Guide to Hotel Loyalty Programs

Forget frequent-flier miles. Hotel loyalty points are becoming increasingly valuable—plus you can actually redeem them. We explain how to get the most from these programs.

Q: I travel only occasionally on business. Are hotel loyalty programs still worth it? —Elizabeth Frank, Kansas City, Kans.

A: As with frequent-flier programs, hotel loyalty clubs can offer even infrequent travelers benefits. At the very least, you can simply join a program and gradually accrue points. (They don’t expire; you may have to show some annual account activity, but that could be as simple as cashing in for a Starbucks gift card.) Most of the major loyalty programs have expanded redemption options beyond free rooms and upgrades in recent years, giving members the chance to trade points for gift certificates, concerts and events, and even airline tickets.

That said, it’s still the serious road warriors who get the greatest return on their loyalty. At Starwood hotels, people who spend at least 100 nights a year at the company’s properties are almost always upgraded to suites, can check in and out anytime that suits them, get personal concierge service, and receive twice as many points for every dollar they spend. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t reap some of these rewards. If you want the red carpet, here are a few rules for getting the most from your membership.

Be a Status Seeker

The best way to maximize your points is to earn status. Look for programs that have a relatively low threshold for elite levels and a wide variety of hotels to choose from—making it easy to rack up qualifying nights. The Hyatt Gold Passport program elevates travelers to Platinum status once they’ve completed just five eligible stays or 15 eligible nights in a calendar year. Once Platinum, members get 20 percent off room rates, 2 p.m. checkout, space-available upgrades, and free Internet access. Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) has similar benefits (4 p.m. checkout; upgrades; bonus points) for people who achieve the Gold tier, which requires 10 eligible stays or 25 eligible nights a year. For Hilton HHonors, it takes 20 stays (or 40 nights) to reach Gold status and really start reaping the rewards, such as complimentary upgrades, Internet access, and breakfast.

Carry the Right Card

If you can’t make a room-night minimum, you can sometimes leapfrog your way to a higher status through a hotel-branded credit card. Holding a Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card gives you automatic Gold status in the program, plus bonus points and certificates for free rooms as you spend. The Hyatt Credit Card, which upgrades loyalty-program members to Platinum level, offers similar rewards. The Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express won’t immediately elevate you, but it does grant holders credit for five qualifying nights and two stays each year—in addition to bonus points for purchases. Likewise, the Marriott Rewards Credit Card offers night credits toward elite status.

Think Small

Brian Kelly, founder of The Points Guy website, which tracks hotel and airline loyalty clubs, advises occasional travelers to consider programs from smaller companies. To compete with the big hotel groups, they’re often more generous. “What you give up in not having the enormous map of hotels around the world to choose from, you can makeup in benefits,” Kelly says. Free Internet is standard just for joining many of these programs, including Fairmont President’s Club, Kimpton’s InTouch, Preferred Hotel Group’s iPrefer, and Omni Select Guest. Kimpton also throws in mini-bar, hotel-bar, and spa vouchers, depending on the property. Fairmont offers members spa discounts and free shoeshines. Omni gives you complimentary water, coffee delivery, and pressing services. What’s more, Kelly says, employees at these properties are more likely to give extra benefits to loyalty members, such as an impromptu upgrade.

Be Brand-Agnostic

One important caveat: these hotel-branded loyalty programs don’t recognize bookings made through third-party websites. So the discounted rates that you find on sites such as Priceline or Travelocity will not help you accrue points or build status. The good news: Orbitz, Expedia, and all have programs that offer users some variation of free nights, coupons, or vouchers the more you book. If you reach elite status with Expedia and Orbitz, you may get benefits such as free Wi-Fi, late checkout, and room upgrades at partner hotels.

By the Nnumbers

225 Billion: The number of Marriott Rewards points issued to travelers in 2013.

300,000: The number of Starwood Starpoints a loyalty-program member bid to get courtside seats at the 2013 US Open.

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