As I have written elsewhere, when folks first research or budget for a trip, they concern themselves mostly with airfares -- for many, a high enough airfare can scuttle a trip entirely before they even get started. But if you are staying more than a weekend, in many cases lodging will be an equal or even greater expense; even though you can find great bargains on hotel prices, you are looking at a minimum of $100/night in most hotels worth staying in for a few days. On a week's vacation, you are at or beyond the cost of a flight already.
So you can use your airline miles to get a free flight and save $700, or you can use your hotel points and get a free week's hotel stay. Add to that some other benefits of program membership, such as room upgrades, occasional complimentary Internet and parking, and a members-only breakfast on concierge-level floors, and the free flight seems like an overall loser in the end.
Frequent Flier Miles: How to Use 'Em, Not Lose 'Em
Perhaps more importantly, it has become almost impossible to cash in your airline miles. Unless you are so organized and your plans so fixed that you can book a trip six months in advance, good luck actually using your airline miles for anything other than magazine subscriptions. Here are several reasons you may want to join a hotel rewards program, with tips on how to maximize your membership when you do.
1. You can actually use your points.
Certainly one of the major beefs with airline loyalty programs is the extreme scarcity of award seats, and the hoops you have to go through to get them. In many cases you even have to pay extra to have the awards desk book award travel -- so your loyalty is rewarded with even more fees that you did not know existed. (For example, one major airline applies a "call center award ticketing fee", a "quick ticketing fee" for award travel booked within 21 days of travel, and an "award processing fee," as well as standby fees, paper ticket fees, and more -- all against your "free flight!") Instead, consider a hotel rewards program.
Joe Brancatelli, editor of JoeSentMe.com and business travel columnist for Portfolio.com, is a strong proponent of hotel loyalty membership. "Absolutely you should be in at least one program," he says. "In fact, as many as practical. In many cases, hotel programs are richer than most any airline program now. That's especially true because claiming an award is so much easier."
2. There are fewer restrictions and much easier redemption policies and processes.
As Brancatelli notes, hotel programs tend to have fewer restrictions on redeeming awards; for example, the Priority Club program (which includes InterContinental, Holiday Inn and their sister brands) offers points that never expire, and no blackout dates for reward nights.
But Priority Club goes even further with its Hotels Anywhere program, stating that you can "use points to book and stay virtually anywhere -- even at our competitors' hotels." They don't mean just, you know, outside Hartford, CT, but also "prime destinations where we have little or no presence, such asLas Vegas, Hawaii and the Greek Isles".
Most hotel loyalty programs allow you to book award stays right on their websites. For example, if you go to Hilton's HHonors.com, when you search for a hotel you simply click the "Use HHonors Points" checkbox, and all your results reflect points required, not hotel prices -- and you can book them right then and there.
As a result, frequent flier guru Randy Petersen, Editor of InsideFlyer Magazine, says he puts "more effort into accumulating hotel points than airline miles." Petersen also recommends you refrain from the common practice of applying your hotel points toward your airline program.
"The main reason is that you can rarely, if ever, move airline miles to hotel points, but you can almost always move hotel points to airline miles," he notes. "Hotel points have tremendous flexibility, while airline miles almost always only have a single dimension. As well, hotel points typically have two other advantages: hotel programs typically have standard 'saving' awards such as 'PointSavers,' which allow hotel room night redemption at 30 - 70 percent off typical redemption rates. While select properties vary by hotel chain, it's very nice that an option exists to actually save when redeeming your points. As well, hotel programs typically have 'points and cash,' which allow you to maximize your value and extend the use of what points you may have.
"An example: Recently I redeemed 4,000 points from Starwood Preferred Guest and $60 for a room night that the cheapest I could find anywhere was $358. That was an excellent use of my hotel points and a little cash since 4,000 points is fairly easy to replace."
Finally, you can often decide to redeem points during your stay -- forget about planning six months ahead. Marriott's rewards program lets you cash in points for anything that can be charged to your room during your stay, including meals, golf, room upgrades, late check-outs, even an extra day's stay. You can do this at the front desk or from your room phone. Try redeeming airline miles at gate check-in; it just doesn't happen much. But with many hotel programs, this is standard practice.
3. You can use the points all over the place.
The route maps of most major airlines are admittedly formidable, but don't come even close to offering the number of choices a large hotel chain can do. After becoming a Marriott member, while planning three upcoming trips I found I had very good (and often multiple) options at every destination.
Brancatelli concurs: "Marriott Rewards and Hilton HHonors each are near 4,000 properties. Priority Club is over 4,500 hotels. The programs of the lower-priced chains (Wyndham and Choice) are also gigantic -- so you can almost always find a room to claim for free."
A Marriott member, for example, can use points at almost 4,000 hotels in 70 countries, with 16 different hotel brands from luxury to roadside and extended-stay hotels: Ritz-Carlton, JW Marriott, EDITION Hotels, Autograph Collection, Renaissance Hotels, AC Hotels, Marriott Hotels & Resorts, Courtyard by Marriott, Fairfield Inn & Suites, SpringHill Suites, Residence Inn, TownePlace Suites, Marriott Executive Apartments, Marriott Vacation Club and Marriott Conference Centers.
Try searching on any relatively popular destination, and you'll almost always find at least one of these hotel brands very well located. And you might be surprised by the presence of some of these chains in more remote locales. So if you are moving around on your next trip, you can use points for stays in any number of places, night after night; talk about freedom for free.
4. Hotels are constantly offering special deals to rewards members.
Some "bonus" rewards program offerings I have seen in the past:
- Starwood is counting award stays toward elite status
- Hyatt is offering free room service breakfast to Diamond members
- Free Internet for Priority Club members
- Free Wi-Fi for all program members, irrespective of status, at Fairmont, Omni and Kimpton hotels
You get the idea. Add to these occasional late check-out permissions, free on-site parking and other amenities mentioned above, and your membership can appreciate in value almost by the minute during your stay.
5. There are reward levels available for all budgets.
One underappreciated component of hotel programs is their tiered redemption levels, based on the brand and class of hotel you choose. For example, with Hilton Honors, standard rooms can start at 7,500 points. I admit I had a hard time finding hotels that were actually available at this redemption level; while I found a hotel in Akron, OH, for 12,500 points, free rooms in most major cities started at 25,000 to 30,000 points -- and range up to 80,000 points per night at a top-end resort hotel during high season, such as the Grand Wailea Resort Hotel & Spa on Maui. So in any given location, you can decide based on your points balance and the cash cost of the hotel whether or not you want to use points, and how many you care to expend.
Petersen concurs: "The other nice thing about hotel programs is that they allow you to earn points, and then choose at which level hotel to redeem your points. For instance, maybe you earn a lot of points at standard Marriott hotels because of company business, but to make them go farther, you redeem them at Courtyard by Marriott hotels, which on average require fewer points per redemption night than at a standard Marriott hotel. With airline miles, you don't typically have those types of methods to manage your miles for redemption. And of course, just like airline miles, members can still earn upgrades, etc."
One interesting sidebar to my searches was that the rack rate for the 12,500-point room in Akron was $199/night, while the rack rate for a 25,000-point hotel in West Hartford, CT, was $129. Since hotel room rates can go up and down based on many variables (there is a convention at a specific hotel on your chosen dates, it is prom season, etc.) it's always a good idea to compare cash costs to points cost when you book your rooms, if simply to get a better sense of your savings on any given hotel.
6. Another option: Use your airline alliance miles on a hotel stay.
If you are not ready to join a hotel rewards program, but admit your frustration with fruitless attempts to redeem air miles for a flight, consider using your miles for a hotel stay -- most airline programs allow this. You will want to do a little cost analysis first, but at the right hotel(s) for the right length of stay, you could come out ahead, and with a lot less hassle.
7. Hotel credit card programs are as good as or better than airline credit card programs.
If you like the idea of hotel programs, you can also tap into hotel loyalty credit card programs, which function just like airline credit card programs. In fact, airline mileage expert Petersen's own stash of cards tips toward hotel programs -- with a few small and simple caveats. To wit:
"Interestingly enough, I'm a huge fan of hotel credit cards vs. airline credit cards, so in my own wallet, hotel program credit cards outnumber my airline miles credit cards. Again, the reason is simple: I can always move hotel points into airline miles if I need to do so, but I like earning hotel points because they have multiple uses -- as hotel points and as airline miles. But while I paint a favorable picture of hotel program points, similar to airline programs, not all are created equal and one absolutely must compare before choosing a program to get the best value."
For more guidance, check out this overview of the best hotel credit cards.
Don't like chain hotels? You can still take advantage of these three unique loyalty programs. To see how to use your points more effectively, read Smart Tactics to Get More from Your Hotel Points.
Have you had good or bad experiences with hotel rewards programs? Let us know in the comments below.
The Independent Traveler