Next time you stay at a hotel, get “comped.”

The “comp,” which is industry jargon for getting a complimentary room for a night, is the ultimate hotel perk. A free room means you’re someone special, like a frequent guest, a high-roller or just a really, really good negotiator. And free, as I explained in an earlier column on flying for nothing, is a lot better than cheap.

No one knows how much comping goes on in the hotel business, but industry estimates per hotel range from a tiny percentage to as much as one-third of all the rooms. (The latter is more common at a casino hotel, where a significant portion of the revenues come from gaming operations.)

No free-for-all

Common sense tells you that not everyone can get a free room. If they did, how would a hotel make any money? But let’s be honest, if they’re going to give a room away, it might as well be to you, right?

Exactly. Before I continue, I want the hoteliers of the world who might be reading this to know that I’m acutely aware of how terrible a time this is to publish an article about staying in one of your properties for free. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates the lodging industry will pull in only $16.9 billion in profits in 2003, down from $22.5 billion three years earlier.

At a time like this, where the future of the lodging industry doesn’t look so bright, shouldn’t we all be paying our fair share?

Relax. The hotel industry isn’t in trouble because it’s giving away rooms. It’s faring poorly financially for a variety of other reasons. Besides, guests didn’t get much sympathy from hotels during the rip-roaring 1990s, when rooms were renting for top dollar and properties were practically printing money in their basement.

So just think of the following tips as evening the score.

Hit the floor. The gaming floor at casino hotel, that is, where complimentary rooms are more common. If you’re a business traveler, that may seem impractical. But considering how many conventions are held in Las Vegas, it’s not such a gamble. If a casino is giving away up to a third of its rooms, your odds of getting a free night aren’t too shabby. It’s a strategy that’s worked for Richard Herndon, whose membership in so-called “slot clubs” has yielded 35 free nights to date, primarily in Nevada. He’s hardly a high-roller – he takes his cues from Jean Scott’s book “The Frugal Gambler” – but says there’s a big payoff for playing a few minutes of video poker. “I just give them a little action,” Herndon says. Casinos also reward their frequent guests with generous discounts on rooms, even when the property is booked solid over a weekend. Herndon has saved up to 40% off the published room rates when his room wasn’t “on the house.”

Become a frequent guest. Hands down, it’s the easiest way to stay in a hotel without seeing a bill. For example, at the time this is written, Starwood Preferred, the customer loyalty program for Westin, Sheraton and the W Hotels chain, will give you a free room for as few as 2,000 award points and an upgrade for as few as 1,000 points. But you don’t have to stay at a big hotel to get a freebie. When I was a frequent guest at a bed and breakfast – which had absolutely no affiliation to any kind of corporate chain – the proprietors would sometimes offer either discounts, or a better room, or sometimes even comp me for a night. It was their way of saying “thanks for being a regular.” All of this suggests that getting comped isn’t strictly a numbers game, but sometimes also a matter of being a likable guest who is a generous tipper and a gracious customer.

Complain. You knew this one was coming, right? The old “squeaky-wheel-gets-the-grease” tip. But here’s the truth: It needs to be a valid complaint. The guy at the front desk has probably heard it all before and is immune to your whining. I can’t blame him. I hear hundreds of complaints a week in my capacity as National Geographic Traveler’s ombudsman, and many of them are completely frivolous. Hotel guests have a tendency to ask for the moon and stars when they encounter the smallest imperfection at a hotel, like a leaky faucet. Come on, folks. The legitimate reasons for requesting a freebie include (but are not limited to) your room being burglarized, a reservation that isn’t honored because of overbooking or significant misstatements about a hotel’s amenities. Loud party in the room next door? Buy earplugs or ask to be moved.

Join the hospitality industry. Travel agents, meeting planners and other industry insiders frequently get comped as a reward for the business they’ve brought (or may bring) to the hotel. It makes perfect sense for the property to do this. Since occupancy levels are rarely maxed out, there are usually available rooms. If the room will go unused, why not give it to someone as a sign of your appreciation? (A disclaimer: This also applies to journalists who write about the hotel business. Offering a comp in exchange for a mention in a story is disturbingly common. I don’t play that game, but there are a lot of reputable travel writers who do. In any event, I wouldn’t recommend becoming a travel writer because of the freebies.)

Be reasonable when putting these tips into practice. Take the third point I made, about complaining. It worked so well for one guest of the Hampton Inn chain that it eventually backfired. Hampton’s “100% Satisfaction Guarantee” is one of the most liberal in the business. “If you are not completely satisfied, we don’t expect you to pay,” it promises. “It’s not just talk; we’re serious!”

Serious, maybe. But not stupid. A Hampton brand manager recently confided that during a routine upgrade of the hotel chain’s computer systems, it discovered a guest who had invoked the guarantee more than 100 times at various Hampton hotels. The property eventually sent her a letter urging her to take her business elsewhere, because it was obvious Hampton could never make her happy.

In other words, use these strategies, but be smart and don’t abuse them.