Free upgrades for the business traveller may be a thing of the past. Or at least a lot harder to get.

"The industry has lost so much money," says Chris Ryall, who has travelled all over the world on business as president of Toronto-based Travel Marketing Experts . "It's much harder to score an upgrade today compared to 10 years ago."

Ron Pradinuk, who owns Journeys Travel & Leisure SuperCentre in Winnipeg and blogs about his travels at, agrees: "For a long time the business traveller was the goose that laid the golden egg for airlines," he says. "Unfortunately the goose is laying eggs a little smaller. People aren't allowed to travel on business class as much, and there have been cutbacks on frequency of travel."

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Sure, it may be tougher to get free upgrades handed to you. But experts still have a few tricks to make travel more comfortable, with no setbacks to your wallet:

Join the loyalty programs

You may not want to cram another card into your wallet, but across the travel industry – whether you're flying, booking hotels or renting cars – loyalty pays. Joining a loyalty program, and using that company's services often, offers "status."

"Most airlines are now doing upgrades strictly on status," says Rick Ingersoll, who writes the blog Frugal Travel Guy and recently published the Frugal Travel Guy Handbook. He hasn't paid for a flight in five years. Airlines will typically upgrade travellers who have top-tier status before anyone else, he says. When it comes to hotels, loyalty programs can give you complimentary newspapers, breakfasts and Wi-Fi access, plus get you into a nicer room if there's one available.

Travel at the right time

If you're hoping to be bumped to first class, or given a luxury car during peak business traveller times, forget it. You're more likely to get an upgrade when the competition is slimmer. Fly in the middle of the day or on the weekend. You should also think about routes, says Mr. Ryall. He recently travelled to Bangkok through Tokyo rather than Hong Kong. "Tokyo isn't as busy and I got upgraded in both directions."

He also recommends only bothering to try to get an upgrade when it really counts. "I never ask for an upgrade if I'm flying within North America," says Mr. Ryall. "Frankly there's really not much of a difference on shorter flights."

Book through a travel agent

"It's helpful to get booked through an agent if they have a relationship with contacts on the inside and can say, 'Hey, I've got my marketing manager going on a very important trip,'" says Mr. Ryall. "If you can get something put in the file, that's a big plus, because they do look at that," he says.

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Select a seat at the front of the aircraft

It's a rare occurrence, but simply sitting closer to business class can get you a seat at the front of the plane. "They're more likely not to go to the back of the plane to find someone to take a business class seat," says Mr. Ryall. It helps, he adds, to be respectably dressed and be travelling alone.

Mind your manners, even on special occasions

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The absolute best way not to get an upgrade is to demand one, says Mr. Ryall. "You never say, 'Give me an upgrade,'" he says. Start by being friendly – and genuine – to the check-in and gate agents. "They've heard everything in the book and they can tell when you're lying," he says. He recently travelled from the Far East, landing at home on Valentine's Day. "I actually was really exhausted, and I was very sincere when I said if there's anything you can do to make me less tired when I get home on Valentine's Day I'd really appreciate it." In his case, it worked and he was upgraded.

Book a popular car

Mr. Ryall has found that rental companies often overbook on popular car models, such as compact vehicles. "It's their obligation to match you with a similar car," he says. If they try to ding you with the additional fee for the upgrade, simply point out that you booked a compact and expect the company to honour the original rate.

Get to know the hotel front office manager

If it's a hotel you frequent, establishing a relationship with the manager can pay off in the long run. "Especially if you have good service and you take the time to tell them," says Mr. Ryall. "They'll remember that. Too often what they hear is negative."

Websites every business traveller should have bookmarked

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  • – Shows configuration and seat availability on flights.
  • – “They offer a real no-holds-barred approach on hotel reviews,” says Mr. Ryall.
  • – A comprehensive airfare search site. “It’s somewhat of a complicated system,” says Mr. Ingersoll, who recommends it for frequent flyers. “It’s not for someone who wants to look once a year for airline tickets.”