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How to book your vacation

Joel Widzer caught some flak from travel agents for his last column, which took a friend to task for not booking her own vacation to Hawaii. Unrepentant, Joel comes back to argue that finessing personal relationships based on loyalty is the best way to get upgrades and guarantee a memorable vacation.
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In my last column, I wrote about my friend Maryam, whose trip to Hawaii was tarnished by several booking mistakes. Since that column generated a lot of interest, I thought I would tell a different story this time — a story about another friend, Robert, whose recent anniversary trip to Rome proved especially memorable because he followed principles of sound travel planning.

Robert started off on the right foot by following a key strategy, i.e., he booked his travel with providers with whom he had a loyal relationship. Knowing that he wanted to take his wife to Rome for their 20th anniversary, Robert called his preferred airline and checked for dates and flights that would allow him to upgrade his seat. After securing his own upgradeable ticket, Robert then purchased a ticket for his wife. At this point, Robert’s goal was to save some money, so he purchased his wife a lower-priced coach ticket. Of course, Robert risked having to give up his first class seat to his wife if he couldn’t get her upgraded, but he had a plan.

Robert watched the bookings of the flight on his airline’s Web site. As the flight date approached, he saw that half of the first class cabin remained open, giving him confidence that he wouldn’t be sitting in coach. Then he strategically selected the seat for his upgrade. After consulting with me, he chose Seat 1B. I recommended this seat because I have found that the accompanying seat, Seat 1A, remains open on about 90 percent of the international flights I take. For some reason, people aren’t keen on the bulkhead window seat.

On flight day, Seat 1A remained open, so Robert approached the gate agent and asked if he would upgrade his wife to the open seat next to him. No go! Robert was careful not to push the issue. He knew that it is increasingly difficult for gate agents to make a seat change without justification, and he didn’t want an unpleasant confrontation to influence his next target: the flight attendants.

Robert boarded the flight with his wife and made a joke to the flight attendant standing at the front of the plane that his poor wife had to go sit in the back. Robert got comfortable in his seat and when the flight attendant offered him a pre-departure drink, he mentioned that his wife was in the back. Again, the reply was, “Sorry, sir, we can’t bring her up.”

Keeping his cool, Robert patiently waited for the flight to get underway. Once he saw the lead flight attendant with a free moment, he approached her and told his story, mentioning that he held the highest level of the airline’s elite frequent-flier status. Soon husband and wife were reunited.

According to Robert, the flight crew couldn’t have been more pleasant. This has also been my experience in similar situations. Most people do want to help others when given the chance. In this case, Robert’s politeness and loyalty paid off in a romantic trans-Atlantic flight, side-by-side with his wife in first class. Mind you, this kind of travel benefit is one you can only negotiate on your own.

Robert was equally proactive when he planned his hotel stay. As a loyal guest with a particular hotel group, he had gotten to know the managers of two European hotels within the hotel’s group of properties. When it came time to book his stay in Rome, Robert e-mailed the managers and asked if they would introduce him to the manager of the hotel he was planning to visit with his wife. The introduction was made, and the manager of the hotel in Rome e-mailed Robert with his direct number, asking him to call. When he did, the manager immediately asked for Robert’s phone number and called him back, so Robert needn’t pay for the call — a very nice touch, Robert thought.

Even though Robert had already booked his room on the hotel’s Web site, the manager offered him a special rate, took down some information about the anniversary, and told Robert the best way to get to the hotel from the airport. Robert appreciated this personal touch, but was really surprised by what the manager had in store for the couple’s anniversary: the hotel’s house seats to the theater, and a chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz to take them to the event.

The main difference between Robert’s trip and Maryam’s trip is that Robert took a proactive approach to his travel planning, knowing what he wanted and how he wanted to get it. He did not rely on idle advice or on the impersonal data-crunching of third-party Web sites. By building his own personal and loyal relationships, Robert was able to finesse a memorable trip and a wonderful anniversary.

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. or .