With increasing numbers of travelers hitting the airports, hotels and roads, an upgrade can make a big difference in your travel experience. Here are five ways to up your chances.
1. Plan, plan, plan. The best plan is to think ahead. Look for flights that are less full, days when hotels have lower occupancy, and times when rental cars are sitting idle on the lot. If you don't have this information, call the reservations line and ask; after all, every company wants to maximize the use of its inventory. You can also check sites like ExpertFlyer.com, which can tell you when flight upgrades are available.
2. Pay a little more. Increasingly, travel providers are blocking the lowest airfares and room rates against upgrading. In these situations, even the most generous gate agents and reservations clerks cannot override the computer's block without losing their jobs. The good news is that the difference between the lowest fares and the upgradeable fares is often as little as 5 percent. In other words, if you pay just $10 more, that $200 airfare or hotel room could become eligible for an upgrade. Again, be sure to call ahead to confirm with a reservations agent that the fare you have selected is upgradable.
3. Use your points. My longtime advice has been to use your miles or points for upgrades, not for cheap tickets and hotel rooms. To my mind, the upgrades give far greater value. Many domestic airfares can be had for $200 to $250 with a little advance planning, and hotel rooms priced under $200 are easy to find. But a first-class domestic plane ticket runs between $1,200 and $2,000, and prime hotel suites go from $350 to $900 per night (even more in some places). Clearly the value of your miles lies in leveraging them for the upgrade.
4. Think hotels. If you can upgrade only one aspect of your trip, go for the hotel upgrade. With luxury hotel rates rising at a faster clip then airfares, hotel upgrades are the better value. This is especially true if your flight is relatively short (under four hours) and your hotel stay is relatively long (more than three days). It has been my experience that a good room in a luxury hotel makes any trip special.
5. Leverage your loyalty. As the economy settles down, companies rely more and more on their best customers. This means you don't have to be in an ultra-elite category of membership to get the goods. Even the first tier of membership should give you an extra edge, so don't be afraid to ask.
Upgrading takes some knowledge and a little effort, but an upgrade can absolutely make the difference between a great trip and a lousy one.

Joel Widzer