Hotel reward points can get you more vacation for your money, so it pays to know what your points are worth and how to supersize them.
Hotel reward points can help you get more vacation for your money, so it pays to know what your points are worth and how to supersize them with hotel loyalty programs, reward transfers and more.
Here are six ways to maximize your hotel rewards:
“One of the basic things to understand about hotel points is that the scale of the points varies by chain,” says Gary Leff who blogs at View from the Wing. “With airlines, one mile is one mile, but hotels have inflated their currencies in different ways.”
For example, with the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card you earn 12 points per $1 spent at a participating Hilton property, 6 points per dollar at U.S. restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations, and 3 points on everything else.
With the World of Hyatt Credit Card, meanwhile, you earn 9 points total per dollar spent at Hyatt, 2 points per dollar on restaurants, directly purchased airfare, local transit, commuting and gym and fitness club memberships, and 1 point per dollar on all other purchases.
At Hyatt, free nights start at 5,000 points and top out at 30,000. So, even though you only earn 4 bonus points per $1 when you use your card at Hyatt Hotels and 5 base points per $1 as a World of Hyatt member, along with 1 point for everything else, the actual award structure is closer to the frequent flier model.
The World of Hyatt program is widely considered by points bloggers to be among the best values, especially if your goal is elite status.
“It takes fewer points to score a free night at Hyatt than any other hotel currencies,” Leff says. “The challenge with Hyatt is they have about 600 hotels, not 6,000, and they tend to skew more upscale.”
That is an important factor to consider. If a hotel brand’s properties aren’t on your itinerary, you won’t get much benefit from its loyalty program.
See related: Avoid these 7 hotel rewards mistakes
Before you start building loyalty to a hotel brand, make sure it fits your own travel profile.
The Hyatt program works for Leff because he travels frequently to cities where Hyatt has properties, and he saves his points for a big payoff in the resort of his choice.
But Hyatt and Hilton have limited footprints, with about 600 properties each around the world, compared to Marriott’s 6,500 or IHG’s 5,000.
Self-employed writer Jen A. Miller earns and spends her points along the American highways and byways. She discovered her favorite hotel on a cross-country road trip in 2014.
“There was always a Holiday Inn Express when I was tired of driving,” she recalls. “And I liked the free breakfast.”
A few months later, she drove the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway, running trails along the way – an experience she describes in her book, “Running: A Love Story.” After she fell on a trail, a Holiday Inn Express manager gave her the “weary traveler discount” and showed her to the hot tub.
She joined their loyalty program on the spot and immediately applied for an IHG Rewards Club Mastercard (now the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card). Now she’s a Spire Elite member, which entitles her to 10 a.m. check-ins, late checkouts and upgrades – all of which came in handy when she ran the New York City Marathon this year.
“I started with liking a specific hotel chain – the Holiday Inn Express,” says Miller. “Then I realized if I was going to continue to stay in them, I might as well earn some rewards.”
Since then, she’s branched out. Staybridge and Candlewood chains are fine when Miller is trying to economize. On one recent trip, she rescued a stray dog on the side of the road.
After he became her frequent travel companion, she discovered Red Roof Inn and La Quinta, both IHG properties, are dog friendly. “Sometimes they even waive the pet fee now that I’m an elite member,” Miller says.
She was excited to hear IHG was merging Kimpton Karma Rewards with IHG Rewards early this year. Now Kimpton has become her favorite award option for the occasional urban splurge.
See related: How to fund travel by paying for your favorite hobbies
Once you’ve targeted a hotel loyalty program, you may be able to supplement its branded credit card with a more flexible travel rewards card.
“If you are very loyal to a specific hotel like Hyatt or IHG, it might benefit you to have that particular card,” says Ashley Dodd, spokeswoman for Chase Ultimate Rewards. “But if you are not necessarily always staying at that chain, it might be more beneficial to transfer points where you want to use them.”
Leff and Miller both use Chase Ultimate Rewards cards to complement their hotel rewards cards. Ultimate Rewards partners with Hyatt, IHG, Marriott and Ritz-Carlton to offer a 1:1 exchange of points.
Miller does the bulk of her spending on a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. If she doesn’t have enough IHG points for an award stay, she can transfer Ultimate Rewards points to make up the difference.
If your travel is all over the map (literally), you might want to forget about branded hotel cards and find one with flexible rewards. Chase Ultimate Rewards is one example.
Additionally, American Express Membership Rewards can be used for prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com, as well as several airlines. Plus, Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card holders can earn 10 miles per $1 by booking and paying through hotels.com/venture.
Many travel rewards cards have begun to expand their definition of “travel.” Chase’s Sapphire and Ink cards, for example, now offer the same bonus points for booking an Airbnb as they do for a hotel.
With the growing popularity of Airbnb and other rental services such as VRBO, HomeStay and FlipKey, hotel chains are starting to offer their own rental options. You can book Wyndham’s new vacation ownership and managed rental properties at 15,000 points per night per bedroom.
In April, Choice Hotels introduced the option to earn 10 Choice Privileges points per $1 spent on their franchisee vacation rental properties, not including resort and cleaning fees.
Watch for other hotel chains to add rental properties to their booking and award options.
As you can see, there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to hotel rewards. “It’s all about picking the right card for you,” Dodd says.
One key to getting maximum reward from your hotel points: don’t horde.
“What you don’t want to do is accumulate a whole bunch of points and save them for some future time, say to fund a retirement,” says Leff. “If you do, you’ll find they’re worth less than when you earned them, which means you overpaid to accumulate them.
“Points are never going to be worth more than they’re worth today,” Leff says. “Programs devalue their points. So try to earn them in the same period in which you burn them – and then go earn more.”