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How to Get the Best Hotel Rooms and Service

The author of 'Heads in Beds' offers inside tips to help seasoned travelers make their next stay exceptional  

By Caroline Mayer

If you like to travel, as I do, you’ve probably collected a long list of gripes about some hotels you’ve stayed in: Slow check-in, dirty bathrooms, grungy bedspreads, surly employees, noisy air conditioning, hidden fees ...
But your future hotel stays could be superb, with better rooms and service than in the past, if you heed the advice of Jacob Tomsky, author of the new memoir Heads in Beds, about his 10 years in the hospitality business.
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Tomsky, 34, worked his way up from being a New Orleans hotel valet parker to manning the front desk of an upscale Manhattan hotel, learning the tricks of the trade (and some dirty little secrets, literally, about hotels) along the way.
How Older Guests Treat Hotel Employees
I caught up with Tomsky to get him to elaborate on his best tips for hotel travelers over 50. Since much of his book deals with the ways customers have treated him, I first asked Tomsky if older guests treat hotel employees differently than younger ones.
“That’s an interesting question,” he said, pausing to think. “I would say the boomer generation is probably a lot more understanding and polite. I always appreciated some of the more seasoned and older travelers. They understand the difficulties of our job, while it’s the youth who are going to start screaming.”
Here is an edited version of the rest of our conversation:
You write that customers who make hotel reservations through Expedia and other discount sites may get the worst rooms. Why?
If you’re going to book a room through an Internet travel site, you may be saving a lot of money, but your reservation will have a lot less priority than someone who booked directly at that hotel, choosing it on their own volition.
And a lot of times, any specific requests [like two king size beds or a large bathroom] you may have made through a discount site may not get transferred to the hotel.
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So if you book through Internet discount sites, I recommend you call ahead two to three days before you’re scheduled to arrive to establish contact with the front desk. Ask to speak to a front desk agent, introduce yourself, and say, “I’ll be arriving in a couple of days and want to know what you have booked for me.”
What’s the key to getting a good hotel room?
When you arrive at the hotel and check in, you should remember that the power of the front desk cannot be undervalued. We know the rooms next to the ice machine, the rooms where the TVs are always breaking down, the ones with tiny bathrooms.
Sometimes, the choice is made based on the price you paid. But sometimes, you may get those rooms if you’re rude. We’ll save the better rooms for the kind travelers, the ones that treat people nicely, like human beings. So getting in good with the front desk is critical.
How do you do that?
Sometimes a well-placed gratuity with the front desk can be very helpful. I know that’s not a standard practice and not everyone is comfortable doing it. But it is a kind gesture that helps differentiate you. The front-desk clerk will think, "This person is generous; I’ll find them what I think is the best room and upgrade them."
You say in your book that giving $20 to a front desk clerk goes a long way in getting a good room.
That’s a nice amount, but even $5 will do, especially if you’re only there for a night.
I understand tipping after I get good service, but beforehand does, as you say, seem sleazy.
To me, the definition of a tip is to ensure proper service. So if you’re going to offer a gratuity, do it right at beginning. It says, "This is an opportunity to do whatever you can for me."
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Will it help hotel guests to try to become best buddies with the front-desk agent, talking about the weather and our travels so far?
There’s nothing wrong with a little chitchat, but guests should be aware that we are working long hours and are stuck inside, often on weekends and holidays. We’re not having as much fun as you are and may not want to hear about the beautiful weather outside or your travel woes.
Why do you recommend guests get the names of hotel employees they deal with?
Nothing will make an employee accountable more than knowing their name. Knowing names will help you later if something goes wrong. It’s also a good way to know who to thank when a person is kind to you or particularly helpful.
How can I get checked into my room if I arrive before check-in time?
The really difficult time to check in is between 11 and 3. Checkout is usually around then, so if you come in during that time, it may be very difficult to get a room.
If that’s when you plan to check in, call that morning and ask to be preregistered. If the hotel was only 60 percent full the night before, that means 40 percent of the rooms are clean and ready to go and front desk clerks can start doling out those out.
In the book, you advise people to never stay in room 1212 when they’re in Manhattan or, in other cities, rooms that start with a 1, followed by the local area code. Why?
It’s simple: A lot of people don’t know how to use the hotel telephone or forget they often need to dial a 9 before getting an outside line. So they’ll pick up the phone and dial 1 and the local area code, which in Manhattan is often 1212. This means that room will get a lot of calls from inside the hotel at all times of day and night.
You were a housekeeping manager. What shouldn’t guests touch in their rooms for cleanliness reasons?
Those glasses in the minibar. The housekeeper will use whatever she has available to clean them – which could be a a wipe down with furniture polish that will make the glass shiny. That’s why those glasses may have a lemony smell. If you have to use one of those glasses, I definitely recommend rinsing them first.
When I travel, I don’t use anything that doesn’t have its own cover, such as that extra blanket in the closet. If I need an extra blanket, I call down to the front desk for one, which has probably been cleaned more recently.
What other hotel amenities can I get for free?

People probably don’t realize how much hotels have to offer if you just ask: Lint rollers, travel shaving kits, mini fridges to keep your medications or food cold, softer pillows, foam pillows, bed boards to make the beds firmer. So ask for whatever you may need.

You’d be surprised at what's available.

Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post, covering such issues as product safety, scams, and credit cards. Mayer has received several awards, including the Betty Furness Consumer Media Service Award. She has written for Consumer Reports, CBS MoneyWatch, Ladies Home Journal, Kaiser Health News and others. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer Read More
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