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The Luxury Traveller: How to get an upgrade

  • LuxuryTravellerChampagne
  • 17 Jul 2014

You don’t always get what you pay for. Sometimes you can get more. From swish suites to zippy vehicles, these tips will see you enjoy luxe for less.

Jill Starley-Grainger is commissioning editor for the Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Each month she'll be musing for us on some of the finer things in life when it comes to travel. This month, she's sharing her secret upgrade tips.

You'd think that jetting off on your honeymoon, would put you in with a pretty good chance of an upgrade to Business Class. Did I and my husband get one? Not a chance. The check in crew weren't vaguely interested even when I produced our wedding certificate. On the return flight from Sydney, it was my husband’s 30th birthday. Still no luck.

With their sophisticated frequent flyer databases, airlines really know who their most valuable, frequent customers are these days. The stories people tell about sticking on a smart suit and charming your way to the front of the plane are just that - stories.

But, the good news is that the rest of the travel industry can be much more generous – if you play your cards right. Here’s how.

Room for improvement

Hotels have many more competitors than the airlines – which means they fight much harder to keep customers happy. Boost your chances of an upgrade by booking direct (find the cheapest deal online, then call the hotel – they’ll usually match it), and make sure to mention if you’re celebrating a special occasion. Before you check-in, also join their loyalty scheme if they have one.

Be very nice to the receptionist at check-in, and then simply ask about the possibility of an upgrade. This has worked for me a few times – including on my honeymoon. Unlike the airline, the Park Hyatt Sydney was very generous, and when I handed them my loyalty card number and mentioned our recent nuptials, they shifted us from our street-view Standard King to a City Harbour King with Opera House views.

Hotel Suite, Park Hyatt Sydney
Image: Hotel Suite, Park Hyatt Sydney

From cramped to convertible

Car-hire upgrades are all about timing. Book the cheapest car, then time your flight so that you arrive at the hire firm early in the day. Most cars are returned in the afternoon, which means there won’t be many – or any – of the smallest vehicles available if you arrive in the morning. You might not even have to ask. If they try to sell you an upgrade – they’re on commission, remember – say no, and politely explain that, as much as you’d like a better vehicle, you’re already over your budget. (Alternatively, bear in mind that the cost of upgrading a vehicle at the desk is usually much less than if you’d pre-booked it online – brinkmanship can pay…) No matter what time you arrive, just as with hotels, you’ll boost your chances if you join the free loyalty programme and book direct, using the haggle trick above.

Avis Hire Car, © Avis
Image: Hire Car, © Avis

On a trip to Vancouver, my flight arrived in the early evening, so I knew there wouldn’t be much chance of an upgrade. But I delayed my car hire for two days to explore the city, then booked one at 9am, picking up from downtown, for my trip over to Vancouver Island. I was bumped from a titchy two-door to a sporty convertible, so I spent the next week zipping along the island’s woodsy lanes and coastal roads with the wind in my hair.

Cruise control

Hoping for a stateroom? Alas, cruise upgrades are almost as rare as airline ones these days. But you can give yourself a virtual upgrade more easily. Many ships have posh spas with fantastic views, tranquil settings and plush shower rooms. Book the week-long pass, and you can bathe here daily instead of your room’s own tiny toilet – and get the same brilliant sea views as passengers in pricier suites for a fraction of the price.

Cruise with spa views, Norwegian Cruise Lines
Image: Cruise with spa views, © Norwegian Cruise Lines

Meal deal

Most restaurants are happy to go the extra mile to upgrade your experience. When you book, ask which table is best – and if they can reserve it for you. Mention that it’s for a special occasion, and you’ll probably be offered a complimentary glass of bubbly or a cocktail on the house. In Berlin at Käfer restaurant, which sits atop the Norman Foster’s extraordinary dome over the Reichstag parliament building, simply asking to be put at the best table saw us seated outside on the terrace for lunch with unobstructed views over the Brandenburg Gate and the historic centre. Most people were crammed indoors, straining to see the view.

And the rest

The usual golden rules to upgrade almost any experience – just ask, nicely. From spas to tours, being very friendly to staff and asking for something specific – perhaps a bottle of wine with your canalboat jaunt or an upgrade to the spa’s treatment room with its own sauna and whirlpool – often works wonders. This is how we ended up with a private tour of Domaine Chandon winery in Napa Valley – even though we’d paid for the group tour. I’m not sure if we got a few extra tastings into the bargain, but I was sure glad we’d booked a taxi to pick us up for our trip back to San Francisco airport – where we didn’t, of course, get an upgrade.

Luxury Traveller, Champagne
Image: Champagne

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Author: Jill Starley-Grainger

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