When Chris Voss showed up at his hotel in Los Angeles before the official check-in time, the clerk informed him there would be an early check-in fee. Minutes later, he left the reception desk with the fee waived and an upgraded room.

A former lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI, Voss successfully negotiated the surrender of hostages during the 1993 Chase Manhattan bank robbery in Brooklyn. He has taught business negotiation at Harvard University and written about the art of persuasion in his book, “Never Split the Difference.” His new online MasterClass details the use of body language, speech patterns, empathy and bargaining — tactics he believes can be applied to landing travel perks and avoiding travel penalties.

Q: Are there basics to negotiation, like using your voice?

A: It’s great there are so many demanding travelers who raise their voices. It makes it easier for the rest of us. Start out friendly and playful. The idea is to convey “I like you and want you to enjoy this interaction.” It will come out in your voice and impact them positively before you finish your first sentence. The adage is: Never be mean to someone who can hurt you by doing nothing. If you’re good, they’ll be delighted to do for you whatever they can. A playful, enjoyable attitude gives you latitude.


Q: How do you ask for a hotel upgrade?

A: Having put the person in a positive frame of mind, the next move seems counterintuitive. You want to say something like “I’m getting ready to make your day incredibly difficult.” Having started in a good frame of mind, they think they can handle anything. They imagine way worse than what you end up asking for. But, with a positive vibe, there’s no downside. Wherever I go is upside. It’s a can’t-miss approach.


Q: I see this takes time. How do you actually make the request?

A: You disarm their concerns with empathy. You can say, “I’m a self-serving, predictable traveler demanding the world.” You’re really letting them know you see what their world looks like. Then you ask a closed-end question you want them to say “no” to. A yes-oriented question is “Please, can I have a later checkout?” Instead we go for “Would it be a ridiculous idea if I asked to check in early with no fee?” People feel safer when they say the word “no.”

A no-oriented question is designed to let the person behind the counter feel safe and secure. You haven’t made them feel badgered. As long as you’re playful, you can keep asking. If you laughingly ask an airline, “Is it out of the question to put me up at a five-star hotel and pay for all the buffets?”, you’re anchoring high with your ask but doing it in a really nice way. You give them the option to be as helpful as possible with whatever they’ve got. The only thing that stands between you and getting what you want is how you make them feel. A hotel employee once said, “If I gave you my employee rate, I would have to pay for it myself.” I said, “I’ll pay you back!” They laughed and found another way to give me a discount.


Q: What if there’s no rental car though you have a reservation?

A: Say “Oh, I’m sorry,” because they are expecting you to yell at them. A well-timed apology catches people off guard and makes them feel empowered. Say “I’m sorry I’m late. I’m a self-serving traveler who thinks the entire world revolves around me.” You’re setting up this line: “How am I supposed to accept that?” That is a killer line but it has to be set up with a little empathy because it’s also fairly assertive. It forces them to look at the situation through your point of view. We refer to this as “forced empathy.” The Brits say you can be as rude as you want as long as you’re polite by it. There’s so much magic in the tone of your voice.