Living with credit, Rewards, Travel

Use your credit card to score a hotel upgrade

Stephanie Zito

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When the guest experience agent at the Le Meridien Il Maurice in Mauritius walked me to my room upon check-in this week, I had no idea what I was in for.

I had booked a standard king room on a cash and points rate, with the anticipation that my SPG status would at least get me a bump up to a room with an ocean view.

As we approached Room 314, the first thing I noticed was that my room had double doors. When I pushed them open my jaw dropped. Before me was a two-story cathedral window and a long balcony looking straight into the deep blue horizon of the Indian Ocean.

Stephanie Zito's view of the Indian Ocean from her two-story hotel room at the Le Meridien Il Maurice in Mauritius.

Stephanie Zito’s view of the Indian Ocean from her two-story suite at the Le Meridien Il Maurice in Mauritius.

The grandeur of the rest of the two-story suite matched the view. Downstairs there was a living area, kitchen, wet bar and bathroom. Up a centrally placed spiral staircase, I found a canopied king bed, a full-size Jacuzzi tub and a bathroom suite sized for royalty. All with a view of the sea thanks to that floor-to-ceiling window.

The cost of this opulence: 3,500 SPG points earned on my SPG Business American Express card and a $55 cash co-pay booked directly through the Starwood website.

I had won the hotel upgrade lottery.

Betting on an upgrade
I refer to the quest to get a room upgrade as the hotel lottery because it’s often tough to bet on what room you will get when you check in to any given hotel.

There are many factors that affect your odds of getting a room like my super suite. Capacity of the hotel, the different types of rooms available, occupancy rates, how long you’re staying and the knowledge of the front desk agent checking you in all influence which room key you will be handed.

With so many moving parts in the mix, landing the best room isn’t something that you can bank on. There are, however, a few ways you can play your cards right (your credit cards, that is) to increase your chances of winning an upgrade.

Upgrade with points
If you don’t like playing the odds, the surest way you can secure a confirmed upgrade is to pay for it. Thankfully, some hotels will let you pay for this upgrade with your credit card rewards points.

Upgrade rules vary from hotel to hotel group. Some hotel groups like Marriott will let you select which type of room you want when making a points reservation. More points equals a confirmed higher category room.

Other hotel properties give you the option to use points to pay for just the upgrade. Hyatt, for example, will often let you use points to upgrade a paid room to a higher executive level room (most often at Hyatt Regency properties which have executive club floors).

The types of upgrades will vary not only from hotel group to hotel group but also from property to property. If you want to know if upgrades with points are available at a particular hotel, the simplest thing to do is to call the hotel group or the property directly and ask.

Leverage hotel loyalty status
Several hotel cards, the Hilton Surpass American Express, the IHG card from Chase, and the Hyatt card from Chase, for example, grant cardholders mid-tier elite status as one of their credit card benefits. This status in turn often gives you the benefit of a room-level upgrade upon availability.

Most cardholder-level status upgrades will be one category, so if you’ve booked the cheapest standard room in the property, you’ll probably be bumped up to a deluxe room. But you also never know.

On my trip to Mauritius, I also booked one points night at the Intercontinental (a 30,000 point redemption right down the street from the Le Meridien). Even though the only status I have here is IHG Platinum gifted to me through my credit card, I was given a corner suite.

My suggestion is to learn what your hotel card status entitles you to – that way you know what to ask for. But also remember that any free upgrade you’re hoping to get from status is based on availability, so it’s never a guarantee.

Confirmed suite upgrades for higher status levels
The exception to the above “nothing is guaranteed” rule is that some property groups actually have what they call confirmed suite upgrades – allowing you to confirm a suite at the time of booking.

These confirmed suite certificates often are one of the benefits of the highest level of a hotel group’s status. A top-tier Hyatt Globalist, for example, gets four of these suite upgrades every year.

While the top-tier level of status isn’t usually the one that you get automatically just for having a credit card, starting out with credit card status makes it easier to earn the next level of status, and some cards like the Hilton Surpass allow you to earn top-tier Hilton Honors Diamond status by meeting a spending threshold.

Book through a premium credit card hotel program
In addition to points programs, a number of travel rewards cards give you access to luxury hotel programs as one of your member benefits.

The American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts program, for example, is a members-only program for cardholders of the American Express Platinum Card and the American Express Business Platinum card. The benefits you get when booking a hotel through the program include a room upgrade upon arrival, breakfast for two guests, 4 p.m. checkout and a hotel amenity with a $100 value.

While Fine Hotels and Resorts is not the site to go to if you’re looking for rock bargain accommodations, it’s a good booking choice to add a little extra, and confirmed, luxury.

The Luxury Hotel and Resort Collection is a similar option to check out for holders of the Chase Sapphire Reserve card.

Ask for something specific
Every time you make a hotel reservation directly through a hotel website or app, there is a place to make notes or special requests for your stay. It’s easy to pass this by in your booking, but if you’re hoping for an upgrade, this is a box you shouldn’t skip.

I don’t recommend asking for an upgrade here directly, but it’s completely acceptable to use this box to request something specific that you’d like for your room. “Room with a view if available, please” is an easy way to suggest the ocean-front upgrade is what you’re seeking.

My personal go-to request is often “room with bathtub, please” – as many hotels these days are removing tubs from their standard rooms during remodeling. WhiIe I actually love taking long hot bubble baths when I travel to ease the jetlag, my secret ulterior motive is that often the rooms with the best bathtubs are often the best rooms.

Last month, I stayed at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo on a points-plus-cash reservation made for a standard twin room. Ahead of time, I emailed the hotel concierge to let him know the reason for my visit was to celebrate my friend’s birthday (which it actually was).

I requested that the delivered room amenity (a standard of a Park Hyatt) could be a small thing for her birthday. “We will be happy to bring her complimentary champagne” was the reply.

They also gave us a corner view, brought her flowers on arrival and surprised us both with candles in a fruit plate at breakfast. It wasn’t a suite, but it was a definite upgrade to our experience.

You won’t get what you don’t ask for. And having that credit card-level hotel status to boot may also get your request a little extra attention.

Book directly through the hotel or property group
One mistake many upgrade-hopeful travelers make is booking a hotel through an aggregator or budget hotel site.

Unfortunately, turning up to a hotel with a voucher from a site like hotels.com or Expedia hinders your upgrade probability – even if you do have hotel status.

Most hotels don’t recognize elite benefits for members when they’ve made their booking through a third-party site. This not only means that an upgrade is unlikely, it also means that you won’t be earning points for your stay.

The exception here is booking through a premium hotel credit card program like Fine Hotels and Resorts (mentioned above). You’ll still be earning points and eligible for upgrades.

Note: If you’re considering booking through a third-party site because you found a cheaper rate than is available on the hotel’s website, take a screenshot.

Nearly all property groups will match what you found as part of their Best Rate Guarantee. (Google this term and the property group name together to learn about how to get them to honor the lower rate).

Hotel upgrades aren’t always a sure thing, but they’re almost always awesome. Try out these tips on your next hotel booking and be sure to tag me in your photo on Instagram if they land you in the double-decker honeymoon suite on an exotic island!

See related: 5 ways hotel cards add up to big savings, How to stay at the best hotels for under $1005 ways your credit card concierge can help on your next trip, Our best hotel credit cardshotel credit card reviews

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  • Did you think Mauritius was worth the trip (e.g., compared with another beautiful beach destination that would be logistically easier from the US, like Hawaii)? Also, how did the Intercontinental compare with Le Meridien? Did you stay anywhere else while there?