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Hot hotel tips

Joe Brancatelli's expert advice for getting the best, fastest and least expensive service possible.
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I don’t think much of the big airlines and the way they run their businesses. But, generally speaking, I like hotels. A lot.

Compared with the do-it-our-way airlines, hotels offer a panoply of choices. There seems to be a style of hotel for every $5 on the nightly-rate scale. Everyone from the janitor to the general manager seems empowered to fix something when a problem arises. Unlike the airlines, hotels don’t move in infuriating lockstep on prices or policies. No bellman ever lost my bag. I’ve never arrived at a hotel, reservation in hand, and been told that the property won’t be operating that evening. Best of all, if I don’t like the service I’m getting, I can check out and move to another hotel. Airlines really discourage midflight decisions to leave the aircraft.

But as with every other facet of life on the road, you can make your hotel stays better, cheaper, more comfortable, and more productive if you know how to work the system. Here’s the best of what I’ve learned in three decades of doing just that.

Status matters
It took hotel chains almost a decade to successfully adopt and adapt airline-like loyalty programs. But once they caught up in the early 1990s, hotel plans blossomed. Now, I value my elite status in frequent-stay programs more than my frequent-flyer credentials. That’s because status still matters in the hotel game and pays off with frequent room upgrades, lavish freebies (including rooms), and other perks, like the Oreos that one chain leaves on my nightstand.

Another great thing about hotel programs is that you don’t have to be loyal to any one brand or lodging type. All the major chains now have “families” of brands that cover everything from side-of-the-road motels to deluxe pleasure palaces — and every stay at any property counts toward your elite status with the chain. Align your lodging preferences with one family — Starwood, Marriott, Hilton, and InterContinental have the most hotels across the most lodging segments, closely followed by Hyatt — and you’ll quickly become a high-status player at hundreds of hotels around the world.

Introduce yourself
Most of the hotels at the apex of the lodging hierarchy — think Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Peninsula, Mandarin Oriental — don’t have frequency programs with membership cards, points, and monthly account statements. But they do have sophisticated computerized systems that track your personal preferences. Ask for a special type of pillow at the Ritz-Carlton in Cleveland and you’ll likely find the same waiting on your bed at the Ritz-Carlton in Istanbul. Request a particular wine at one Four Seasons hotel and it follows you around the Four Seasons universe.

But don’t rely on computers. At the best hotel groups, introduce yourself around, especially to the general manager. If you intend to be a regular, let him know. Give him your business card and write him a thank-you note after your stay. When you’re headed to the next property, call and ask him whom to contact. He’ll do the work for you and alert the next hotel’s G.M., who will likely want to meet you when you arrive. In no time, you’ll know the boss at great hotels around the world and they’ll ply you with room upgrades and a dazzling array of extra services. These guys — most G.M’.s at deluxe hotels are guys — know a good customer when they meet one.

Tip the housekeeper
Knowing people in high hotel places is fine, but it also pays to know — and to reward — crucial folks much further down the food chain, specifically, the housekeeper. No single person has more impact on the quality of your stay than the person tasked with keeping your room fresh and clean. And in case you’ve forgotten, these women — and most housekeepers are still women — are often minimum-wage workers.

The messier you are, the more you want to tip. The more services you desire — extra towels, off-hours cleanups — the more you want to tip. And leave your tip every day, not at the end of your stay, because the housekeeper may change from day to day. How much to tip? I never leave less than $5 a day, more if I’ve been particularly adept at leaving newspapers and other bits of paperwork strewn about. Leave it on your pillow, so the housekeeper knows that the spiff is for her.

Winning the rate game
There is no single best way to get the lowest nightly rate. Anyone who says otherwise is a fool — or the marketing executive at a major hotel company responsible for crafting the chain’s exception-laden “lowest-price guarantee.”

Generally speaking, however, I start at the hotel chain’s proprietary Web site. They most often have the best nightly rate — usually in the form of a nonrefundable, immediate-payment-required, Web-only price. And most major chains wield a powerful stick: Your elite-status benefits and perks only apply if you book directly.

When I don’t have a specific hotel chain or property in mind, I will check with, which I find more convenient than rivals such as or I avoid like the plague because I have always found its prices too high and its payment policies onerous. And I won’t use blind booking sites like or because I want to know what hotel I’m considering before I book it. Another third-party Web site I can recommend: It specializes in independent hotels and most of its participating properties do not require advance payment.

How about the old travel chestnut that insists you must call the hotel directly to get the best rate? Time has passed it by. Most major hotel chains now work off of a centralized database of rates. In fact, many properties don’t even have an on-site reservations department anymore — when you call, they connect you to their chain’s reservations call center. If you do call direct, remember that phone agents are trained to quote the highest nightly rate first. You’ll have to take them down the “price ladder” rung by rung by repeatedly asking, “Is that the lowest price you have?”

The fine print ...
If you confront a sellout situation at a hotel — a slight possibility given the near-record occupancies at U.S. properties — ask if an “out of service” room is available. That’s industry jargon and it means you’re willing to accept a room that has been temporarily taken out of general inventory due to a small flaw that needs repair.