14 Hacks to Score Serious Hotel Upgrades Without Dropping the Cash

Rack rates are for amateurs.

“The room you booked isn’t available yet… but I’ve got a bigger one open and you can have it.” After a stressful day of travel, is there anything more exhilarating than getting upgraded when you check into your hotel? If you keep a few simple things in mind, you can make it happen on a regular basis.

Before we get to it, though, a few caveats. Let’s be realistic: You’re not going to book a standard room and get upgraded to the presidential suite. Set your expectations a bit lower and aim for a better room or a junior suite. Second, leave your entitlement at the door. If you act like a jerk at check-in, you’re almost certainly going to lose out. Finally, none of these are guaranteed to work every time. But they’re all worth trying. And when those upgrades do come through, they’re all the more satisfying.

1Just ask — but be cool.

First off, be polite, gracious, and smile at the person helping you at check-in. Then ask if there are any upgrades available. It might seem simplistic, but you won’t get anything if you don’t ask for it. Apart from that, just being nice can go a long way. Second, the last thing a front-desk agent wants is for you to set off a domino effect of people asking for upgrades as they check in. So be discreet and try to ask for an upgrade when other guests aren’t around or standing right behind you.

2Time it right.

Speaking of which, try to check in at a slow time of day. Hotel desks get busy right around the check-in (around 2 to 3 p.m.) and check-out times (around 11 a.m. or noon) and you’re less likely to get special consideration. If you come later in the day, around 5 or 6 p.m., most folks will already have checked in. That means that, while some other guests might have taken up all the upgradable space, front-desk agents also have a better sense of which higher-category rooms or suites are going to go unsold for the night and might be more willing to put you in one.

In a larger sense, plan your trips strategically. If your hotel is in a business destination, chances are it’s going to be busier during the week and quiet on weekends, so book a Friday or Saturday night there and you might have your pick of rooms. In leisure destinations, try going over shoulder or off season when hotel rates are down, properties are eager to please the few guests they have, and better rooms are liable to be sitting empty anyway.

3Be specific.

Don’t just ask for a nicer room or for a suite. Have a specific request in mind, like a room with an ocean view, or a corner room or one on a higher floor that might be quieter. If you give the check-in agent something concrete to look for, it makes it much easier on them to find something that might make you happy. Which, remember, they’re trying to do.

4The shorter the better.

Your chances of an upgrade can improve dramatically if your reservation is only for a night or two. Because hotels are dealing with a set inventory of rooms, it’s much easier to upgrade a guest a nicer room for a single night than a whole week.

5Loyalty counts.

Whereas elite frequent fliers seem to be having a harder and harder time getting upgrades, hotel elites are still enjoying some pretty great benefits in this respect. If you can concentrate your travel activity to stay at one chain of hotels, that can translate into elite status — the upper tiers of which (meaning, you’ve stayed a lot each year) confer benefits like confirmable room and suite upgrades, not to mention free breakfast, club lounge access, concierge services, and more. 

6Try something new.

It might seem counterintuitive to gun for an upgrade by booking a new hotel since it’s usually right after a hotel opens that everyone wants to get in and see it. However, during this time, hotels are usually not operating at full capacity. They’re still training staff, some rooms might not be open, and other facilities like a restaurant or spa may not be available yet. At the same time, they are also hoping that their first guests tell all their friends about how great their stay was. So you might find yourself in a room or suite in a higher category than the one you booked. 

7Use a travel agent.

No, seriously — travel agents are still around. What’s more, because of the networks through which they book hotels, such as Virtuoso or Starwood Luxury Privileges, they can often guarantee room upgrades along with other perks like on-property dining or spa credits. Many agents also have personal relationships with the managers of hotel properties they book and can call them directly to ask for upgrades.

8Maximize your credit card.

Among the benefits of several travel rewards credit cards are hotel-booking benefits. The Platinum Card from American Express, for example, gives you access to the Fine Hotels & Resorts program where you can book hotel stays at luxury properties around the world. FHR has negotiated special deals where guests can enjoy benefits such as third- or fourth-night-free discounts, dining and spa credits, late checkout, and either space-available or guaranteed upgrades (of usually just one category). The rates you pay are usually close to those you get by booking directly through a hotel, so for the same price, you get a ton of extra value.

9Announce special occasions.

This is another one that shouldn’t be abused, but if you are actually traveling for a special occasion such as a birthday, anniversary, or honeymoon, email the hotel about it beforehand. Many hotels want to give guests the best experience possible and will go out of their way to make a special occasion that much more memorable. And if you don’t get an upgrade, maybe you’ll at least get a plate of cookies or a bottle of champagne.

10If something’s wrong, point it out.

Here's a page out of Shannon Beador's book! But this one comes with a stern warning: Don’t complain about something in your room, or make up an issue, just to get an upgrade. However, if something is wrong, like it smells of smoke, or the television isn’t working, you’re within your rights to complain about it and see if the hotel can move you. Though they’ll usually try to put you in the same category of room, it often happens that they will have to shift your room category upwards to find something that’s available. Again, this should only be done in cases where something is actually wrong with the room and the hotel cannot fix it in a timely manner.

11Tweet yo-self.

Everyone’s on social media these days, including individual hotel representatives and brand executives. If you have a stay coming up that you’re excited about, tweet, Snapchat, Instagram, whatever, about it. Ask the hotel’s concierge what you should do during your visit, or what the restaurant’s specials are. Chances are, you’ll get a response, and maybe a little welcome amenity or even an upgrade when you arrive. (And that's a page out of Bethenny Frankel's book!)

12Everything’s negotiable.

You’re checking in late in the day. You ask about an upgrade to a suite. The front-desk agent says that there is a suite available but it’s $500 more for the night. Offer $100. See what happens. If the hotel is fairly certain that a nicer room or suite is going unbooked for the night (which is often the case late in the day), it may be willing to haggle on the price of an upgrade and you could get a much nicer room for a fraction of the usual cost.

13Try old-school palm persuasion.

This is old school but effective. Slide a bill across the desk to the representative checking you in. The denomination should reflect the level of the establishment. Though there’s no guarantee of an upgrade, this method is still anecdotally quite successful. Generally, if they can’t upgrade you, they won’t accept the tip, so you’re no worse off for having tried.

14Start higher.

If you, like almost everyone else, book the cheapest category of room, you’ll have a harder time upgrading. Spend even just a little more on a slightly better room, or book a refundable rate where you pay the hotel directly for your stay rather than ahead of time. The more you are paying, the more likely the hotel is to do something nice for you, including giving you a nicer room.

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