How can you avoid a bad hotel room?

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By Christopher Elliott

What can you do to avoid being assigned a bad hotel room?

For Michael Rewers, he knows that he increases his chances of avoiding a bad hotel room by staying away from “free stay” vouchers – and at least one four-star hotel.

Rewers, who frequently travels as a sales rep for a European energy company, recently tried to redeem a hotel coupon for a weekend at an upscale hotel in Warsaw. “Big mistake,” he recalls.

At first, the hotel employees at the front desk didn’t recognize his voucher. After consulting with a manager, the receptionist handed him a key to a closet-sized room on the 12th floor — a really bad hotel room.

“It smelled terrible,” he said. “I reported it to the receptionist. A manager said that for the voucher, that’s all they can offer me.”

Rewers checked out of the hotel and never returned. (Foul-smelling hotel rooms are not that uncommon.)

Every hotel has at least one bad room

Some hotel rooms are better than others, as Rewers discovered. How do you avoid the worst of them?

Experts say a lot of things can get you stuck in a bad hotel room. They can include common-sense factors, such as the amount you pay, the channel through which you book your room, and your elite status. But they can also include some uncommon variables, like the time of your check-in and how you treat the staff.

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First, let’s dispel a myth: No matter what they claim, most hotels have at least one or two bad rooms. And you should always reject them.

“Every hotel I worked at had one or two rooms that were either too small or whose layout made them undesirable,” says Pedro Richardson, a former revenue and reservations manager based in London. “There were a few mistakes that would ensure someone was allocated in our bad rooms. (Related: Smoked out of the Days Inn.)

The ‘mistakes’ that result in bad rooms

Not paying enough

You know that saying, “You get what you pay for.” Nowhere does it ring truer than when you’re staying at a hotel. Just ask Rewers, who tried to use a voucher for a “free” room. Richardson and other hotel insiders say guests who pay full rate are far less likely to end up in a bad room. Some hotels dispute this, saying they assign rooms on a first-come, first-served basis. Not always.

Booking through the wrong site

Where you book your room is as important as how much you pay, say experts. “If you book through a discount website, you do not get equal treatment,” says Rick Camac, the Institute of Culinary Education’s dean of restaurant and hospitality management program. The sites purchase discounted rooms in bulk, with no apparent repercussions if their guests get a key to the broom closet. “I stopped booking online and now book directly,” he says. “People are tired of being treated like second-class citizens.”

Being the last person to check in. Numerous guests told me that checking in after midnight virtually guarantees a bad room. That makes sense since by midnight most of the rooms are already taken for the night. The better rooms go to those who plan ahead, says Andrew Steinberg, a luxury travel concierge at Ovation Travel Group in New York. He contacts the hotel well in advance and asks about room locations and configuration. “It’s important to have a network to call upon to share information,” he says. (Related: Four stars for that resort? Says who?)

Having the wrong travel agent

On the flip side, having a high-quality travel adviser can help. If you work with someone like Steinberg, who has personal relationships with many hotels, chances are you’ll avoid a bad hotel room. “If you’re booked by our key travel agents – a Virtuoso agent, for example – or those who worked for our higher-paying corporate accounts, you won’t get a bad room,” says Richardson, the former revenue manager.

Being rude to the receptionist

Although hotels make most room assignments before you check in, the front desk staff has some flexibility in reassigning your room after you arrive. “The associates who help you check in to the hotel generally are allowed a fair amount of autonomy when it comes to room assignments,” says Matt Woodley, a frequent hotel guest who writes Mover Focus, a blog about international relocation. “Being extra nice and courteous to the registration staff can go a long way in helping you to secure an optimal room. At the very least, being rude will definitely not do you any favors.” (Related: Chased out of his hotel for complaining about a small room. Is this enough compensation?)

Failing to ask for a better room

Seems obvious, right? If you don’t want the hotel to assign you to a bad room, make that clear. At check-in time, the front desk staff sometimes has the option of upgrading you. All you have to do is ask. And if you don’t have a platinum card, don’t worry. Just saying that you prefer an ocean view to a parking lot view is sometimes enough for the hotel to make the switch. (Related: problem: My room is too small! Can I get my money back?)

And if all else fails? Remember that you don’t have to stay in a bad hotel room. You don’t have to stay in a bad hotel, either. So look around for other options and if you find one, check out and spend the night there instead.

How to get a better hotel room

  1. Do your research. A quick online search of hotel reviews may reveal the problem rooms in a hotel. If you’re working with a travel adviser, make sure you give that person your room preferences. Make sure to read my ultimate guide to booking a hotel.
  2. Call ahead and ask for a better room. Either you or your travel adviser should consider phoning ahead to request a specific room.
  3. Ask again when you arrive. That’s what Ciara Green’s father, a retired salesman, used to do. “He told me that when he’d check into a hotel, he’d always ask the front desk attendant not to give him a room next to the ice machine, the elevator or near any rock band they’d have playing in their lounge that night,” she says. It usually worked.
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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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