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Traveling well without a trust fund

By Maureen Jenkins, Special to CNN
updated 8:22 AM EDT, Thu October 11, 2012
Trips to far-flung locations often are more affordable than you'd think. Loyalty makes a big difference in earning travel perks.
Trips to far-flung locations often are more affordable than you'd think. Loyalty makes a big difference in earning travel perks.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Loyalty programs and strategic use of points make a big dent in expenses
  • Remember that you have value as a consumer, and ask for upgrades
  • Skip the hottest destinations and high season to get better rates

(CNN) -- You're planning a trip but realize you've got Veuve Clicquot taste on a Bud Light budget. You don't need to be in the 1% -- or be a million-mile flier -- to roll like they do. Learn to travel strategically and get far more value for your dollars.

"Travel offers a lot of benefits and beauty when you can make it less stressful and make it more memorable," said Joel L. Widzer, managing partner of JetReady.com and author of "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel: The Art of Cultivating Preferred Customer Status."

Move beyond the misconception that luxury travel "is inaccessible or reserved for the Kardashians or someone like that. Travel providers can't sustain themselves on that population. However, the occasional traveler is an untapped source of revenue."

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Here, Widzer shares strategies so you can fly, sleep and tip like a superstar for far less than you'd expect. (But know that rock-bottom prices aren't always part of the deal.)

Loyalty counts. The foundation of your "travel portfolio," Widzer says, should be points and miles earned through your own personal network of frequent-flier, hotel and car rental programs -- and yes, even affiliated credit cards.

"What's more important these days is building the relationship and using the extended coalition partners. You have to have some leverage. In today's world, it can't be about trying to game the system. Companies have so much data and are able to track everything. You may only travel twice a year, but you can always travel" with the same providers.

Flying high. "The mentality is not just getting a free seat; it's about overall value," said Widzer, who travels about 200,000 miles annually and has logged more than 3.5 million lifetime miles. "The strategic plan is to look at what airline is going to serve your area, and then hook up (additional miles) with a credit card."

Rather than cashing in valuable points and miles on short-haul U.S. lights, upgrade to business or first class seats that normally cost thousands of dollars (it can be worth it to pay $200 more for an upgradeable fare rather than the cheapest).

Try to reach those all-important "elite" status levels -- even the lowest one -- on your favorite carrier and gain access to premier check-in, security and boarding lines and forgo pricey baggage fees. And if your airline needs change, "you can always parlay your past travel experience (and elite status) with a new company." Just call and ask.

Sleep well. Don't let a bunch of stars next to a fabulous hotel's name intimidate you or keep you from asking for a room upgrade.

"It's not being arrogant but feeling, 'Hey, I'm a consumer. I have value,' " Widzer said.

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If you've booked a posh hotel, he recommends calling a manager or someone at the front desk in advance and telling them you're looking forward to your stay. "Get that person's name. You can say when you arrive, 'I had a nice conversation with Lisa.' It's not being manipulative; it's building reciprocity. If it came down to spending $100 extra on an airfare or a hotel, I'd go with the hotel. It sets the ambiance and the whole tone of a trip."

Go against the grain. Stay away from newly named "hot" destinations. They'll be crowded, and there's no incentive for travel providers to offer anything special. Adopt a contrarian strategy instead.

"California is a great place to go in September and October," Widzer said. "That's when the weather's typically the nicest. And have some flexibility and look for times of opportunity. A few years ago, with the (oil spill) incident in the Gulf of Mexico, apparently they had the beaches cleaned up pretty well, but they weren't getting tourists. If you went to the Gulf after the incident, you were helping the economy. People who work in the restaurants and hotels rely on tourism."

Tip tactically. Think of tips as an "investment" in first-class travel, especially at hotels. In his book, Widzer suggests discreetly tipping a few dollars extra at the start of your trip to the bell and valet parking staff and a front desk representative to ensure preferential service, then scale back. But tips aren't always strategically palmed $20 or $100 bills.

"A lot of times, a letter to a general manager at hotels or rental car companies goes into (a helpful employee's) file," Widzer said. "Keep in mind that a lot of times, people do want to help you. If you can treat them with a little bit of respect and kindness, that goes a long way."

Maureen Jenkins is a freelance travel and food writer who lives outside Paris and blogs at UrbanTravelGirl.com.

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