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October 26, 2010

Free valet parking -- now? How timing your askings right can bring better results

This weekend, I was in Portland, Oregon for two fun filled days. Mr. A and I snagged the tickets during a crazy Southwest Airlines sale all the way back in June, when October seemed like a hypothetical crouching somewhere over the horizon.... That is, until our flight hit this Saturday morning at 6 a.m., leaving us little time for suitcases and planning between cascading work deadlines --

But it all worked out. We had a great time. La Sorella drove down from Seattle. We cupped coffee at Stumptown and sampled taco trucks and plundered Powell's Books for some amazing reads. And... I asked for free valet parking. Here's the how (and why):

I'd reserved a discounted hotel room on Hotwire which didn't include the $20/night valet parking. Our hotel, the Avalon, seemed far below capacity, at least judging from the parking lot. On Saturday, we went about our business, and when we go back that night around 2:30, it was raining. And the lot was still almost empty. To be safe, instead of the lot we parked on the sidewalk just outside the hotel -- what luck! there was a spot! -- and checked that there were no signs. It looked clear. To be extra safe, I ducked inside and asked the parking valet if there was streetsweeping, a permit, or any hidden reason why we should move.

"You should have no problems," he answered.

I turned around to tell the others to leave the car and come inside, when he ran after me with this update: "Actually, my manager says you can't park there. It's a private way."

"I see. Ok."

Outside, we conferred: Was it really a private way or was that just a line? After all, his first answer was to say we could park there -- wouldn't he know the deal? Would they tow us if we left it there? Did we really want to go for street parking, which entailed a 10 minute walk in the rain? But pay $20 when the lot was empty, when we wouldn't pay $20 when the lot was full? No way.

We were about to pull away in the car when I pulled away from the group.

"Be right back!"

I walked up to the manager.

"Hi, how are you?"

"I'm good, thanks. How can I help you?"

"I'm the one who was asking about parking a car outside, and here's the thing: Can we just please leave it on the sidewalk overnight, since it's late and your lot isn't full? For free?"

"What kind of car do you have?"

"A black Ford."

"Is it a hybrid?"


"Darn, because we have free parking for hybrids."

"Argh, that's nice, but it's not a hybrid. Do you think.... we can just move it inside the lot, please?"

"Why don't you want to park on the street, up the hilll? It's not far."

"Honestly, because it raining, it's late, and I'm not going to pay $20 when there are free spots, and I'm just feeling lazy. I could walk back in the rain but I just want to go up to bed and curl up and fall asleep."

She nodded, smiled and agreed -- but only for one night. We left the keys with the valet and headed upstairs for a very good night's sleep.

Saved: 10 minutes the rain and/or $20. So worth it, for this Southern California girl.

Here's a post-asking takeaway reflection:

It seems like a positive story -- avoided rain, avoided spending $20 and got to bed sooner. And the manager was certainly kind. But after the fact, I realize that I didn't play my cards right.

The more you seem you want something, the less bargaining power you have. This is Asking 101, but what's interesting, to me, is how this axiom can sneak up on you.

Sometimes, it's easy to avoid showcasing your desire. What's harder is realizing when you're projecting desire inadvertently. When your situation tacitly or implicitly betrays your desire or need. And, most importantly, when you've backed yourself into a corner and need or desire something, when you might not have otherwise.

In this situation, I put myself at a tactical disadvantage.

I walked in wet and tired.

It was clear that I reeeeally wanted that free, convenient parking.

And it was clear to the manager that one night of free, convenient parking for me was worth a lot -- perhaps what two or three nights might value, for someone else.

What if I'd opted for a different route: Called ahead and asked for 2 nights of free parking as I weighed different hotel options? Or asked, casually, while checking in? In fact, I never hesitate to ask a hotel for an extra little perk I might need or desire. Many hotels strive to accommodate, especially in this economy. And when you're asking in advance, you're the opposite of needy -- you're discerning and empowered. This time, it just didn't occur to me.

So timing is one thing to consider is when you're asking. While the inconvenience or cost to the other party might be the same earlier or later, the perceived benefit to you if you ask later is sometimes greater -- so the value is greater. Asking a friend for a lift to the airport the next morning seems last minute and desperate -- so countes a hefty favor. Asking someone 2 weeks ahead seems like a piece of cake.

(On the flipside, just to cover all our bases, sometimes last minute asking can pay off royally, too. "Hi, do you have any rooms left over/parking places I could use/extra cream cheese to throw in with my package -- since it's the end of the day/week/season?")

I loved Portland, by the way. Anyone else out there?

[image source -- in time for Halloween:]
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