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How to score the best hotel rooms

By Stephanie Oswald, Special to CNN
updated 9:04 AM EST, Mon February 6, 2012
Ask hotel reservation agents and front desk clerks for recommendations on the best rooms.
Ask hotel reservation agents and front desk clerks for recommendations on the best rooms.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Reserve with the hotel directly for tips on choice rooms
  • Ask about renovations or events that might be going on during your stay
  • Being nice always increases your chances of an upgrade

(CNN) -- I was recently given the option of paying about $20 more for a hotel room in New York City with a skyline view. It put me at eye level with the Chrysler Building, and as the sun went down and the city lights began to twinkle, I savored every beautiful minute knowing I'd made a smart choice in paying just $20 for a million-dollar view.

You can put me in a (clean) shoebox-size room, but if there's even a glimpse of my beloved Chrysler building, the Eiffel Tower or the ocean (any ocean), I'm willing to pay extra. When it comes to hotel rooms, the definition of "best" is in the mind of the key holder. Here's how to be sure that you're getting the best possible room to suit your needs.

Define your preferences on size, view and location

Even when you know what you like, your idea of the perfect room could change depending on the purpose of your trip. If you're working the entire time, having a spacious desk area may be a priority; but if you're on a romantic escape, a spa tub and a private balcony might be on your must-have list. Write down your preferences before starting the reservation process. Once you start making calls, write down the name of everyone you speak to, especially if they promise you something specific.

"For some guests, size matters. The larger the accommodation, the better. Some people prefer accommodations on a high level of a building, while others think the best rooms in the house are on the first or second floor for easy and quick access," says Preston Muller, of Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort in Destin, Florida.

Whether you're staying at a high-rise boutique hotel in a busy city or at a sprawling beach resort with more than 1,300 different rooms, researching your choices online will clarify your options. But then, Muller says, pick up the phone.

"Book directly with the property whenever possible" and "be your own private investigator," are two of his top tips. This six-year veteran of Sandestin's Guest Services department says that when he travels, he takes an informal poll before booking a room.

"I call the on-site reservations team, the front desk and/or the concierge and ask for their opinion."

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Be kind, and clear

Once you've arrived, be kind to the front desk staff. But do let them know right away if something isn't right.

"You shouldn't just be satisfied; you should be happy," says Trang Phan, front office manager at the Affinia Dumont in New York. "And remember, a little friendliness goes a long way."

Muller agrees, noting that "The Golden Rule" goes a long way in the hospitality industry. "Knowing what you want for your price range, plus kindness with the front desk agent are your best avenues" for getting a top-rate room, he says.

Ask specific questions

Your hotel investigation should include questions such as "Is the hotel renovated?" and "What events are happening during my stay?" If your goal is peace and quiet, you probably don't want to stay on a floor that's filled with wedding guests. Even if you feel you made yourself clear when the room was booked, your quest for the perfect room enters the next phase during check-in.

"Explain why you are traveling -- good front desk staff will elicit this information from you, but be nice and participate -- and ask if they have any flexibility or recommendations," says Paul James of St. Regis Hotels & Resorts and The Luxury Collection.

You never know what you might be missing by blindly accepting whatever key is handed to you without making a single inquiry.

"I know many hotels in Paris that have great Eiffel Tower views from quite ordinary rooms. What would you rather your beloved sees the next morning -- an extra three feet of floor space, or a majestic view of the city's icon?" says James.

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Be proactive about upgrading your experience

In other words, if something is included in the room rate, enjoy it! James warns that guests often overlook resources that wouldn't cost them a dime more.

"Whether it is a butler service, stellar concierge team, or complimentary mini-bar items that can be pre-stocked, the hotels are offering all of these services to make your stay easier and more enjoyable. So often travelers are afraid to utilize these services and they can really make all of the difference," says James.

Glenn Haussman of Hotel Interactive makes a living monitoring the hotel industry. He says many overlooked benefits are easy to get -- all you have to do is ask.

"Ask for that resort fee to be removed. Ask if they have any coupons available for use on-site. You may get some free drinks or even a free meal," says Haussman.

Personally, whenever I'm faced with a hotel charge for wi-fi, I ask about a discount. You may not always get the discounts or the freebies, but it certainly doesn't hurt to ask.

A free drink may not sound like much, but if you're a road warrior who spends more time in hotels than in your own home, those small items can make a big difference in your bottom line.

Using the gym or the pool, watching complimentary movies in your room or relaxing in the hotel's outdoor Jacuzzi are all examples of maximizing your temporary surroundings. Taking part in an activity that may not be accessible at home can help you establish a fresh mindset for the vacation or work agenda at hand.

Some hotel programs allow you to add amenities to your room based on your personal taste or needs. For example, the "Forget it, We've got it" program at Kimpton Hotels provides guests with everything from flat irons to humidifiers to a clothing steamer.

This boutique hotel collection puts an emphasis on wellness, and in line with that concept, guests can also request yoga gear for use during their stay, free of charge. And if you're feeling a little lonely on the road, call the front desk at any Kimpton property and a goldfish will be waiting for you in your room. Another perk alert: Travelers who join Kimpton's loyalty program (free of charge) will get complimentary wi-fi and a $10 credit for their room mini-bar.

One word of caution: if you're questioning whether an in-room amenity is free or not, make a quick call to the front desk. I once racked up a surprise $16 fee for bath salts that I thought were part of the room package at a spa hotel.

When it's a celebratory stay, let the hotel know

Is your stay in honor of your ten-year wedding anniversary, or a girlfriend's 40th birthday? As soon as possible, alert the hotel that you're marking a milestone.

Even the night before is usually plenty of time for some TLC to be arranged. "Call and speak with a manager, especially if you're celebrating a special occasion," says Phan. Flowers, hors d'oeuvres or a complimentary bottle of wine could show up in your room.

One Sandestin guest booked a surprise 21st birthday overnight stay for her younger brother. Upon their arrival "Happy Birthday" was printed on their keys for a keepsake and a personalized birthday card was waiting for him in his room.

When you find hotel paradise, record it

If a room makes you very happy, the best way to ensure a repeat performance is to write down the room number. Whip out your smartphone and take a photograph of the sign on the wall, or even the view from the window. That way you can provide your reservationist with that info the next time you call, whether it's a week or a year later.

Even if the specific room you stayed in before is taken, they will have a reference for your preferences and can reserve accordingly.

The room I fell in love with in New York was at the Affinia Dumont on East 34th Street. After taking in the view one last time, I left the room and wistfully checked out. I was headed for the door when I ran back to the front desk with one final request.

"Please note in my file that for future reservations, if that exact room is ever available when I call, I want it."

"Absolutely, Ms. Oswald, it's duly noted," said the front desk clerk. And just in case they forget, the number is listed in my phone, on my computer and I texted it to my travel agent. For that one hotel at least, my private investigation is over; case closed.

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