Don’t Have Elite Status? Fake It and Get Free Upgrades with These Tips
A lot of things in the travel world are tilted in favor of people who travel so much that they have attained elite status. But what about everyday, non-elite status vacationers that want a bit more comfort for their trip without forking over big bucks to rack up points? It turns out there are still some strategies you can use to make your next trip a bit more comfortable.
A simple phone call to reception or an online search for a manager’s email can pay dividends. If you alert the hotel about the reason for your visit, especially if it coincides with any special occasions, they might extend courtesies to make your stay more enjoyable. Never demand those special perks (acting like you think you’re entitled won’t get you anywhere)—there are other ways to drop hints. For example, you could ask for early check in. Some hoteliers might take advantage of the chance to prioritize your room before others. If your stay falls over a birthday or anniversary, tell the hotel. Is it your first time to a city? Befriend the concierge to see if they have any special suggestions. Traveling with kids? Ask if the hotel offers special snacks or toys to surprise them when they arrive. It never hurts to ask—or to wink and nudge.
You should continue to drop hints even after you arrive. According to General Manager Chris Guse at the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Denver, “associates are always looking to pick up on cues regarding the reason for your travel.” In other words, make it easy for the hotel to make your stay better by being conversational and friendly. “Our teams are given absolute empowerment to personalize your stay regardless of loyalty status,” Guse adds.
A recent example from Guse’s hotel took place when a non-loyalty-program-member guest checked in and through casual conversation mentioned that he was there to celebrate his 30th birthday. As the interaction progressed, the agent learned more about the guest’s affinity for whisky. These two bits of information were enough for the team to surprise him with a food and beverage amenity pairing with a whisky flight theme. Hotels are always looking for ways to build loyalty with new customers.
Some credit cards automatically award elite status just for having the card. You may already have privileges without even knowing it, so look over your card’s benefits. For example, the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire card automatically grants Diamond status, the hotel brand’s highest level. Other cards bestow automatic mid-level status at major hotel brands, or they grant perks such as free breakfast and complimentary high-speed Wi-Fi.
Your credit card may not grant preferred status, but it might get you into airport lounges for free, which can be just as useful. The Delta American Express Reserve card, to take one example, includes membership in Delta's Sky Club. Other cards may offer credits for in-flight purchases (like the AAdvantage Aviator Red Mastercard and JetBlue’s branded cards) or in-flight Wi-Fi, but there are lots of airline card options in addition to those. The Chase Sapphire Reserve and Citi Prestige cards aren't even branded to an airline, but they still come with a Priority Pass membership, which provides free access to hundreds of independent airport lounges around the world (like the one at London's Heathrow, pictured). You can't just show up at a lounge and wave your credit card for access—you simply follow the instructions in your card benefits ahead of time and sign up for a free lounge membership.
The caveat here is that many of these cards have annual fees of a few hundred dollars, and if you don't travel much or pay off your balance monthly, the credit card will cost you in other ways. However, if you do travel a lot, the math may work in your favor, and it’s still a much cheaper path to elite perks than purchasing thousands of dollars in flights or hotel stays.
Sometimes travel vendors try to entice new customers by promising to match their elite status elsewhere with the equivalent level in their program. Best Western Rewards has its Status Match Guarantee program that does just that. If you’re looking for solid Best Western properties, they are everywhere from the Stratosphere in Las Vegas to the Hôtel Astoria in Juan-les-Pins on the southern coast of France (pictured). Hilton Honors sometimes offers a similar program for status, too. You may have to stay a few nights to keep the status match going, but you can start taking advantage of the benefits right away. This might include free breakfast, faster Wi-Fi speeds, room upgrades, and late checkout. Status match offers don’t come along every day, so if you see one you qualify for, jump on it.
Elite status holders often get access to club level lounges, where they can get free food and cocktails all day. But at a growing number of hotel brands, including Kimpton Hotels, free snacks and afternoon wine hours (pictured) are part of the standard package, with no need for elite status. Another typical status perk is a getting a free upgrade to a larger room, but at chains where every room is a suite, everyone wins. Hotel brands such as Embassy Suites by Hilton, Residence Inn by Marriott, Springhill Suites by Marriott, and Staybridge Suites offer premium space at price points similar to a standard room. No need to chase elite status there.
Third-party booking sites and apps get in on the giveaways, too. Orbitz offers free breakfast to people who sign up for its rewards program and book a certain number of nights through its site at partner hotels. HotelTonight’s app and website also flag repeat customers for special discounts, amenities, and concierge-like hotlines. Some travel agents that specialize in particular areas, such as cruises, are also given special incentives, like upgrades or spending credits, that they can pass along to their customers.
You may have some airline points, but not enough to attain status. You can still use those points to get good stuff. Delta lets you redeem miles for first class upgrades, and Hilton Honors accepts points for room upgrades and club lounge access. The Hilton website also allows you to pay for rooms with a mix of money and points, if you like. You'll find offers like this in many loyalty programs, even if they're quietly hidden as payment options in the booking process.
Connect with your hotel by sharing pictures on social media, tagging it, or using its social handle. Some hotel loyalty programs like Marriott Bonvoy often run promotions where travelers can receive free points by using specific hashtags in social media posts, and some hotel managers are alert enough to notice praise while you’re still there to thank.
Sometimes hotels partner with local restaurants, bars, museums, and gyms to give discounts or freebies to those who flash a room key. The same idea can go for airline boarding passes, too. For example, Alaska Airlines has arranged to offer free or discounted ski lift tickets to travelers that fly to certain mountain airports in its network. Le Méridien hotels give award museum passes to special museums like Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts in San Francisco or the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Shanghai if you stay at its hotels. It’s another thing you’ll probably have to ask about—even if there’s no formal program, just asking might be enough to stoke the generosity of a good customer service manager in other ways. Because you may not be exclusively loyal to one brand, but given the chance, they'll often try to convince you to be.