It’s the holy grail of traveling: the totally free, one hundred percent-comped hotel room. But assuming you’re not traveling as a professional athlete—or have a friend-of-a-friend managing the place—how can your typical road warrior actually score a room without a bill?
Well, just like with airlines, the surest way is to accumulate loyalty points. “There’s a really strong effort lately from hotel chains to steer people toward their loyalty programs, so they don’t have to pay commission to the third parties—the Expedias and Travelocitys of the world,” says Robert Mandelbaum, director of research information services at CBRE Hotels. “The big move these days is to book through the hotel’s chain reservation system.”
The key is to focus your efforts on a single chain and really ring up those rewards—no matter where you’re traveling. Let’s say you’re part of the Marriott Rewards Program. For each stay, you can earn 4,000 points. And then there are “tiers” of available hotels where you can cash those points in at. Tier 1 starts at 7,500 points, and gets you the bottom of the barrel: a hotel room in the Yuma, Arizona, TownePlace Suites or the Natchitoches, Louisiana, Fairfield Inn. Save up to 45,000 points, however, and you unlock tier 9, which can net you sweet digs in places like Boston’s ultra-luxe Marriott Long Wharf or the trés romantique Marriott that overlooks the Champs-Élysées.
If you’re truly impatient, however, and don’t wish to slog your way up through a rewards program, there is another tactic you can take. These days, plenty of hotels in certain major markets partake in the process of overbooking, which allows them to sell more rooms than they have available. “When you’re bumped,” says Mandelbaum, “the hotel pays for the room and for any of the charges for moving you to another hotel.”
Unfortunately, there’s no surefire way to ensure you get bumped. (“It’s like Vegas,” says Mandelbaum.) That said, booking a hotel room in a hugely populated business center will significantly increase your chances. For example, New York City has an occupancy rate of “80 or 85 percent” on a normal night, like a random Tuesday in October. On weekends, hotels will frequently book over 100 percent of their accommodations. (Of course, try to target really in-demand hotel.) Someone’s getting bumped; it might as well be you.
Remember: there are no guarantees. It’s a fact that the rate of complimentary accommodations has declined over the past few years. According to Mandelbaum’s research, in 2009, 1.3 percent of hotel rooms were comped. In 2015—the most recent year data is available—the figure hovered around 1 percent. “The hotel industry has reached a peak, all-time high [for] occupancy levels,” explains Mandelbaum. “There’s a lot of pressure on managers, from owners, not to give away rooms because, physically, they have the leverage.”
But savvy travelers always find a way.
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