Seven Ways to Get a Free Upgrade on Your Next Trip

Posted September 24, 2013 by

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An upgrade to a class of service above what you paid for is a highly desired travel perk. Whether you're dealing with an airline, a hotel chain, a cruise line, or a car-rental agency, your easiest path to an upgrade is to earn high status in a supplier's frequent-traveler program. But there are a few other ways to snag this elusive bonus. Here are some strategies with the highest likelihood of success.

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General Strategies That Work

Earn Elite Loyalty Status

There's a reason they're called "loyalty programs"—the objective is to get you to concentrate your travel on the program's sponsor. And they often work well for those seeking free upgrades. Even if you don't travel enough to earn any special status, just belonging to a loyalty program can sometimes lead to an upgrade or other perks.

Enlist a Travel Agent

A travel agent who has clout with a supplier can sometimes score an upgrade for you that you couldn't otherwise score on your own.

Just Ask

No matter the circumstances, you can sometimes score an upgrade by just asking. But as loyalty programs become more systematic, the "just ask" strategy is fading rapidly, especially when it comes to airlines.

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Airlines: What Not to Do

If you're on a cheap ticket and don't have high-level elite status, your chances of getting an upgrade are close to zilch. Airlines dole out upgrades based on complicated algorithms that combine your elite level and how much you paid for your ticket. These days, just about every flight leaves with more people who are eligible for upgrades than available first-class seats. If you don't have the status, you won't get up front.

And you can be wary of that industry chestnut about dressing nicely and asking politely, at least when it comes to airlines. Neither dress nor graciousness impresses the computers that dole out the upgrades.

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Join Airline Loyalty Programs

For really frequent travelers, upgrades—not miles—are the primary loyalty benefit. Once you attain one of the higher levels—gold, platinum, or whatever—you can almost count on flying in first class with the purchase of a coach ticket.

If you're at a lower frequent-flyer level, your chances of getting a free upgrade aren't so rosy. You may luck out once in a while, but the higher-level frequent flyers get upgraded first, and there are more of them every day.


Make Friends with Hotel Staff

Individual hotels have a lot of latitude in what they can offer frequent guests. Just visiting a hotel often enough that the front desk or management recognizes you can lead to upgrades without any membership requirements.

And the "just ask" ploy can sometimes work—especially if a hotel has available space.

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Seek Out Cruise-Line Promotions

Take a quick look at listings from just about any online cruise agency, and you'll see many sailings that promise two- to four-level upgrades at whatever asking price you're contemplating. Right now, for example, Norwegian Cruise Line is offering free upgrades with bookings on three-day or longer cruises.

Even if a cruise line isn't running an advertised promotion, a good cruise agent can often get you a cabin upgrade. Just ask the agent.

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Rental Cars: Do You Really Want an Upgrade?

Given today's high gas prices, many drivers who book economy or compact cars don't want to upgrade to bigger gas guzzlers. Rates, too, reflect the growing preference for economical rentals: For a January weekend rental in San Francisco, Hertz's quoted per-day rate is only $1 more for an intermediate car than an economy car, and even a full-size car commands only a $3 daily premium over the cheapest economy model's rate.

To those who belong to frequent-renter programs, Avis, Hertz, and National offer "choose a car" facilities at their largest airport locations: You can choose any car in a designated lot at the same rate.

The net result: If you want to upgrade to a better car, you can usually do so at very little cost—so you don't need to worry about winning a free upgrade. And those low-cost or "choice" upgrades are generally confined to basic sedans. Upgrading to an electric car, a SUV, a minivan, or a convertible generally costs more.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Seven Ways to Get a Free Upgrade on Your Next Trip.

Email Ed Perkins at

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