With all the complaints about escalating fees that travelers have to pay, another pricing trend is on the rise that some customers might actually like: paid upgrades.
Hotels, airlines and car rental agencies are more aggressively promoting the chance to upgrade your room, seat or set of wheels for a price that is often (but not always) less than you would have paid if you had reserved that business-class ticket or hotel suite in the first place.
Usually, these offers are presented at check-in, when travel companies figure it’s too late to sell their premium inventory to somebody else. But sometimes the upselling begins just after you’ve booked.
Elite members of travel loyalty programs are not necessarily happy about this development, because it can mean fewer free upgrades for them, although some companies are figuring out ways to keep these perks in the mix for their most loyal customers. Below are more details about who is offering paid upgrades and how to decide if they are worth the price.
A BIGGER ROOM
I stumbled onto a hotel upgrade last year in Hong Kong, after finding out the $250-a-night room with a harbor view that I had reserved was opposite the elevator bay. A trip back to the front desk to request a quieter room led to an offer to upgrade to a suite for an extra $12 a night. It was definitely a good deal (normally a suite would have cost at least $30 extra), and it made me wonder if I had been missing out by not bargaining more often at the front desk.
It turns out most travelers don’t ask for upgrades, and many clerks don’t offer them, so a company called Nor1 (nor1.com) has automated the process, essentially letting computers handle the negotiation. Working with chains like Hilton, Hyatt, InterContinental, Carlson and Fairmont, as well as independent hotels, Nor1 emails an “eStandby Upgrade” offer to some guests who already have reservations. The deals vary based on how full the hotel is, the type of room booked and variables like loyalty membership, but a typical upgrade invitation might offer a bigger room for an extra $10 to $30 a night.
Jason Bryant, Nor1’s founder, said the standby upgrade generally costs 25 to 40 percent less than booking the better room in the first place, since accepting the offer doesn’t guarantee you’ll get the upgrade (hence the word “standby” in the name). But if the hotel doesn’t sell that nicer room to someone else for the regular price, your upgrade will be confirmed when you check in.
Not everyone who books a room will automatically get an upgrade pitch, Bryant said.
“We don’t want 20 guests stacking up for the same offer if we know only one guest is going to get it.”
Elite members of a hotel’s loyalty program might still be offered a free upgrade, Bryant said, but could also see a paid upgrade option for an even better room or an offer of a discounted spa treatment or dinner instead of a room upgrade.
John Ollila, who tracks loyalty programs at LoyaltyLobby.com (and has elite status with the major hotel chains), said he usually tries his luck by asking for a better room when he checks in. But for travelers without elite benefits, he said, Nor1’s eStandby upgrades can be a reasonable deal.
“Check how much the upgraded room would have cost you in the first place,” Ollila said, adding that it might still be worth bargaining to see what you could get without charge.
A BETTER FLIGHT
Airlines are also more aggressively selling paid upgrades, although their business model seems to be more varied than that of hotels.
For instance, Alaska Airlines offers paid upgrades within 24 hours of the flight’s departure through Web check-in, airport check-in kiosks, the ticket counter and even at the departure gate. For a one-way flight of 1,250 miles or less, the cost is $50 to upgrade to first class, which increases to $200 for a flight of 3,751 miles or more (with other price points in between). The savings can be $300 to $400 for domestic flights.
Delta’s “same-day standby upgrades” start at $50 for flights of up to 500 miles and increase to $350 for flights longer than 3,000 miles, but you must be traveling on an eligible fare (K or higher) to qualify for a paid upgrade. For a flight from New York to San Francisco, the price difference between an eligible economy class fare and business class is more than $1,500 one way, versus $225 for a same-day standby upgrade, if one is available the day you fly.
United uses “personalized” pricing for its paid upgrades. The offer is based on your frequent flier status, seat availability, itinerary and date of ticket purchase, so different travelers might pay different amounts.
George Hobica, the founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, said he was recently offered the chance to upgrade a $189 one-way United economy fare from New York to Denver for an extra $500.
“Normally that business-class fare would’ve cost $1,800 one way,” Hobica said.
Although he did not buy the upgrade, he said that they are often a good deal.
Jonathan Raiola, an events planner from Brooklyn, said he recently paid $336 to upgrade a United flight from San Francisco to Kennedy Airport, jumping from business to first class.
“For a transcontinental flight, it’s worth it,” he said, especially because the free upgrades airlines sometimes offer elite fliers are “much harder” to get these days.
A FASTER CAR
The car rental industry has a different approach to upgrades, usually offering them at the counter rather than emailing an offer to customers before their trip. For instance, when I reserved a rental car for a visit to Michigan last December, I chose a compact, a decision I debated at the Detroit airport, with a snowstorm on the way. The agent offered a bigger car or an SUV that could better handle icy roads, but I balked at the price: an extra $6 to $9 a day. For an eight-day rental, I figured it would add almost $100 to the final bill with the extra taxes.
Because the compact car kept getting stuck in the snow, I probably made the wrong decision, at least when I made my reservation.
Gil Cygler, president of Allcar Rent-a-Car in Brooklyn, said that upgrades offered at the rental car counter are generally more expensive than booking a bigger car in the first place.
“When you do it at the counter, the agent is getting a commission,” he said. “So you’re usually going to be paying about $8 to $10 more.”
Cygler said the price difference between car classes is typically only a few dollars when you book your reservation, which is what I found when I checked sample airport rentals online. The difference between a compact and an economy car was just $1 or $2 a day, and bumping up from an economy to an intermediate car was an extra $2 to $4 a day.
There are still times when you might get a free upgrade — especially if you’re a frequent renter, you’re traveling at an off-peak time or gas prices are high (and companies have trouble renting bigger, less fuel-efficient cars). Neighborhood dealers might also be more willing to throw local renters a bone.
“Be nice to the person at the counter,” Cygler said. “If I have one reservation today and four cars, something is going to sit. So if I can make you happier, I will.”