Upgrade. The word is like music to my ears. I live for the business-class bump-up, the better-positioned table, the superior room. Especially the suite talk.
But just how does one upgrade from basic digs to deluxe? It's not science. There are practical and logical forces at work when it comes to getting a better room in a hotel. Here is some of what I learned about how to turn your three-star accommodations into five-star memories:
* Never accept less than good. Let's say you walk into a hotel room and the air conditioning is broken or the TV's not working or your view is of an air shaft. Do you simply make do? Absolutely not.
March right back downstairs and tell the front desk the room is not acceptable. Be courteous but be specific. Also take into consideration your options. If you're staying at a motel with cookie-cutter rooms, you're not going to get a bigger room (although you certainly deserve a working air conditioner and perhaps a better view).
If you're staying in a large, full-service hotel, there are many room grades and configurations. A reputable hotel always will apologize for putting you in a room that doesn't come up to snuff. And chances are high that you will be upgraded into a better room if one is available.
Don't, however, be an unscrupulous whiner (the world is full of them as it is). In other words, don't complain if there's nothing wrong with your room just so you can get a better one.
* Be loyal; become a regular. In the competitive world of hostelry, loyalty is everything. Like airlines, hotels know you have a choice about how you spend your travel dollars. That's why it's worth joining a loyalty program with one of the large hotel chains or becoming a regular at an independent hotel.
A membership with a frequent-stay program like Starwood, Marriott, Hyatt or Hilton immediately identifies you as a loyal customer. The benefits vary but you almost always will get better service and a better room if you have an account.
In the case of Starwood (my favorite; it includes the Westin, Sheraton and W hotel chains), there is a separate check-in desk, and after you reach the gold or platinum levels, upgrades are automatic.
If you don't have a guest membership account, always mention that you frequent that chain of hotels when you check in.
Independent and boutique hotels like to hear that you are a return guest. When making the reservation and checking in, mention that you are a return guest and what you liked about your last stay. A good reservation agent or front-desk clerk will note this, and a better room may automatically come your way.
At a boutique hotel, jot down the name of the person who helped you; when you return to the hotel, drop the name or remember the face. It makes a difference.
* Make friends. Remembering names and faces helps. It also helps to write letters. If you experience outstanding service, write a note to the hotel manager and name names. Your name will be remembered for doing so. Similarly, ask to speak to a manager at checkout and tell him or her about your experience. Be sure to get a card. The next time you return to the hotel, e-mail the manager or drop his name at check-in. It never hurts.
A handwritten letter still carries weight. Hotels that pride themselves on service love hearing how they did. A thoughtful letter (whether pointing out a deficiency or praising a staff member) usually results in good will from a hotel. You may receive an upgrade certificate or bonus points on your frequent-stay membership for your efforts.
* Be flexible. Arriving at a busy hotel before check-in time and demanding a room will work against you. You will be given the most basic accommodations if one is available. However, if you check in and cheerily tell the clerk you'll store your bags and come back later, chances are you'll get a better room.
When the front-desk clerk is searching for rooms, be sure to speak up that you are flexible. Mention that you absolutely don't have to have a smoking room if a better nonsmoking room is available. Or that you'll take a handicap-accessible room (bigger rooms with bigger bathrooms). Or that you don't need two beds since you're traveling alone. Your willingness to be flexible might just reward you with an upgraded room.
* Don't be shy. Talking to the clerk and speaking up about your likes and dislikes can only work to your advantage. If you are celebrating a birthday or an anniversary, let them know. If you've been looking forward your entire life to staying at a grand hotel, let them know when you check in; they might just want to "wow" you even further.
Similarly, being vocal about your likes and dislikes is important. If you don't like street noise or you require lots of sunlight or need a bathroom with a tub, tell them. The more specific you are (especially for business travelers) the better shot you have at not being disappointed with your room. A smart clerk will hear your needs and recognize you as a business traveler or knowledgeable leisure traveler.
Also, ask about upgrades. A simple "can you do something better for me?" may result in a nicer room.
* Be nice. A recent travel study showed that rudeness is on the rise. If you're a frequent traveler, you know exactly what we're talking about. Well, just imagine the staff at a hotel. They've seen it all where rudeness is concerned. They're people, too: They want to be respected and liked.
Genuine kindness may be your most valuable upgrade tool. When you arrive at a hotel, greet the personnel. Say good morning or good afternoon. Ask them how their day is going. Smile and be pleasant. You might just be the ray of sunshine in an otherwise bad day, and you better believe they're going to look for a nice room for you.
On a recent trip, I stood several people behind a man who had a fit because the check-in line wasn't moving fast enough for him. He yelled. He demanded to speak with a manager. He yelled some more. When I got to the clerk who took the brunt of his rudeness, I touched her arm and said, "Are you OK?"
Clearly rattled, she said, "I think so."
I told her a joke, made her laugh, assured her that not everyone in line was like that man. When she looked up a room for me, she said, "I have something really nice for you." When I got into my room it was a mini-suite. Something tells me the Old Yeller didn't get a room with a sofa, a fireplace and a view of the park.
The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
Wash your hands, cruise passengers are advised
By Beth J. Harpaz
If you're taking a cruise and have concerns about norovirus, you can do one simple thing to protect your health: Wash your hands.
"Proper personal hygiene is the most important thing that each individual can do to try to prevent the spread of norovirus," said Dr. Robert Wheeler, chairman of the American College of Emergency Physicians' cruise ship and maritime medicine sector. "People just don't wash their hands properly, and that's why that particular bug spreads so much."
To cleanse your hands of germs, you must use soap and rub and rinse for 15 seconds, Wheeler said. That's longer than you think; try counting slowly to 15 next time you wash up and you'll see how deficient the average two-second rinse really is.
Norovirus is usually spread either person-to-person or via contaminated surfaces -- meaning you can catch the bug by holding a germy handrail and then putting your hand to your face.
Some 23 million Americans get norovirus each year without ever stepping on a ship, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They miss a day or two of work due to what is usually referred to as "stomach flu" and don't think much about where they got it.
But cruise ships where outbreaks occur receive a great deal of media attention because they are required to report gastrointestinal illnesses to the CDC, which then publishes the reports.
"This is the most common cause of gastrointestinal illness in the United States, but it is not reportable anywhere except from cruise ships," said Dave Forney, chief of the CDC's Vessel Sanitation Program.
Ships must notify the CDC when 2 percent or more of those on a cruise experience gastrointestinal illness. The CDC's statistical definition of an outbreak is when 3 percent or more of those on board report symptoms.
In an effort to prevent occurrences, the CDC conducts surprise inspections, twice a year, of every ship with an international itinerary that calls on U.S. ports and carries more than 13 people. That includes cruises to the Caribbean, Mexico and Canada, Forney said. Inspection scores are available to the public online at www.cdc.gov / nceh / vsp.
Forney said that overall, the industry has improved sanitation and disinfection procedures in the last few years. At the same time, the number of people taking cruises is on the rise, the number of cruise ships has increased and the incidence of gastrointestinal illness on ships has also gone up. In 2002, the CDC reported 23 outbreaks aboard 19 ships; in 2003, the CDC reported 28 outbreaks aboard 23 ships.
It takes a day or two to develop symptoms after you are exposed. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, low fever, headaches, muscle aches and stomach cramps can last for a few hours or a couple of days. There is no cure other than to let the illness run its course.
In some cases, Forney said, passengers are ill when they board but don't want to lose their precious vacations.