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5 Affordable Ways to Upgrade Your Vacation

Most travelers can’t afford five-star hotels and first-class airfare, but there are plenty of inexpensive — and sometimes free — ways to add comfort and small luxuries to a trip without clearing out your bank account. Things like a leisurely morning meal or a few extra inches of legroom in coach can make a big difference on an otherwise budget-minded getaway. Following is a quick list of five low-cost upgrade suggestions simple enough to try on almost every trip you take.

1. Ask for an upgrade.

You don’t necessarily have to have tons of miles or tons of cash to fly business or first class, as many airlines offer low-fee upgrades based on availability at the time of check-in. These same-day upgrades can cost as little as $50, and often check-in agents can upgrade you for any connecting flights — and in some cases for your return trip as well.

Even if no seats or upgrades for a higher class are available, you may be able to get a better seat, sometimes even for free. As more airlines have designated certain seats in coach as “premium” seats, they may offer you an unsold seat in the front section of coach (where seat widths or pitch may be more generous), or perhaps right behind one of those exit row seats that have one seat taken out so you actually have two full rows of legroom — more than enough space even if you’re built like Wilt Chamberlain.

If upgrades are available, the agent can usually tell you the exact cost, and you can accept or decline the offer. (You may not even have to go to the desk, as this option is also becoming more common for both online and kiosk check-in options.) At the very least, most check-in agents will scan their seating charts to try to find you the best available seat at no extra cost, just for the asking. You almost can’t go wrong inquiring politely about any upgrade options; if you travel regularly, you’ll be pleasantly surprised over time at how well this works.

2. Avoid long lines by buying tickets in advance.

An excruciating wait in a ticket or admission line can tarnish an otherwise great vacation day; shuffling along in the heat (or cold) with a horde of other folks in the same predicament is no one’s idea of a good use of precious vacation time. Fortunately, most popular establishments have learned this lesson and now offer ways to purchase advance admission tickets — which in many cases may offer a set entrance time as well, further reducing time wasted standing around.

This option is usually best employed at very popular attractions with instant name recognition and broad appeal: the American Museum of Natural History, the Uffizi, Disney. There is usually a small handling fee for the service (usually in the $2 – $4 range), but getting to skip the mile-long General Admission line and grab your tickets at Will Call — or better yet, have your tickets mailed to you in advance — is almost always worth a couple of bucks.

If you are traveling as a family or with a group, you might even find that buying a museum membership pays off, even for a one-time visit. For example, a year-long family membership at the American Museum of Natural History costs $125, and includes unlimited admission for two adults and up to four children all year long. Meanwhile, regular admission for two adults and four children (all under 12 years) is $80.

If you have even the most remote plans to visit again, the family membership is the way to go. Additionally, the AMNH will even let you have other family members use your membership — so, for example, I could give my brother and his family my membership card, and they could all attend as well, on their own time. Check out these and similar options when you visit museum and theme parks; potential price savings aside, lines for members tend to be shorter than those for the general public.

3. Upgrade your rental car affordably.

One thing you can rely on about most rental car upgrades is that they’re usually an add-on to the amount you are already paying, not a completely “new” price per se. That is, when you upgrade a rental, you are paying only a pre-determined upgrade fee, not necessarily the going full price for the higher car class.

For example, say during booking you see an economy car for $18 a day, and a full-size car for $50. If you book the economy car, and then are offered an upgrade at the rental desk, typically you will be quoted a few dollars per day more for the upgraded vehicle, perhaps $5 a day per rental class — but not the full $50 you were originally quoted.

When reserving a car online, sometimes you will be offered the option to upgrade during the booking process; on a recent trip to Cleveland, I upgraded three full car classes for $3 a day. The risk here is obviously that no upgrade is available, and that you are stuck in the economy car. Unless you are going to be driving a lot, this may not be a deal-breaker.

4. Use a travel agent.

Handling the countless tiny details of travel planning can sometimes feel like torture by 1,000 small cuts. Despite the glut of Web sites that offer endless flexibility and options for booking your own travel, somehow the whole process seems more grueling than ever. If you can find a good travel agent, the hassle of searching for and purchasing affordable airline tickets can be offloaded entirely for fees starting around $35. A good travel agent can quickly filter out all the stuff you don’t want and drill down to see things you can’t see, such as seating charts, to find you the right flight at the right price with the right seats.

Especially when traveling as a family or with a group, when getting seats together can be critical to a sane and safe trip, you can save yourself a lot of hassle and anxiety by having a pro put together a sensible and reliable flight itinerary.

While your agent is at it, you might have him or her look into rental cars, hotel rooms and more — and, if the price is right, go ahead and book it. Researching and reserving these yourself usually requires visiting multiple Web sites and can take a few hours of your time, so having a travel agent book them for you can save you time … and it may not cost you anything more in fees. Travel agent booked hotel rooms may also include later checkout or free breakfast as well.

5. Use room service.

To many folks, room service sounds like an extravagance, but the truth is that the cost of a meal delivered to your room is almost always exactly the same as if you went down to the hotel restaurant. The menu is the same, the prices are the same, the beer costs the same and the water is still free. The gratuity (usually 18 percent these days) is almost always added automatically, and at most properties you can put the meal on your hotel bill, so you don’t even have to pick up your wallet.

Unless the hotel breakfast is included in your room cost, I find this option particularly attractive in the morning. While waiting for and eating breakfast, I can check in at work, dispatch e-mail, read the newspaper or watch the morning news, which for me beats slumping down to a hotel restaurant first thing in the morning by a country breakfast mile. Often you can order your meal the night before and choose a predetermined delivery time.

You will want to take a close look at the menu prices, as hotel breakfasts can be on the pricey side (although not always) and may be a more expensive option than popping down the street to the local coffee shop. But for a morning or two it won’t break the bank, and the benefits are worth it. An omelet, buttered toast, some fruit and a pot of coffee delivered right to your room while you are still in your PJ’s? There’s the lap of luxury for you — breakfast in bed.

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