It sometimes seems like road warriors and rich guys know something that you don’t about air travel. They always seem to be getting upgrades and spending their layovers inside airline lounges instead of sitting next to you at a table in front of the food court Cinnabon.
You could attempt to become one of them by traveling with a blazer-and-jeans outfit and a briefcase. However, just looking the part is NOT enough to get you first-class travel perks. At the same time, most air travel extras are not just for execs on expense accounts. Anyone and everyone has access to them if they know a few simple secrets.
Although some of the perks will require a little extra spending, you can certainly enjoy them and still stay within the economy class budget range.
Here is what you need to do to become a savvy, perk-getting air traveler.
Join a loyalty program
These are most often called “frequent flier programs,” but you don’t have to travel every week (or even every month) to benefit from them. If you fly more than 3-4 times per year OR if you travel abroad at least once a year, you can reap the benefits of being a frequent flier.
Here is the secret of frequent flier programs: they are not only about earning free flights. The more miles you earn, the higher your “status” with the airline. Your miles are a way to measure how loyal you are them. It’s a simple equation: more loyalty = higher status = more perks. These perks, such as free or cheap upgrades and lounge access, are worth much more than a free flight in terms of actual dollar value.
You don’t even have to commit to one airline to earn miles. There is a hack that savvy fliers know about that can help you earn miles on a number of different airlines. I’ll tell you about it in a second. But first, here are the three rules that you need to follow to really reap the benefits of an airline loyalty program.
1. Join the loyalty program for the airline that you will fly the most often.
Most fliers are best off choosing an airline that flies out of their home airport frequently. Or, if you fly to the same destination often, you can choose the airline that offers the best fares on that particular route.
2. If you can’t fly on your airline, make sure that you are flying on an allied airline.
Airline alliances are something that frequent fliers are very familiar with, but that casual travelers aren’t aware of. There are three major alliances: One World, SkyTeam and the Star Alliance. Airlines in the same alliance will often code-share. For example, Delta and Air France (both SkyTeam members) will sell tickets for a single flight. You could buy your tickets from Delta even though the airplane is operated by Air France. Most (but not all) alliance members will allow you to earn the same amount of miles whether you fly on your chosen airline or on another member of the alliance. This is not always the case, however, so you should check before buying just to confirm.
3. Get an airline-specific credit card. These credit cards have several advantages.
You can earn miles every time you use your card (for gas or groceries or whatnot). This means that you can be earning miles and increasing your status without even flying. Also, most airline credit cards give you a higher miles-per-dollar-spent ratio when you are purchasing tickets. For example, you may earn three miles per dollar spent on an airfare, plus whatever miles you earn from actually flying. This is an easy way to compound the amount of miles that you earn each time you travel. The catch is that some of these credit cards have annual fees, so you have to fly enough to overcome these costs (usually about $90-$125 per year).
Another thing to be aware of is that most airline loyalty programs only count miles earned in the past 12 months. So once you reach a higher frequent flier status, you still have to travel (and use your credit card) to maintain that status.
But what if you don’t fly a lot?
You can enjoy frequent flier perks even if you only fly once a year. It will just cost you a little bit more. Most people don’t know this, but many airline lounges have a pay-in option. This means that you can pay $30-$50 and get a day’s worth of lounge access, even if you just sat in the last row of economy class on your inbound flight. This practice is more common than it used to be because airlines are looking for extra ways to make a profit. Some airports even have third-party lounges that are specifically for people who are willing to pay admission to gain access to more comfortable seats, snacks, and fast, free wi-fi.
You can also ask to buy an upgrade when you check in OR even at the gate. If there are any unfilled seats in the premium classes, they may be sold cheaply at the last minute. This is not always the case, but it often is. Airplanes that have a “premium economy” class may sell upgrades to people in regular economy class at the gate for as little as $25-$30.
With these simple hacks, you can enjoy a better time in the sky and at the airport. And best of all, you can leave your blazer and briefcase at home.