Nobody wants to fly in 33B, or have a view of a dumpster from their hotel room, or hold luggage on their lap in a tiny rental car. Here’s how to get the upgrades that will build the most comfort and value into your trip.
1. Upgrade when you check in for your flight
It’s always possible you’ll spot a deal when you book your flight, but you’ll likely do better if you upgrade at the airport.
Janet Semenova, co-founder of Boutique Travel Advisors,recommends this three-pronged approach: Sign up for a frequent flyer account, check in early—right at the 24-hour mark online, or an hour earlier than you would normally at the desk, and mention if it’s a special occasion like an anniversary, birthday, or honeymoon.
Then, ask how much it would cost for an upgrade—don’t ask for a free upgrade. There’s a chance they’ll upgrade you for free. If not, you can decide if the price they offer is worth it to you.
Generally, the longer the flight, the more value there is in an upgrade. Leslie Crowe, the chief people officer at TripActions, bought an upgrade on a flight between Frankfurt and San Francisco for $400. Full price was $12,000, she says.
Local carriers outside the U.S. often offer low-cost upgrades, since their routes aren’t as highly trafficked, Crowe says.
2. Bid on a better seat
Currently, about 50 airlines offer seat upgrade auctions, according to David Yeskel, The Cruise Guru.
Never heard of these bids? You’ll find them mainly with international carriers, so if you mostly fly within the U.S. you’ve likely never encountered them. They’re also not offered on every flight.
Here’s how it works. Once you’ve purchased your low-fare seat, you may get an email from your airline giving you the chance to bid for an upgrade. You can also check the airline’s web site to see if you can bid.
You’ll be able to place a bid for a seat in economy plus, business class, or first class. The airline will likely set a minimum bid—you can’t just bid a dollar—and may tell you how strong your bid is.
A few days before your flight, the airline will let you know if your bid was accepted. Your offer is binding, so you’re committed to paying for your upgrade once you bid.
How much should you bid? Crowe recommends bidding a little over the minimum. That way you’re bidding just a bit more than most people.
Look online to see how many seats are available, and what they cost. Yeskel recommends bidding between 30 and 40% of the difference between the cost of your original seat and the cost of your desired seat.
3. Use points for your upgrades, not airfare
If you buy tickets with points you’re practically persona non grata. You might not even be allowed to pay for an upgrade, Semenova says.
4. Timing is everything
You’re never going to get an upgrade if all the seats are full. Avoid peak times for business travel—that’s early morning on Mondays, and Thursday and Friday afternoons. Middays on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and weekends are better choices.
You might be able to score upgrades over the holidays if you’re flying solo or as a couple. That’s because economy can be overbooked with families, and airlines might want to bump someone up into business class rather than offering vouchers for people to give up their seats, Semenova says.
Early or late flights can have better upgrade options. If waking up in the middle of the night to get to the airport isn’t your thing, stay near the airport the night before. Spending $100 at an airport hotel might be worth it to get a business-class seat, Crowe points out.
5. Follow your desired hotels and cities on social media
Crowe says that around three months out, hotels start looking at their inventory and posting deals on Instagram and other social media if rooms aren’t selling fast enough.
6. Book directly with the hotel
If you book with a discount online travel agency, you’re at the bottom of the pecking order. You’re less likely to get upgrades and more likely to get a lower-end room, like one near the elevator, supply closet, or construction.
You can research prices with a discount online travel agency and then book through the hotel directly. If the hotel’s price is higher than what you find online, call. Crowe says most hotels will price match, and you might even get a nicer room by booking directly with them.
7. Register complaints politely
Say: “I booked a room in this category and I didn’t realize it would have a view of the parking lot. Is there any other room in this category that might be available?” Not: “I hate my room.”
8. Book and keep looking
You can cancel most rental car reservations at the last minute. So, go ahead and book the best deal you can find, then check again every week or so before your trip to see if you can find a better price or a better car. “I often get a much nicer car this way,” Crowe says.
9. It never hurts to ask
“Oftentimes people don’t want to upgrade rental cars,” says travel expert Gary Leff of viewfromthewing.com. That’s because people don’t want the added expense of the extra fuel the bigger cars burn.
But sometimes, your plans change. Maybe you brought more luggage than you planned, or friends are joining you for part of your trip, or your creaky knees make it hard to get in and out of a small car. If you need a bigger car, ask the agent what’s available and how much it will cost.