Traveling on the Cheap? How To Score Free or Cheap Upgrades and Extras

Millennial woman in comfy clothes travelling alone in plane.
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Now that pandemic-era travel restrictions are disappearing, you’re probably ready to book a summer vacation. But your wallet may not be. Skyrocketing gas prices have caused transportation costs to rise more than 30% year over year as of April. Higher demand for flights led to a 9.5% year-over-year increase in prices for air travel.

The truth is that travel will cost you more in 2022 than in years past. However, if you’re on a budget, there are ways to score free (or at least cheap) upgrades and extras that can alleviate the financial burden. Here are a few ideas.

Make Staff Aware of a Special Occasion

If you’re traveling for a special occasion such as a birthday, wedding, anniversary or honeymoon, it could help you score freebies and upgrades. Alika Barnsley, a travel blogger at Alika in Wanderlust, said she’s received many free upgrades at hotels over the years — but the best was getting upgraded to the penthouse suite at The Palazzo in Las Vegas for her wedding. 

Barnsley recommended noting the occasion when you book online in the special/additional requests or notes section. “Once you arrive at the hotel, make conversation with the reception staff, be friendly and let them know you are traveling for that special occasion,” she said. You might just get lucky.

Use a Rewards Credit Card

Lee Dobson, co-founder of Travel City, recommended using a travel rewards card to earn airline miles or hotel points. These rewards can help offset the cost of booking — but points and miles aren’t the only perks. He added that you can often access special upgrades and extras, depending on the particular card.

Make Your Money Work for You

The AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard is one example of an airline card that comes with a ton of money-saving extras. In addition to earning miles and a sign-up bonus that can be redeemed for flights, cardholders get a free checked bag, statement credits for Wi-Fi and other inflight purchases, the opportunity to earn companion certificates and more. 

When choosing a rewards card, think about which travel companies you like best and which cards offer rewards that match your spending the best. For instance, if you take the lead on household duties, you might want a card that awards the most points for groceries and gas. If you often travel for work, look for a card that rewards spending on hotels, restaurants or ride-sharing.

Join a Loyalty Program

You can earn points and perks without committing to a credit card. Most airlines, hotel chains and booking sites offer loyalty programs that reward customers for regularly using their services. 

For example, Barnsley is a fan of the Genius program through “It’s free, but you will need to book some stays to get the benefits,” she explained. Some benefits of being a Genius member include cheaper prices for hotels, free breakfast and free upgrades, depending on how often you book.

Just Ask

Once you arrive at your destination, Barnsley said you should always ask if the hotel has any free upgrades available, or if they can at least upgrade you at a cheaper price. “Ask at every hotel you stay at, because you never know which ones will say yes,” she said. “The worst case scenario is they say no.”

Make Your Money Work for You

Then Ask Again

Even if you’re unable to score a flight or hotel upgrade, you might be able to get other perks. If you’re booking a hotel room, for instance, Dobson said you can often negotiate for extras such as a free breakfast or late check-out. It might not be the penthouse suite, but every bit helps.  

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