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The 7 Rules of Room Service

On your next summer getaway, navigate in-room dining like a true pro (and never drop $25 on a bland club sandwich again).
The 7 Rules of Room Service

Nothing says "I'm on vacation" like chilling in your best borrowed terry-cloth robe, waiting for someone to deliver a tray of fresh-cooked, delicious food right to your room. But I know what you’re thinking: Room service? It’s the hotel bogeyman! The food sucks, and it’s way overpriced. And the minibar? Don’t even think about it, unless you want to spend $20 on a domestic beer.

Well, you can listen to the haters about in-room dining (IRD), or you can start getting smart about it. With that in mind, I called some hotshot hospitality insiders to get their secrets for hacking the system and scoring a killer meal every single time, and compiled their advice into the definitive Seven Rules of Room Service.

Mark Ellwood is the author of Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World.

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It’s an automated world these days, and fancy hotels are increasingly equipped with bedside tablets loaded with apps for ordering room service. But go old-school, brother.

“The person on the phone will tell you honestly the best dishes to order, because they know it will affect the tip for the waiter,” says Lisa Brefere, a former hotel chef who now runs her own consulting firm, Gigachef.

Now, I know this defeats the purpose of “room service,” but if you slid on some slippers and padded down to the hotel’s main restaurant to order directly, that would be even better. A dirty secret: Head chefs usually cook for the big seated restaurant, and humble trainees handle the in-room dining. So, if you want your food prepped right, order at the restaurant and ask them to bring it up to your room. They will. 

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For starters, it’s a rip-off. Veteran hotel GM Anthony Arbeeny calls it the “all-time No. 1 profit generator” because of the insane markup. 

To make matters worse, it’s shitty coffee, filled from the kitchen’s giant urns that have been brewing longer than the Middle East peace accords. The same goes for the “fancy” French press. More often than not, say my experts, the kitchen simply adds a few grounds to the press, then tops it with coffee from aforementioned urn. But since we all need that morning jolt, I recommend traveling with an Aeropress ($30) and a small bag of grounds; it makes a great brew with just a little hot water.

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Here’s a fun fact from chef Lisa Brefere: Only 1% or less of orders are placed for lunch, 30% for dinner—but the majority arrive at breakfast time. So, at 7 a.m., kitchens are overloaded. Eggs are left idling and congealing before they’re delivered (even ickier, they’re likely made from defrosted liquid eggs rather than fresh-cracked and free-range). So the best way to guarantee quality and rapid delivery is to ask for your eggs sunny-side up. It forces the chef to use actual eggs, and the servers to deliver them quickly before they visibly congeal.

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Hotels make the slimmest profit on the highest-priced items on the menu. That means, believe it or not, all of the high-protein treats are the best value at your typical hotel. I’m talking veal, lamb, and especially filet mignon. But when you’re ordering a steak to your room, ask for it one shade rarer than you’d usually eat, because while it’s en route in the hotel’s warming trolley, it will continue to cook.

If you’re hungry en route to your lodging late at night, be sure to preorder and ask for that grilled steak to be ready and waiting when you arrive. Otherwise, the kitchen will be closed and you’ll be stuck with a cold club.

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Lisa Brefere says hotels can “really get screwed” by a deluge of orders during a downpour and will often commandeer staffers from other departments to man the kitchen. Translation: Your dinner might well be prepped by someone with no better culinary kudos than you have.

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Hidden fees are virtually everywhere in hotels. When you order, ask the opera- tor if there’s a delivery charge—it’s usually around five bucks—and whether it’s levied per order or per person. And, by god, don’t be fooled by the extra gratuity line, either. Mark my words: Ninety-nine percent of in-room dining orders will already include a generous gratuity, usually around 21–22%.

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Minibars are increasingly falling out of fashion. There are multiple reasons: Charges are easily disputed at check-out, and customers are getting savvy about their astronomical markups. But why deprive yourself of that late-night can of ice-cold beer, especially on vacation? Some hotels, like Kimpton, allow you to buy the whole thing at a markdown beforehand. So do yourself a favor: Treat yourself.

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