The $20 Hotel Trick


Last week, I wrote up a post about our cheapest travel deal ever. Unfortunately, those deals don’t come by all too often. But even when Joanna and I don’t benefit from some weird booking glitch or from the travel gods smiling upon us, we always make sure to get some sort of deal. I’ve got an unhealthy obsession with snagging deals, and not just on the sticker price. Even after a transaction, I continue looking for any deal I can get. And so that’s how I came across something called… the $20 trick.

Our college basketball team of choice has a tournament in Vegas right before March Madness each year, and Joanna and I have attended it almost every year of our marriage. During one of our Vegas visits, I started hearing from some friends about living like a king in Vegas without spending (read: losing) a fortune on the casino floor. And how do you do that? The $20 trick, of course!

The $20 Trick

So what is it? Put simply, it’s a way to get a hotel upgrade in major metros bustling with nice hotels (Vegas, NYC, LA, Atlantic City). When you check in at the hotel desk, you slyly slip the desk attendant a $20 bill and ask if they have any complimentary hotel upgrades. Here’s how I do it:

    • First, I book the cheapest, most basic room I can find at the hotel where I plan to stay.
    • I look at the kinds of room upgrades that hotel has to ensure the $20’s worth the hassle.
    • When I check in, I present the hotel attendant a sandwich: credit card on top, $20 bill in the middle, and driver’s license in the middle.
    • After I hand them the sandwich, I ask if they have any complimentary upgrades available. Since managers are sometimes lurking nearby, I make sure to add the complimentary part instead of saying, “Yo, you see that $20 I just snuck between my plastic? That’s to pay you off for a sweet upgrade. Capiche?”
    • Await the verdict.

The Results

Our results have varied. The first time I tried it, it kind of worked. We snagged a Priceline Negotiator deal of $50 per night on our room at the Hilton. Like most Negotiator deals, our room was going to be on a low floor, facing a parking lot. Blah. So I mustered up my courage, approached the check-in counter, and tried the $20 trick. AND?!!! …the front desk gave me my sandwich back, $20 included. BUUUT she still gave us an upgrade! We got a studio room on one of the top floors overlooking the golf course.

A year later, we tried it again, but this time at Excalibur in Vegas. We Negotiator’ed a room for less than $30 a night for three nights. Good deal. But again, we were going to be relegated to a low-floor room in the unrenovated wing of the hotel. So I passed the front desk clerk the sandwich and he knew the drill. He searched his computer, found us a high floor room in the newly renovated wing, and casually pocketed the $20. We saved a good $40/$50/night for the upgrade with the help of Andrew Jackson.

We asked our friend Brian, an OFB reader, if he could share some of his experiences with the $20 trick as well. Here’s what he had to say:

I have found Vegas to be the best area for the $20 upgrade. The last time two times we went we gave the person at check in (I have heard rumors it works better with dudes, but I cannot confirm or deny this) $20 with my credit card and asked if they had any complimentary upgrades:

First: Monte Carlo (Halloween weekend) – We booked a standard room but were given a Spa Suite with a view of the strip.

Second: Paris (MLK Jr. weekend) – We booked a standard room and were given a high level premier room at the end of the hall, which gave us an amazing view of the Eiffel tower and the Bellagio fountains!

From talking to others it seems to work best in cities where tipping is more prevalent (Vegas, LA, NYC, Chicago). I have a reservation booked in LA in a couple months and I’m going to see if it works for me out there.

As you can see, Brian’s results were pretty sweet. We’ve also only tried it in Vegas, but we’re excited to try it in some other cities as well. Also, this site lists the success rates of the different Vegas hotels, if you care to give it a try the next time you visit Sin City.

Have you tried the $20 trick? What were your results? If you haven’t, do you think you have the guts to try it?

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  • Reply Mrs. Pop @ Planting Our Pennies February 13, 2013 at 7:35 am

    Wow. My sister’s always worked in the hotel industry, so in general we either stay in her chain for big discounts or stay in the cheapest dive where all the rooms are equally awful. So I have never had the opportunity to try this. (I’d be wary of being tacky when my sister’s name is on our reservation.) But very interesting. I wonder how many company policies the check-in agents are breaking by doing this?

    • Reply Johnny February 13, 2013 at 8:15 pm

      We usually do the cheapest dive option, as well. But Priceline Negotiator has done us well the last few times, so we start there before going for the 2 and 3-star $30 to $40 options.

      A friend of mine familiar with the Vegas scene said it has actually become something that hotels expect and aren’t too concerned about. Since their cash cow is the casino floor, anything done to make the guest feel “special” to keep them on the property. But that could just be hearsay.

  • Reply Michelle February 13, 2013 at 8:27 am

    This seems to work easily in Vegas! I’ve never tried it but have known of others who have.

    • Reply Johnny February 13, 2013 at 8:16 pm

      Now it’s your turn! Return and report.

  • Reply John S @ Frugal Rules February 13, 2013 at 9:15 am

    I’ve never tried this, BUT we are planning on going to Vegas for my birthday next year. You better believe we’ll be trying it then. 🙂

    • Reply Johnny February 13, 2013 at 8:17 pm

      Look forward to hearing your success. It seems to be the luck of the draw (who you talk to, room availability, if a manager is hovering, etc.). Good luck!

  • Reply Brad @ MrWriteAway February 13, 2013 at 9:20 am

    I’ve never tried this… or actually I’ve never even thought of trying this. Until now!

    • Reply Johnny February 13, 2013 at 8:19 pm

      I would have never thought to do it until some friends tipped me off. Maybe I should start trying this trick at less glamorous places, like say, the DMV? I’d gladly pay $20 to avoid waiting through two hours of that.

  • Reply Tina @ My Shiny Pennies February 13, 2013 at 10:08 am

    I think it’s a great idea! I’m assuming the hotels are giving out upgrades only if the rooms weren’t otherwise reserved, so I don’t feel like it hurts anyone. Here’s another traveler’s success story in Hawaii that your readers may interest your readers.

    • Reply Johnny February 13, 2013 at 8:21 pm

      You make a great point. And I’m pretty sure the front desk clerks (at least in Vegas) know full well their bounds and that booting another guest to upgrade another won’t be happening. That success story is incredible! Add Hawaii to the list of hotel destinations to try. Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply Budget and the Beach February 13, 2013 at 10:09 am

    I’m so afraid to try this. I’ve seen too many movies where this backfires and hi-jinx ensue. I love the “sandwich” though. Hilarious!!!

    • Reply Johnny February 13, 2013 at 8:23 pm

      Hahaha. I think I come off reallllly awkward when I do it. It’s a huge adrenaline rush. And I always imagine worst-case scenarios and then I’m halfway disappointed it wasn’t more exciting when they actually give me the room with no problems. 🙂

  • Reply Well Heeled Blog February 13, 2013 at 11:51 am

    Never tried this before… but this post has made me think maybe I should! Lately I have been staying in AirBnB places instead of hotels, though, so the $20 trick wouldn’t fly there.

    • Reply Johnny February 13, 2013 at 8:26 pm

      We’ve been meaning to jump on the AirBnB train, but we haven’t been travelling much since that site got popular. You never know, maybe they’ll upgrade you softer pillows or something. 🙂 On second thought, I’d hold on to your $20.

  • Reply Brick By Brick Investing | Marvin February 13, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    This is absolute gold! Thank you for this tip! I have never offered money before but whenever I’m on the road and check in at a hotel or eat at a restaurant I always ask the person I interact with how they are doing and wait for a response. Then no matter what they say, I ask them another question depending on their answer. I basically try and make them feel like their special and not just some employee in the service industry. Usually I get what I ask for but I’m sure a $20 sandwich would seal the deal. Thanks again!

    • Reply Johnny February 13, 2013 at 8:29 pm

      You’re welcome! It’s amazing how a little kindness to a service industry employee can go. We’ve received a lot of perks in the past for doing just what you said: asking how their doing and being courteous.

  • Reply Andy February 13, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    Don’t want to be a spoilsport (haven’t said that since school!) but if you were the hotel owner, would you want this to happen at your front desk?

    Just sayin’

    • Reply Johnny February 13, 2013 at 8:37 pm

      I’m glad you brought it up, Andy! I meant to throw a sentence or two pointing out the ethical dilemma. I don’t know that I can (or should) completely justify the action, but as I said in a previous response, a friend familiar with the Vegas hospitality scene said that this isn’t a concern of theirs. They give front desk clerks the liberty to comp and upgrade guests (within reason) with the hope that they’ll spend more time in the hotel, which means more time in their casino.

      To play devil’s advocate, I don’t think this is something I would advocate for my front desk staff to do. BUT, you better believe Joanna and I are more inclined to do business at those hotels.

      All in all, it doesn’t weigh too heavy on my conscience. Yet. But you bring up a very valid counterpoint.

      • Reply Andy February 14, 2013 at 5:22 am

        Those are valid points Johnny. I also live in Scotland where there is less of a tipping culture (it’s a mixture of historic stingyness and a minimum wage) than the States. However, it still doesn’t sit quite right.

  • Reply Mo' Money Mo' Houses February 13, 2013 at 5:41 pm

    Interesting, though I don’t know if I suave enough to do it myself. I’m sure I’d fumble and just make it awkward haha

    • Reply Johnny February 13, 2013 at 8:38 pm

      Money speaks louder than clumsy delivery. Trust me, I rehearsed it like 10 times before trying it and I still sounded like an idiot. Muster up the courage and try out the sandwich.

  • Reply Sara February 13, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    The worst they can say is no, why not try it?

    • Reply Johnny February 13, 2013 at 8:40 pm

      That’s the attitude! My very first try, the gal rejected my $20. BUT we still got the upgrade. It’s worth trying once.

  • Reply Johnny February 13, 2013 at 8:31 pm

    I opted to leave those stories off the blog. But if Joanna and I ever go dark, you now know why.

    This is probably something you need to add to your 30 before 30 list.

  • Reply Grayson @ Debt Roundup February 13, 2013 at 9:57 pm

    I would like that type of sandwich. I might have to try this. Anyone open to giving out sandwiches at FinCon?

    • Reply Johnny February 13, 2013 at 11:51 pm

      Good call. We’re still trying to figure out all the FinCon stuff and decide whether or not we’d be accepted into the fold, but should we decide to take the plunge, this is definitely one sandwich worth serving up. But knowing that hundreds of other frugal gurus would be in attendance, the upgraded rooms might exhaust themselves rather quickly.

  • Reply Chris February 14, 2013 at 11:39 am

    I’ve never been to Vegas, but if I go I would be very wary of trying this with a measly $20. Maybe I think that corruption doesn’t start until $50? I wonder what you’d get if you upgraded to Ulysses S. Grant?

    • Reply Joanna February 14, 2013 at 3:15 pm

      Seriously. We’ve only tried $20 because that’s all we’ve been willing to risk. But it sounds like you’ve got a good reason to go to Vegas for the first time, Chris… to try out the $50 and let us know how it goes!!

  • Reply Travis @debtchronicles February 14, 2013 at 9:14 pm

    I don’t think I could ever get up enough nerve to do this…….but my wife TOTALLY would. Hell, she’d do it without the $20 – and probably make it work. She’s like that. 🙂

    • Reply Joanna February 17, 2013 at 8:02 pm

      That’s great! One of the many things I love about being married… using each other’s strengths to make the best of situations. 🙂

  • Reply anon March 1, 2013 at 1:26 am

    I’ve tried this twice, both in times Vegas, both at Imperial Palace, both times staying 3 nights. (June 2009 and January 2012) The first time it worked and we were upgraded to a King Spa room. The second time it did not, and the girl working the desk took the money anyway, which definitely makes me hesitant to do it again.

    • Reply Johnny March 2, 2013 at 1:52 am

      Lame on try #2! I don’t know that I’ve heard a desk clerk taking the money without providing an upgrade. It’d probably be really tacky to ask for the money back, but I’d probably be tempted. But even if it’s lost, the potential ROI is still high enough that I’d keep trying it.

  • Reply MichelleLG April 29, 2013 at 4:30 am

    roo, my fear exactly! i’m pretty ballsy about haggling, etc, but i’ve never tried to tip my way into a good deal… i’m intrigued… but also super scared! definitely going in my adventrures-to-have book. 🙂

    • Reply Johnny April 30, 2013 at 1:14 am

      And with a little confidence, you can move that entry right on over into the adventures-I’ve-conquered section while you look out your top-floor suite window. 🙂

  • Reply Ronnie April 29, 2013 at 2:28 pm

    I’ve been working at hotel front desks for years before I moved to events at a resort.

    At one hotel, we were not the ones making reservations, so offering front desk girls some money for an upgrade would definitely backfire. We were NOT ALLOWED to accept gratuities so it would be awkward and get you nowhere.

    At another hotel, we were encouraged to upgrade people or give them discounts based upon a few things, like how polite they were, how likely they were to come back, how full the hotel was, etc. If you walked in and wanted a room, we would be happy to negotiate a lower fare for you. We could knock off up to $100-$150 a night, depending on the package! All of our rooms were the same except for a few of them, so if you handed me a $20 I’d knock off a bunch of money from your room rate instead of upgrading your room (not an option there).

    Another hotel I worked at was huge and empty half the time, because ski resorts are expensive and the recession ruined our fun. So, if you had slipped me a $20 there, I’d upgrade you immediately and probably add in something cool, like a dining credit or a spa treatment.

    Honestly, as an employee, going above and beyond and ensuring the guest comes back and tells their friend is worth the extra upgrade or discount. So yeah, if I was a hotel owner, I wouldn’t be opposed to this as long as the guests paying full fare got priority.

    • Reply Johnny April 30, 2013 at 1:20 am

      Ronnie swoops in and adds the voice of experience and wisdom to the discussion! Awesome feedback from someone in the know! And that’s really cool to hear the types of things you’d look for in guests that you’d upgrade. I’ll make sure I put on my most pleasant demeanor for our next hotel check-in. 🙂

  • Reply Mia May 19, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    Just came across this and had to share. #10 on the list confirms and encourages the $20 trick!

    • Reply Johnny May 20, 2013 at 1:06 am

      Awesome find! Thanks, Mia.

  • Reply Lauren May 22, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    Doing this the next chance I get. Does a sandwich have to be the food?? Could I do a cupcake or something like that??

  • Reply Debt Blag June 19, 2013 at 11:28 am

    I like that your sandwiches have two middles; that’s totally living in luxury 🙂

  • Reply The Video Will Change Your Life | Budget and the Beach October 2, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    […] The $20 Hotel Trick- Our Freaking Budget […]

  • Reply Edward October 9, 2013 at 6:44 am

    Have tried the $20 Sandwich in Las Vegas several times after hearing about it on Roll Like Boss.

    My results have been varied. A couple of nice upgrades at the MGM and Cosmo and a couple of epic fails!

    I think it all comes down to who you approach at check in and what day of the week you check in / how busy it is.

    Definitely worth a go though.

    • Reply Johnny October 14, 2013 at 1:51 am

      Yep, definitely seems like it’s all about who you’re checking in with and timing. It certainly adds more suspense and adrenaline to the whole process.

  • Reply Shaun June 13, 2014 at 11:03 am

    There seems to be a ton of people saying the sandwich trick will not work at Wynn properties. This is definitely not the case! I checked in on a Sunday around 6 PM for a 4 night stay. My package was 1 night comped and 3 nights at casino rate ($149/night) in a standard Resort King room at Encore, set up though my executive host (I am a Red Card holder and definitely not a high roller). I handed the check in lady a $50 sandwich and asked if there were any complimentary upgrades available. She let the $50 fall on her monitor, where it stayed for the entire transaction. She said she would check and asked if I was celebrating anything special. I told her we were celebrating my wife’s birthday (which was actually a month away). The woman asked where my wife was and I said she was still in the parking garage (which was true – she was too embarrassed to be with me when I tried this trick). She also asked if I had any preferences. I said something high and with a nice view of the strip. I ended up with a Tower Suite King on the 54th floor. The view to the left was of the golf course, straight ahead was the Wynn, and to the right of that we could see down the strip. Looking straight down, we could see the two Encore pools. It was a fantastic view. Checking out the rates online, this was a $90 per night upgrade, so we saved $360 total! This was the first time I tried this trick and will be doing it each time we check in from now on! (I used a fifty instead of a twenty because I read a report of someone else at Encore using a fifty and getting a large suite. I didn’t get that much of an upgrade, but it was still worth it.)

  • Reply Anon A Mous August 28, 2015 at 10:43 pm

    No one has commented in a year, but just wanted to let hall know that the $20 trick is alive and well and has landed me multiple AMAZING upgrades in Vegas. 🙂 it never hurts to ask.

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