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Booking a Hotel in New York? Use Your Cell Power to Call, Not Surf.

With power still out in Lower Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy, hotels are doing their best to take in stranded tourists, displaced New Yorkers, their own employees and thousands of visitors streaming into town for the New York Marathon.

Louis Fox | Digital Vision | Getty Images

Edward Maynard, the general manager of the Westin New York Grand Central (which has power but no phone service) said it's a delicate balance. Each day, the hotel must first determine which guests are unable to leave. "We obviously don't want to kick anyone out on the street," Mr. Maynard said. Then the hotel tries to accommodate people who have had reservations on the books for months as well as new bookings. To keep guests calm, Mr. Maynard opened a floor in the hotel usually reserved for meetings to show free movies like "Meet the Robinsons" and "Happy Feet."

(Read more: Marathon Mad: Backlash Against NYC Race Mounts)

"Those are all very happy movies," he said. "We're going to refrain from "The Hunger Games."

The hotel, like so many others in town, has no availability at the moment. So what to do if you are in need of a room?

In many cases the best thing to do is call — assuming you and the hotel have phone service — or stop by in person. This is that rare moment in which the Internet does not make life easier. Let me explain:

NYC Rooms Available: $400/Night

I spent the morning surfing go-to travel sites and apps to see what sorts of rooms were up for grabs this evening. Upon first click, it looks like you can get a room if you are willing to pay upwards of $400 a night. But as I tried to book those rooms, they were either unavailable, more expensive than the initial list price, or in hotels without power.

For instance, Priceline.com showed that the Thompson LES had rooms for more than $400 a night. Hmmm. Last time I checked, the Lower East Side didn't have power. Time to live chat with a Priceline representative.

"Hi," I wrote, "just wondering before booking — after Hurricane Sandy, does this hotel have power?"

Priceline representative Troy B replied. "I apologize; I cannot verify this for you since the phone lines are still down."

Me: "But they are taking reservations though?"

Troy B.: "Yes they are. Just fill out the room name at the bottom page and click the next button to continue."

A $400 room without power? That's quite a price tag for camping. "Are you able to confirm with them via e-mail whether or not they have power?" I wrote. "I don't want to book a room that's without power..."

Troy B. was done with me. "For this type of reservation," he replied, "your best bet is to contact the hotel directly for price and availability."

I went to the hotel's Web site, which said on its homepage: "At this time Thompson LES is not accepting reservations. Hot water is available. Blue Ribbon Sushi Izakaya and room service are closed. Phones are back in service."

And so I called. Any availability? The reply was polite and swift: "No ma'am."

I moved on to Hotels.com where the The Belnord, a budget hotel on the Upper West Side, had rooms for $259 a night. I clicked to book. "Sorry!" popped up on my screen. "The hotel you have chosen is unavailable. This can happen during very busy periods." Indeed. I selected the Dylan Hotel instead, listed at $1,500 a night. "Sorry!" the site said again. I tried the Affinia Shelburne, listed for $699 a night. "Sorry!" began the message — only this one was different. "The price of the room you have chosen has now increased by $30." New price: $729 ($842.03 with taxes and fees).

A similar thing happened on Expedia.com when I attempted to book a king room at the Double Tree by Hilton New York -Times Square. "The price of your hotel has changed from $379 to $459 avg. per night" a message said. Make that $530.19 with taxes and fees.

Soon it was 12 o'clock: time to check the HotelTonight app for last-minute deals. There was one hotel with availability: the St. Giles Hotel New York on East 39th Street for $695 a night - $802 with taxes and fees. Next.

On Booking.com, the Algonquin Hotel Times Square had rooms for $469 a night. I clicked to book. Seconds later, I was told the hotel had no availability. (I called the Algonquin directly and they confirmed they were filled.) Another Booking.com listing was for Off SoHo Suites Hotel on the Lower East Side. I tried calling the hotel directly but - surprise- the phone just rang and rang.

It is bedeviling problem: if a hotel's phones are out, the obvious way to make a reservation is the Web. But going online and shelling out hundreds of dollars for a hotel room on the Lower East Side — where most people don't have power — is a big gamble.

On Travelocity.com, the Comfort Inn Lower East Side had a room for $269.99. I called the hotel and asked if they had power. A very kind and apologetic receptionist put me on hold and tried several times to get through to the hotel, which as far as her computer could tell her, had a room. "I really apologize I can't reach the front desk," she told me. "Their phone is ringing but no one is answering."

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