"Ladies and Gentlemen, our flight is overbooked today and we'd like to ask if there are any volunteers to take a later departure..."
We've all heard this familiar announcement at the airport, but airlines aren't the only ones guilty of overbooking. Hotels overbook their rooms on a daily basis, resulting in guests with confirmed reservations being told that there's no room at the inn -- pun intended. In the business, it's called "walking a guest" and it happens a lot more than you might think.
Hotels choose to overbook for the same reasons as the airlines. They know that on any given night there will almost always be a certain percentage of reservations that don't show up. Hotel rooms are perishable, just like bananas on the shelf in a grocery store. The opportunity to earn revenue from that room is gone forever each and every time it goes empty. This prompts hotels to play a game of overbooking roulette as insurance against a no-show guest. Most of the time the gamble pays off, but every so often the ball lands on green, double zero.
While protecting against no-shows is the main cause of overbooking, another common reason is an unforeseen maintenance issue at the hotel. Have you ever noticed the little sign warning against hanging clothes from the fire sprinkler? Let's just say that failure to comply can cause the flooding of multiple rooms and make several incoming guests very angry. Please use the closet!
What Happens If You're Walked
If you're in the unlucky position of being walked, there are a few things the hotel must provide. First, they should cover the cost of one night at a comparable, alternative hotel. If necessary, they should also pay for a cab to the new hotel and the cost of a phone call to inform loved ones of your new location.
Some might say covering the cost of a room at a hotel, which wasn't booked in the first place, doesn't go far enough to say "we're sorry." I agree, but don't beat up the poor desk agent for more than he's authorized to give. Go to the new hotel, sleep off some of your anger and call a manager the next day. After all, it was likely their decision to overbook the hotel in the first place.
Who Gets Walked
More often than not, the poor soul that's the last guest to show up for the evening is the one who ends up relocated. There are actually two people that get the short end of this deal, the guest who shows up at midnight after a full day of travel only to learn his reservation was worthless and the lowly desk agent on the night shift who takes that guest's inevitable wrath. I wouldn't want to be in either of their shoes.
In some cases, hotels find themselves overbooked by so many rooms that they are forced to start walking guests in advance. If you're a frequent guest, a top-tier member of the chain's loyalty program or part of a larger group in the hotel, then you're safe. If not, here's where it gets a little dicey.
As a rule of thumb, hotel managers will usually only relocate guests staying for one night. Those booked on a corporate rate or staying for multiple nights will likely get a free pass. On the other hand, if you have a reservation through Priceline or elCheapo.com... You're out. Period.
How to Avoid Getting the Boot
Arrive early - Since the vast majority of walked guests are late night arrivals, getting to the hotel early in the evening will all but eliminate the already low risk of being walked. If you're going to arrive late -- after 10 p.m. -- call the hotel to let them know. They will likely walk someone else first, rather than explain why they still didn't hold your room.
Book on the hotel's website - Most chains offer a price match guarantee, meaning their rate should be the same as places like hotels.com. Third party reservations scream "Walk Me!" to hotel managers. Don't unnecessarily put yourself in that situation.
Join the loyalty program - While this may not guarantee you won't get walked -- especially if you're not a top-tier member -- it is still better than nothing. If a hotel manager has to choose between two guests and one of them is not a member, guess who gets walked.
Now that I've sufficiently scared you out of ever booking another hotel, here is the reality: Your odds of being walked are incredibly slim. However, just like on the airlines, it happens every single day to countless travelers across the world. If it does happen to you, I hope you'll try and remember one thing...
The desk agent is just the messenger. Please don't shoot them.