How to Score Luxury Travel for Less

Upgrading your experience doesn't need to cost an arm and a leg.
Liz Weston, CFP®
By Liz Weston, CFP® 
Edited by Hanah Cho

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Let’s shatter one myth right now: Airline passengers typically can’t talk their way into upgrades from the cheapest coach seats to first class just by dressing up and asking politely.

Travel providers usually save their best experiences — comfortable seats, spacious hotel suites, quick check-in lines — for those willing to pay more. When upgrades are handed out for free, the goodies typically go to frequent travelers who spend a lot with those providers.

There are ways, however, of getting a much better travel experience without paying top dollar. Here are a few approaches to consider if you want to make your next trip a little more luxurious.

How to get an airline upgrade

The first rule of scoring a better seat: Don’t book the cheapest “basic economy” tickets, which can’t be upgraded. If you’re not sure whether a ticket can be upgraded, ask before you book.

If a flight has multiple “cabins” or classes of service — economy, premium economy, business and first — consider booking one cabin below where you want to end up. Pay the premium economy fare, for example, if you want to get to business class. It’s harder to jump two levels than one.

If you have sufficient airline miles, you may be able to use them to upgrade right away — or you may need to keep checking back. Airlines often release more award seats over time if a flight isn’t selling well.

If you want to book a premium cabin seat entirely with points or miles, you may need to plan well in advance. You’ll have the best chance to claim a guaranteed seat in a premium cabin if you book when the award seats first become available, often 300 to 360 days before the flight.

Some airlines offer discounted upgrades a week or so before takeoff. Call and ask, or at least log in and check your reservation to see if there are any offers. Discounts may even pop up at check-in time.

Check your bags for free

Carrying your suitcase on the plane allows you to bypass baggage claim, but first you have to wrestle your luggage through security and jostle with other passengers for overhead bin space. That’s stressful, which is the opposite of luxurious.

Many airline-branded credit cards offer free checked bags as a perk. Others offset airline fees, including checked bags. Or fly Southwest, which still offers two free checked bags.

Get TSA PreCheck and Global Entry

Not only are TSA PreCheck security lines typically shorter — sometimes much shorter — but also, users don’t have to take off their shoes, remove their jackets or dig laptops and liquids out of their bags.

Global Entry makes returning to the U.S. a breeze. If there’s any chance you may travel internationally in the next five years, go for Global Entry, which costs $100 and includes TSA PreCheck. Otherwise, TSA PreCheck alone costs $78. Both are good for five years. TSA PreCheck costs $70 to renew online after your initial membership period. Some credit cards will offset the fees.

Snag a better hotel room

Unlike airlines, hotels frequently do give out upgrades if you ask nicely. Sign up for the hotel’s loyalty program and book your room on its site, if possible. (If you do book through a third-party site, call the hotel afterward to link your frequent traveler number to your reservation.)

If you have elite status with the hotel — a perk provided by many hotel-branded credit cards — an upgrade may come automatically. If not, ask politely when you check in. I usually approach the reservation desk with a smile, compliment something about the hotel and then mention a reason I’d like a larger room, such as more space to work, when asking for an upgrade. That often does the trick. If not, upgrades may be available using points or at a discount.

Access the lounges

Many airports and larger hotels offer lounges where travelers can find little luxuries: complimentary food and drinks, comfortable chairs and a quiet place to read or catch up on work.

Although access to an airline’s lounges typically costs $295 to $550 a year for one person, you may be able to buy day passes for $19 to $59. Many travel credit cards with hefty annual fees (in the $450 to $550 range) offer lounge access as a perk.

Hotel lounge access is often included with more expensive “executive level” rooms and may be available to frequent travelers with elite status, or for an additional fee. Some offer full breakfasts in the morning, heavy appetizers and desserts at night, and premium liquor. Others offer cheese and crackers and a coffee machine.

As with all other aspects of travel, check out online reviews to make sure you’re actually getting a better experience before you pony up extra cash.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.

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