Photograph courtesy the Scarlet Hotel and Cypert & Leong

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The chic Scarlet Hotel in Cornwall, England, boasts a high-tech design.

Photograph courtesy the Scarlet Hotel and Cypert & Leong

How to Get the Perfect Hotel Room

Experts weigh in on landing the just-right accommodation.

How to land the perfect room? Our experts check in.

If you've ever stayed at a historic hotel, you probably know that there are rooms and then there are rooms: Some are spectacular, while others are just so-so. How do you make sure you're offered the keys to decent quarters at that charming landmark where no two rooms are alike? The New York Marriott East Side, a 1926 Gothic, Romanesque, art deco hotel where Harry Houdini once performed, has 646 rooms and a mind-boggling 105 room types. But for simplicity's sake, rooms fall into just two amorphous categories: deluxe and superior. "The right room is really a matter of your perspective as a guest," says Michael Powlen, the hotel's former resident manager.

In the end, finding the perfect accommodations means matching your tastes to the hotel's available room inventory. Short of an in-person visit, phoning the property remains the most effective way to make sure you'll get the right room.

"Call the front desk in advance to make a room request or inquiry," says Robert Mandelbaum, director of research information services for PKF Hospitality Research. Explain your desires—do you want a view, extra space—something more private?—and ask if there's something they can recommend. Don't call the toll-free reservations line—those queries are often handled by a call center, and employees may not have firsthand knowledge of the property.

Which is not to say the Internet can't be a useful tool. "Go to a hotel's website, where you'll likely find a variety of room styles, based on the view or amenities," says Bjorn Hanson, an associate professor at New York University. "If you see something you like, you can call and ask for a very similar room and go from there." He added, "Even ask your reservation agency for the same view, same size." Some smaller properties might be able to offer you a room this way, but many larger hotels with automated reservations systems won't assign a room until several hours before you check in. What then?

"It is perfectly okay to ask to see a room before check-in," says Susan Rodger, a former manager with Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. "Most often, a hotel will do its best to find something that is suitable within the category booked." If you don't like the room you're assigned, ask to move. If there's another available room, most properties will accommodate your wishes.

Does the hotel assign a room on the basis of how and where you booked? Analysts say that although hotels are reluctant to admit it, they do, in fact, block off the better rooms for members of their frequent guest programs, visitors paying with platinum cards, or people who have booked through a preferred travel agent. Guests who reserve their hotel online—and particularly those paying heavily discounted rates—tend to get assigned the less desirable rooms. Common sense. Yes, you get what you pay for.