Strategy: How to not get stuck with the worst room in the hotel

Small hotel room
A small hotel room in Tokyo. Photo: Karma Police

By Tom Meyers—

I had a bad feeling when I checked into my second hotel in Lisbon earlier this month. I was in town for the week to review about 50 hotels for our Lisbon guide, and I’d be spending three nights at this hotel.

I had just spent three nights at another hotel, the Metropole, several blocks away. My room had been wonderful—a spacious double on the fifth floor, with a small balcony opening to sunny city views. (And yes, it was quite affordable, given the off-season rates.)

But as I checked into this second hotel rather late in the afternoon, I grew nervous. The receptionist tapped away at his keyboard, apparently trying to find something open for my three nights. He frowned a lot. Finally, he handed me a keycard with a sigh and said, “I’m sorry, but this is the only room available.”

Minutes later I opened the door (which banged into the bed) of a very small room that hardly offered enough room to enter. It goes without saying that there was no desk (annoying, as I was in town for work), nor was there room to put away my luggage.

I had to face the facts: I had landed the worst room in the hotel.

How to avoid getting stuck with the “bad room”

I was partly to blame for ending up with this room. After all, I knew better. Here are a few pointers to avoid having this happen to you:

1. Be clear when making your reservation.

Madrid La Macarena Hostal

Receptionists have all the power. Pictured: The friendly owner of La Macarena Hostal, Madrid.

What exactly are you looking for in a room? Do you prefer one on a high floor overlooking the street? Do you like lower floors with windows opening to the courtyard? Do you want one of the rooms with a balcony? Do you need a bathtub instead of a shower?

Mention these preferences in your correspondence with the hotel at the time of making your reservation (but keep in mind that you’re requesting them, not demanding them). Sure enough, when I booked my room (through EuroCheapo, naturally), I did request a “room on a high floor with a view, if possible.” Well, I did get a room on a high floor…

Joking aside, your requests will usually be considered. When I’m inspecting rooms, I often notice certain rooms with little extras, like terraces, extra-large bathrooms, or great views. I often ask the manager or owner if I can write about the special perk–and if guests can request the room in advance. They almost always say the same thing. “Sure, mention it when reserving. If it’s available, there’s no problem.”

Which brings us to…

2. Show up early.

Although rooms are usually assigned in advance, there’s often a bit of juggling that goes on during the check-in process. Maybe another guest checked in and had an issue with their room. (For example, perhaps two friends had been given a double instead of a twin room. It happens all the time.) Check-in is never flawless and problems surface. People switch rooms. Get to the hotel as early as possible to minimize your chances of falling into the last place of a chain reaction.

However, remember that if you arrive before check-in hours (typically noon or 2 p.m.), you will probably have to leave your luggage in a storage room and come back once your room is ready. If this happens to you…

3. Make sure that you check in.

What? Didn’t you just check in? Not necessarily. Just because you’ve exchanged pleasantries with the hotel receptionist and left your luggage, doesn’t mean that you’ve actually “checked in.”

Ask if you can go through the process of checking in. That way, you’ll probably see a room number associated with your name on all the check-in paperwork.

When checking in, it’s also a good idea to ask nicely about the room. For example: “Could you please tell me if this room faces the back courtyard? I’m a light sleeper and just wanted to make sure.” When asked nicely, with a smile, this can be the moment that changes everything.

4. Come back early enough to inspect your room.

So, you’ve left your luggage, checked in, and hit the town. Now what? I’d recommend, if possible, returning to the hotel early in the afternoon to move into your room. (This isn’t just about making sure your room is adequate. It’s also about leaving your possessions in a luggage room that’s shared by countless others.)

By moving into your room early, you can inspect it to make sure that it fits the bill. Does it?

5. If the room isn’t satisfactory—act quickly.

Upon entering the room, look around. Does it work? Be fair. Remember that most European hotel rooms (and especially bathrooms) are small. However, if the room doesn’t work for you and you get the impression that a better room may be available, act quickly.

Very important: Do not open your luggage, flop onto the bed, or (especially) use the bathroom. If, for some reason, you want to change rooms, you’ll need to act quickly, without disrupting anything. In many small hotels, after all, the cleaning staff leaves during the afternoon. In the case of a “sold out” hotel, you will only be able to swap rooms if you haven’t touched anything.

The other reason to act quickly is that as others check in, your chances of changing rooms diminishes.

6. If asking for another room, be nice and offer a good explanation.

This is rather obvious, but if you return right away to the reception and ask to switch rooms, be as courteous as possible. The receptionist, after all, has all the power in this situation.

Explain why you’d like to switch rooms. Had you requested something else when reserving? Are you afraid of bathtubs and need a shower? Do you prefer a quieter room on the courtyard? Offer some sort of explanation—and smile.

7. Regardless of the outcome, thank the receptionist.

Perhaps the receptionist will bump some things around and offer you another room in the house. Or, perhaps they’ll sigh and apologize, and you’ll be stuck with your room. Either way, you’ll be seeing them for the rest of your stay, so be nice and thank them for their effort.

8. Stuck? Offer to switch the next day.

If you’re stuck in your room and staying for multiple nights, ask if it might be possible to switch rooms the next day. This often works, although it requires that you repack your bags after your first night. (Often the cleaning staff will move your luggage to the new room for you. Thank them with a tip upon departure.)

9. Really stuck? Chill out.

In my case, I was really stuck. The hotel had no vacancies and there was no possibility of switching rooms on the second day. At first I was upset. My room was tiny, my bed was small and not comfortable, and I really wanted a desk. As I walked the halls, I could see much larger rooms being cleaned—and they had probably paid the same amount that I had.

And then I relaxed. I was focusing so much attention on wanting a larger room, that I wasn’t fully enjoying my evening in Lisbon. That night, I was strolling the Bairro Alto‘s web of narrow streets, looking for a spot for dinner, but still miffed about a room I wasn’t even in at the moment. That was my fault.

After all, my travel experience should be about more than just the size of my hotel room. Yes, it’s nice to attain the best room possible, but I’d caution against letting our accommodation desires (“I asked for a balcony!”) get confused for the reason we travel. If I was just traveling to pamper myself with comforts, I could just check myself into a spa for the weekend—back home.

Part of traveling is about not always being in control. That is what I told myself, at least, as I relaxed and settled into my funny, lumpy, little room.

Which is also why I showed up—and checked in—to my next hotel bright and early.

Your advice

Do you have any tips on how to avoid getting stuck with a stinker of a room? Share them with us in the comments section.

About the author

Tom Meyers
About the author: Tom Meyers created and launched EuroCheapo from his Berlin apartment in 2001. He returned to New York in 2002, set up office, and has led the EuroCheapo team from the Big Apple ever since. He travels to Europe several times a year to update EuroCheapo's hotel reviews. Tom is also a co-host of the New York City history podcast, The Bowery Boys. Email Tom. [Find Tom on Google Plus]
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