When I travel, I almost always get an aisle seat in the front of the plane. I never have a problem upgrading to a nicer room at hotels. And I often drive away from the rental-car lot in something a lot snazzier than the tiny hatchback I paid for online.
How do I do it? It's not what you think.
Yes, I've covered the travel industry for more than a decade, and I've interviewed hundreds of road warriors (and, years ago, was one myself), but I'm not a big frequent flier, and I don't ask my contacts in the travel world for favors. It's just that I've learned how to game the system.
In the wake of this doozy of a holiday travel season, my colleagues and many readers urged me to share some of my best tips.
Each of them has saved me time, money and aggravation whenever I've had to leave home, and led to a better business trip or vacation. There's no reason they can't do the same for you. You don't even need a cape.
Speed Through the Airport
"Tell me if this sounds familiar: You pack everything the night before, give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport and arrive with more than an hour to spare before it's time to board your flight.
Then you see the security line: hundreds of people corralled into a double-back snake that makes your local DMV look like a model of efficiency. The last thing you want to do is join that line.
So don't. That's probably not the only way to your gate. Hundreds of people can't be wrong. Yes, they can. Many large airports have additional screening points that, while a little out of the way, more than make up for the inconvenience by being rarely used.
So how do you know whether the airport you fly out of has a "secret" security line? The battle's won before it's even fought: Log on to the Transportation Security Administration's Web site, which lists security checkpoints at every U.S. airport and publishes average wait times by the hour at wait-time.
There you can find out that, for example, the wait time at Newark Airport's Terminal C, Checkpoint 2 is an average of 11 minutes at 10 a.m. on a Sunday. At Checkpoint 1? Two minutes.
It helps to know your airport's layout too. In general, airports shaped like a horseshoe (such as Dallas/Fort Worth International) have multiple screening points. If the terminals are connected beyond security, you can enter through the least busy line and make your way back to your gate.
At airports with one central security checkpoint (such as Denver), the shorter lines are usually the ones at the outer edges, away from where most of the traffic is funneled.
And airports with hotels attached, such as Detroit Metro (the Westin) or Dallas/Fort Worth (the Hyatt), often have a separate security entrance for hotel guests, but anyone can use it.
Scoring a Room in a Sold-Out Hotel
You know those convenient 800 numbers that every hotel chain has to connect you to their centralized reservation centers? Ditch 'em. The people in a call center in Omaha don't have the power to manipulate a particular hotel's inventory the way managers who are on-site do.
Instead, figure out which hotel you want to stay at and call it directly. If you're still out of luck, consider a reseller's Web site. Hotels, like airlines, overbook reservations because they know that not everyone is going to show up. But some of their inventory goes to third-party travel sites like Expedia, Hotels.com and Travelocity, which contract with hotels ahead of time to sell a preset block of rooms.
Last August, I was looking for a room in Chicago in October (I was running in a marathon). I searched several sites, and at Quikbook.com I found a room at Kimpton's Hotel Allegro -- it turned out to be 1 1/2 miles from the starting line. Even better, the Quikbook rate ($184 a night) was $20 cheaper than the hotel's group rate, which was no longer being offered.
Upgrade Your Room Without Paying More
Scoring a hotel room upgrade is all about timing. It's going to be easier during slower times, surely, but it also makes a difference when you ask for the upgrade.
A few seconds at check-in can make all the difference. If you wait for the front-desk person to hand you a key, you're likely to get the least fancy accommodations. But if you make nice, telling them it's a special occasion or that you have a lot of work to do, and you do this before they've locked you into a particular room, it's much easier for the agent to hook you up.
Even if that moment has passed, all is not lost. Two years ago, when my husband and I went to St. Thomas for his birthday, our original room was a dark cave directly above a noisy outdoor bar. A quick trip back downstairs, a little explaining that it was a special occasion (while kicking myself that I hadn't mentioned this when I checked in), and we were reassigned a room with an ocean view and a private balcony.
Get the Most for Your Miles
Randy Petersen is the master of frequent-flier miles. As the editor of InsideFlyer and WebFlyer.com, he'd better be.
I asked Randy about reward travel, and he said he has one cardinal rule: If you don't find what you want online, talk to a live person. You may have to pay a fee to talk to an airline reservation agent, but it's worth it: Your odds of getting what you want greatly increase.
That's because airline reservation agents can access inventory from partner airlines. This is something that you can't do online. They can also easily try different routings, using connecting flights or alternative airports.
Booking in advance is helpful too, but even if you don't need to have your travel plans figured out a year ahead, you can still take advantage of the way the system works.
Most airlines make seats available 330 days in advance, but frequent-flier inventory isn't always loaded into reservation systems that early. According to Petersen, the sweet spot for finding open seats to go with those miles is three to six months ahead of your trip, which is a lot more realistic than planning a year ahead anyway.
A First-Class Seat for a Coach Price
The airlines have a secret. Actually, they have several, but this one's the most useful: In many cases, you can buy a first-class ticket for little more than the walk-up coach fare. The trick is searching for a fare code designation that's called a "Y-up" or a "Q-up."
How do you find these magical fares? Check out FareCompare.com, which has an online tool that searches specifically for them. Recently I was able to nab a first-class seat from New York to Atlanta for $649 -- only $100 more than the available coach fare.
Y- and Q-ups won't be cheap when compared with advance-purchase fares, but they're not much more than a last-minute coach ticket. Search for the fare yourself, then suggest it to your corporate travel office -- they may not even notice.
Upgrade Your Rental Car for Free
Whenever I need a rental car, I pay no attention to the different vehicles offered on a rental web site and book the cheapest car available. It's not that I love econo-boxes but that I know I'm likely to get upgraded to a better car for little or no extra cost.
Rental-car companies overbook, just like airlines, and the economy cars are usually the first to go. By booking the most popular model, you're likely to get a better car without even asking for it.
What day you're walking onto the lot can also make a difference: In big cities, companies that rent cars to business travelers during the week will often hand you the keys to a nicer car at no charge if you show up in the middle of the day or early in the week -- when most business travelers have cars out.
And the reverse is true at resort destinations, which do the bulk of their business on weekends. The best time to score a free upgrade there is on Saturday afternoon, when most of the lower-end cars have been rented out.
Play the Bumping Game
Overbooked flights are becoming more common. The number of people bumped from a flight jumped 24 percent from January through September last year (the latest statistics available from the Department of Transportation) -- but if you have some flexibility in your schedule, you can score free tickets and some nice perks in exchange for giving up your seat.
When you get to your gate, ask if the flight is overbooked. If it is, ask what the airline's initial offer is and get on the volunteer list. Being on this list doesn't obligate you to take what the airline is offering; it just gives you the right of first refusal.
If you don't like the compensation package, decline it and either stay on your scheduled flight or see if the package increases when the airline makes an offer to your fellow travelers. This is your chance to hold out for big money, since gate agents can sweeten the pot until they get enough volunteers.
Also, keep in mind other flights that are headed to your destination, including connecting flights and flights to neighboring airports (they may be more convenient than what the airline suggests).
If you're offered a free ticket, ask if it has any restrictions, like expiration or blackout dates, and make sure you get a confirmed seat on your next flight -- you don't want to give up one seat just to get involuntarily bumped from another.
If Your Flight is Canceled...
Call the airline's reservation number immediately (program it into your cell's speed dial before you leave). You'll get rebooked faster than if you wait in line at the gate.
Booking a Flight in Three Easy Steps
There are tons of Web sites out there looking for your dollars. Instead of searching all of them, I simply take these three steps in sequence. When I've gone through all of them, I know I've got the best deal, and I didn't spend hours to find it.
- Surf smart. Your Web browser has a cache, a short-term memory of recently visited sites. If you don't empty it before you search, you may be looking at an out-of-date Web page and won't find the best deals available. Look under your File or Preferences menu and select "Empty cache" before you browse.
- Use a fare search engine. Instead of constantly flipping between the Big Three travel sites (Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity), go to Kayak.com, which searches 120 travel and airline sites and doesn't charge any booking fees.
- Confirm your price. Once you've found your flight, go to that airline's Web site and search for the same dates and times, just to make sure you're not missing out on an exclusive deal that's available only through its site.
If You Get Stuck in a Middle Seat...
Check in online as early as possible (usually one day before departure) to see if new seats are available. If not, ask at the gate; airlines release more seats before takeoff.
If the Airline Has Lost Your Luggage...
File a report at the airport and get the local number of the lost-baggage office to check in. Forget the national 800 number; that office could be thousands of miles away.