms empty. "In many areas of travel, it's a buyer's market," says Tim Zagat, publisher of the Zagat restaurant and hotel guides. "And few consumers are taking advantage of the values that are available." To help you negotiate the best deals, MONEY asked more than a dozen experts in airlines, cruises, hotels and other travel businesses to map out an insider's strategy. Here is their advice on how to get the most for your money. All it takes is a few key phrases, a willingness to bargain and the understanding that the odds are in your favor.

SHOPPING AIR FARES Be flexible. Don't lock yourself into an airline, an airport or, within reason, a departure date. Try to choose a three-day span for your departure, then ask your travel agent to "do a fare shop" on the computer. That will search out the airlines' lowest fares to your destination. Be sure the selection includes all the airports near the cities you are leaving from and arriving at. You may get substantial savings, for example, by departing from Burbank airport in the Los Angeles area rather than LAX, or by arriving at Newark rather than JFK on your trip to New York City. Also, check the fares to a nearby city. Last June, flights from St. Louis to National airport in Washington, D.C. were $198 round trip. But if you flew into Baltimore airport, a 35-minute drive away, they cost $111. On travel to Europe, always ask about flights available through consolidators, which buy blocks of tickets from airlines at wholesale prices. About 20% of fliers now go overseas on consolidator tickets, saving as much as 50% of the regular fare. You most likely won't be able to make any ticket changes once you've paid for a consolidator flight, however, so be certain you study the restrictions that apply. And before booking any trips within the U.S. or abroad, says Tom Parsons, editor of Best Fares magazine, check prices with at least three travel agents. "Think of it like getting a bid from a contractor," he says, "and go with the one that gives you the best deal."

NEGOTIATING A HOTEL ROOM According to Smith Travel Research, which monitors the lodging industry, U.S. hotels are filled to only about 61% capacity these days. So unless you're booking into a large city during a convention or a top-of-the-line resort at high season, you can negotiate a discount. Often you can get a minimum of 10% off the published rate and sometimes as much as 50% off the highest-price accommodations. When booking a room, call the hotel directly, not the 800 number, and ask the reservations clerk if there are special rates for the days you plan to stay. If the answer is no, ask for the corporate rate, which is usually about 20% lower than the published rate. You can often get a corporate discount even if you are on a pleasure trip or have no business affiliation with the hotel. When you arrive at the hotel, verify the rate you were quoted over the phone and ask, "Can you do any better?" If you can't get a further discount on the price, ask whether your room can be upgraded to one with more space or a better view or whether you can be moved to the club or concierge floor, where the hotel provides perks such as free breakfast and complimentary shoeshines. Seasoned travelers say they never take the first room they are offered.

RENTING A CAR Parsons suggests you arrange to pick up your car at the airport whenever possible. When you arrive, go to the desks of several rental agencies, including the one with whom you've made your reservation, and ask them to beat the price you've been quoted or to give you a better car for the same money. "Nine out of 10 times I can get a better deal using this strategy," says Parsons. Always ask whether there are club discounts you might qualify for, such as those offered to members of AAA or AARP.

CHOOSING A CRUISE "I haven't seen business this bad since the early '80s," says Oivind Mathisen, editor of the magazine Cruise Industry News. That's good news. Many cruise lines are offering discounts of as much as 50%, or an automatic upgrade, if you book early. Start negotiations by asking your travel agent to get you the best discount available and an upgrade to a better cabin. To protect yourself in the event of a last-minute fare cut, also ask for a guaranteed further fare reduction or upgrade if the price ultimately goes lower than what you paid.

BOOKING A TOUR Packaged tours -- in which two or more components of your travel, such as air fare and hotel, are sold together -- are usually good deals but nonnegotiable. Nevertheless, ask your travel agent for extra perks, says Rosalie Maniscalco, manager of the American Express Travel Agency on Park Avenue in New York City. When a client of hers found that his $2,500 package for two to Italy did not include the $55 transfers to his hotel from the airport, he asked whether she could "do something special" for him. "So I did," says Maniscalco, who threw in the transfers for no extra charge. "We do what we can to make people happy." The client saved $55, and the agent earned the client's trust. Also, if a package includes features you don't really want, like sightseeing tours or theater tickets, ask your agent to assemble what's known as an "independent package." You and your agent can custom design a tour from an array of choices that might include the same air fare, hotel and car-rental rates as the set package tour. And you'll pay only for what you want.

FINDING A KIDS' PROGRAM Family travel is flourishing, and so are children's programs at resorts, hotels and on cruises. Always ask exactly what the price of the program includes and which activities are available only for additional fees. At some resorts you may have to pay as much as $35 extra each time your child goes horseback riding or takes a tennis lesson. Dorothy Jordon, publisher of the newsletter Family Travel Times, warns: "If you are faced with a lot of extra fees you were not prepared for, you either end up charging everything and coming home with a big bill or saying no to your children, neither of which is a great way to handle a vacation." And when you make your reservation, ask whether a connecting room for the children can be added for half price. Many hotels will agree to that.

LOOKING FOR LAST-MINUTE DEALS Ask your travel agent, "Do you have any last-minute specials?" Often cruise lines will alert travel agents when they have a few empty spaces and offer the last slots at a substantial discount. For instance, last July, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines made available to American Express Travel Agencies a "kids cruise free" special on three ships departing from September to December. Other lines frequently offer two-for-one specials a month to three months before sailing.