Shuffling off an early morning flight, rumpled and bleary, hauling overstuffed luggage and dreaming of your own quiet bathroom and strong wi-fi connection-- this is the state in which you drag yourself into the hotel lobby. Being told that your hotel room won't be ready for five hours makes your stomach drop. Sweet-talking front desk staff into an available room ahead of hotel check-in time isn't always possible, but it's always worth a try, especially for loyalty program members. Keep in mind being flexible on specific room or room type will impact chances throughout the hotel industry to gain early check in.
Virtually every hotel, from the smallest country inn to the largest urban skyscraper, has a standard check-in time, generally somewhere around midafternoon with checkout often being the following day (early afternoon) for a one night stay. As long as you've confirmed that you're coming, you can check in anytime after that point with no trouble, even if you don't arrive until midnight. Whether or not your check-in time can be moved up isn't always up to the whims of the front desk clerk. If the hotel was fully booked to occupancy the night before or short on hotel staff, there simply might not be any empty, clean rooms for you to have until afternoon. You're also in competition for ready rooms with other early arrivers. The rare hotel will also refuse an early check-in request as policy.
Checking In Early
Unfortunately there's no magic wand you can wave to get your hands on a room key early. If you arrive in town before the designated check-in time, all you can do is show up at the front desk with a smile and politely ask if a room is ready. To maximize your chances of getting a room early, do some calling around a day or two before you're set to arrive. Ask the receptionist at your hotel whether the building is fully booked for the night before you arrive. If he says it is, you'll know your chances of getting in early are slim. If you can cancel your room without incurring a cancellation fee, call around to other hotels to inquire whether early check-in is feasible on the day you'll arrive. You might even score a competitive price on a last-minute booking.
If you want an early check-in badly enough, you might be willing to pay for it, and your hotel might be happy to let you. Some hotels strive to make early check-in possible for guests, but a fee comes along with that service. Before you make your reservation, call the hotel and ask whether there's a fee associated with early check-in. Keep in mind that, even if you can't get into your room early, the hotel should allow you to stow your baggage in a secure room. Pull out your toiletry bag and freshen up in the lobby bathroom, or ask whether you can sit by the pool until your room is ready.
Life would be so much easier for the average traveler if check-in could happen whenever you arrive. It's possible this will be commonplace someday, but for now, it's the rare hotel that allows guests to name their own check-in time. At least one major chain already has this perk: Starwood Hotels (starwoodhotels.com) offers a program at some of its hotels that allows frequent guests who are premium members of its rewards program to check in for a full 24 hours -- and that 24-hour period can start at any time. Check in at 7:30 p.m. and the hotel booking is yours until 7:30 the next night. While finding a hotel chain with check-in policies this flexible is rare, you might get lucky and find one in your destination city.
Keep in mind also late checkout time availability when booking your hotel stay and whether or not fees are factored into your room rate. Hotels like the Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt often require advance notice for late checkout and may add an additional charge. Hotel management may waive fees for valid reasons but will often cite in room cleaning and housekeeping staff being rushed to clean guest rooms before same or next day arrivals as the source of the fee.