I asked readers to share what’s on their mind and not surprisingly one of the questions was about getting upgraded. I’ve shared all of this advice before, but it seemed useful to pull it together and repeat it because it’s not just a reader question it’s one of the most common questions in travel.
Airline upgrades are almost exclusively done by formula, with little discretion allowed to gate or check-in counter agents. The only time there may be wiggle room is when a flight is oversold, and while elite frequent flyers may get preference for moving up to a premium cabin, the most important priority is getting a flight out on time. Other than these “operational upgrades” though, upgrades are going to be based on published criteria – not who is nicest, who dresses best, or who asks.
Rental car upgrades are probably easiest, car agencies will often sell upgrades for a very modest fee and counter agents may even get commissioned based on selling you an upgrade. Given them an excuse or a reason (such as your status) and you may just drive away in a better car. But without any status, upgrades can usually be purchased for a few bucks a day (and the price may be negotiable).
Hotel upgrades have a great deal of discretion. While rooms may be pre-assigned to guests, the front desk agent can usually make a decision (within certain bounds set by the hotel — the best suites may require a manager’s approval).
- Living room at the Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi
There are many reasons they might upgrade you — your status, because you’ve been disserviced in some way, because you tipped them.
Tips go a long way in Las Vegas, and supposedly in some other cities. The “$20 trick” costs more at better hotels, but involves slipping cash to the check-in agent along with your credit card and asking them if an upgrade might be possible. Know what room you want, and ask for it specifically. At the Bellagio, $100 once got me a suite with five bathrooms for a four night stay.
Using Your Elite Status at Hotels for Maximum Effect
There are a lot of guests in a hotel, many of which have some sort of status, and some get the upgrade and some don’t, some get the ‘special’ suites while others get the more mundane ones. And there are things that you can do to distinguish yourself, and it usually does have more to do with your mojo and strategy than about who you are in a hotel’s program (super-secret special hotel levels notwithstanding).
Let’s not over-estimate the importance of ‘technique’, because hotel elite status obviously matters a lot. It’s the excuse to ask and your ticket in the door. But lots of people have status. And not all programs are created equal; Marriott, Hilton HHonors, and Priority Club don’t even include upgrades to suites as a published promise of their programs.
- Extreme Wow Suite at the W San Diego
Hyatt will let their Diamond members confirm a suite at booking four times a year, but it’s not usually going to be one of the monster or ‘named’ suites.
Starwood’s upgrade program technically only extends to ‘standard’ suites.
The one program that I’ve found can be useful in getting the really high-end suites, and whose hotels often have them, is Intercontinental’s Royal Ambassador.
In each case though one key is to stategize. Hotels may be known for giving more generous upgrades than are required by a loyalty program. Know which hotels those are and patronize them. Similarly, some hotels give the bare minimum required (if that), avoid those.
- Two bedroom ocean pool villa at the Conrad Koh Samui
But status is an opening gambit, a reason to give the upgrade but not a guarantee of that upgrade. Be nice and ask and combine that with status.
Book Hotels through the Right Channels
While I’ve had suites on Priceline stays, discounted third party bookings and even full price online travel agencies aren’t going to be helpful. Hotels pay a big commission to third parties and usually third party guests are seen as less loyal. You might get upgraded but these venues don’t boost your chances.
Booking through a chain’s website doesn’t get you anything positive but it doesn’t detract from your chances.
Premium hotel programs like American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts, Virtuoso agents for participating properties, and other similar programs such as Visa Signature Hotels may incorporate an upgrade subject to availability as a free add-on to your reservation, and often at no additional cost.
Negotiating With Hotels in Advance
Upgrades can be arranged through correspondence with a manager.. GM, reservations manager, revenue manager, etc. Some hotels put e-mail addresses on their websites, other times I google the contact information.
Before I had any sort of hotel status, I would often send a fax to the hotel with some request about my stay. Perhaps it was a special occasion, and could they give me the view I was looking forward to? I might have flowers delivered to the room so that they’re there when we arrive, that would force the hotel to pre-block a room, and while they were thus hand-selecting a room it would tend to be better than if left to the check-in desk.
I would send a fax rather than making a phone call usually on the theory that a piece of paper could be picked up and taken as an action item, whereas a person that I got on the phone might well forget to do anything I had asked. (E-mail works.)
With elite status things are still quite negotiable. At the Sheraton Saigon I offered to spend points to get a Towers room. I had booked an award stay, and the hotel doesn’t upgrade from the main rooms to the Towers section as a status benefit. But they agreed to move me offer for points, confirmed in advance rather than an instant award at check-in, and then confirm my elite upgrade to a suite in the Towers section at the same time.
Negotiating With Hotels at Check-in
Various hotels give varying levels of discretion to front desk staff, Randy Petersen was quoted years ago in the New York Times suggesting walking up to the counter and saying something like, “By any chance, is that big presidential suite available? I just feel important tonight,” and it doesn’t hurt to ask, even jokingly, once in a blue moon it might work.
Sometimes it means ‘pushing’ at the check-in counter. When I arrived at the former Westin Rio Mar at 4pm, my pre-blocked junior suite wasn’t ready. They suggested I go have a drink or a late lunch and wait. I asked whether they were buying me lunch? Or if they’d like to find me a better room that was ready? The front office manager came over, typed a bit, and put me into an Atlantic Suite.
It can also mean just expressing disappointment once you get up to the room, returning to the front desk and asking the hotel to do better.
I mentioned my disappointment at the location of my suite at the Intercontinental Montelucia (ground floor, right next to the pool) and they moved me to a much larger suite… with its own back yard.
Now, In Las Vegas, “negotiating” means “tipping.”
On that Bellagio stay I slipped the $100 under my credit card, and asked “I was wondering if there are any upgrades available, I’d love one of those great big penthouse suites.”
The desk clerk typed away, took my credit card and stuck the $100 in her pocket, and told me that I’d enjoy my room very much (but that if I had any concerns, to please come back and speak with her and not anyone else.)
Even More Advice
Last summer I posted a video discussion of scoring hotel upgrades.
And also one on airline upgrades: