By Joel Widzer Travel columnist
updated 1/24/2007 12:44:50 PM ET 2007-01-24T17:44:50

A new year inevitably brings about a list of resolutions, such as losing weight, saving money, living a less stressful life or taking that dream trip. Well, I can’t help with the first three, but I can give you some advice on how to book your travel — or, rather, how not to book your travel — which, come to think of it, could indeed save you money and relieve some stress.

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Learn some lessons from my friend Maryam, who should have known better.

Maryam planned a family trip to Hawaii over the holidays, from December 21 to January 2. That was her first mistake, as this is one of the busiest tourist seasons in Hawaii, so there are few deals and room upgrades available. Don’t get me wrong. If a white Christmas doesn’t get you going, Hawaii is a wonderful place to be. Just expect to pay top dollar.

Maryam would have been better off waiting a week. She lives in Orange County, California, just 10 minutes from the beach, where temperatures topped 75 degrees on Christmas Day. What’s more, her kids didn’t return to school until the second week in January, giving her ample time for a Hawaiian adventure during a less-traveled time period.

Maryam’s second mistake was a whopper. After doing all the research and planning on her own, Maryam allowed a travel agent to book her hotel and airfare at no savings to her. In fact, it cost her. It turns out that the agent booked Maryam’s vacation under an unpublished consolidation rate and fare that gave the agent a bigger commission but put Maryam in the “Do Not Upgrade” category for both her hotel and air travel.

Unpublished rates and fares are the goat’s tail when it comes to getting upgraded. Even though Maryam paid for her travel six months in advance, met all eligibility criteria, and had enough points and miles to upgrade her room and her flight, she was barred from all upgrades because of the way the agent book her ticket. The lesson is one I have articulated many times in the past: Unless your itinerary is very complex or requires special expertise (say, for an African safari), book your travel yourself. Above all, make sure you are upgrade-eligible.

Maryam’s last mistake was a failure of initiative. Maryam wanted a room upgrade badly. (Who can blame her? Because of the high rate, her family of four was booked into one room). After her travel agent told her there was nothing she could do, I advised Maryam to call the hotel's manager and see if an upgrade could be arranged directly through him.

This is a somewhat tricky call, I admit, but when well executed, it can reap a number of rewards. It would involve phoning in advance, asking for the manager, getting his or her name, explaining the situation, asking for special consideration, and letting the manager know that if he could help her, Maryam would remember the effort.

Maryam was reluctant to make the call. As a result, her family ended up crammed into their one room without so much as a view. Hotel managers do have discretion to override room bookings, but if you don’t ask, you certainly won’t receive.

Most New Year's resolutions get lost in the shuffle of everyday life. Don’t let this be one of them. Good travel planning requires no dieting or heavy effort, only some foresight and confidence — and the benefits are all yours.

Joel Widzer is an expert on loyalty and frequent flier programs. He is the author of "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel," a guidebook on traveling in high style at budget-friendly prices. E-mail him or visit his Web site.


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