Liz Pulliam Weston

The Basics

Get luxury perks for your travel buck

Don't settle for long lines, cramped seats and depressing hotel rooms. Take tips from the knowing few who get whisked through security and into first class.

By Liz Pulliam Weston

The next time you travel, would you like to:

  • Skip long security lines?

  • Fly first class without paying a mint?

  • Get free upgrades to better hotel rooms?

  • Drive comfortable rental cars for not much more than the cost of an econobox?

  • Get special treatment instead of being part of the herd?

It's all possible for those who leverage frequent-flier and other loyalty programs.

Those in the know get free upgrades to first class when they've paid for a cheap coach fare. They find themselves in oceanfront rooms when they've paid for a garden view. They pile up so many free rental car days, it would take them a couple of years to use them all.

But to get the goodies, you have to give up on the idea of getting the absolute lowest price on every airline ticket, hotel room and rental car. Sometimes, you have to spend a couple of extra bucks now to get premium treatment later.

Consolidate your business

That's where many travelers balk, says frequent flier Joel L. Widzer, an industrial organizational psychologist and author of "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel." They're so used to stampeding from one low fare to the next that they miss the point of loyalty programs, which is, of course, to reward travelers who consolidate their business.

Widzer insists he doesn't pay much more for his travel than the typical bargain hunter with frequent-flier miles scattered across a dozen airline programs. Yet he says he consistently wins free upgrades to first class, free travel with few blackout days and a free pass around the long security lines that plague other travelers.

"The fares are usually within a 1% to 2% differential," Widzer says. "By consolidating, you start to get better perks and benefits."

Widzer's basic approach is endorsed by other frequent fliers and the newsletters that serve them, such as InsideFlyer and WebFlyer. All say that consolidating your travel with a few providers is an essential first step in getting premium service for less.

Another bonus for loyalty: You'll probably find yourself better able to take advantage of the rules, promotions and offers available through your frequent-traveler programs, because you'll have fewer of them to monitor.

"It's too complicated these days," Widzer says, "to keep track of every program and all the nuances."

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Airlines, especially, are willing to cut special deals for their most loyal travelers. Widzer has gotten his preferred airline, Delta, to waive fees and find him first-class seats on particularly crowded flights. One poster to the Your Money message board reported getting a last-minute, first-class award ticket for two-thirds of the miles normally required. Then there's that "elite" shortcut through security: Many airports now have expedited lines for frequent fliers and first-class or business passengers that can trim the wait substantially.

So, how do you get this premium treatment? Here are a few suggestions:

Choose the right travel partners

Widzer recommends selecting one airline, two hotel providers and one or two rental-car companies to receive most, if not all, of your business.

Piling up miles with a single airline works for infrequent as well as frequent fliers. After all, the more miles you log with one airline, the faster you'll be able to receive free flights and upgrades.

Most travelers should pick the airline that best serves their home airport or the destination to which they travel most often. If you have a choice of carriers, Widzer advises selecting the one that offers the best-quality service and fastest check-in options (such as online check-in at home or kiosk check-ins at the airport).

Continued: Shoot for elite-level status

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