After fighting airport traffic, security lines and tightly packed flights, most travelers arriving at a hotel just want to check in and get on with the vacation. But it's not as easy as it used to be. During the travel slump after Sept. 11, when hotels had plenty of rooms available, it was often possible to arrive at almost any hour and get into a room, and a polite request to the front desk was usually all it took to extend your stay.
Now, with hotels at their highest occupancy levels in years, there are fewer vacant rooms available for guests who want to arrive earlier than the typical 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. check-in time. And travelers who would like to linger beyond the typical noon checkout time are finding difficulties, too. Hotels are enforcing both check-in and checkout times more closely.
"The higher occupancy is, the more difficult it is for hotels to grant either early check-in or late checkout," said Bjorn Hanson, a lodging specialist with PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Lois Frankel, president of Corporate Coaching International in Pasadena, Calif., who travels frequently, has noticed the shift. "I can remember when you could actually get an extension till 3 in most hotels in New York," she said. "That was really helpful for those of us on the West Coast, because we could have meetings, get back to the hotel, change clothes and get a 5 o'clock plane back. Now, if you ask for an extension that late, they tell you they will have to charge you an additional half-day."
Although many travelers simply accept the rules, others find it hard to tolerate inflexibility at a time when hotel prices are soaring. The problem is particularly vexing for American travelers arriving in Europe early in the morning, disheveled and groggy after overnight flights, and in no mood to wait until mid-afternoon to get a room.
Guests are also simply more demanding than in the past. "The customer is moving from rule-taking to rule-making mode," said Chekitan Dev, a marketing professor at the Cornell Hotel School and a hotel industry consultant. Dev has long been advising hotels to overhaul the antiquated check-in, checkout process. When traveling, he has been known to ask the front desk to send his room key along with the car picking him up at the airport.
"They have my credit card and know the time I'll be arriving," he said. "They could have the room ready and blocked."
Advancements in front-desk technology that link the housekeeping staff to front-desk computers have allowed rooms that are cleaned to go immediately back into the system, eliminating much of the lag time in room turnover. But at the same time, hotels have been adding amenities that tend to put a squeeze on housekeeping. Late checkouts, often offered as a perk to guests enrolled in loyalty programs, delay housekeepers who must get rooms ready for the next guests. And the fancier sheets and fluffier pillows introduced in the bedding wars of the past few years add to the time necessary to clean and prepare guest rooms.
Not long ago, the standard time for checking both in and out was noon, which gave a guest 24 hours in the hotel. During the travel boom of the late '90s, many hotels shaved a couple of hours off a one-day stay by adopting the less-liberal combination of a 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. check-in and a noon checkout.
Hotels say they try to accommodate guests, but it's not always possible given travelers' varied schedules.
Still, a few hotels, including the Peninsula Beverly Hills in Los Angeles and the Raffles Hotels & Resorts chain, are offering 24-hour check-in and checkout service, pledging to let guests move into rooms any time of day and check out 24 hours afterward while incurring only one day's cost.
"When people get to the hotel at 10, 11, 12 at night, they shouldn't be penalized because they arrived late," said Jack Naderkhani, general manager at Raffles L'Ermitage in Beverly Hills, which has been offering around-the-clock check-in and checkout service since it opened in 1998. To ensure that rooms are available, guests are asked about their arrival and departure times when they are making reservations, and housekeeping is scheduled accordingly.
Meanwhile, the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers has begun guaranteeing check-in times as early as 9 a.m. for $25. Guests must notify the hotel of their arrival times 48 hours in advance.
At any hotel, if a balance is not struck between housekeeping shifts and guest arrivals and departures, check-in lines can back up, and guests can be let down.
When rooms are not ready, hotels risk their reputations and make guests feel they are being exploited. "When they mess up, I feel like there's nothing I can do as a traveler," said Henry Doerner, 20, a college student who said he stood in line for half an hour in March to check in at the Holiday Inn Charleston Riverview in South Carolina, only to find out the room with double beds that he had booked to share with two friends was not ready, even though it was 6 p.m.