The best tip for a great hotel stay — get a human involved


These days there are all kinds of commercials and online ads for great hotel websites and apps, all intimating that booking through them will get you some glorious room or suite at a good price.

While, certainly, there are some website deals out there on everything from the smallest rooms to suites, if travelers really care about the room they are reserving, old-fashioned human involvement could be their best bet.

In addition, with automated check-in kiosks at some hotels, it’s possible to go from the reservation process directly to a hotel room without talking to an actual person. However, eliminating the human touch comes at a price.

Admittedly, I’m a travel agent, so I’m biased. Agents may have relationships with hotels that can translate into clout and thus upgrades, not to mention potential freebies like breakfast, food or spa credit and so on with four- to five-star properties through major hotel consortiums like Signature or Virtuoso.

It doesn’t always take a travel agent relationship with a hotel to see the importance of speaking with a real person. I booked a family member for a birthday trip to the Queen Kapiolani in Honolulu. It’s an older property and not one I’d booked before, but the price was right. I contacted them to let them know it was her birthday and I got a nice call back telling me she was upgraded to a room with a lovely view.

Now, they hope I will send more business, of course, and they hope she will tell her friends. But I also think some part of it was just hotel people trying to be nice because I had gone out of my way to ask. Plus, if a normal guest had called and told the hotel that she was coming for her birthday, the hotel folk would more than likely have arranged some kind of goodie.

In fact, while more and more hotel bookings are being done purely online, I hear over and over again from hotel representatives how frustrating that can be. The hotels have guests showing up who either don’t know what they’re getting or didn’t think to specify what they needed.

Have a family of four? Don’t assume a room will have two double beds.

Prefer a bath over a shower? Increasingly, many rooms don’t have tubs.

Want a great view because it’s your first visit to New York? Asking nicely can make all the difference.

But be forewarned: if travelers use a heavily discounted booking method, special requests are more difficult. It’s not just that ultra-low-cost bookers might have gotten a good rate, but many low-price sites also keep a high percentage of even that low price. So, the hotel may be getting very little revenue. In general, if hotel guests want something special, chances are better to book at a lower published rate, either through a travel agent or the hotel’s website, then ask, because then, at least, the hotel is getting most of the money.

Even if a hotel can’t give guests what they want for the price they are paying, they may offer a discounted upgrade. In another recent case, I had a number of clients going to Dukes Hotel in London, but an administrative assistant casually mentioned one man was bringing his wife and son along for a first visit to London. The Dukes Hotel, like many overseas hotels, cannot accommodate three in standard rooms. But the general manager was nice enough to give him a much larger room at not too much higher a price. Had he just showed up, it might have been a very different story.

In addition, in my experience, generally when you let a hotel know it’s a special occasion, they make an effort. Note, I am NOT recommending lying here, and fabricating birthdays, honeymoons etc., spawns bad travel karma. And karma can be a real witch on vacation.

But an honest request, even if it’s not your birthday, could work wonders. So maybe, click off the app, and make an actual phone call. Or send an email. Hotels are still a people business.

  • MikeABQ

    Janice — you are right on the money! The one time I booked a hotel at a 3rd party site the property (very politely) declined my requests concerning view, late check-out, etc. From reading your columns I know now that the property got very little of the “discount” rate I paid so they were not inclined to be accommodating beyond a clean room. Now I book directly with Marriott and joined their loyalty program. At a Springhill Suites in Phoenix I once received a free upgrade and mentioned at check-out how much I loved that particular room. Every time I stay at that property (6 times last year, twice already this year) they give me that same room and housekeeping insures my room is “pre-stocked” with extra towels, soap and shampoo. All because I happened to mention how much I like the room and amenities. An app can’t do that for me.

  • LotusFlower

    Great recommendations, Janice. For my family vacations, I’ve started to call up the hotel I want to book with and ask questions about the amenities, year-round access to facilities, and general “family friendliness” of the site. You’ll be surprised how honest hotel staff are in responding to these questions. And a few times, when I mention rates I’ve seen online either on their site or elsewhere, they will either offer a better rate or suggest a different room or a package that I hadn’t considered. One time a hotel in Sonoma booked a suite for me and my family that wasn’t even available on their own website, possibly because it came with fewer amenities then the other suites, but was the perfect size for my family.

  • AndTheHorseYouRodeUpOn

    Anything wrong with direct phoning in advance to expedite a reasonable request ?…..eliminate “pestiness” – this might work ??

  • Lisa

    Always book early, I’m a frequent traveler and I booked hotels online (using my Giift card), they may entice you with an early booking discount.