Life Travel How to travel five-star on a three-star budget

How to travel five-star on a three-star budget

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While the well-to-do are pretending to slum it – witness the fad for luxurious camping or ‘glamping’ – the rest of us are wondering how to get up the pointy end of the plane, into a suite with a spa or into the business lounge on our economy ticket.

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Deal makers

London's Ham Yard Hotel is hot right now.
London’s Ham Yard Hotel is hot right now.

Think beyond Trip Advisor.

Sign yourself up to some ‘exclusive’ hotel websites such as Mr & Mrs Smith, Jetsetter or Tablet. It’s free to join and you can get some amazing deals on price, but also often including an upgrade, buffet breakfast or wine as an add-on (a few five-star perks).

You can also pay a fee to join their next level membership, and receive more perks or VIP treatment. It usually only takes one decent upgrade to recoup that cost. Note – some of the hotels listed are mighty expensive, but not all of them break the bank and there are some great deals.

Book a package

Booking a flight and hotel package can mean going up a star or three without paying more. Luxury Escapes, for example, specialises in ‘affordable five-star luxury’.

It's time to embrace the package deal.
It’s time to embrace the package deal.

Its all-inclusive packages at top-of-the-range resorts in Bali, Thailand and exotic locales include such five-star must-haves as VIP airport transfers, breakfast buffets, massage and even the occasional private butler, at heavily discounted rates.

Virtually all airlines offer packages – and hotels on international stopovers can be especially well priced.

Sign up

Sign up for free frequent flyer programs. It’s easier to get enough points to upgrade if you’re strategic. Join a program with lots of airlines (and then fly with them).

Star Alliance claims the highest number of member airlines, while Oneworld includes Qantas, Cathay Pacific, British Airways, Qatar, JAL and others. Link your credit card for extra points.

Plus, if stewards are scanning the list for someone to upgrade, you may have a better chance than someone who is not a member of the program.

There are good seats and bad seats on every plane.
There are good seats and bad seats on every plane.

Take a seat

OK – even if you can only afford to fly economy there are good and bad seats in economy. Check out SeatGuru to see which airline has the best seat pitch, width and amenities.

When you’ve booked, check the seat position on the plane before you choose your seat. (Right next to the toilets on a 20-hour flight? No thanks)

If you can check in online, do it. And do it as close to the opening time as possible (usually 24–48 hours before the flight), so you get the best choice. Another five-star benefit of this is that you can often bypass a lengthy check-in queue, even if you have baggage. It’s almost like priority check-in.

If you can’t check-in online, arrive at the airport early to improve your chance of getting a better seat. That’s also the moment to ask (in a casual but friendly way) ‘Do you have any seats closer to the front? Window seats? Or whatever you prefer, while there’s still some flexibility’.

Fancy a spell in the Qantas First Class lounge?
Fancy a spell in the Qantas First Class lounge?

Another option is paying a small surcharge for a slightly better seat in economy, the exit row with more legroom for example, on national as well as international flights. This is like your own ‘premium economy’.

Airport lounging

Joining one of the airline ‘clubs’ is expensive, and no wonder – complimentary wine, food, massage, private cabanas and more, all in sleek designer comfort. If you travel a lot it may be worth the cost and you do feel privileged (even smug).

Building up your frequent flyer points or flying business class are other ways to get you access. You can pay for one-day access to some lounges, mainly if travelling in the US. Delta Airlines, for example, charge $US50 for a day pass. American Airlines have a 30-day membership for $US99 with access to 40 lounges, including London, Paris, New York, Tokyo. Or, of course, travel with a club member – most are allowed entry for one guest.

Five-star arrival

Bring on the buffet.
Bring on the buffet.

Book a car (or limousine) to meet and greet at the airport – it doesn’t cost much more than a taxi (sometimes less), and you’re whisked to your hotel without hassling with taxis or touts.


Again, sign up for the hotel’s frequent stay program. You can accumulate points for upgrades, receive early notice of sales, discounts on meals and if you happen to ask for an upgrade, there’s more chance if you are a member.

When checking in, ask if your room has a view, or is on a higher level or whatever you prefer – you may not always get an upgrade but you will often get a much better room. Also remember, it’s easier to upgrade from a middle rate room to a more expensive room, than from the cheapest room in the hotel.

Last minute

Consider a Parisian suite in September.
Consider a Parisian suite in September.

Paying an advance purchase on a five-star room can save 20 per cent or more. Or wait until the last minute to book, when hotels may be trying to fill rooms (not in high season though). Or simply ring the hotel and ask for their best price.

When to go

It’s not rocket science but travel off-peak – midweek, outside school holidays and public periods prices are lower. Peak periods vary – look for bargains in Thailand in June and July, Europe in May and September, or Bali in November and early December.

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