How to Travel First Class on a Budget

Yes, it’s possible to be frugal and still travel in style. Here are some of our favorite tips for getting the VIP experience out of any trip.

By Ashley Sepanski

Ask More of Your Hotel
Hotels love to use the word “luxury” to reel in travelers, but outside of nice bath products and a robe in the closet, many fall short of what you’d expect to get for the price. And with more and more hotels offering amazing perks like free wine socials, dog-friendly packages, and complimentary breakfasts, why should you settle for anything less than extraordinary?

Some of our favorites VIP benefits:

Take relaxation to a new level with The Viceroy Riviera Maya’s complimentary Soap Concierge service. After an expert walks you through a selection of curated soaps, receive personalized bars cut fresh from the block.

 For the creatively inclined, Rosewood San Miguel de Allende welcomes guests with paint, brushes, and adult- and kid-sized easels.

 Book a suite at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills and experience what it’s like to travel like a star. The hotel offers a free car rental program featuring dream vehicles like a Maserati, Ferrari, and Lamborghini.

 Live out your rock star dreams at any Hard Rock Hotel by reserving an electric guitar, free of charge.

 Make a dog’s day at the Red Mountain Resort in Utah. The hotel pairs guests with shelter dogs for hikes in the nearby state park. It may be hard to leave without taking your new friend home.

The easiest way to secure top-notch accommodations is to do your homework. Take advantage of apps like HotelTonight, Trivago, and TripAdvisor to search hotels by amenity and see reviews from fellow travelers.

Hack Your Rental 
So you reserved a fuel-efficient Toyota for the weekend, but are staring at the rental agent as she tells you there’s no car available—that is unless you want to pay an additional $50 a day for an SUV. The reservation fulfillment process of rental car companies is probably the most frustrating and up in the air part of your vacation. So how to get the best deal without ending up stranded or paying whopping fees?

It might sound obvious, but start by signing up for a member program. Unlike airline and hotel loyalty programs, many car rental memberships come with immediate benefits regardless of how often you rent with them. Perks include faster service (think skipping the line entirely), access to nicer vehicles that will actually be there when you show up, and free upgrades offered exclusively to members.

Also, as a rule of thumb, save some extra cash by skipping the prepaid fuel and insurance add-ons. You can almost always find cheaper gas on your own, and many credit card companies, such as American Express, offer insurance options with better, more affordable coverage.

Put Your Miles to Work
With a list of perks from seat upgrades and pre-boarding, to lounge access and snagging free tickets with miles, joining an airline’s loyalty program is a no brainer. Another bonus: using miles to purchase tickets is often cheaper than paying with money. Don’t have enough to book a ticket? Don’t forget outside of earning miles through travel and credit card purchases you can buy them directly from the carrier. It doesn’t always make sense to shell out cash for points, but if the airline is offering a good deal, say two miles for the price of one, then racking up the points needed for a luxury upgrade suddenly becomes a lot cheaper.

You can also get creative with how you use reward points from other places—think hotels and credit cards. Shake out the metaphorical piggy bank from your hotel rewards program and convert them to miles for an easy family upgrade on your next flight.

Take Lounging Seriously
Getting access to an airport lounge might be a matter of what’s in your wallet. Credit cards like the Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard and Platinum American Express card come pre-loaded with access to a number of airport lounges around the world. Also, don’t forget to make use of that elite status—travelers at the elite level on both airline and hotel loyalty programs often get rewards like free lounge memberships. Lastly, consider investing in programs like Priority Pass, a subscription that gets you into over 1,000 airport lounges across the globe.

Did you know, most US lounges offer day-pass options? American Airlines, United, and Delta will give you access to the lounges, where free snacks and beverages (including alcohol) are available, as well as better Wi-Fi, private workspaces, charging stations, comfy lounge chairs, and magazines. Although they charge $45 to $59 per day, you’ll feel like a rock star here, rather than sitting on a floor in the terminal trying to find a plug to charge your phone. Another perk? The attendants will keep you alerted to your flight status, which is especially helpful during delays.

Grab A Better Meal
Just because you are stuck at the airport doesn’t mean you can’t find fine dining that will have you feeling like a first-class traveler. Might we suggest…

 The Perfectionist’s Café, London Heathrow. The younger sibling to The Fat Duck, celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal’s Michelin-star awarded restaurant, The Perfectionist’s Café has delicious bites you’d expect from a gourmet restaurant. Try the legendary Marmalade-on-Toast shake for an unexpected breakfast treat, the Truffled Culatello & Mushroom Pizza, or the British classic, Fish & Chips.

 Tortas Frontera, Chicago O’Hare. A cult favorite with a menu featuring hearty, flavor-packed sandwiches (aka tortas) and a guacamole bar, this savory stop easily solves the “where should we eat?” dilemma.

 Le Chef, Geneva International Airport. Local, seasonal produce, French-inspired dishes and a view of the Jura Mountains come together for an uplifting dining experience, the perfect way to refuel on long travel days.

 Porta Gaig, Barcelona El Prat Airport. Another child of a Michelin star-rated spot, you can expect upscale fare that’s innovative and sparkling with flavor. Try the lunch tasting menu, which includes three sample dishes plus dessert.

 One Flew South, Hartsfield- Jackson Airport. A little closer to home, Atlanta’s international terminal serves up some of the freshest sushi at One Flew South (fresh seafood is flown in every morning from the coast!). It’s the first upscale restaurant to open at Hartsfield and besides sushi serves up “Southernational Cuisine” with local ingredients.