The best way to save money is to pretend like you have a lot of it. That is the lesson I’ve learned over the last year, as I have stepped up my travel game.
First class breakfast. I didn’t pay a dime for the flight.
When a company thinks that you have no money, it will treat you like you have no money. People who have no money are capable of delivering no profit to a company, and they are highly price-conscious, which makes them a pain to deal with. They also tend to not have the resources to afford to be loyal to a particular brand. These people don’t put brand first; they don’t travel enough to be loyal to one company.
As a person who lives in an expensive city on an entry-level salary, my financial goals are two-fold: 1) keeping my fixed costs as low as possible; 2) stretching my disposable income as much as possible.
The basic way to do this is simple. The advanced strategy can get super complicated. I’m going to stick to the basics today, and I’ll cover advanced stuff as the weeks go on.
Authenticity does not exist. Stop using it as an excuse to not get what you want.
My first lesson in upgrade-ology came when I was in Nashville five or six years ago. My mom, who was a legitimate journalist at the time, asked the Hotel for a media rate. She said she was doing a piece on Nashville and would also like to see the meeting facilities.
She got 40% off their best rate, we got a baller room, and she spent a grand total of 15 minutes talking to their meeting staff about the hotel. Bam! #UpgradeWin
In this situation, she leveraged her status as a journalist to save money and improve the quality of the stay. She did nothing illegal or unethical. She simply took advantage of her job to get better service.
Yeah, well what if I’m not a journalist!?!
Businesses exist to make a profit. Except for Amtrak. These rules don’t apply to Amtrak. For everyone else, the goal is to convince the business that you are a potential source of significant profit.
The easiest way to do this is to take advantage of backdoor routes to elite status with loyalty programs.
Here’s a quick list of my elite statuses, and how I got them:
Marriott Silver: Marriott Premier Rewards Visa
Starwood Gold: American Express Platinum
Hilton Gold: Hilton HHonors Reserve Visa
Accor Platinum: Instant signup loophole
Kimpton Inner Circle: Status Match (more on this in a later post)
When I walk into a hotel, the front desk takes one look at their computer to see that I am an elite member of the hotel chain. As a result, I am immediately become someone who is not be trifled with. Additionally, I receive a variety of benefits that depend on the chain (a room upgrade being the most important). My strategy is to always proactively remind the front desk of my status, as if to reinforce the fact that I’m a BFD.
My second strategy revolves around my appearance and attitude at check-in (this applies to both airlines and hotels). I walk in with all of my information ready, and I try to politely move through the process as quickly as possible. I ask about my “Gold [Silver/Platinum/Inner Circle]” benefits. I talk about how I’m in [name the city] on a quick business trip to check out potential meeting locations for my organization.
This is where the men are separated from the boys.
At check-in, hotels have specific procedures for placing different guests into different rooms. Airlines have specific procedures for handing a variety of fees and upgrades. These procedures are often not as concrete as you think, and the individual employees often have more latitude than you think.
I’m going to offer up quick examples from this weekend to prove my point.
Hotels—Anything less than the best is unacceptable
Since I started working in March of last year, I have stayed 30 nights in hotel rooms. While I’m not the biggest traveler in the world, I do get out quite a bit. The majority of these stays were in Hilton properties, but I’ve also stayed at resorts (the Broadmoor in Colorado) and at Starwood, Marriott, and Kimpton properties.
I do not stay enough at any one of these chains to have top-tier elite status (eight of those nights were on reward travel, which doesn’t count towards status), but the individual hotels don’t know that.
So, when I check-in, the hotel is forced to recognize me as someone who is loyal to the chain and provides the company with a major source of revenue. I fully recognize the fact that being a Caucasian male doesn’t hurt. I don’t condone stereotyping, but I can confirm that it exists. Being young is probably not helpful, but I have never run into major difficulty here.
Instead of offering a bunch of platitudes and hypotheticals, here are two real examples from my experience this weekend in Park City, Utah.
Night One—Park City Marriott
It’s no secret that I think Marriott is far inferior to Hilton. The rewards program is crap, the hotels are—dollar for dollar—much less satisfactory, and they offer fewer options at different price points. Still, I’ve racked up a bunch of points at Marriott, and I might as well use them.
At check-in, I was thanked for being a Marriott Silver member. Standard. Then, I was told that I was the “elite member of the day.” Not standard. In fact, I thought it was a joke, or it was something that said to everyone. Nope. I looked on the front desk and there was a plaque that read: “The Marriott Park City Welcomes our Silver Elite Member of the Day… Preston Cornish.”
I got a top-floor upgraded room and a few freebies. Not bad.
Night Two—Waldorf-Astoria, Park City
The Waldorf-Astoria is the kind of hotel that most people spend their whole lives dreaming about, only to realize the absurdity of spending $650/night on a hotel room.
This was free. It was awesome.
Last year, I got two free weekend night certificates that were redeemable for any Hilton property that participates in Hilton HHonors. Me being me, I set out to find the single most expensive Hilton property in the 48 states. After a non-exhaustive search, I realized I couldn’t do much better than the WA during peak season in Park City. Because of the fact that it was peak season in Park City, the redemption was technically not allowed through the certificate, but I called customer service and had them convert my certificates into a whole boatload of points that wouldn’t be blacked out when I wanted to visit.
Of course, when you redeem points, you get stuck with the most basic room at the hotel. Normally, this isn’t a problem, because as a Hilton Gold, I get a room upgrade. For example, I booked a four night reward stay for a studio room at the Hilton Bentley South Beach and got upgraded to an ocean-view suite. I can’t say that I ever used the bidet, but it was pretty awesome to have one.
Did I pay for this room? No, no I did not.
Unfortunately, there was a Panamanian oil company retreat at the WA when I visited, and as a result, the hotel was fully booked. When I asked for an upgrade at check-in, I was told that all rooms were full. I took the keys—dejected for the first non-upgrade of my Hilton career—and went to check the room. It had one bed. For two people.
Undeterred, I put on my upgrade thinking cap. Ladies and gents, this is the proudest upgrade of my young career.
My first step was to call the front desk. When I checked in, the agent mistakenly told me that there would be a pull-out couch in the room. I knew that he was probably wrong, but I hoped that he had given me an upgrade and not realized it. In fact, he had told me the wrong thing. I my call to the desk, I explained that I was misled when I was told that I would have a couch. I told him that I was arriving with two people, and that I needed separate sleeping arrangements.
Here is where you have to pull the shock and disgust card. “Quite frankly, this is a real shock to me, sir. As long as I have been a Hilton Gold member, I have never been put in a room like this. I think it is unacceptable, and I would appreciate it if you could find a way to make it right.”
Response: “I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but why don’t you come up to the bar, I’ll buy your first round, and I’ll see what I can do.”
Long story somewhat shorter: it took two hours, but I got upgraded to a one-bedroom, two-bathroom suite with a full kitchen and a washer/dryer. Not the most insane room I’ve stayed in (in the last 30 days), but it was pretty awesome. I will say that it was the first hotel room with a W/D I’ve stayed in.
I was upgraded because I was persistent, I identified why I thought that the hotel should do better, I did not settle for an option I was not happy with, and I indicated to the hotel staff that I had an alternative option if their hotel was not going to meet my request for an upgrade, by laying out my plan to switch to the St. Regis.
Here’s the reality: I was not entitled to an upgrade. In fact, suite upgrades are not part of the Hilton program.
Here’s the other reality: I would have switched hotels if they had not upgraded me. I would have found a way to get my certificates back. I would have made a big stink about their failure to upgrade me. I probably would have found a way to shift additional business to Starwood and Kimpton.
I was incredibly appreciative of the front desk staff (shout-out to Jonathan) for helping me out. They didn’t have to, but they did. I tipped the front desk manager who found me the room, Jonathan, pretty well on my way out. I have a super positive opinion of their property now. When I make my second million, I’ll be sure to head back.
Sharing travel experiences with loved ones is one of the best things you can do in life.
You don’t actually have to be a serious traveler to be treated like one. By finding the backdoor routes necessary to get loyalty status, you can be treated just like the folks who stay at properties 5-10x a month.
Hotel points and airline miles are a form of currency. Imagine if someone offered you 10,000 Mexican Pesos. Would you turn them down just because it’s harder to spend Pesos in America than it is to pay cash? No. It’s still a form of currency. 10,000 Pesos can be converted to American cash, or it can be used to buy stuff in Mexico. With loyalty programs, you earn a form of currency that can be used to “buy” rooms, plane tickets, and other stuff through the airline/hotel. It’s huge. If you take advantage of the programs, always looking for ways to earn maximum points with minimum spend, you can travel for free, or nearly free. It’s incredible. It will change your life.
On 1/20, I shared with you a background on how to start playing the credit card game. The rewards are huge and the time commitment is minimal. In the next post, I’m going to talk advanced strategies for playing one elite status off of another to gain maximum rewards.