How to Travel Luxuriously on a Budget: 25 Secrets From the Pros

25 Secrets for Traveling Like a VIP Without Spending Like One


Cheapism is editorially independent. We may earn a commission if you buy through links on our site.
25 Secrets for Traveling Like a VIP Without Spending Like One

A Trip Down Luminary Lane

Who doesn't want to travel like a VIP? After all, travel can be daunting at times, involving long plane rides, hours on the road getting from one place to another, and less-than-appetizing airline and airport food when traveling by air. A seat upgrade on a plane, a more luxurious hotel room, or some other perk, such as entry into a luxe spa, can help turn a tedious, stressful, or exhausting travel experience into something far more pleasant and memorable. Travel industry insiders and travel bloggers share their top tips for globetrotting like a star without spending like one. 

Search for Sales on Business Class Tickets or Mistake Fares
Caiaimage/Agnieszka Olek/Getty Images

Look for Sales on Business-Class Tickets

Sometimes airlines offer sales on business-class flights, and the price is the same as an economy ticket would be, according to Matilda Geroulis, cofounder of The Travel Sisters. She suggested signing up for airline newsletters and following Twitter accounts like The Flight Deal, Airfarewatchdog, and Secret Flying to find deals.

Related: 13 Expert Secrets to Stress-Free Flying

Get the Priority Pass

Get Priority Pass

Travel blogger Becca Siegel's secret for traveling like a VIP is Priority Pass. The membership provides entry into airport lounges around the world. Siegel, along with her boyfriend, created Half Half Travel, which is focused on making the most of a minimalist budget. "We cannot even count the times we've eaten, taken naps, and refreshed ourselves before flights in airports around the world with our Priority Pass membership," Siegel said. "There's nothing like having a nap in a comfortable place on a layover, or having some nice food with a view and trusty Wi-Fi while traveling through airports." Membership starts at $89, and many credit cards offer Priority Pass membership as a perk of signing on with the card, Siegel said.

Ask About 'Off Rooms' That Might Be Available for Free

Ask About 'Off Rooms'

Rather than simply aim for a hotel room upgrade, set your sights higher — a hotel room for free. Hotels often have rooms that are out of service for repairs, said Will Hatton, owner of the travel site Hotel Jules and creator of The Broke Backpacker. "Deluxe rooms will not be available unless perfect," Hatton said. "Some of these rooms may only have small issues, such as no remote control, smashed light, or broken table leg. These are not essential to a stay, so if you ask the hotels directly if they have any off rooms, then you can negotiate to stay in them for free." One caveat: This is better done in person, Hatton said. Also, let the staff know you plan to patronize its restaurant, spa, or other amenities so that the hotel will be benefiting financially from your stay.

Get Social

Look for Promotions on Social Media

Before arriving at your hotel, it's always wise to scan its Twitter, said Nick Gray, founder of Museum Hack. "Many hotels run social media promotions that allow you to feel like a VIP without spending like one," Gray said. "For example, at certain times of the year, Kimpton Hotels posts a 'social password' on their Twitter account. When you say the social password at check-in, you'll get a surprise, which could include a free bottle of wine, parking, coffee mug, drinks at the bar, room upgrade, dining vouchers, a hot chocolate kit, or in-room movie."

Related: 30 Travel Hacks That Will Save You Money

Practice Brand Loyalty

Practice Brand Loyalty

Make sure to travel with one airline or stay with one hotel brand as much as possible, said Ava Roxanne Stritt, a luxury, spa, and wellness travel writer known as Spa Travel Gal and a Travelocity ambassador. "Loyalty means a lot in this digital age," she said. "Even the flight attendants know all about your status. Recently, one came up to me and said she heard I had a missed connection on my previous travels, and asked if there was anything she could do to help make this flight easier."

Take a Repositioning Cruise

Take a Repositioning Cruise

Repositioning cruises across the Atlantic are heavily discounted and usually have a fraction of the typical number of guests onboard — since the main purpose is to reposition the ship from Europe to North America or vice versa. "It's often cheaper to take one of these cruises from the United States to Europe than to fly," said Nick Gray of Museum Hack. "Talk about a VIP experience — hopping aboard a nearly empty cruise ship, with front row seats at every show, no lines for the waterslide, and unlimited soft serve ice cream at the buffet. If you squint, it looks like you're aboard your very own private yacht."

Share Your Experience on Social Media

Share Your Experience on Social Media

If you have a social media presence and can share your experience staying at a hotel with your followers, you may be eligible for a complimentary room or upgrade, said Alix Strickland Frénoy, a luxury travel blogger who created the site A Hedgehog in the Kitchen. "This is possible even if you have small social media numbers," she said, adding that you should make sure to disclose the upgrade or freebie to your followers.

Phone Call

Call a Hotel and Book Directly

With the rise of online booking sites, travelers often neglect to simply call a hotel directly anymore. But doing so can allow you to negotiate a better room. "I do this regularly when traveling and have received up to 25% off the price of the room just for booking directly, typically when staying at least two nights," Strickland Frénoy said. "Booking sites take quite a large percentage of the room rate, so hotels, especially smaller boutique hotels, are often happy to negotiate directly with clients."

Sign-Up for Credit Cards That Offer Travel Perks
American Express

Sign Up for Credit Cards That Offer Travel Perks

Look for credit cards that offer notable travel perks, suggested travel blogger Caroline Lupini. "For example, if you stay at Hilton hotels frequently but not frequently enough to earn status, you should consider getting the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card that offers top-tier ... Diamond status," Lupini said. This status, she added, "will get you included breakfast, which can really add up at nice hotels, and room upgrades based on availability."

Related: The 20 Best Free Hotel Breakfasts in America

You Don't Ask About Deals

Sign Up With Hotel Loyalty Programs

Being part of a hotel's loyalty program helps you score room upgrades as well, Strickland Frénoy said. "I specifically love Accor and Marriott. I have personally experienced upgrades with both in the past," she said. "Accor also offers private sales and sometimes steep reductions just for being a member."

Mention a Special Occasion

Mention a Special Occasion

Tristan Pollock and his wife, Danyelle, creators of the site WeDidThat, have been on a honeymoon traveling around the world for the past two years. When renting a car, they often select the cheapest option to save money. But if there's an "additional notes" box as part of an online rental form, the duo will mention they are on their honeymoon, which has resulted in an upgrade on more than one occasion, Pollock said.

Travel to Places That Have Experienced Recent Currency Deflation
Witthaya Prasongsin/istockphoto

Travel to Places With Favorable Exchange Rates

Pollock suggested that if you want to live like a VIP on the cheap, find places where the currency is far, far less valuable than the U.S. dollar. "Often you'll see travelers flocking to Southeast Asia and, yes, it is very cheap for foreigners from countries with strong currencies like the U.S.," Pollock said. "Bali was a personal favorite on our current trip. But you'll find these opportunities in other regions of the world as well."

Be Extremely Observant During Hotel Stays

Be Observant During Hotel Stays

If something is broken or in poor condition in your hotel room, be sure to mention it, suggested Janelle Lopez, who, along with her husband, Clayton, created the site Bonnie Clyde Worldwide. When the couple stayed at the Cliff House at Pikes Peak in Manitou Springs, Colorado, for example, a broken shower head resulted in extended repairs. "For 45 minutes, we had maintenance men coming in and out trying to fix the bath and shower," Lopez said. "This was extremely inconvenient, and we asked the front desk to give us a solution that would show us they deserve a 5-star rating for our stay. We immediately got an upgrade to the Teddy Roosevelt Suite free of charge."

Travel When Others Don't

Travel When Others Don't

Seasonality impacts travel pricing like nothing else and is driven primarily by demand, said Gabe Saglie, senior editor for Travelzoo. "That's what makes prices in Arizona and Florida peak in the winter, and prices in Europe and California peak in the summer," he said. "Travel to Scottsdale in summer to save up to 75% on 5-star hotels, and to L.A. in January to get some of the best beach resort prices of the year." In New York City, hotel prices are at their lowest in January and February, when winter weather is in full effect, Saglie said. The savings will make contending with weather extremes a lot easier.

Related: 30 Cheap Destinations for Off-Season Travel 

Check-In at 6 p.m.

Check in at 6 p.m.

Check-in times at hotels peak in the early afternoon through about 3 p.m. "By early evening, hotels start to get a better gauge of things like no-shows and last-minute cancellations, and therefore have a better sense of available rooms, making the chance of getting a complimentary upgrade for the asking a bit easier," Saglie said. "Similarly, requesting an upgrade at check-in, versus when you're booking online, will often result in better room options at lower prices."

Ask the Gate Agent

Ask the Gate Agent About Upgrades

Particularly on smaller, regional, low-frills airlines, upgraded seats are offered at deep discounts right before boarding. "I've seen first-class seats on these types of airlines available for as little as $50 at the gate — certainly less than what was made available during the online booking process," Saglie said. "Elite flyers will get the free bump, but selling an upgraded seat even at a steep discount is always preferred."

Visit After a Big Event
Sean Pavone/istockphoto

Visit After a Big Event

When will Tokyo prices be at their most competitive? Right after the closing ceremonies of the 2020 Olympics, Saglie suggested. "Major events that draw big crowds or major sporting events like the World Cup, for example, will make travel prices soar. But these destinations will need to reconcile all that pre-event investment, and sales are the most effective way to do it," he said. Similarly, prices in Las Vegas drop dramatically right after New Year's Eve, and any city that hosts a major convention will see hotel prices tumble right after all the business travelers go home.

Look for Brands That Offer Perks Relevant to You

Look for Perks Relevant to You

Kimpton Hotels let your dog of any breed or size stay for free. "But the hotel next door could well have a pet fee of $50 to $100 a night, and with weight limits," Saglie said. "Southwest lets you check your first two bags for free, unlike pretty much everyone else. Choosing the right brand can save you."

Book a Cruise at the Last Minute

Book a Cruise at the Last Minute

Cruise ships would rather sail with all those cabins occupied, Saglie said, so "look for deep discounts on all room types right before that anchor is scheduled to be raised. Similarly, cruisers will find some of the best bargains of the year during wave season, which is January through March, when the entire industry aims to secure bookings for cruises as far out as a year by offering things like free cabin upgrades, free drinks packages, and waived tipping."

Pay for the Pedi, Stay All Day
HQuality Video/istockphoto

Pay for a Pedi, Enjoy the Spa All Day

Spas often offer up their full amenities to anyone who buys a service. "That means you can make a spa day out of that 50-minute massage by arriving a few hours earlier and staying a few hours later, taking advantage of amenities like a rooftop pool, eucalyptus steam room, and therapeutic dipping pool," Saglie said.

Book with a Travel Agent
Hybrid Images/Getty Images

Book With a Travel Agent

One of the fastest ways to VIP treatment is to work with a travel agent, said Diane Nigg, owner of travel agency Adventures for Alaskans. "It won't cost you any more money, and you'll get more perks and benefits than if you booked on your own," Nigg said. "In fact, it will save you time and money, because, as luxury specialists, travel agents get to know the hotels and managers and advocate on behalf of our clients. We work with networks that receive preferential benefits and pricing." Travel agents also know which hotels are offering free access to spas or have special promotions.

Andrei Stanescu/istockphoto

Leverage Your Reward Status Across Brands

If you have any sort of elite status with an airline or hotel chain, check to see if it is honored at other hotel and airline groups, said Kurosh Hashemi, founder of the travel site RoadGoat. "Status matching is one of the tools used by airlines and hotel chains to lure frequent travelers from other chains to their own," he said. "They are usually printed and marketed policies. For example, a couple years ago I got Marriott status by having United Airlines status."

Look for Last Minute Hotel Discounts or Try Bidding Sites
Hotel Tonight

Look for Last-Minute Hotel Discounts

By waiting to book a room until just a few days before your trip, it's sometimes possible to snag a discounted hotel stay, said Matilda Geroulis of The Travel Sisters. "A great place to find these are with the Hotel Tonight app." You can also try bidding sites like Priceline.

Volunteer to Be Reassigned on Overbooked Flights

Volunteer to Be Bumped on Overbooked Flights

When a flight is overbooked, you can ask the airline to shift you to the next flight and get compensated in the form of an upgraded seat, a flight voucher, or other perks. "In fact, you can ask at the check-in counter every time you take a flight, and volunteer for a later flight if the flight is overbooked, and the airlines would be happy to adjust you," said Saurabh Jindal, creator of the startup Talk Travel. "They provide you with a hotel stay, compensation for your troubles, and a seat in the next flight."

Act Like a VIP

Act Like a VIP

This is very nuanced, but the fact is that being a decent person when you travel can open the door to a better travel experience, said Travelzoo's Saglie. "Do you have to dress nicely and act nicely to travel? No. But standing out for the right reasons can incentivize people you meet along the way, such as airline gate agents and front desk personnel, to return the favor," he said. "I was offered a free cocktail on a flight once simply because the flight attendant really liked my socks. I have a friend who often brings a box of chocolates on board his flights and hands it to flight attendants as he boards; this sweet touch made traveling with his young son easier since the whole crew tends to be more willing to go above and beyond to help."