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Hotel Upgrades at a Price

These days, when suppliers have something you want, they have some pretty sophisticated ways of getting you to pay for it. This includes standby upgrades on hotel rooms for a lot less than the original asking premium-room rates. Because an upgrades is subject to availability, there are two important qualifications:

  • You can’t lock it in beforehand.
  • You have to be happy with—or at least be willing to accept—the room category you originally reserved if the upgrade isn’t available.

With hotels, those choices usually work out pretty well. Presumably, you will be reasonably content with the accommodation you originally reserved at the price you accepted. Unlike air travel, where a seat in economy virtually guarantees an uncomfortable and unpleasant trip, you should expect a comfortable night in your original type of room.

Still, upgraded rooms can be nice: a larger room or a suite, a higher floor, a quieter location, an ocean or lake view rather than a view of a parking lot—these can often make your stay a lot more pleasant, especially if you’re staying for a few days and plan to be in your room for more than just sleeping. If you’re an exalted member of a hotel’s frequent-stay program, you’re often offered an upgrade on the spot—in fact, some high-level tiers promise automatic upgrades, “subject to availability.”

But even if you don’t have the status, you can often get an upgrade just by asking at the time you check in—as long as you let the agent know you’re willing to pay some rate difference. It’s as easy as asking, “What would it cost to upgrade to a suite/larger/better-view/whatever room?” If a hotel has some higher-category rooms that would otherwise go unoccupied, selling a cheap “standby” upgrade is a win-win: The hotel gets revenue it wouldn’t otherwise get, and you get the superior accommodation for less than you’d have otherwise paid. The only risk here is overpaying: To make sure you get a good deal, you need to know how much more the upgraded room class costs, so you don’t offer more.

At many hotels, the local manager has broad authority to set prices and make deals, and these managers typically delegate the authority to make deals, within established limits, to front-desk agents. But, increasingly, hotels are adopting more systematic approaches. A leading “upsell” software company, Nor1 has installed its FrontDesk Upsell “solution” (don’t you hate it when companies use the hokey term “solution” to describe their gadgets or software?) in lots of hotels. This software automatically displays upgrade offers to front-desk agents when you check in—at prices the hotel can tailor to fit what it knows about your history with the hotel or its chain.

Nor1’s eStandby Upgrade software goes an additional step: It helps hotels make a standby upgrade offer before you arrive. Sometime after you reserve, the hotel sends you an email or displays a notice on your confirmation page asking you if you want to sign up for an upgrade, subject to availability when you arrive, at a price based in part on what the hotel knows about you. If the upgrade is available, you get a good deal and the hotel adds to its revenue; if it isn’t, no harm; no foul. In addition to upgrades, the hotel can offer deals on other options: food, beverages, entertainment, recreation, and such. Nor1 lists lots of big-name hotels and chains as customers, including Carlson, Conrad, DoubleTree, Fairmont, Hilton, Hyatt, and Kimpton, plus other chains and individual hotels. Presumably, other software providers are serving other customers.

Other upgrades are handled differently. Airlines sometimes offer standby upgrades, but the price is usually stiff. The last time I got an offer, it was $90 for a 50-minute flight. Cruise agencies, on the other hand, often pitch “free” cabin upgrades to travelers who book within a few weeks of sailing. Rental-car upgrades are often very inexpensive—but you may not want a bigger car.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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