Who doesn’t dream of sleeping in a palace?

Who doesn’t dream of sleeping in a palace? It’s hard to look at our list of ten top palace hotels and not fantasize about living like a prince in a European castle or a raja in an Indian haveli. Of course, as is sometimes the case with hotels, the reality may not live up to the fantasy.

Maybe this has happened to you: You check into an historic palace hotel, expecting a room that reflects the property’s character and charm, and you’re shown to a soulless room in the new wing overlooking the parking lot. Or you’re assigned to a tiny room on a dingy courtyard where you’re kept awake by pipes clanking all night long. Or you asked for a top-floor room, hoping for a great view, and ended up in a claustrophobic attic with dormer windows. Or you booked a water view and found yourself in a ground-floor room on the waterfront promenade, looking out at mobs of tourists who are passing by your window looking in at you.

Historic palace hotels are tricky because rooms can vary drastically. In modern hotels, rooms that are priced the same are pretty much interchangeable, but in grand old palaces, often no two rooms are identical. Even within the same price category, one room might have extra windows, one might have a fireplace, and one might have a larger balcony. And many of the rules that apply to modern hotels don’t apply to palaces. For example, in modern hotels top-floor rooms are often the nicest, but in palaces that were built at a time before elevators existed and when ceilings became progressively lower as floors went up, the top floor was the maids’ quarters and had low ceilings and small, recessed windows. The largest and most opulent spaces were on the second floor (in Europe it’s called the first floor), where people did their entertaining—and so that’s where you’ll often find the grandest rooms.

How, then, can you pick the best room for your dollar at a grand hotel?

Look for room intel in recent TripAdvisor reviews.

Here, for example, is a caveat from a review of the Gritti Palace in Venice: “When choosing a room at the Gritti Palace, know what to expect. The hotel extends from the proper palace at the Grand Canal over two large buildings in the rear. Rooms in these buildings, particularly those on the lower floors, have no views at all.” When you spot “See more room tips” in a review, click on the link for even more inside scoop.

Study a property map or floor plan.

If you can’t find one online, call the hotel directly—the on-site staff knows the property’s layout—and ask the room reservations manager to fax you a map that indicates the rooms’ relative shapes, sizes, and views. If the manager says there’s no floor plan, suggest using a cell phone to snap a photo of the fire map on the back of a hotel-room door and text it to you. It might allow you to compare balconies, bathroom sizes, views, and more.

Make friends with the room reservations manager.

Phone the hotel in advance, ask to speak with the room reservations manager, and tell him or her that this is a special trip (perhaps you and your travel companion are celebrating an important birthday or anniversary?) and that you need the room to be special. Ask about the pros and cons of different room categories, which rooms are most popular and why, and also which is the manager’s personal favorite and why. Be charming and strike up a relationship. Once you’ve established a rapport, perhaps he/she will want to do you a favor and surprise you with an upgrade.

Make room requests, such as for a specific location.

Your fellow guests are likely requesting a particular room, floor, wing, or view. If you make no requests at all, you’ll get the leftovers after everyone else’s requests have been fulfilled.

Ask if renovations will be happening during your stay.

Older hotels require a lot of upkeep, so often there is construction going on, especially in major cities. You don’t want to be awoken by drills and jackhammers each morning, so be sure that your room is far from any construction.

When you check in, ask to see the room you’ve been assigned.

This is critical in Europe, where hoteliers often save their best rooms for locals who come back often and fill their worst rooms first—with unfamiliar foreign faces. So ask to check out the room before committing to it—and, if you don’t like it, politely explain why.