Airline and hotel loyalty programs fish for repeat business by dangling benefits, including free upgrades, wider seats, bonus points, and waived fees, in front of frequent flyers. Unfortunately for the earthbound, most perks are only available to travelers who put on over 50,000 miles a year and spend weeks on the road. Here's how to get treated as a V.I.P. without having elite status.
Get a Travel Credit Card
Almost every U.S. airline and hotel has a credit card – like the American Express Jet Blue Card or the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards card from Chase – that offers extra benefits when you use it to fly. Airlines may provide one or two free checked bags, priority boarding to secure space for carry-on bags, and discounts on in-flight purchases and lounge access. Be sure to check the card’s terms since some benefits apply to the cardholder only and others to the entire family.
Many hotels effectively sell mid-tier elite status and its accompanying benefits by providing it to cardholders instead of creating a separate list of benefits. Some of these cards also include a free night each year that can be worth more than the annual fee.
Remember Who's at Fault
One of the great benefits of elite status is that airlines are often happy to waive fees and accommodate you when problems arise. But the general public can also get special treatment when an airline is at fault. You may have a lot of flexibility to request a new flight or even cancel the ticket for a full refund if you’re not happy with a schedule change. Re-booking can even put you on a more convenient flight. The important thing is to ask.
Avoid paying fees for a cancelled flight by waiting until the last minute since unexpected weather might lead your airline to issue a travel waiver. Two exceptions to this rule are Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines, which let customers keep the full value of their tickets as long as they credit it toward a future flight and provide notice 10 minutes or 60 days before departure, respectively.
Airlines and hotels don't make any money on seats and rooms that sit empty, which is why discounted upgrades are regularly available at check-in. Airlines usually have a fixed discount that is non-negotiable, but hotels are much more flexible and twenty bucks can accomplish wonders on the Las Vegas strip if it’s late enough. A positive, friendly attitude helps win over harried employees.
One of the major perks of elite status is free drinks in airport lounges and on the plane. Save on the latter by buying small bottles in a liquor store before arriving at the airport. Mini bar-style bottles genuinely hold less than three ounces of boozes and are allowed through security. Once you've been scanned, head toward the bar and order a well drink. It won’t come in a nice glass, but it will likely be the same stuff you’d get in the lounge.