Dubai: In cities including London and New York, it’s become normal for new hotels to charge starting rates exceeding $1,000 per night - with suites often going for at least twice as much. This makes a free hotel upgrade one of today’s most valuable and coveted travel perks.
While you can do certain things to maximize your odds of getting upgraded, hanging your hopes on a free pass to the penthouse suite will almost always prove fruitless - unless you’re a high roller on the casino floor at a Las Vegas hotspot. At hotels with few suites, an upgrade might mean a better view or a room on a higher floor. In others, bumping room categories could range from gaining a few square feet to acquiring additional bedrooms.
Here are seven things you can do to boost your chances of an upgrade. We can promise that they work, but we can’t guarantee exactly what they’ll get you.
Jump the loyalty line
Airline and hotel loyalty programs are designed to dangle the proverbial carrot to keep your business. The higher tier of loyalty status you hold - or the more you spend with a hotel company - the more likely you are to get upgraded. That will shock nobody.
It’s also possible to cut to the front of the (loyalty) line. Several credit cards offer elite hotel status the minute your application is approved. The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card is king in this capacity: It awards top-tier diamond status in exchange for the $450 annual fee. Other generous cards include the $695-per-year Platinum Card from American Express, which extends gold-tier status with both Marriott Bonvoy and Hilton Honors - a particularly generous double whammy. At $250 per year, the Marriott Bonvoy Bevy American Express and Marriott Bonvoy Bountiful credit cards are good options, both offering automatic gold status. (Always be sure to check for fine print on spending requirements when applying for new cards.)
It’s also worth noting that only one loyalty program outrightly guarantees room upgrades a few times a year - even for top-tier members; World of Hyatt uses “upgrade certificates” as rewards for hitting certain milestones. You’ll get a guaranteed upgrade to a club-level room, for instance, after staying 20 nights or earning 35,000 base points with the program, and an upgrade to a suite after 50 nights and 80,000 points. With every other major company, upgrades are contingent on availability, rather than guaranteed.
Link your accounts
Hotel and airline bookings are often made hand in hand, so it makes sense that their loyalty programs can be connected through partnerships, too. Take American Airlines and Hyatt. Each gives reciprocal benefits to loyalists, so AAdvantage elite members can enjoy World of Hyatt elite status benefits, including room upgrades. United and Marriott have a partnership called RewardsPlus that gives elite members reciprocal status in the other program. By definition, this leads to upgrade opportunities.
It’s easy to link your accounts online, though it sometimes can be tricky to find the right place to do it. Search for the partnership you’re interested in activating, using terms such as “United Marriott” or “AAdvantage Hyatt,” and you’ll easily locate the login page where entering your airline’s credentials will synch your accounts and recognize your reciprocal status in seconds.
Book with a luxury travel adviser
Many hotel brands provide incentives for luxury travel advisers through trade programs such as Marriott Stars. It’s important to note that these advisers may not always get rock-bottom rates but tend to get the best values; this means that the perks added to your reservation are worth far more than the small markup you pay for not booking directly through a hotel’s website (where, as a rule, the cheapest rates are always available).
At many luxury hotels, you’re looking at a surcharge of $50 to $100 per night when you book a standard room with a travel agent; the numbers fluctuate. But as long as space is available, you are guaranteed a one-category room upgrade, breakfast for two, late checkout and an onsite benefit (often a food, beverage or spa credit). The breakfast alone can be worth $50 - and the VIP treatment that comes in exchange for a travel agent’s commission can make you feel like royalty. Best of all, these rates almost always earn hotel points, something generally available only when booking directly via the hotel’s channels.
Some credit cards have access to Marriott Stars rates with no travel agent required. Top-tier American Express cards can access the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts program; comparable Chase cards offer the Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection. The difference is that bookings made through these channels are not always eligible to earn loyalty points. Before booking, consider whether the convenience is worth it.
Avoid online travel agencies
Online travel agencies - think Booking.com, Expedia or Orbitz - have little in common with actual travel agents. One of the biggest differences is the commission margins that hotels pay the OTAs for every booking made on their websites, dwarfing the share human agents receive. This constitutes such a significant hit to hotels’ bottom lines that most front desk staffers admit that guests who use these booking channels typically get less-desirable rooms - such as ones that face the parking lot instead of the beach, or rooms near the noisy ice machine.
If booking with a human travel agent lifts you closer to the top of the upgrade list, booking via an OTA is a good way to end up at the bottom. And you won’t cash in on hotel points to redeem for future stays via these channels.
Many travelers find success in calling ahead and politely asking for an upgrade - particularly if they’re celebrating a special occasion. Anniversaries, birthdays or special family trips give the hotel an opportunity to impress you with welcome gifts and even an upgrade, which they extend when possible on the assumption that you’re more likely to share such occasions publicly.
This strategy has worked well for Jamie Larounis, a travel industry analyst for travel blog UpgradedPoints.com.
“Room managers manually place guests in rooms at a hotel, and by calling the property in advance you can note any special requests or preferences,” he explains. “Even if the hotel cannot guarantee a free upgrade, calling can help, especially if you are a repeat guest and get to know some of the front desk staff.”
Just don’t abuse the system. Hotels won’t necessarily track how often you make such requests, but faking it for the sake of freebies will be frowned upon, if discovered.
Arrive at the right time
Seasonality is a further important factor when determining if your chances for an upgrade are realistic. Visiting during the holidays or high season for a destination? Upgrades are probably less likely; staying in a business hotel on a weekend may yield better results. If you’re visiting a resort, traveling during low season or outside school holiday dates may offer a better chance.
Your check-in time may also matter. If you arrive early in the day, the hotel might be holding better rooms for sale or for cash upgrades. If you check in during the evening, the hotel may be more willing to offer a suite instead of letting it go empty. It never hurts to flash a smile and ask.
Be polite (and flexible)
As with all things in life, a little kindness can go a long way. While checking in, ask front desk staff how they’re doing, express interest in their jobs and even solicit local recommendations before seeking an upgrade.
Being flexible is paramount. If you made a reservation for a king bed but are willing to take doubles instead, it can become easier to score an upgrade. The same applies to forgoing a particular view if a better room type matters more.
Hotel staffers confirm that it’s common for the computer system to prioritize elite members for upgrade eligibility. Still, they might go out of their way for a friendly guest who lacks status. Trying to slip cold, hard cash is as likely to offend staff as to entice them; this is a route we don’t recommend. The golden rule of treating others as you’d want to be treated is always the safest bet.