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Best insider bargain travel tips

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You may already know some of these tips and strategies for stretching your travel dollar. Or maybe you don't. Even if you do, it's good to get a refresher now and then.

Getting money back when the airfare or hotel room drops in price

If your hotel lowers the your room rate between the time you buy and check in, which happens about 20 percent of the time, you can usually rebook at the lower rate, or get a refund automatically. Tingo.com checks and re-checks your hotel rate almost until the hour of check in and automatically refunds a price drop to your credit card. It also alerts you if there's a room upgrade available at the original price you paid. (Full disclosure: Airfarewatchdog.com is a subsidiary of Smarter Travel Media, which also operates Tingo.com. )

Orbitz.com will give you 110 percent of the price difference if another Orbitz customer rebooks the exact same dates and room type.  Orbitz also works with airfares and packages. But you no longer get cash back; now you get Orbucks, which can be spent on future travel on Orbitz. Orbucks expire a year from issue however. I'd rather get the cash back from Tingo.

Yapta.com will alert you to airfare price drops but it only works with a relatively small number of airlines, and all but three airlines will charge a change fee (typically $150 on a domestic fare). The three domestic US airlines that will refund a price drop in the form of a future travel voucher without charging a fee: Southwest, Alaska, and JetBlue.

Bottom line: airfares and hotel rates are not static, and you can get money back.

Airline frequent flyer credit cards with perks

A number of fairly new airline-affiliated credit cards offer unusual perks formerly reserved for uber-flyers. The United Explorer Card, for instance, has no annual fee for the first year; 30,000 bonus miles with a modest $1000 spend; and then the perks kick in:

-First checked bag free

-Priority boarding privileges so you get first crack at the overhead bins

-Two lounge passes per year (50 each were you to buy them)

The American Airlines Platinum Select Signature Card is similar.  First checked bag free, priority boarding.

Coupon codes

Many airlines, travel agencies such as Expedia, and other travel vendors offer coupon code discounts, on flights or packages, which can be substantial. You can find these coupon codes by signing up for the airlines' email lists, or just googling "vendor (American Airlines etc) + coupon codes".  Or just troll the Airfarewatchdog.com's blog.  Southwest has had 50 percent off coupon codes in the past. Rental car agencies and hotels have these too.

Bottom line: before making any travel purchase, check to see if there's a coupon code offering discounts, upgrades, or extra perks.

Hotel upgrades

It's always wise to sign up for every hotel's frequent stay program, even if you're staying just once. Kimpton Hotels gives you a $10 mini bar credit for each stay plus free WiFi, just for signing up. Fairmont gives you free Internet access. And the hotels offer upgrades, promos, and other perks, even at the lowest membership levels.

It still pays to ask for a room upgrade when checking in. You just never know. It works for me about 50 percent of the time even without "status" in the frequent stay program. I recently requested a "quiet room at the end of the hall" at the very luxe Sofitel Heathrow, and got an upgrade because the only rooms at the end of the hall were more expensive than what I booked. On another occasion in Palm Springs, there was a lengthy delay checking in due to a computer glitch, so I asked for an upgrade to a suite "in compensation" for my inconvenience. Voila, granted. You only get what you ask for.

Rental cars

Again, sign up for the frequent user programs, such as Hertz Gold Plus. It's free to join, and there are discounts, upgrades and extra perks. A site called Autoslash.com will check your car rental reservation and alert you if the price has gone down since the time you originally booked.

Frequent flyer program "hacks"

One real insider secret is how to get "Gold" status on the Star Alliance airline  group, which has 27 member airlines. Gold status gives you a lot of perks, such as lounge access, even when flying on cheap fares, and priority boarding. Aegean Airlines has the easiest path to Gold status with a low threshold of 20,000 status miles. (Most other programs require 50,000 miles to be flown before earning this top-tier). It's a little known short cut to this important benefit.

Read more here.

George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.