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Want to check in to your hotel early? Good luck.

Check-in and check-out times are ‘an ancient hotel convention.’ Why haven’t they evolved?

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

It’s a travel math problem that doesn’t always work out: Your flight lands early in the morning, but the hotel check-in time isn’t until 3 or 4 p.m.

Sure, you can veg out in the lobby or leave your bags with the bell desk and explore. But if what you really want to do is shower and nap, you’ll have to pray to the early check-in gods or, in some cases, pay an extra fee for those additional hours.

And don’t forget that check-out is typically at 11 a.m., in case you had plans on your final day. Staying for just one day? Enjoy your 20 hours at the hotel.

The often-inconvenient times — which one operator called “an ancient hotel convention” — are set by hotels to make sure guests vacate their rooms with enough time to prepare them for the next round.

“It’s a function of housekeeping,” said Gary Vallen, a hospitality consultant and co-author of the textbook “Check-In Check-Out: Managing Hotel Operations.” “Getting a room checked out, going and stripping that room, cleaning the room, getting it brought back online, having an inspector from the housekeeping department check it ... takes you a little while.”

Knock, knock. Who’s there? Not housekeeping.

For the average traveler, there are some ways to solve the issue of needing a hotel room before or after one is supposed to be available. It never hurts to ask if early check-in or late check-out is available for free. Some hotels might offer those benefits for a fee; hotel chain citizenM, for example, says check-in is guaranteed at 2 p.m. but available earlier for an extra charge at certain properties in Paris, Amsterdam and Taipei.

Sites that allow people to rent mere hours at a hotel — such as HotelsByDay or Dayuse.com — can also make up the gap. The Dayuse site also includes options for hotel bookings with an early arrival or late departure.

“If you look at urban business hotels now, a lot of them are trying to maximize revenue for rooms, so you have day-use rooms,” said Nicolas Graf, associate dean of the Tisch Center of Hospitality at New York University.

Hotels will typically also let guests leave their bags in a secure location and use a pool, gym or spa while they wait for a room. That’s a perk few vacation rentals can offer even as they set their own strict times for checking in or out.

“A well-run hotel is going to try to get you into your room as quickly as possible,” Vallen said.

For frequent travelers with elite status at hotel chains, checking in or out is likely to be a much more flexible endeavor.

“It’s difficult to have a flexible policy for everybody, but it’s appropriate to have a flexible policy for the select customer,” said Vallen, professor emeritus at Northern Arizona University’s School of Hotel and Restaurant Management. “You want to cultivate them and you want to cater to them as much as you possibly can.”

Ten years ago, Starwood Hotels and Resorts — which Marriott bought in 2016 — announced new benefits including 24-hour check-in for its “most prolific travelers.”

“Turning an ancient hotel convention on its head, Starwood is for the first time ever abolishing the industry’s long-standing 3:00 p.m. check-in time and giving its most frequent travelers control of their own arrival and departure time,” the company said. The “Your24” benefit let loyalty members who stayed at the company’s hotels for 75 or more nights every year choose their check-in time and check out at the same time on their departure day.

Marriott kept the benefit, but travelers must stay at its hotels 100 nights a year and spend $20,000 annually to qualify.

Hotels are rewarding travelers for opting out of housekeeping

Some smaller hotel chains, typically boutique or luxury properties, also offer more flexibility.

Standard Hotels, with eight locations around the world, offers a “Standard Time” rate — which includes an additional fee — when rooms are available so guests can name their check-in and check-out times.

“We started Standard Time to cater to the ever-changing needs and schedules of our guests,” Standard International CEO Amber Asher said in an email to The Washington Post. “As a growing international brand, we want to take care of the business traveler flying in on the red eye who needs to freshen up before a meeting and the late night Boom Boom reveler who really needs to sleep in. Like everything that we do at The Standard, we challenge ourselves to think outside of hotel norms.”

The Peninsula Hotels, a Hong Kong-based luxury brand with 10 global properties, launched “Peninsula Time” across all its hotels in January 2021 after the feature started at its Beverly Hills location. Guests can choose a “fully flexible” arrival and departure time at no extra charge, though blackout dates apply.

“Guests inform the property ahead of time their approximate check-in and check-out time to ensure that their room or suite is available for their every need,” Gareth Roberts, group director of brand and operations support for the hotel company’s owners and operator, the Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, said in an emailed statement. “By letting guests arrive earlier and stay longer, we hope to provide them with greater peace of mind — and an even more personalized experience.”

Graf said he doesn’t believe hotels have historically had the right technology to make “more informed decisions” about room availability.

But he said that in light of the pandemic and labor shortages, more operators are investing in scheduling systems that use better data.

“You have more productive processes that I think will potentially help solve part of the issue and potentially help people like you and me who want an early check-in,” Graf said.

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