You don't have to be an elite traveler to score premium travel perks, but it does help to know how to work the system. Fortunately, there are insider secrets to getting the best cruise cabin or airfare deal that non-insiders can use. Click through to find out how to travel like an insider and get free upgrades.
Treat Travel Professionals Like People
Some travelers might be surprised at how many perks and privileges they can earn by simply following the Golden Rule.
"My best and most successful tip is kindness," said Corey Pettit, a Dallas-based flight attendant with Southwest Airlines. "As a flight attendant, I'm constantly smiling and saying, 'hello' to every single person who crosses that threshold onto the aircraft. You would be amazed at the number of people who ignore me, don't make eye contact or just stare blankly back at me as if I've said something terrible to them."
"We take notice of the customers who acknowledge us or even smile back — bonus points if they beat us to the customary greeting," she said. "I often reward kindness with a better seating option, if I have one, extra snacks or even a round of drinks on me."
Flight crews and other airline workers appreciate passengers who provide unexpected treats, and they'll often return the favor whenever possible.
"When I fly as a regular passenger, I usually put together a little treat bag for my crew — anything from chocolates and instant espresso packets to hand sanitizers or powdered vitamin drink mixes — just as my way of saying 'thank you' for the service and hospitality," Pettit said. "I always greet the flight attendant at the door, hand them my goody bag and tell them, 'Thank you for the ride.'"
Pettit said she doesn't expect anything in return. However, she said that crew members have treated her to free beverages or premium snacks, and even gave her first-class upgrades when space was available.
"We're people, too, so when someone takes the time to be kind to us, we'll do whatever we can to return the gesture," she said. "The key is to be kind, genuine and to not expect anything in return, as sometimes we're just unable to provide something outside of our normal operating scope."
Share Your Story
One reason many hospitality industry employees ask about the nature of your stay is that they want to be aware of guests' engagements, anniversaries, birthdays or other noteworthy events.
"If you're celebrating a special occasion, let the airline — or even hotel — know," Pettit said. "We'll shower you with special treatment — such as complimentary beverages, Champagne and extra attention. I've received several hotel upgrades upon checking in just by chatting with the agent and letting them know I was staying with them for a special occasion."
Show Your Brand Loyalty
Pettit, who travels frequently for work and play, has found it pays off to enroll in loyalty programs for airlines, cruise lines and hotels, among others. Price-conscious vacationers traveling on their own dime might not achieve the same elite status as frequent business travelers, but the perks and rewards can still add up over time.
"Brand loyalty is rewarded often with free upgrades and perks," Pettit said. "While it can be difficult to grow status, especially if you're price-sensitive and tend to go for the best deal, being loyal to a company will open many doors to new perks that are never extended to the general public."
Many industry insiders are members of several rewards programs that transfer rewards to other outlets. For example, Marriott Rewards allows its members to take points earned for hotel stays and apply them toward several airlines, including American, Delta and Southwest. Marriott's rewards program also offers points and discounts for car rentals through Hertz, as well as other perks from partner companies in the travel industry.
Play Your Cards Right
Credit card companies typically offer their cardholders exclusive upgrades and other perks. For example, many American Express cards offer baggage insurance plans, car rental loss and damage insurance, travel accident insurance and other features that can help travelers save money because they won't have to pay for protection plans separately.
The Chase Sapphire Reserve, another credit card aimed at travel aficionados, offers benefits including $300 in annual statement credits as reimbursement for travel-related purchases charged to the card, complimentary access to more than 900 airport lounges worldwide and other travel perks. So, for true travel insiders, the card's $450 annual fee could be money well spent.
Explore Travel Portals
American Express also offers American Express Travel, a portal that features deals and discounts for cardholders who use it to book flights, hotels, cars and cruises.
"It's not necessarily for any traveler. But for travelers who own an American Express card, it's a no-brainer and essentially puts money back in their pocket," said Kristin Sluyk, an account executive at the Decker/Royal Agency, which represents American Express Travel.
Other credit card companies, including Visa, offer travel perks that many cardholders don't take advantage of, said Clem Bason, CEO of the hotel search engine goSeek. Booking through Visa's Luxury Hotels portal can pay off for customers with certain credit cards, including the Visa Signature.
"Now, Visa has only a small set of 900 luxury hotels, but the perks are notable, including an automatic room upgrade, free WiFi, breakfast, a food and beverage credit and late checkout," Bason said. "What makes this program most attractive, though, is Visa's Best Rate Guarantee. If you find a lower rate within 24 hours of booking, they will match it. This allows you to get the best rate available on the internet, while at the same time nabbing a free room upgrade and more."
Get a Bigger Rental Car
The most common car rental options are economy, compact and mid-sized vehicles, which sometimes leaves rental agencies with a shortage of smaller cars, Bason said.
"If car rental agencies are busy — meaning they are sold out or close to sold out of one of those three car types — they might offer you an 'upgrade' to a higher car type for little to no extra cost at the front desk," Bason said. But he cautioned that bigger isn't always better.
"I put 'upgrade' in quotes because, for many, it isn't an upgrade — it's just a larger vehicle with worse gas mileage," he said. "But if you happen to be interested in a full-size car or SUV, this trick might be just the thing for you."
If that's the case, he said it makes more sense to seek out upgrades on the internet rather than hoping for one at the front desk or shelling out a higher daily rate upfront to book a larger vehicle. As just one example, Enterprise's Enjoy the City 2017 promotion offers a free upgrade on U.S. rentals.
Take Advantage of First-Time Loyalty Perks
Savvy travelers know you don't even have to be a long-time brand loyalist to start getting free perks and upgrades. Some loyalty programs offer great incentives before you even make your first booking, said Kyle Stewart, who writes for sites including TravelCodex.com and PenAndPassport.com.
"National Car Rental allows their entry-level members — just sign up for free online — to book an intermediate-size car and pick any car available on the 'Emerald Aisle.' This often includes full-size cars, small SUVs and occasionally even luxury vehicles like Buicks," he said. "Membership in the airline or hotel program, even without elite status, can [also] prioritize you for upgrades over those who book with third-party travel agencies."
Similarly, enrolling in some cruise lines' loyalty programs, including Celebrity Cruises, can entitle members to benefits such as access to the cruise line's newsletter and its members-only service center before they set sail for the first time. That way, you're prepared to embark on your cruise like a travel pro.
Register With Resorts
Travelers who register with Vegas resorts can also stack the odds in their favor, even if they've never been to Sin City, said David Yeskel, a travel journalist who writes about Las Vegas and the cruise industry.
"Many travelers assume that getting perks like buffet comps are only for casino players and/or past hotel guests," he said. "But savvy travelers know that registering on Vegas hotel websites actually qualify you to receive most of the same offers as past guests."
Travelers should register on the individual hotels' virtual guest books when planning their trip to get promotional emails that offer Las Vegas hotel room discounts and perks like free buffet passes and other credits that can drive room rates down, Yeskel said.
"Two of my favorites with similar promotions are Aria and Wynn. Both of these luxury properties frequently offer hotel nights paired with two daily comp buffets," he said. "And these two particular buffets are among the top five gourmet feasts in Las Vegas, making this deal a deliciously sweet value."
Drive a Hard Bargain
Airlines often oversell flights, bumping hundreds of thousands of passengers each year. Sometimes, those bumps are involuntary. Other times, volunteers willingly give up their seats for space on a later flight and to receive perks, like vouchers for future travel. But travel insiders know that to get the best deal, they rarely take a gate agent's first offer, said Stewart.
"When gate agents ask for volunteers to take another flight, ask what the details are for the voucher, the next flight and class of service," Stewart said. "All of these may be up for negotiation. And if there is space on the next flight in first class, you are well within your right to ask for it."
Dress for Success
United Airlines made news when it turned away two teenage girls who were wearing leggings because gate agents decided they weren't properly clothed. Further reporting found the two girls were flying on what's known as "buddy passes," which are free or discounted fares that airline employees can give to friends or family members. Such passengers fly on a standby basis, and dress codes or guidelines are common across the airline industry.
For example, although American Airlines' pass-holder guidelines for coach-class travel is casual, according to a recent story in The Dallas Morning News, the airline lists shorts, flip-flops, track suits and baseball-style caps as unacceptable for pass holders flying in business- and first-class seats.
Furthermore, USA Today reported on a couple of instances in which passengers got upgrades to available first-class seats because they were wearing business attire. So, it doesn't hurt to remember that well-dressed travelers might be more likely to get free stuff, whether it's an airline upgrade or a nicer resort room.
Become a Travel Industry Insider
Students, teachers and others who have some free time during peak travel periods might consider getting seasonal jobs in the hospitality industry. Several employers offer discounts and other perks. For example, Six Flags amusement parks offer free, unlimited admission for each employee and a guest, as well as in-park discounts.
At Four Seasons, employee benefits include complimentary stays at Four Seasons properties, depending on availability, as well as dining discounts. A recent search for available jobs at the hotel company showed seasonal openings in Santa Fe, N.M., Los Angeles and other popular vacation destinations.
"I often ask people, ‘Have you ever gotten upgraded at a hotel?' Nine out of 10 people say ‘Nope. Never,'" said Bason. "I then ask, ‘Have you ever asked for one?' Every time, those same nine people say, ‘Nope. Never.' The trick is asking, especially under the right conditions."
Bason had a few insider tips for scoring a free or low-cost hotel upgrade. The first is to ask at the front desk rather than over the hotel's reservation phone line. The next is to ask after making a conversational connection with the staffer on desk duty. It also helps to let them know if you're a member of the hotel's rewards program before politely asking for an upgrade. The worst they can say is, "No."
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