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How to get hotel upgrades, better airplane seats, and more

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In a must-read article on how to talk to airline mileage-award agents so as to get the award seats you want with your miles, Gary Leff says that “the four most important words in travel” are “Hang Up, Call Back.”

Leff, the mileage-award ticket specialist in our Top Travel Specialists Collection, says it’s key to “build a rapport with your agent” in order to get him or her to want to help you. “I want sympathy from an agent, to get them on my side…. I ask them how their day is going. I sympathize with the difficult job they’re doing…. I ask them to go extra distances not for me but because my boss is going to kill me, can you possibly help? They can understand that. They can help bail me out, they can empathize.”

I too do my best to build a bond with those travel industry employees who can make a big difference to my life yet have little incentive to help me. I never reveal my identity—I travel unannounced, in accordance with Condé Nast Traveler policy—and, like Leff, “I never play the ‘don’t you know who I am?’ card.” I try to win people over by seeing things from their point of view, finding the common ground between us, asking for their personal opinion. Besides "my boss is going to kill me"—as well as "my husband will go ballistic" and "you are the one person with the power to save my marriage"—here are a few magic words I've learned that have yielded results for me in various travel situations:

What to say to an airline gate agent when you want a better seat:

“I need to get a ton of work done on this flight—my deadline is tonight—and I can't type productively on my laptop when I'm scrunched with no elbow room and one miniscule tray table. Please, please, can you move me next to an empty seat (that will stay empty during the flight) so I can work straight through and get my presentation done?" Generally speaking, airlines want to keep business travelers happy, even those in coach, since those frequent travelers represent repeat revenue.

What to say to a resort's on-site reservations manager when you want an upgrade:

“My husband and I will be celebrating a special occasion [e.g, his 50th birthday, or our first trip alone together since the kids were born], and I need to make it memorable and surprise him with something special. Which room do you recommend that won’t blow our budget? Is that room your personal favorite?” Not only will such a conversation enlighten you as to which rooms represent the best value for your dollar, but it will turn the room reservations supervisor into your buddy, hopefully increasing your chance of a complimentary upgrade. After all, hotels want guests who are celebrating a special occasion to have a great time, so they'll spend more at the resort, come back again, and tell their friends.

What to say to the hotel front-desk clerk at check-in when you want a better room:

“I've come so many miles and gone through such hassle to get here. I just really need a soothing room to make me sane again. I'm willing to pay a small additional amount for a better view or a better experience. What could you offer me that would be of value?” If the hotel has better rooms available, you could walk away with an upgrade for much less than you'd otherwise pay.

What to say to a concierge in a hotel you’re not staying in:

“My friend who lives here sent me to you because she says you're the best concierge in town and if anyone can help me, you can.” To avoid hearing typically touristy recommendations and find out where the locals go, try, “If you personally had a friend visiting from out of town, and you had a precious day off, what would you do with them? If you had an evening off, where would you take them for dinner?”

What to say when you're passing by a restaurant or hotel and you need a rest room but you’re not a patron:

“Please can I use your bathroom? It’s an emergency!”

For more magic words to use—when trying to get a room in a sold-out hotel, for instance, and when trying to get special treatment from a hotel's general manager—see my 25 Golden Rules of Travel.

What words do you use to get the help you need when you travel?

Read this story at Conde Nast Traveler

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