How to Get Hotel and Airline Upgrades

By: Dave Roos
Man relaxing in posh hotel room.
Everyone deserves the VIP treatment -- yes, even you.
AAGAMIA/Getty Images

Everybody deserves a little VIP treatment. Why should celebrities, sports stars and Fortune 500 executives get all of the free perks? After all, they're the only ones who can actually afford to pay for them! At the end of a long day of flight delays, cramped coach cabins, airport traffic and bad weather, nothing says "you're special" like an unexpected upgrade from a drab economy single to the honeymoon suite with the heart-shaped Jacuzzi in the bathroom.

As exhilarating as an unexpected hotel or airline upgrade feels, it doesn't have to be unexpected to be appreciated. Veteran travelers have learned the tricks and tips to subtly increase the odds of a last-minute bump. Dress sharp, meet the manager, check in early, board late -- these are just a few of the time-tested strategies that separate the complimentary peanuts from the complimentary wine.


The greatest piece of overall advice is simple: Be nice. Leave the diva act to the actual divas. They can get away with it because they can leave paths of $100 bills in their wake. To win the favor of desk clerks and ticketing agents, always be polite, friendly and honest. Flight attendants can smell a fake honeymoon couple a mile away, but if you're a likable person with a specific, reasonable request, doors will be opened for you … and maybe even a curtain.

On the next page we'll find out how to get on a hotel clerk's good side -- no Abe Lincolns required.


How to Get Hotel Upgrades

Not all hotel upgrades are created equal. Some people only want the luxury suite, while others just want a bigger bed, a better view, wireless Internet access or the farthest room from the cacophonous ice machine [source: Mueller Shulte]. Simple as it may sound, the best tip for getting exactly the kind of upgrade you want is to ask for it. If you're friendly, polite and personable, the desk clerk might just play ball.

Of course, there are several things you can do to increase your upgrade odds. For one thing, if you're swinging for the suite, don't book the cheapest room in the hotel [source: Mueller Shulte]. The staff is much more likely to bump you up from a second-tier room to a top-level suite than to pull off a miracle upgrade from the $53 Web-only special.


Which brings us to another tip: Don't book your reservations online. A phone reservation gives you the opportunity to make a personal connection with the hotel staff [source: Klein]. This presents an excellent opportunity to mention any special circumstances that could lead to a courtesy upgrade: first time in the city, anniversary, birthday or romantic vacation. If staff members can match a human being with the name on the reservation, they'll be more likely to help.

Continue to make personal connections during your stay at the hotel, particularly with the general manager. Ask to see the manager and mention a few things you really like about the hotel. Give the person your business card and tell him or her that you hope to stay at the hotel again. Next time you plan to stay at the hotel, call the general manager directly to make your reservation, and you might end up getting VIP treatment [source: Mueller Shulte].

If you want guaranteed VIP status, you must first prove your loyalty. Sign up for the frequent stay card. Get everyone at your company to patronize the same chain of hotels. Mention your company's policy when you're making your reservations and when you check in. Hotels love frequent business travelers (and their expense accounts), so they'll be much more willing to fulfill any special requests.

If all else fails, try these proven strategies:

  • Stay on slow days (usually Sundays and Mondays)
  • Check in late in the day
  • Make a last-minute reservation at a busy convention hotel (all of the cheaper rooms will already be booked, but they might upgrade you to keep your business) [sources: Detwiler, Klein and Mueller Shulte]

Now let's look at some tips for nailing that elusive first-class upgrade.


How to Get Airline Upgrades

Man relaxing in first-class airplane seat.
The key to scoring a free airline upgrade? Never directly ask for one.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

The first tip for scoring a free airline upgrade is to never use the words "free" or "upgrade" in the same sentence. Believe it or not, you're not the first person who has thought of buttering up the ticketing agent for an undeserved upgrade.

The first step is to become a member of the airline's frequent flyer program. If the coach section is oversold and the ticket agent is scanning the flight manifest for potential upgrades, he or she is going to give priority to the gold and silver status members who have proven their loyalty [source: Gibson].


The next tip is twofold: Check into the flight early, but board the plane late [source:]. By checking in at the airport hours before your flight, you have the advantage of being one of the first people to put in an upgrade request. Don't ask directly for the upgrade, of course -- "more legroom" or "closer to the front of the plane" are the standard euphemisms. By boarding the plane late, there's more time for coach to oversell. When the crew starts scrambling for new seat assignments, there you are with your carry-on in hand.

Sharply dressed solo travelers have the greatest odds of getting an upgrade at the gate [source: Wysong]. Single travelers are much easier to relocate quickly than a family of four, and if you want to fit in with the business class crowd, you have to look and act the part. Business casual is all right, but leave the sweatpants at home.

Another idea is to forget first class altogether. For many frequent business travelers, especially on domestic flights, the undisputed best seats on the plane are on the emergency exit row or the bulkhead, where legroom abounds [source: Elliot]. Again, the best way to grab those seats is to check in early and make a special -- but always friendly -- request with the ticketing agent.

Of course, not all upgrades are free -- and why should they be? Most airlines allow you to trade in frequent flyer miles for upgrades and some of the best bump-up deals can be found at the last minute by haggling with the ticket agent. If the agent has extra seats, he or she might charge a little more, but still far less than you would've paid in advance [source: Gibson].

For lots more travel tips, see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • "Airline Upgrade Guide"
  • Detwiler, Jacqueline. Forbes Traveler. "How to score hotel upgrades - for free." April 6, 2009
  • Elliott, Christopher. Microsoft Small Business Center. "Business Travel Tips - Get the Best Seat On a Plane."
  • Gibson, Yasmine. Times Online. "How to get a flight upgrade." December 10, 2009
  • Klein, Ross. Allure. "Insider's Guide: How to Get a Hotel Upgrade." September 2007
  • Mueller Shulte, Megg. USA Today. "Upgrade your strategy, and your room." February 17, 2004
  • Wysong, James. Tripso. "10 ways to get an upgrade." June 28, 2005