Special Occasion Upgrades

Aug 2, 2013

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TPG Contributor Nick Ewen gives us some of his tips on how to get a hotel room upgraded for that special occasion such as an anniversary or a birthday.

As points & miles enthusiasts, we all love getting upgraded. Whether it’s that elusive Medallion upgrade clearing at the gate, getting bumped up to a suite at a luxury hotel, or even snagging a convertible at the rental car counter, these perks help make for memorable travel experiences.

However, on a recent trip with my wife, I was the recipient of a rash of upgraded hotel rooms unlike anything I had before, and it got me thinking: was there anything that made this trip any different from past ones? It suddenly dawned on me…of course it was different!

I’m not talking about hitting a new elite status threshold or opening a new credit card with added benefits. The trip in question was for our five-year anniversary, and I had included that fact within the comments section of each reservation. I strongly believe that this simple act played a direct role in our upgrades during the trip, and this post will share my experiences and provide suggestions for experiencing the same success for your own travels.

First and foremost, I think it’s important to set some realistic expectations (which can sometimes be challenging for those of us who get “spoiled” with upgrades). In all of the examples I will share, I have had at least some level of elite status. The chances of being upgraded from a basic room to an overwater bungalow in Bora Bora without any status just because you put a note in your reservation are slim to none. Secondly, there is no guarantee that any of the methods will work even with elite status. There are so many factors that figure into your likelihood of an upgrade: a property’s occupancy rates, the time of year, the length of stay, etc., that nothing is for sure.

That being said, I have tried (and succeeded) using three different methods for helping procure an upgraded room:

1)   Placing a note in my booking
2)   E-mailing/calling the hotel ahead of time
3)   Pre-booking amenities to show that I will be spending money on property (even though my stay was booked with points)

Please note that I don’t have enough data points to know if one is more effective than the others, nor do I have any way of knowing for sure if the upgrades would’ve happened anyways. However, the examples I am about to share illustrate that such methods can only help your chances.

I will also just add an ethical disclaimer. The only reason I even tried any of these methods is because this trip was for a special occasion. I would never sanction anyone saying it’s a special occasion on their trip when that wasn’t the case. It’s the equivalent of accepting a free dessert from a restaurant by falsely claiming it’s your birthday. Not only that, but if more and more people lie, chances are opportunities like this will go away, so use discretion and be honest.

Place a note in your booking
Each of the major hotel chains includes a comments section with any “Special Requests” that you may have for your upcoming stay. Don’t be shy about filling it out.

For my recently completed trip, all I did was input something along the lines of, “My wife and I will be celebrating our five-year anniversary, and I would love to surprise her with an upgraded room if at all possible. Thanks!”

At the Park Hyatt Paris Vendome, that’s all it took! When we arrived for our one-night stay (booked using 22,000 Hyatt Gold Passport Points), the guest services manager actually walked us to our room, which I felt was a bit strange. As we approached the double-doors (my second indication that something was up), she let me know that the hotel had upgraded us to the Imperial Suite in celebration of our anniversary. It was the largest hotel room we had ever had, including a giant living room, an office, and even a steam room in the shower!

The enormous living room of the Imperial Suite at the Park Hyatt Paris Vendome; that’s me with my hands up at the far end!
The enormous living room of the Imperial Suite at the Park Hyatt Paris Vendome; that’s me with my hands up at the far end!

Even more surprising? I am only Platinum with Hyatt. Now granted, this was a one-night stay on a Tuesday at the end of May (so not exactly high season), but it was still an incredible surprise. In this case, given that upgraded rooms are not even a published benefit for Platinum members, I can only assume that this request played a significant role.

Later in the trip, my wife and I made it to Mauritius, where we spent three nights (Wednesday through Saturday) at the new St. Regis Mauritius Resort. It was a terrific property in and of itself, but what made the stay even more memorable was our upgrade here.

When we arrived, we were met by our butler and escorted to the Manor House Suite, one of the property’s largest rooms, complete with a huge balcony overlooking the pool and ocean, an enormous living room, and a massive bathroom with two built-in massage tables. Not too shabby for a simple note when making the reservation.

The four poster bed in the Manor House Suite at the St. Regis Mauritius.
The four poster bed in the Manor House Suite at the St. Regis Mauritius.

This room was also booked using points, though I am a top-tier elite with Starwood Preferred Guest. In fact, I used my Platinum Requalification Gift of 35% off a Starpoints redemption on this stay, so rather than costing me 60,000 points, the three-night stay only set me back 39,000 points.

Funnily enough, the resort actually upgraded me in stages. About a week in advance, my online reservation had us in a junior suite. Then, two days before our arrival, we were in a St. Regis Suite. By the time we arrived on property, we had been bumped up to the Manor Suite.

Contact the hotel (via phone or e-mail) ahead of time
I have had two very recent experiences with this as well, both of which resulted in terrific room upgrades that may have not happened without the communication.

The first was last May in Bali – this trip was for our fourth anniversary. I had booked a six-night stay at the Conrad Bali using Hilton HHonors points, which at the time only set me back 157,500 points (ahh, the pre-devaluation days!). About a month before we arrived, I sent a very simple e-mail to the hotel manager, noting that it was our anniversary and politely requesting an upgraded room if at all possible. He wrote back and let me know that he would see what he could do, and then, two days before we left, I noticed that we had been upgraded to a room in the Conrad Suites section, which was in the part of resort near an adults-only pool, the executive lounge, and even included daily laundry service (though sadly, this has since been discontinued; guests in the Conrad Suites section of the resort now only get a discount). Again, I have no way of knowing if my Hilton Diamond status would’ve led to this upgrade anyway, but the communication certainly didn’t hurt my chances.

The adults-only pool area and Executive Lounge (second floor above the umbrellas) at the Conrad Bali.
The adults-only pool area and Executive Lounge (second floor above the umbrellas) at the Conrad Bali.

I had a similar experience at the Hilton Labriz Resort & Spa in the Seychelles this past May during our big anniversary trip. After booking a six-night stay for just 225,000 points (again, at pre-devaluation levels), I contacted the hotel to arrange for our boat transportation to and from the property (which is complimentary for stays of 5+ nights booked online). I also casually mentioned the fact that the trip was to celebrate our five-year anniversary, and I politely inquired about surprising my wife with an upgraded room. When we arrived, we had been bumped from the standard garden villa to a King Beachfront Villa. Even better was the fact that our villa was one of only 6 (by my count) in that category of rooms with a private plunge pool in the walled-off patio.

Looking out through the bathroom to the private patio of the King Beachfront Villa, including an outdoor rain shower and private plunge pool.
Looking out through the bathroom to the private patio of the King Beachfront Villa, including an outdoor rain shower and private plunge pool.

Each hotel’s website will include a phone number, but where can you find an e-mail address? Some hotels actually post an e-mail address online, while some managers respond to comments on TripAdvisor, thus allowing you to “guess” their e-mail address (e.g. if the manager of a Hilton is named Bob Johnson, chances are his e-mail address is first.last@hilton.com). For the Conrad stay, I managed to find the e-mail address through FlyerTalk, while the Hilton Labriz communication was initiated through the coordinator who arranges transportation to the resort from the main island.

Pre-Book On-Property Purchases
There’s one final thing you can do to help your upgrade chances: contact the hotel ahead of time to pre-book some type of service on the property. There’s no question that we like taking advantage of free things while traveling. However, some hotels may view an award reservation as less “valuable” than a revenue room. I’ve even heard at least one hotel employee refer to point redeemers as “free-loaders!” (Please note that this was a friend and was “off-the-clock” at the time. I would not take kindly to being addressed that way by an employee during a stay.)

In at least two of the cases above, my initial contact with the hotel also included an inquiry about pre-booking services. At the Conrad in Bali, my wife and I figured we would be jet-lagged after flying MIA-JFK-HKG-DPS, so we booked a jet-lag recovery massage with the on-property spa. It was much more expensive than our other spa treatments off property at the Sekar Jagat Spa, but it was well worth it, especially if it played any role in helping us get the upgraded room!

At the Hilton Labriz, we did the exact same thing with a massage after flying LHR-NBO-SEZ. However, we also took this a step further. Since our actual five-year anniversary fell during our stay there, we decided to do a simple vow renewal ceremony on the beach that afternoon. Though this was not an inexpensive proposition, but the scenery made it worth every penny, and if it helped with the upgrade, even better!

My wife and I on the beach of the Hilton Labriz in the Seychelles after renewing our vows.
My wife and I on the beach of the Hilton Labriz in the Seychelles after renewing our vows.

There’s one other benefit that these suggestions can have: it allows the hotel to put their own spin on the special occasion. We experienced this very phenomenon during the first stay of our trip at the Hilton Imperial in Dubrovnik, Croatia (also a fabulous property, incidentally).

We were fortunate enough to be upgraded to a corner sea view suite on the second floor, which actually offered a terrific view of the water and the old city. In addition, when we arrived, we were greeted by a plate of canapés, rose petals on the bed, a chilled bottle of champagne, and a handwritten note wishing us a happy anniversary and a pleasant stay at the Hilton Dubrovnik. It was a phenomenally personal gesture, and without noting it in my reservation, it wouldn’t have happened.

The chilled champagne and hand-written note that greeted us at the Hilton Imperial in Dubrovnik.
The chilled champagne and hand-written note that greeted us at the Hilton Imperial in Dubrovnik.

Now, before you start flaming these suggestions, I absolutely positively do not advocate for lying in these efforts to procure an upgraded room. Doing so would be a quintessential example of DYKWIA behavior, and I definitely can’t condone that!

Our most recent trip (as a whole) was a celebration of our five-year anniversary. Even though only one of the nights was the actual anniversary, I felt no qualms about placing a note mentioning the special occasion in each of our reservations (though some may disagree). However, I will not do so on trips that are just vacations.

As an example, we are heading to North Asia via Europe this December/January to take advantage of US Airways’ 90,000-mile business class award redemption (while it lasts!). Even though my wife’s birthday is December 13, I will not be indicating this on any of our reservations, since the trip is simply for fun and not a “celebration” of her birthday.

Just to clarify, these examples are from two separate anniversary trips I took with my wife, so don’t be afraid to tell the hotel it’s your anniversary each year.

Do any of you have experiences with upgraded rooms or special treatment when you mention a special occasion ahead of time or pre-book on-property expenses? Please share in the comments section below!

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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