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Travel tips for golfers: From playing private courses, to free rental car upgrades, the secret's out

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

When you're booking a golf vacation, these money-saving travel tips can help you get tee times at exclusive private courses, upgrade to a better hotel room and save money on rental cars.

Indian Wells Country Club - travel tips - golf
Indian Wells' wonders are not as membership-only as golfers think.
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - It happens everywhere from the coffee shop to the sushi place. PGA Professional Tim Hurja, whose company sells Southern California golf travel packages, will be talking to a golfer lamenting how he's always wanted to play certain ultra-exclusive, six-figure membership-fees private clubs but knows he'll never get the chance.

After all, these desert golf legend courses are as private as Fort Knox and about as inaccessible to nonmembers.

"I can get you on," Hurja will reply.

Someone from a nearby table or the next spot in line will excuse him- or herself for eavesdropping and ask, "How?" or more often, "What are you talking about?"

"A lot of times, it will be a member (of that club)," Hurja laughs. "And they'll want to know how the heck I can get golfers on their courses. You have to be pretty diplomatic."

Diplomatic because insiders are as unaware of the secrets outsiders use to gain access as us outsiders. There are tricks though, more tips than hardware in Tiger Woods' trophy case, that can make the difference.

It's often about how much you know rather than who you know.

"Being a smart traveler gives you a huge edge," said Joe Lipcorm, who frequently takes golf vacations. "Because let's face it, most travelers aren't that smart."

Consider this a course in golf traveler IQ.

"That's the thing," Lipcorm said. "No one thinks they're the dumb traveler. It's like how everyone thinks they're a great driver."

Local experts equal great golf access

Getting on at big name closed gate showcase course usually requires the work of a local. This is where packagers like Hurja come in. They sell golf and hotel deals to an area, and they know the region's head pros and general managers. Not all packagers are created equal though.

PGA Professionals or former pros are more likely to hold the pull that opens gates.

Don't expect to see the great white whale of courses advertised by even well-connected packagers though. Members of big-dollar private clubs do not want to see tee times to their courses advertised.

This is an ask-and-don't-tell situation. It doesn't work everywhere either. Forget a tee time at Augusta National or Pine Valley. Unless your name is
Steve Spurrier

You'll be surprised by the golf courses where it is possible to get on, though.

A more conventional door opener is staying at a resort with special access. Choose a hotel like the Hyatt Regency at Gainey Ranch, and you can play a Scottsdale course (Gainey Ranch) the general public is not welcome on. Suddenly, jammed tee sheets in that golf Mecca aren't your problem.

There are hotels like this worldwide. Sometimes they're not the best known. Take the
Indian Wells Resort Hotel
in the Palm Springs valley. This midprice spot gives guests access to the $25 million-clubhouse Indian Wells Country Club.

Researching hotels in your spot of choice is usually all it takes to find resorts with pull on private courses.

Getting hotel room upgrades

The price difference between categories of rooms at hotels can be larger than the jump from a coach-class to first-class plane ticket. Serious money's on the line - at least one green fee's worth.

Yet, it's the easiest area to get a free upgrade.

Often all it takes is being nice. Be kind to the front-desk clerk, who probably isn't making much more than minimum wage. Mention how this is a special occasion, that you've been waiting for this vacation for a long time. Say you're hoping for a "nice" room.

Don't come right out and ask for the junior suite though. Then you'll likely only get quoted the price.

"Most of the time we'll try to give people we like a little better room," a clerk at an Arizona resort said. "If rooms are available, courteous guests are taken care of.

"If you run into a jerk at the front desk - and there are some - a twenty will usually do the trick. Not that that ever hurts."

Yes, an Andrew Jackson. Offended? It's still a bargain over the increased room rate. Heck, it's less than some resort fees.

And your money's going to a hard-working person rather than corporate coffers.

Discount rental car upgrades

To land a gratis upgrade on your rental car, you can keep your wallet in your pocket. It's as simple as booking the lowest class of car available - that economy or compact you don't want to drive.

Don't worry. Chances are you won't see that car.

A Ford Escort is hardly guaranteed to be in your future. Rental companies don't have many of these cars. There are many more midsize cars in the fleet. Once the few compacts and economy cars are off the lot, you'll be given something from the next class up. Free.

Make sure you're firm about this. Some agents will tell you there are no more economy cars but you can have a midsize for only $10 more a day.

Say no: You booked the reservation; you'll take a car at that quoted price. You'll be in a bigger car at the economy price within minutes.

Show up, play golf

One of the most frustrating things on a golf vacation is finding out the course you were dying to play is completely booked.

Don't give up. Show up.

No matter how popular the course and how crammed the tee sheet, there's almost always an opening. Singles get on even at Pebble Beach. Twosomes are a safe bet anywhere else.

"If you're at the course, that staff's going to do everything it can to get you on," said David Trout, head professional at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Fla.. "Somebody's always canceling or showing up late."

Skycap spells quick getaway

Nothing slows you down like a long wait at the baggage carousel.

Handing your bags over to the skycaps outside the terminal when you check in virtually eliminates that. A $5 tip will get priority first class/elite mileage holder tags slapped on your bags - even if you're in the last row of coach and have never flown the airline before.

Your bags will come off the plane in the first wave. It's no small pleasure to lift up your golf bag when others in the crowd still await suitcases.

Suddenly that tee time for an hour after landing went from crazy to brilliant.

Sometimes knowing is the whole battle.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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