Don’t sleep on hotel points. Hotel loyalty programs often fly under the radar compared with the attention that frequent-flier programs get, but for many travelers the hotel-points programs actually could be the more valuable. Hotel rooms are a bigger part of the typical travel budget than airfare. And while frequent-flier programs tend to be structured to benefit road warriors who amass many miles, hotel loyalty programs recently have begun offering discounts that benefit even guests who never earn enough points for a single free stay.
Those discounts are not the only notable change in hotel loyalty programs.* Several of the largest programs have modified key rules in the past year (not necessarily to the benefit of the consumer)…and a merger between two big hotel chains could create problems for participants in their programs.
How to get the most from hotel loyalty programs today and how to avoid traps…
Book through the hotel chain’s own website. If you book a hotel room through a third-party site such as Hotels.com or Expedia.com, you generally won’t earn points in the hotel chain’s loyalty program. But that no longer means that you must choose between earning points and paying low prices—all the chains have begun offering extremely competitive prices on their own sites. Usually the prices are on par with the lowest prices available elsewhere online. (It still is worth checking the rates available on third-party sites to make sure.)
Plus, many hotel chains now offer special discounts to members of their loyalty programs who book through the hotel websites. The size of these discounts varies by chain, location and day. Examples: Marriott loyalty program members who book direct save 2% to 5%…Choice Hotels members save 2% to 7%…and Hyatt and Hilton members, “up to 10%.” These discounts typically are available as soon as you sign up for the loyalty program even if you have not yet earned a single point and do not stay in hotels often.
Redeem Wyndham Rewards points for stays in especially expensive resorts and cities. In most hotel loyalty programs, the eligibility for free nights at a hotel chain’s properties is linked to tiers based on typical room rates, with a very large number of points required for a free night in a hotel in the top tier. But Wyndham, which owns many hotel brands with many locations, recently removed the tiers from its free nights program. Now an award room costs 15,000 points per night at any Wyndham property—even expensive New York hotels and Miami resorts. Before Wyndham removed its tiers, you would have had to spend more than 30,000 points for a free night at these hotels.
Helpful: You can take advantage of this perk even if you usually stay at budget-minded hotels. Wyndham Rewards program members generally earn at least 1,000 points per night when they stay at any Wyndham Hotel Group property—including value-priced brands such as Days Inn, Howard Johnson, Knights Inn, Ramada, Super 8 and Travelodge. Stay at these affordable chains to earn points, and then treat yourself to a stay in a higher-end Wyndham hotel when you’re ready to redeem your points.
Stay at Hilton if you’re an occasional traveler…and Hyatt if you’re a very frequent traveler. Hilton recently modified its loyalty program in a way that makes it more useful for people who do not stay in hotels very often. It typically takes 20,000 or more Hilton Honors points to earn a free night (the number of points required varies by location, among other factors). But with as few as 5,000 points, you now can pay a percentage of the bill in points and the rest in cash, a very useful feature for people who do not earn many points. You often can earn 5,000 points by staying in a Hilton hotel for just a few nights. (Hilton offered a split-payment option even before the recent change but not with so few points.)
Hyatt, on the other hand, always has saved its best benefits for very frequent guests who earn elite status in its loyalty program—and it recently made changes that make it even more difficult to earn that elite status. How difficult? You can achieve the very top status, called “Globalist,” by staying in Hyatt properties at least 60 nights in a calendar year. Once you reach this status, you gain impressive perks including unlimited complimentary upgrades to the best available rooms—or even suites—on all stays…waived resort fees…and access to a special concierge.
Read Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest program updates closely if you have points with either. The Marriott and Starwood hotel chains merged in 2016, but as of early 2017, their loyalty programs remained largely separate. (Members of these programs do have the option of transferring points between them, with three Marriott Rewards points equaling one Starwood Preferred Guest point.) Sometime soon—most likely this year—these programs will be formally merged under a single set of rules. There’s a good chance that members of at least one of the programs will be unhappy when that happens. The current Marriott and Starwood loyalty programs are very different—Starwood’s favors frequent guests who spend lots of money with the chain…while Marriott’s is more oriented to occasional travelers. It would be difficult for the merged program to satisfy such different groups of travelers.
Some Starwood members have expressed concern that the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express could lose certain appealing features, such as the right to transfer “Starpoints” earned with the card to most major airline frequent-flier programs. Currently, not only do cardholders typically receive one mile for each point transferred, they receive a 5,000-mile bonus if they transfer 20,000 points.
The good news is that there’s likely to be a delay of at least a few months between when the merged program details are announced and when they take effect. That would give people who have points in these programs time to decide whether they want to cash in their points quickly under the old rules or save them for use under the new rules.
Be loyal to one program that has lots of hotels you might stay in. It’s well-known that to get the most out of hotel loyalty programs, you pick a single program and stay in that chain’s hotels as often as possible. That way you earn rewards and elite status as quickly as possible. (Elite status provides perks such as free room upgrades.)
But which program to pick? How much you travel can be a factor, as noted above. And if there’s a hotel chain you especially like, of course it’s fine to choose its program. Otherwise, consider that size matters when it comes to hotel loyalty programs—the more properties in the chain, the better the odds that that chain will have a hotel where you want to stay.
Surprising: The biggest hotel brands aren’t the biggest hotel chains. You might be surprised to learn that Wyndham Hotel Group is the largest chain, with more than 8,000 hotels around the world. That includes not just Wyndham hotels but also the value-oriented brands mentioned above plus Microtel, TRYP and more. Second-largest is Choice Hotels with more than 6,400 locations including the brands Clarion, Comfort Inn, Comfort Suites, Econo Lodge, MainStay Suites, Quality Inn, Rodeway Inn and Sleep Inn.
Other chains with at least 4,000 hotels include the merged Marriott/Starwood…Hilton…and InterContinental Hotels Group, which owns InterContinental, Kimpton, Holiday Inn and other brands.
Redeem loyalty points when room rates are highest. Hotel rates sometimes climb sharply during weekends, holiday weeks and when big events are occurring nearby. These can be good times to redeem hotel loyalty points. While the cash price of hotel rooms rises on high-demand days, the number of points required for a free room is the same year-round with most programs. That’s a major difference from airline frequent-flier programs, most of which charge more miles for awards tickets during times of peak demand. Exception: The Hilton Honors program does charge additional points for rooms on high-demand days.
When hotel demand could be high, book awards rooms as far in advance as possible to avoid missing out.
*Details of hotel-loyalty programs are subject to change. Check the hotel’s website.