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5 tricks for traveling first class on an economy budget

Travel experts share their tips for enjoying some of the perks of first-class travel, without the hefty price tag.
Young woman in an airport lounge
If you find yourself at the airport for an extended layover consider purchasing a lounge pass, which will get you plush seating, open bars, snacks and even showers for under $50. izusek / Getty Images/Vetta

There’s no better feeling than setting your out of office reply, packing your bag and setting off to explore a new city … except when you get to do it style, traveling in luxury with first class seats, fancy accommodations and five-star food.

While these perks tend to carry a hefty price tag, it is possible to experience them without racking up your credit card bill. We tapped travel experts for their tricks of the trade for upgrading your travel experience on a budget.

First things first: book smart

Where you decide to go — and what time of year you plan to do it — can make all the difference in how much your trip costs. When it comes to keeping the price down (and having more money to spend on dining and activities), being flexible is key. Since plane tickets often make up a large chunk of the cost of a trip, be flexible with time of year, travel dates and locations, and utilize alerts to snag flights when prices dip. Considering off-season travel can also get you plane tickets and hotels at much lower prices — meaning that bump up to a first-class ticket or a reservation at a five-star hotel may be more attainable.

Rent an apartment or house instead of a hotel

When it comes to accommodations, thinking outside of the box can lead to some pretty posh digs. Traditionally, we tend to stay in hotels when we travel, whether it be an all-inclusive resort or a boutique hotel. But home-share options like VRBO and Airbnb are becoming more and more popular, and they aren’t only good for snagging cheap rooms and apartments. These sites list luxury properties are vetted and reviewed by past consumers and give you all the amenities of a five-star hotel and then some.

We’re talking a full kitchen, claw-foot bathtub, private pool, and balconies to sunbathe or people watch. (A 5-bedroom Italian villa with a sea-view for $200 a night? Sign us up). The other benefit of these sites is that you can find a property at a reasonable rate in prime areas that would typically cost you an arm-and-a-leg if staying in a hotel in the same area. For example, if you’re in Paris, France and want to be near the Eiffel Tower, hotels can cost around $600 a night. But a night in a rental in the same neighborhood can be found for $100 and up, depending on the season.

But before booking, read the reviews and look at the pictures. Past visitors are very honest in their reviews about location, amenities and other important factors to consider during your stay at a property. And don't ignore the pictures provided by the host: If most of them are of local landmarks or gorgeous views, chances are the apartment or house itself isn't much to write home about — which is fine if location and ease of sightseeing is your priority. But if you're looking for fancier accommodations, make sure the images of the property reflect that.

Go to the airport lounge

If you find yourself at the airport for an extended layover, delay or cancellation, you should consider going to the lounge. Contrary to popular belief, they're not just for first class ticket holders and frequent flyers. Instead of spending hours roaming the airport in search of overpriced meals and sitting in the uncomfortable chairs at the gate, hanging out in the lounge gives you access to free food, WiFi, comfortable seating, and in some places, a place to sleep, shower and formally dine.

Don’t let the fancy doors outside of airport lounges intimidate you; lounges are easier to access than you think. First, check if the airline you are traveling on has a lounge — you can do that on their app or at the ticket counter. For Delta flights, if you have the gold American Express card, you can access their lounge for as low as $29. For United Airlines flights, simply having a business class ticket lets you in their United Club. If you travel frequently, then consider getting a membership to Lounge Buddy or Priority Pass (both starting at $99/year). These services allow you to look up the airport you are currently in and find their partner lounges available to you at a discounted price — as low as $19. (Many travel credit cards also offer a complimentary membership to one of these programs when you sign up.)

Even if you don’t have one of these memberships, you can still use sites like LoungeBuddy to purchase lounge access in advance (many lounges also accept walk-ins). What does access buy you and at what cost? The Wingtips lounge at John F. Kennedy airport in New York, for example, costs $50 and has an open bar, unlimited snacks, TVs and WiFi, while The Club lounge at Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta offers all of this plus showers and printing and faxing services for just $39. (If you have sticker shock up front, think of how much you typically drop on water, snacks, drinks and magazines during a layover — and that's minus the comfy chairs.)

Ask for an upgrade

It's notoriously hard to get an upgrade, especially now that airlines seem to be nickel and diming more than ever — with additional costs often added for checked bags, seat selection and extra leg room. But although people are always intimidated to do this, simply asking for the upgrade is the best way to make it happen. Of course, there is a specific strategy, starting with kindness. Greet the staff and acknowledge their work. They are working hard, and have tough, often thankless, jobs in hospitality. Being patient and kind automatically makes you stand out among the other customers they have dealt with all day.

Next, be strategic about how and when you ask for your upgrade. Choose a quiet time; when it’s busy, the staff may be overwhelmed and busy dealing with other issues. Also, never ask loudly in front of other people. As you can imagine, this can quickly trigger a domino effect of endless asks from other customers, which will lead to a hard “no” to all of you. Instead, lean in with your kindness and smile, and ask if there are any opportunities to be upgraded. There may not be any available at the time of the ask, as the boarding process coming to a close (and the flight has no-shows), spots may open up and you’ll be on their radar.

Also, dress the part. Often people travel in their most comfortable clothes that closely resemble pajamas (or even are pajamas). But if you’re hoping for an upgrade to first or business class, find comfortable clothing that can also pass as business casual. If you look the part, the staff may be more inclined to present you with the option.

This is also another area where those travel credit cards will come in handy. If you rack up enough points, you can splurge on the first-class tickets without your bank account taking a hit. (The key is to use one card for the majority of your purchases in order to accumulate the most points possible in the shortest amount of time).

Eat at a five-star restaurant on a budget

Want to experience some top-rated fine dining on your trip? "You can often eat at Michelin-starred restaurants or their equivalent for less if you go for lunch,” says travel writer Travis Levius. “Multi-course afternoon menus often cost a fraction of the dinner menu. If you want to have an evening experience at in-demand fine dining restaurants and you don't have hundreds to spend [or the] connections to snag a table, ask for their bar section if available — not only are these usually available for walk-ins, you can still sample the food from a shorter menu and not feel obligated to rack up a huge dinner bill.”


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