Here’s How to Ask for — and Get — an Upgrade

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).

    how to get an upgradeLiving 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.

    how to get an upgradeExtreme 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.

    how to get an upgradeTwo 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:


About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. “Tips” for an upgrade? Sounds too much like corruption to me, as is frequently the case in developing countries – if you want something expedited through bureaucracy then you must bribe someone to make it happen. And like in those corrupt countries, senior management or government officials just look the other way.

    In my mind, its not a tip because you haven’t yet received any service.

  2. Corruption in general applies to government institutions. While tipping for better room might be in the grey area for some, to imply that a hotel concierge has the same expectations laid upon him as a mayor or senator is… Well, it means that someone is trying to meet their rant quota for the day.

  3. I tried a $50 under my id to get an upgrade at a sydney hotel – it was a milestone birthday – and the clerk said “what’s this? Sir, you gave me this by mistake” and handed me back the $50. Epic fail.

  4. I tried tipping a cop once in Atlanta when I was sort of blocking a street downtown with a delivery semi. That didn’t go well at all. I didn’t get the cuffs but ever since then I just can’t seem to try it except in Vegas. Hotels, bars, restaurants and sometimes cops seem to work like a charm in Vegas.

  5. @Bill

    Ahhh but I have received a service – someone typed into a computer at the front desk and I received a better room. Of course you are not obligated to “tip” – But I bet I’ll enjoy my 2 bedroom, 3 bathroom suite a lot more than someone enjoys their standard or deluxe room. 🙂

    @Pat

    Heh – I had that happen once in Vegas – the girl at the front desk was obviously new…

  6. Just to clarify (from our friends from Wikepedia):
    TIPPING: Act of giving a gratuity, voluntary additional payment made for services rendered.
    BIBERY: is an act of giving money or gift giving that alters the behavior of the recipient.

    Not sure which one above better describes the Las Vegas experience.

  7. OK, here’s an upgrade that cannot be beat. Two weeks ago when making final arrangements for a business trip to France. On a Sunday evening, there were rooms available – come Monday morning, corporate travel said the hotel was completely booked. Called HHonors, same story.

    Called the hotel in France direct and explained the situation. They said the hotel was completely booked (even the Presidential Suite). I asked if I could send my partial reservation from HHonors to see what they could do (the problem was with Monday/Tuesday).

    10 minutes later I had a confirmed room for the entire week.

    Who says Gold HHonors is worthless?

  8. There are entire websites devoted to discussing the “sandwich” trick, whether a 20, 50 or 100. I’ve done it at the Palazzo in Vegas. Have heard of others slipping a 50 or 100 and getting nothing! The clerk takes the tip and that’s that. So make sure to keep the $$ closer to you but out enough so they can see it. It’s not a bribe in Vegas since even the management is in on it. It’s a well understood and accepted perk for employees in almost all the hotels, at least there.

  9. Great article. Thanks.

    The disservice part is a big one. Even if you have experienced trivial problems during a stay, mention it in any surveys, feel free to write the manager, corporate, human resources, etc.

    Sometimes they will do nothing which was the case at the MGM Vegas after they put my wife and I in an ADA room for our honeymoon and wouldn’t switch us (and we had prebooked a regular room months earlier). Got no resolution, no upgrade, or response or apology afterward. I could have pursued it but did not for whatever reason.

    Then last year at the Hyatt Kauai, had a few minor problems with food, billing mistake, hotel key being inactivated (by staff), etc. Got an auto survey mentioned the issues but it wasn’t a big deal to me. Got an e-mail from the Hyatt guest services but it took them 6 months to respond! I mentioned the issues again because apparently they had no record of what they were. Ironically we were/are going again in June and the rep noticed this, said for your inconvenience we are upgrading you from your standard room to an ocean front suite. That’s a $400/night room to a $1200/night room. With 2 kids and the wife, this is heaven not being in a small standard.

    2 years ago we had shotty housekeeping at the Fairmont Kea Lani in Maui. Mentioned this at the time, they did nothing but offer another cleaning. Then a week later the manager of housekeeping promised a “preferred rate” if we ever come back. We did go back the next year but I had already booked a great rate through a discount site, then remembered her letter. I called her, said I don’t need you to book any room, but I would appreciate any upgrade you might be able to extend. She said no problem and put us in an ocean front deluxe room.

    So don’t think any inconvenience is too trivial. Mention it. Just don’t be an ass about how you deserve a reward for your suffering and you may end up on the winning end after all.

  10. @FlyingBear: whether it’s bribery or not could be debated (although I think it falls well within the standard definition – tips are given ex post facto), but it almost certainly is a case of the employee defrauding his or her employer, which is an altogether more serious offence.

    On a separate point, what on earth does one do with five separate bathrooms? I don’t have five sets of toiletries with which to populate them.

  11. I had stayed often at Loews hotels as many as I could- I was always upgraded at all of them the biggest surprise was at Ventana, Tucson where I was given. Suite with a secret escape exit, private outdoor hot tub ebony babygrand double sunken tubs. And so forth for base room cost! Also in NOLA I had a fab suite to date I’ve not experienced such generosity and special warmth with other hotels. Kempinski are quite grand!

  12. Regarding Vegas — any ideas if management gets a cut of the upgrade “fees” collected by front desk?

  13. Ahhhh, Vegas. My hometown. Tips work for just about everything. I’d avoid doing this with police,

  14. Vegas casinos have as much surveillance as anywhere on earth. The odds that front desk staff are continuously pocketing tips without management knowing are zero.

  15. Tried the bribe (aka “tip”) trick at the Peppermill in Reno. Was politely told “I can’t accept this” and was given the room I booked.

  16. I’ve had zero luck tipping in Vegas. Tried chips on counter and bill under ID ($25 two times @Flmngo/LVH; $50 one time @Wynn). Asked nicely about “nicer room.” They took the money each time but delivered a standard room. At the Flamingo, I think I actually got one of their worst rooms (and non-working keys). Maybe $25/50 is nothing in Vegas, but stepping up to $100+ tips approaches just paying for an upgrade.

  17. You forgot to mention the tip of be a hot buxom lady and ask for the desk agents number. Who wants a date in a crappy ninsuite room?

  18. @NB
    “but it almost certainly is a case of the employee defrauding his or her employer, which is an altogether more serious offence.”

    Really? What’s the value to a hotel of an empty room? same as the value to an airline of an empty seat: $0 once the night is over / the plane has taken off.

    What’s the value to a hotel of people wanting to come back, because last time they got a “free” upgrade? That’s a lot more than $0.

    So, if it turns out that someone comes in after you, was willing to pay for a better room, and they’re all gone, the person has cost the hotel some money. How often does that happen, and how often do people come back because they think they’ll get a “tipped” upgrade?

    You can’t judge the actions until you ahve those numbers.

  19. I had success as SPG Platinum getting a Madison Suite at the St Regis in NYC. Was told I was upgraded to a Deluxe Room (I think) was enormous but not a suite. I knew a Madison Suite was still showing as available online so I placed a $50 between my license and my SPG card. It was actually very embarrassing as she left it there in plain view while she spent almost five minutes typing away. Ended up getting it but I was pretty uncomfortable. In hindsight, I thought it might be because she planned on not accepting it if she could not deliver. But what a great time we had!

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