Hotels

Top Hotel Loyalty Programs

Posted June 27, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Hotel loyalty programs have never had the marketing and financial clout of airline frequent-flyer programs. Nevertheless, they remain a useful tool for serious travelers. Accordingly, we've compared the programs of the seven giant multi-brand hotel chains that dominate the North American markets as well as single-brand Best Western, and we rounded up the rest.

Editor's Note: We did not include each program's laundry list of minor benefits and partnerships, and our findings refer to North American or U.S. memberships; rules in other countries vary.

 

(Photo: Best Western)

Best Western Rewards

Availability: All Rewards-branded accommodations.

Earning Formula: Earn 10 points per in-hotel dollar spent, excluding some discounted room rates and rates booked through travel agents, including online. Points do not expire.

Alternate Airline Earning Formula: Earn 600 miles per stay on Southwest; 250 miles per stay on Air Canada, Alaska, American, Delta, and United; and 250–500 miles per stay on 18 foreign-line programs.

Redeeming Formula: Free nights are based on point "prices" that vary by location, season, and expected occupancy, mostly in the 8,000–36,000 point range.

Generosity: Stay five to 25 nights (average 16) to earn one award night at a comparable hotel.

Airline Transfer: Best Western points can be transferred to Air Canada, Alaska, American, and Southwest.

Membership Benefits: Entry-level benefits are minor. The first substantial benefits, at Gold (which requires 10 stays or 10,000 points), are the best available room and snack or beverage. Earn up to 30 percent bonus points at higher levels.

Credit Card: Best Western Rewards MasterCard (Barclays) offers 15 points per dollar on qualifying hotel charges and one point per dollar on other purchases.

 

(Photo: Andrea Rugg Photography for Choice Hotels International)

Choice Privileges

Availability: Most hotels in all Choice brands: Ascend, Comfort Inn, Quality, Sleep Inn, Clarion, Cambria Suites, MainStay Suites, Suburban, Econo Lodge, and Rodeway Inn.

Earning Formula: Earn 10 points per in-hotel dollar spent at most brands and five points per dollar at Econo Lodge, Main Stay, Rodeway, and Suburban. Points expire after two calendar years.

Redeeming Formula: Free nights are based on point "prices" that vary by location, season, and expected occupancy, mostly in the 8,000–36,000 point range.

Generosity: Stay five to 25 nights (average 16) to earn one award night at a comparable hotel.

Airline Transfer: Choice points can be transferred to Air Canada, Alaska, American, Southwest, Spirit, and United, as well as to several foreign lines.

Membership Benefits: Entry-level benefits include late check-in, high-speed Internet (at all except Rodeway), local calls, and newspaper (most brands). Earn up to 50 percent point bonus at higher elite levels.

Credit Card: Choice Privileges Visa (Barclays) offers 15 points per dollar on qualifying hotel charges, two points per dollar on other purchases, and enrollment bonuses up to 30,000 points. This is useful only for Choice points and offers poor cash value.

 

(Photo: 2014 Hilton Hotels & Resorts)

Hilton HHonors

Availability: All Hilton brands: Conrad, DoubleTree, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn, Hilton Garden Inn, Hilton, Home2 Suites, Homewood Suites, and Waldorf Astoria.

Earning Formula: Earn 15 points per dollar spent on hotel accommodations and services at all except Hampton, Homewood, and Home2. Earn half points at Hampton and Homewood and quarter points at Home2. Points expire within 12 months of not earning or spending points.

Alternate Airline Earning Formula: Earn 10 points per dollar spent on hotel accommodations and services at all except Hampton, Homewood, and Home2. Earn half points at Hampton and Homewood and quarter points at Home2. In addition, for every dollar spent at Hiltons, earn one mile on Air Canada, Alaska, American, Amtrak, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, and United; one point per $2 at JetBlue and Virgin America; and other earnings on several foreign lines.

Redeeming Formula: Free nights are based on point "prices" that vary by location, season, and expected occupancy, some at 5,000 but mostly in the 20,000–50,000 point range.

Generosity. Stay eight to 28 nights (average 15) to earn one award night at a comparable hotel.

Membership Benefits: Entry-level benefits include late checkout and no additional charge for your spouse (subject to conditions). The first substantial benefits, at Gold (which requires 40 nights in a calendar year), are access to fitness centers, no-charge Wi-Fi at some locations, complimentary breakfast at Hilton Garden Inn, and room upgrades at Conrad. Earn bonus points up to 50 percent at higher elite levels.

Credit Card: Your best option is HHonors Surpass Card (AmEx), which offers automatic Gold status, 12 points per dollar at Hiltons (but no points on other purchases), and 60,000 bonus enrollment points for a $75 annual fee.

 

(Photo: Hyatt Hotels)

Hyatt Gold Passport

Availability: All Hyatt brands.

Earning Formula: Earn five points per in-hotel dollar spent. Points expire within 24 months of not earning or spending points.

Alternate Airline Earning Formula: Earn 500 miles per stay on American, Amtrak, Delta, Hawaiian, and United; 600 points per stay on Southwest; and similar earnings on 24 foreign lines.

Redeeming Formula: Award-stay points are based on point "prices" that vary by location, season, and expected occupancy, in the 5,000–39,000 point range.

Generosity: Stay five to 25 nights (average 16) to earn one award night at a comparable hotel.

Airline Transfer: Choice points can be transferred to Air Canada, Alaska, American, Southwest, Spirit, and United, as well as to several foreign lines.

Membership Benefits: Entry-level benefits include late check-in, high-speed Internet (except Rodeway), local calls, and newspaper (most brands). Earn up to 30 percent point bonus at higher elite levels.

 

(Photo: LarsZahnerPhotography)

IHG Rewards Club

Availability: All IHG brands: Candlewood Suites, Crowne Plaza, Even, Holiday Inn, Hotel Indigo, Hualuxe, InterContinental, and Staybridge Suites.

Earning Formula: Earn 10 points per in-hotel dollar spent at most brands and five points per dollar at Candlewood and Staybridge. Points do not expire.

Alternate Airline Earning Formula: Earn two miles per dollar on Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, and United, except one mile per dollar at Candlewood and Staybridge. Earn 500 miles per stay on Air Canada and similar earnings on 50 foreign lines.

Redeeming Formula: Award-stay points are based on point "prices" that vary by location, season, and expected occupancy, in the 10,000–50,000 point range.

Generosity: Stay nine to 24 nights (average 16) to earn one award night at a comparable hotel.

Membership Benefits: Entry-level benefits include no-charge Internet, late checkout, and daily newspaper. Earn up to 50 percent point bonus at higher elite levels.

Credit Card: IHG Rewards Club MasterCard (Chase) offers five points per dollar on qualifying hotel charges, two points per dollar on selected other purchases, one point per dollar on general charges, an annual "free" night, 10 percent point rebate, and enrollment bonuses up to 60,000 points.

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

Marriott Rewards

Availability: All 14 Marriott brands: AC Hotels, Autograph, Courtyard, Edition, Fairfield Inn, Gaylord, JW Marriott, Marriott, Moxy, Renaissance, Residence Inn, Ritz-Carlton, SpringHill Suites, and Towneplace Suites; plus earnings only at Marriott Executive Apartments and ExecuStay.

Earning Formula: Earn 10 points per in-hotel dollar spent at JW Marriott, Autograph, Renaissance, and Marriott, five points per dollar at Residence Inn and Towneplace Suites, and 1.5 points per dollar at the earning only brands. Points expire within 24 months of not earning points.

Alternate Airline Earning Formula: Earn one to two airline miles per dollar on Air Canada, Alaska, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, United, Virgin America, and 26 foreign lines, and 600 miles per stay on Southwest.

Redeeming Formula: Per-night award points are based on point "prices" that vary by location, season, and expected occupancy, in the 6,000–45,000 point range and in the 20,000–70,000 range at Ritz-Carlton. There are no blackout dates, but reduced "point saver" rates are sometimes available.

Generosity: Stay nine to 12 nights (average 10) to earn one award night at a comparable hotel.

Airline Transfer: Marriott points can be transferred to miles on Air Canada, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, and United, as well as on 26 overseas airlines.

Membership Benefits: There are no entry-level benefits. The first substantial benefits, at Gold and Platinum (which require 50 nights), are room upgrades, complimentary premium Wi-Fi, access to lounge or free breakfast (except resorts), late checkout, and free local calls. Earn up to 50 percent bonus points at higher elite levels.

Credit Card: Marriott Rewards Visa (Chase) offers five points per dollar charged at hotels, two points per dollar on air tickets, and one point per dollar on other charges. Enrollment bonuses include 50,000 points and a free night.

 

(Photo: 2014 Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc.)

Starwood Preferred Guest

Availability: All Starwood brands: Aloft, Element, Four Points, The Luxury Collection, Le Meridien, Sheraton, St. Regis, W Hotels, and Westin.

Earning Formula: Earn two Starwood points per in-hotel dollar spent. Points expire if you do not earn or spend points.

Redeeming Formula: Award-stay points are based on point "prices" that vary by location, season, and expected occupancy, some as low as 4,000 but mostly in the 10,000–35,000 point range.

Generosity: Stay 10–35 nights (average 23) to earn one award night at a comparable hotel.

Airline Transfer: Starwood points can be transferred to miles on Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, and United, as well as many foreign lines. There is a 25 percent bonus for transferring 5,000 points, which is an outstanding deal.

Membership Benefits: Entry-level benefits are minimal. The first substantial benefits, at Platinum (which requires 25 stays or 50 nights), are room upgrades, complimentary Wi-Fi, access to club/fitness facilities, late checkout, and guaranteed room availability up to 72 hours in advance. Earn 50 percent point bonus at higher elite levels.

Credit Card: Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) AmEx offers an additional two to three points per dollar for in-hotel charges, one point per dollar on all other purchases, and enrollment bonuses of up to 30,000 points. The annual fee is $65 after the first year.

 

(Photo: Wyndham Hotel Group)

Wyndham Rewards

Availability: All Wyndham brands: Baymont Inn, Days Inn, Hawthorn Suites, Howard Johnson, Knights Inn, Microtel, Ramada, Super 8, Travelodge, Wingate, Wyndham, Wyndham Grand Collection, Wyndham Garden Hotels, and Tryp.

Earning Formula: Earn 10 points per in-hotel dollar spent at all except Hawthorn Suites. Earn five points per dollar at Hawthorn Suites. Points expire within 12 months of not earning or spending points.

Alternate Airline Earning Formula: At most Wyndham brands, earn two miles per in-hotel dollar spent on Air Canada, Alaska, American, Amtrak, Hawaiian, United, and several foreign lines, and 600 points per stay on Southwest.

Redeeming Formula: Award-stay points are based on point "prices" that vary by location, season, and expected occupancy, mostly in the 5,500–30,000 point range.

Generosity: Stay eight to 25 nights (average 17) to earn one award night at a comparable hotel.

Airline Transfer: Wyndham points can be transferred to Air Canada, American, Delta, or United.

Membership Benefits: Entry-level benefits are minimal. The first substantial benefit, at Gold (which requires 20,000 points), is a free night, up to three times per year.

Credit Card: Wyndham Rewards Visa (Barclays) offers 15 points per dollar on qualifying hotel charges and two points per dollar on everything else.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/Photodisc)

Other Chains

Many other North American hotel chains operate loyalty programs, including Carlson, Delta, Fairmont, Gouverneur, Kimpton, La Quinta, Leading Hotels of the World, Loews, Omni, and Red Roof, along with the Stash Hotel Rewards program, which serves independent properties. Most follow the same earn/redeem patterns of the larger chains. Among the large North American chains, Motel 6 is unique in not offering a loyalty program.

Many large chains based outside of North America also operate similar loyalty programs—some, such as Accor, operate some hotels in North America; others, such as Melia, do not. Check on the programs of any chains you regularly use.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/Purestock)

Takeaways

You might as well join the loyalty program of any hotel where you stay. Enrollment costs nothing, and several programs give at least minor benefits as soon as you join. If you value hotel points but are only an occasional traveler, try to focus your stays on those programs in which points do not expire.

Most programs that offer airline-miles earning require that you select either the hotel points or the air miles. If your focus is on airline miles rather than hotel points, the loyalty programs of Hyatt, IHG, Marriott, and Wyndham are favorable. Hilton's unique double-dip earning in both hotel and airline programs is especially attractive, as is Starwood's transfer option.

Many travelers have concluded that the Starwood credit card, with its potential 25 percent transfer bonus, is a better bet than some airline cobranded cards. But if you don't care for airline miles, you can stick with the hotel points.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Top Hotel Loyalty Programs.

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10 Unique City Tours Around the World

Posted May 5, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Magic Bus)

See a completely different side of a city when you break away from the mob of tourists following the guide with the red umbrella. On these 10 unique city tours, you'll venture into the Bronx with an old-school rapper, see abandoned buildings in Portugal's second city, and go longboarding through Amsterdam's most famous park. You're sure to come home with a camera full of authentic experiences that most visitors miss.

 

(Photo: Bats Over Congress Avenue Bridge via Shutterstock)

Never Unpack Your Travel Items

Crowds gather from March through October on the Congress Avenue Bridge to see a natural spectacle that has earned the resident bat colony celebrity status in Austin. Each night at dusk, 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from beneath the bridge, swirling like a black ribbon into the sky. For a unique perspective on the mass exodus, watch it from the water on a Congress Avenue Kayaks bat tour. With a small group of 10, you'll paddle under the bridge in sit-on-top kayaks. After encountering the bats, you can venture out on your own to see other sights on the water.

Details: The 90-minute kayak bat tour departs at sunset in season and is $30 for a two-person kayak.

Insider Tip: You can also watch the bats from the Four Seasons Hotel Austin's lobby lounge, which serves a "Batini" cocktail. Plan an August visit to coincide with the city's annual bat festival.

 

(Photo: Magic Bus San Francisco Tour)

1960s Summer of Love Tour, San Francisco, California

It's all peace, love, and bubble-spewing on this psychedelic hippie bus that takes you on a trip back to San Francisco's 1960s counterculture. The Magic Bus Tour stops at landmarks of the city's hippie movement; you can even join in a drum circle (this time without the purple haze). On the bus, a groovy guide/actor will share interesting stories and rock out with you to the music of the era. It's a multimedia adventure that evokes the decade's politics and attitudes through live action and video projections on the bus's retractable window screens. The tour hits Chinatown and the North Beach spot where Jack Kerouac hung out. You'll see Golden Gate Park and the crossroads of Haight and Ashbury streets, home of the Summer of Love, in a whole new light.

Details: The two-hour tour is $55 and starts at Union Square.

Insider Tip: Bring a jacket or sweater. It can be chilly at Golden Gate Park even if it's warm downtown at the tour's start.

 

(Photo: Rob Moody)

Downtown Yoga Tour, Asheville, North Carolina

Take your downward dog downtown in Asheville, North Carolina. On this Travelling Yogini Tour, you'll strike a pose and connect with your breath in several of the city's iconic spots. A yoga guide will start with beginner-level stretches and, as you move from Pritchard Park to the Flat Iron Building to the artsy Chicken Alley district, the poses will become more challenging. By the time you finish with a cooldown and meditation, you'll have heard about Asheville's history and architecture. Between flowing in and out of poses, you'll meet street performers, artists, and others who are out exploring the city.

Details: The 90-minute downtown tour is $20.

Insider Tip: Along the way, the yoga guide will point out funky boutiques and specialty shops, giving you interesting tidbits on the history and products so you can plan your apres-yoga shopping route.

 

(Photo: Berlinagenten)

Urban Home-Visit Tour, Berlin, Germany

Want an invitation to sit in a Berliner's flat and chat over coffee or beer? The Urban Living Tour, the ultimate insider's tour, will introduce you to three different Berliners in three different neighborhoods. You'll get to go inside their homes and spend an hour visiting and checking out their decor. The hosts you'll meet will depend on who is in town on the day you're visiting. It could be a set designer in an underground courtyard apartment or a photographer with an uber-luxe pad on a main thoroughfare built in the Stalin era. While you snoop around and see how they live, you'll hear about what drew them to the city and what they love about it.

Details: The 4.5-hour tour includes visits to three private apartments, drinks and sweets, sightseeing between the visits, transport, and a private guide. Prices vary based on how many people are taking the tour; see website for details.

Insider Tip: Keep an open mind and come with questions.

 

(Photo: Dominic Stevenson)

City Tour Led by Homeless Guide, London, England

See London through the eyes of someone who lives on the city's streets. Unseen Tours hires and professionally trains homeless and formerly homeless people to lead its walking tours of London Bridge, Camden, Shoreditch, and Convent Garden. See the stark contrast between historical landmarks and sites where the guides have slept, hear riveting personal stories, and discover tucked-away places few others ever experience. The tour ends at either a pub or a cafe, so you can carry on with your guide or group in a discussion that ebbs between the politics of street begging and the effects of gentrification on the East End.

Details: The tour runs $9 to $14 per hour and usually lasts about 90 minutes.

Insider Tip: On each tour, the company reserves two free spots for those who are either unable to pay or are accompanying someone as a caregiver. Wondering how much of the ticket sales goes back to the guide? About 80 percent. Unseen Tours was the winner for best tour operator for local experiences in the World Responsible Tourism Awards 2011.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

'Worst' Walking Tour, Porto, Portugal

This tour in Portugal's second-largest city is the antithesis of a tourist trap. Avoiding all of Porto's polished postcard-perfect sites, it takes visitors past decrepit homes and crumbling shops. Started by three out-of-work architects who stuck around after the country was hit hard by the recession, The Worst Tours will show you the not-for-tourists sites and guides will tell stories about the old markets and abandoned buildings, helping you understand what's behind Europe's economic crisis. Learn about Porto's architecture, history, politics, and urbanism from a few people who are "OK with not being popular or cool or the best in anything, least of all touring."

Details: Tours are two to three hours and are free.

Insider Tip: Let your guide know which parts of the city you've already visited and what your interests are, and he or she will create a route that shows you things you haven't seen.

 

(Photo: Urban Adventures)

Gwana Music Tour, Essaouira, Morocco

New this spring, the Gnawa Music Experience tour gives you a unique encounter with one of Morocco's off-the-charts popular trends: trance-like Gnawa music and its acrobatic dance moves. You'll be introduced to the addictive music's Afro-Moroccan culture and customs in the medina, where musicians will be jamming. Then, you'll step inside hidden domains typically inaccessible to visitors: You'll go into the home of a dancer to see him perform, watch a troupe master play a traditional lute-like instrument in his private quarters, and visit a temple where sacred rituals drive out evil spirits.

Details: The evening tour costs around $100 and lasts two to three hours.

Insider Tip: Both men and women should dress with respect, covering everything from the shoulders to the knees. At the end of the tour, your guide can recommend places to go dancing where you'll hear Gnawa music fused with Western and Latin music.

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor LLC)

Hip-Hop Tour, New York, New York

With a legendary hip-hop artist as your guide, Hush Tours will give you a truly entertaining experience in the Bronx and Harlem, the birthplace of the culture. Here, people on the street might recognize and give shout-outs to the Hush Tours guides—Grandmaster Caz, Kurtis Blow, and others—as they delve into four aspects of hip-hop culture: DJing, MCing, B-boy and B-girl dancing, and graffiti artistry. You'll see the important landmarks and check out where Biggie, Nas, and Jay-Z grew up on this fun tour.

Details: Tours range from two hours ($32) to four hours ($75).

Insider Tip: Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. At one point on the tour, you'll learn hip-hop moves and try them out on the streets.

 

(Photo: LiveToronto)

Date-Night City Tour with a Photographer, Toronto, Canada

Nothing against snapping a selfie with your iPhone, but on LiveToronto's Date Night Tour, you'll get enviable pics (without your arm) for posting on Facebook or printing in a photo book. Depending on your interests (sports, architecture, music, etc.), your personal paparazzo will plan a walking route to hit Toronto's key sites and set up photo ops. As you explore downtown's icons and hidden gems, your photographer guide will share interesting details about each landmark while capturing everything from classic poses to silly shots. Choose your own adventure: You can include the Harbourfront, the base of the CN Tower, Osgoode Hall, Roundhouse Park, and others.

Details: The 60-minute private tour is $100 to $200 per couple and includes 50 fully edited digital photos, which will be delivered within 24 hours.

Insider Tip: Don't surprise your significant other with this date-night tour—there are too many things to consider beforehand (including hair, nails, and a second outfit or pair of shoes for another look). The company runs tours for families and corporate groups, too.

 

(Photo: Vondelsurfing)

Longboarding Tour, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

You won't find this longboard tour through Vondelpark in your guidebook or officially operated by any local tour company. But check Vayable.com and there it is: Vondelsurfing, offered by a "semi-professional amateur" longboarder named Milan V. In the new sharing economy, websites like Vayable.com connect you with a vetted local guide. Here, Milan V. puts you on a long skateboard in the middle of Amsterdam's most popular park, hands you a rope, and pulls you behind a fixie bicycle for a couple of hours. It's a chance to see the park like a true hipster Amsterdammer, says Milan V., who has hosted beginners as well as seasoned longboarders.

Details: The two-hour tour is $24 and includes all gear, a drink, and photo/video of your ride.

Insider Tip: Vondelsurfing is fun in pairs of two, so you can switch and watch how the other is doing.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Truly Unique City Tours Around the World.

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Seven Ways to Get a Free Upgrade on Your Next Trip

Posted September 24, 2013 by SmarterTravel.com

Upgrade Button_580x382

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.


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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 editor@smartertravel.com.

8 Free Travel Items That Are More Useful Than You Think

Posted September 19, 2013 by SmarterTravel.com

580x382_Closeup-of-Zipper

Earn your vacation black belt with these hacks that turn free items into quick solves for common travel problems. From using a bar of soap to fix a stuck zipper to repurposing a hotel-room standard as a security device, hone your road-warrior survival skills with these easy tips. We know you've got more clever ideas too, so please share them with us and other readers in the comments section below!


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Shower Cap as Shoe Cover

Flimsy shower cap, or custom shoe cover? You decide. In every suitcase, there's a constant battle between dirty and clean items. Score a victory for fresh-smelling shirts and dirt-free trousers by keeping your shoes contained in a shower cap. Place them in, soles down, and let the shower cap's elastic band cradle the shoes so that any dirt, grease, or unidentified muck stays safely tucked away inside the plastic pouch. Depending on the type and size of your shoes, you may need more than one shower cap, but housekeeping is usually pretty generous with them.


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Bar Soap as Zipper Unsticker

There's nothing quite like the startling claustrophobia that comes from having a stuck zipper. Whether it's on a suitcase, a boot, or an article of clothing, a zipper that won't budge almost seems to be personally reminding you that, when it comes right down to it, it can trap you at any time. Reclaim control by grabbing the little bar of soap that rests on every hotel room's bathroom counter. Rub the dry bar against the teeth of the zipper to lubricate it enough to move. Once the zipper is unstuck, rub the soap up and down against the length of each zipper side, and then zip and unzip a few times to prevent further sticking. Then dust off the flakes and give yourself a high five.


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Doorstop as Security Device

Little rubber doorstops hide out behind hotel-room doors, waiting for fleeting moments of glory. And while the unassuming devices are put there so guests can prop open their doors, they're just as effective at keeping doors shut. So if you want an added level of security when you turn in for the night, wedge the doorstop under the bolted door. Voila, you've just added an additional lock.


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Shampoo as Leather Polish

Travel can be hard on leather shoes, purses, belts, and jackets, so if you find yours looking worse for the wear while you're on the road, turn to your hotel bathroom for a quick fix. Liquid shampoo has an amazing superpower: A small amount, rubbed in circles with a cloth, can clean and restore the rich color of leather. And though we've never tested it, we've also heard that it can be a handy and quick way to protect leather shoes from winter salt stains.


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Bar Soap as Bite Relief

Bugs always seem to be on vacation, which explains why so many people return from their travels covered in bites. Spare yourself a trip to the pharmacy and treat an itchy bug bite with a basic bar of soap from your hotel room. Simply wet the bar a bit, rub it on the bite, and let it dry. Some people recommend rubbing the dry bar directly onto the bite, so experiment to see which method offers more itch relief. Take it with you and you'll have the perfect travel-bite remedy, since as a solid, your trusty miniature bar of soap isn't subject to the TSA regulations that itch-relief gels and creams must follow.


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Airplane Socks as Scratch Protectors

You know the socks you often get on overseas flights? The ones that don't fit quite right and come with weird treads that make them impossible to wear with shoes? Give them new purpose by keeping a pair on hand to protect items from getting chipped or scratched in transit. They're the perfect size to hold the trinkets you pick up on your travels—the ones that don't need to be enveloped in bubble wrap but do need a bit of extra protection before being tossed into your bag. And in a pinch, they can serve as a handy alternative to a glasses case in your bag or purse.


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Baggage Tag as Lint Remover

Didn't bring a lint roller (and don't travel with duct tape)? No problem, you're still likely traveling with an item that can do double duty and help you get out the door fluff-, lint-, and animal-hair-free. Just carefully remove the long baggage-tracking sticker from your suitcase handle, wrap it around your hand with the sticky side facing out, and blot at any area of clothing that needs cleaning.


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Conditioner as Shaving Cream

This nonprofit please-touch museum is actually the world's largest pinball-machine collection. In 10,000 square feet of space, find an assortment of more than 200 pinball machines and arcade games from a half century of gaming history. And every game is playable—including an original Ms. Pac-Man from 1981 and Super Mario Bros. from 1985, plus the wooden 1947 Heavy Hitter. Admission is free, although the games are coin-op (25 or 50 cents per play). Just arm yourself with the knowledge that all excess revenue goes to charity. Who knew doing good could feel like such good old-fashioned fun?

 

This article was originally published by SmarterTravel.com under the title Eight Hacks Using Travel Freebies

Follow Christine Sarkis on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

 

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