If you want to check into your hotel early, you must read this story

Red-eye flights are hard enough. But when you’re heading to a hotel after a marathon trip, all you probably want to do is drop your bags and sleep, even if just for a few minutes. Will your room be available?

I recently had clients flying to Australia from Washington. That’s 23 hours of travel time. They were to arrive at 8:30 a.m. And, of course, they would want to check in when they arrive.

Travel agents get these early check-in requests all the time. But it’s not that easy. For starters, most hotels have a noon check-out rule. And no traveler wants to be told they have to vacate a room early.

Plus, since many hotels are cutting costs, and some subcontract their cleaning services, staff may not be available to clean a room immediately after a guest has vacated it.

In addition, the same last-minute apps so beloved of many bargain hunters mean that hotels that might have had empty rooms the night before now have a much easier time filling them.

So when you check, right before takeoff, to see if your hotel has space the night before your arrival, this can change by the time you land.

As a frequent traveler and a travel agent, sometimes I’ve gotten lucky. But not always. One time, in D.C., I spent four hours in a hotel lobby, working on my laptop, drinking black coffee nonstop. And when I did get to a room about 1 p.m., I was asleep in 5 minutes, even with the caffeine.

If you do really need to sleep or rest after a long flight, here are a few tips.

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Let the hotel know you are coming early. This seems almost too obvious, but if a hotel is forewarned, at least they might be able to hold an available room for you.

Don’t be picky about the type of room. If you must have two beds with a family, or a nonsmoking room in a hotel that still allows smoking, so be it. But if an early check-in is the priority, be willing to take what you can get. And if you’re staying for several days, maybe you can move later. But when travel agents and hotels get the “I absolutely need the room at 8:00 a.m., and it needs to be a high floor, with a good view, facing east, away from the elevator, etc.,” well, suffice it to say your chances are decreased.

Consider booking through a travel agent with clout. Especially if it’s a deluxe hotel. While it may not matter for a basic motel, most deluxe hotels have relationships with travel agencies and consortiums. And if there are only a few rooms available early, a hotel is going to prioritize a request from someone who sends them lots of business.

If it’s a busy time, look for a hotel that has a health club or spa with showers. Worst case, they will generally let you use the facilities if no room is ready. Similarly, consider using a shower at an airport club. Some clubs do allow day passes if you aren’t a member, but you need to research this in advance.

Ask about a day rate. Not all hotels will do this, but some will confirm a room as early as 8 a.m. or 9 a.m., figuring that some sure revenue is safer than waiting to see if they can sell out later.

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Get close. If you can see that your hotel is sold out the night before, consider using an app or a travel agent to book the least expensive room available nearby. It’s a hassle to move, yes, but if you really need a few hours’ sleep or a shower/bath, it might be well worth it. (And then you can always ask for a late checkout, or at least to be able to leave your bags until your original room is available.)

Be realistic. If you’re traveling during high season, or when a convention is in town, and the hotel tells you it is close to sold out, consider actually paying for the night before. Yes, it’s expensive. But if it’s important, it may not be worth being a wreck for the first day of your trip to save the money. (Be careful, though: If you’re actually arriving on Thursday but make a reservation that starts Wednesday, the hotel may treat you as a no-show if you don’t show up by, say, 7 a.m. Thursday.)

And sometimes a good night’s sleep is priceless — even if it’s first thing in the morning.

An update on this story: Since it first appeared, hotels have discovered that early check-ins are a gold mine of ancillary revenue. As in, fees. While these strategies still work, you need to know that the front-desk personnel are trained to find ways of cashing in on your desire to check in early. Don’t let them.

Janice Hough

I've been in the travel industry since I graduated from Stanford. Back in the days when computers were new, and air travel was comfortable. These days I'm also a travel and comedy writer. All opinions are strictly my own, and not necessarily those of Elliott.org

  • Annie M

    If they really need the room that early- book it for the night before and pay for it to be empty until you arrive. You must call the hotel and tell them you will be arriving in the morning but they should hold that room until you arrive in the morning.

  • vmacd

    I do the same thing. When flying to Europe the flight usually leaves in the evening from the U.S. and gets to Europe early in the morning. I just book the room for the night before and let the hotel know I’ll be checking in “late.”

  • MarkKelling

    Hotels in Hawaii have so many people wanting late check out, like 10:00 pm to catch their late departing flights back to the mainland, that most of their websites state you must book an extra day to do that. I have done that my past few visits and most of the time the hotel doesn’t charge me for the extra day. Actually, I was only charged once and it was during a convention where the hotel was sold out.
    I have not had to do that when going to Europe so far (booking the day before for early check in). The hotels I have chosen seem to expect it and have been very flexible.

  • Dan

    Well, what do you do when you prepaid for the boss’s Presidential Suite for the preceeding night. And arrive to find that the hotel double booked it for “a really good customer who arrived unexpectedly.”

    Now my boss was not a nice man. He later shot his wife (who was nice) and himself. He would have shot me had today’s carry laws been in force.

    (Open-bar duo at same suburban Chicago hotel added an extra $2,000 in drinks for a 45-minute reception for a dozen American Veterinary Association directors, a group that intimately knows hair of the dog. Worked out at one drink every 57 seconds.
    And hundreds extra in fraudulent tips. Bittle count slipup claimed hotel. Offered to knock off a grand.)

  • ctporter

    Sometime, if you have status you can request an early check in, but other times you need to book a day early and use the smart phone app to check in up to 24 hrs in advance, and that you are arriving late. With digital keys you can go right up to the room you preselected and crash for a while. It has worked nicely for me the few times Ive needed it. Much better than sitting in a hotel lobby waiting for a room to become available.

  • Alan Gore

    Loyalty status can be a real help in getting you an early checkin.

  • Travelnut

    I just got back from London. I got to the hotel around 7am. I hadn’t actually planned to check in early so I hadn’t reserved the room for the extra day. They offered me a room where the guest hadn’t shown up. Great, but they charged me half the room rate. If I had arranged it beforehand, I would have been pretty happy about that, but when I was using a room that was presumably paid for the day anyway with a no-show fee, it seemed like a shameless money grab when all I did was sleep and take a shower (housekeeping didn’t come that day). Even though in most other aspects it was a pretty great hotel, that definitely colored my feelings about the hotel.

  • Alan Gore

    Because 7 am is far behind the usual definition of an early checkin, I too would go for such a deal under the same circumstances if I could reserve it with my initial booking. Whether or not the hotel is making extra money on a non-arrriving guest is none of my concern.

  • Bill

    Did they tell you it would be at half rate? And if so, did you agree to it? If yes, it sounds like you got what you wanted for a price you were willing to pay. Everybody won.
    Why the expectation that something of value be given for free? If it is worth X to you, why should any company NOT charge you X for it? Sure it is nice to get a freebie, but businesses do not run on freebies.

  • joycexyz

    Money grab? Yes, the no-show probably paid a fee for the room, but the hotel had no way of knowing they could resell the room. And you got a bargain at half-rate. All you did was sleep and shower? That’s what most of us do in a hotel. Is that supposed to be gratis? I honestly don’t get your logic.

  • Melinda

    I *always* book the night before if I am arriving in a city after a long flight if I am arriving prior to check in time. Yes, there is an extra expense but for me, personally, the first thing I want to do is shower, the second thing I want to do is lay down for a little bit. If I don’t, it ruins the start of the trip. At this point in my life, I’d much rather shell out the extra dough than stress my whole flight as to whether or not I’m going to have a shower and a bed after arriving.

    I always call the hotel after making the reservation to put a note in “booked previous night for guaranteed early arrival”. I then call the hotel the day I am leaving in order to make sure they know – and don’t mark me as a no-show. It’s been a blessing.

  • ctporter

    If your hotel brand allows digital check in up to 24 hrs in advance you can check in well before you arrive, and the hotel considers the room as being occupied so it will be available for you

  • Carchar

    Although it is way more expensive than booking a hotel room for early arrival, for Australia, I book a lie-flat seat so that I arrive fairly rested. When I get to the hotel, I have them store my luggage so that I can get right to a museum or a park. This is what I save my frequent flyer miles for.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Except that doesn’t always work. One time I took a trip to Vegas, arriving in the very early morning. I knew I’d want to go to sleep right away, so I booked my room stay to begin the night before my arrival. I even contacted the hotel in advance to tell them I wouldn’t be arriving until early the following morning.

    So I show up at my hotel at 4am, and they’ve given away my room, having logged me as a “no-show”. They cancelled my entire 4-day stay! And they were fully booked due to multiple events, so they couldn’t even give me another room.

    Took me hours to find another hotel with a room – a crappy one on the nasty end of the strip.

    Don’t know what the answer is – I thought I did everything right.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Early arrivals are a problem, and I’ve been bitten twice.

    One time I was on a red-eye to Boston. I booked my room well in advance, and requested early check-in, for which they charged me a fee. I arrived at my hotel at 9 am, expecting to be put in my room, only to be told that early check-in wasn’t available and my room wouldn’t be ready until 3pm. (They did credit me the early check-in fee.)

    Not much I could do about it but wait…so I parked myself on a sofa in a corner of the beautiful hotel lobby. Naturally, having been awake all night (I just can’t sleep on planes), I eventually fell asleep…only to be woken up a couple hours later by an employee rudely poking me on the butt and yelling that homeless people aren’t allowed in here, and to get my smelly ass out of their hotel!

    I was mortified! I certainly didn’t think I looked like a homeless person, although admittedly I was dressed comfortably, as appropriate for an overnight flight (sweats and baggy, comfy sweatshirt). But I absolutely did NOT smell bad. ;-) Anyway, it was a pretty humiliating experience. Once they realized I was just an exhausted guest (who was booked in a rather expensive room for a full week), they were appropriately apologetic, and quickly got me into a room…probably to avoid the appearance of homeless people crashing out in their lobby!

    The other time I mentioned in an earlier response to a comment above – I was on a red-eye to Vegas and, this time, was smart enough to book my room starting from the night before. Unfortunately that didn’t work either – when I arrived at the hotel at 4am, they’d given my room away, marking me as a “no-show” – even though I’d contacted them in advance to tell them when I’d be arriving! They cancelled my entire stay, and it took me hours to find another hotel with an available room.

    I don’t know what the right thing to do is. I’ve tried it both ways and gotten burned. At this point I just try to avoid flying red-eyes whenever I can.

  • Travelnut

    Interesting responses. I stand by my comment. If the room was already prepared for the guest who didn’t show up, and the room was already paid for by the no show fee, and I didn’t cause the hotel any differential effort or costs except for a shower, the early check in fee on top of the no show fee was pure gravy for the hotel. Now if they hadn’t told me that, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. I will also say that the times I’ve asked to check in, say, a couple of hours early, I’ve had great luck in them letting me check in with no additional fee.

  • jsn55

    Using an airport hotel for your first night is always helpful. They seem to be unfazed by the clock. I have never been denied early checkin, but I know that’s lucky. Mentally, I’m always prepared to get some work done in the lobby waiting for my room, but really of course I’m dying for a shower and a nap. Having status at a hotel chain probably helps. But bottom line, hotels sell an instantly-vanishing commodity. If I require a 7am checkin, I’ll pay for it and not expect the hotel to give me a room eight hours early.

  • jsn55

    The answer? It’s VEGAS. Armpit of the world, where they don’t care a whit about their guests, or much of anything else. I haven’t been there in years, and I hope to never be required to spend another minute there.

  • ctporter

    I find that using the digital check in works, the hotel thinks I am already in the room by the time I actually arrive. You might consider staying at properties that have that feature.

  • LeeAnneClark

    HA! I agree with you. I can’t stand Vegas. Only reason I was there was to attend a family wedding I couldn’t get out of.

  • Attention All Passengers

    Particularly when traveling to Asia with any very late night arrival, I try to book a different hotel right near the airport of arrival to satisfy the rest and bathing that I need/want to do. We did this in Saigon and stayed at an excellent Ibis Hotel at the airport for $65. Then the next day (late morning or early afternoon) one feels refreshed and ready to go to the other (longer-term) hotel they will be staying at for a few days.
    I made the mistake of not doing this on a recent trip to Kuala Lumpur. The Hilton there was great but arriving into the hotel at 07:30 a.m. (with the hopes of an early check-in) proved futile. They wouldn’t budge though they did let us use the Executive Lounge for a quieter place to wait and get some food. We got into our room at 1:00 pm and the exhaustion and rest needed just killed the first day.
    Now I’ve got an upcoming trip to Taipei and I am going to be sure to let the hotel know that we will probably arrive after 10:00 pm and to please hold the room including possible later arrival after midnight. One cannot gauge if a flight will arrive on time or not. I’m even rethinking staying near the airport the first night as I don’t trust the hotel staff to “get it right”.

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