Loyalty programs from hotels, co-branded credit cards and third-party booking sites all can help you earn free nights, but work best when you choose a strategy that fits your needs
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To find the best deal for you, consider how often you hit the road, where you go and your rewards goals.
Save money or lap up luxury?
Four out of five rewards travelers want to save money so they can take a trip they otherwise couldn’t afford, says loyalty expert Jeff Berry, senior director of research and development at LoyaltyOne, which builds and brands loyalty programs.
That fifth traveler? He or she is looking for luxury – an upgrade to a top-of-the-line suite, free breakfast, free Wi-Fi, a welcome gift or free parking, says Berry.
If you’re a frequent traveler and have a loyalty to one hotel, it is usually better to use that hotel’s rewards credit card.
|— Daraius Dubash|
Million Mile Secrets
“Some consumers are looking to extend their budgets: I couldn’t otherwise go on this trip, but now I can because I get a 20 percent reduction on room rates,’” says Berry, who also is editor of Colloquy, a magazine that educates loyalty marketers. “Others are looking for something that creates an experience that isn’t about a price reduction.”
“I stay with Starwood,” says Zach Honig, editor-in-chief at The Points Guy, a credit card rewards blog. “I know I’m going to get free breakfast, free Wi-Fi and extra bonus points because I have elite status. Sometimes you might walk in and find a fruit platter and a bottle of wine.”
Stick with one chain if you travel frequently
For frequent travelers, loyalty matters. It usually makes sense – and yields better rewards – to concentrate on one hotel chain that has hotels in cities you travel to often. You’ll earn rewards more quickly than if you spread your stays out over many different brands, and you’ll have a better chance of earning elite status in the rewards program, which boosts your earning potential and perks even more.
Once you’ve chosen a chain:
• Use that chain’s credit card. If you sign up for one of the best hotel credit card, you can usually earn a nice stash of points as a sign-up bonus and then stack card points on top of those you’ll earn from the hotel’s program. Some hotel rewards programs will automatically upgrade you to elite status just for getting their credit card. “If you’re a frequent traveler and have a loyalty to one hotel, it is usually better to use that hotel’s rewards credit card,” says Daraius Dubash, co-founder of Million Mile Secrets.
For example, the American Express Surpass credit card ($75 annual fee) comes with a 75,000-point sign-up bonus when you spend $3,000 on the card in the first three months. Then you’ll earn 12 Hilton HHonors bonus points for each dollar you spend on the card at participating hotels. That’s on top of the 10 base points you earn per dollar spent at participating hotels through the hotel’s rewards program.
The Citi Hilton Reserve Visa card ($95 annual fee) offers two free weekend night certificates when you sign up and spend $2,500 within the first four months. You’ll also earn 10 Hilton HHonors bonus points per dollar spent at hotel stays within the Hilton portfolio. You can use those points to earn a free stay, work up to a higher status and enjoy perks every night away from home.
• Book directly with the hotel. Honig says booking direct can save you money. “Most of the major chains have introduced book direct rates,” he says. “Elite members or members of loyalty programs can save 10 percent by booking directly. You can earn points, and get the benefits.”
There’s another reason for elite status members to book direct. Honig says when reserving the same Starwood room through a third-party booking site, such as Hotels.com or Orbitz, he can’t count on getting the benefits that come with his Starwood elite status. “I could find myself in the lowest status of room, with no free breakfast and having to pay for Wi-Fi,” he says.
For more flexibility, choose third-party booking sites
Those who travel less often or aren’t loyal to a particular hotel chain may prefer to book through third-party sites such as Expedia, Orbitz or Hotels.com (all of which are owned by Expedia) that have rewards programs that let you earn free nights or other perks based on your stays at any of the properties that list on those sites. For example, Hotels.com’s loyalty program is simple: Book and stay 10 nights through the site and get one night (excluding taxes and fees) free, says spokesman Taylor Cole.
Other sites such as Travelocity (also owned by Expedia), CheapTickets and Booking.com offer discounts and so-called secret deals to members. You won’t earn points with the hotel’s rewards program, but you’ll have more flexibility in where you stay.
Members of the Expedia+ rewards program can earn extra perks such as room upgrades or redeem points on hotels, flights and local experiences, says spokesman Dave McNamee. Earning power and perks increase as members move to the elite silver and gold status levels.
Of all the reservations they have, the ones they feel least loyal to are individuals who don’t book through the chain.
|\u2014 Zach Honig|
Editor-in-chief, The Points Guy
Orbitz also offers rewards as members work their way from silver to gold and then platinum status. Gold members receive select perks such as free Wi-Fi or breakfast; platinum members receive room upgrades, reimbursement in Orbucks – credits good for future hotel bookings – for two checked bags and TSA pre-check enrollment. Members can redeem their rewards for free stays at qualifying hotels.
Even if you usually stick with one chain, a third-party booking site may be smart if you’re traveling to parts of the world where that chain doesn’t have a presence. “I use CheapTickets a lot when I go to Bermuda,” Honig says. “You’d think they are focused on airfare, but they are actually better for hotels. They have promo codes of up to 22 percent listed on their home page. If you’re booking a stay, you can cancel and rebook once a bigger discount comes out.”
Keep in mind also that some third-party sites will charge your credit card the full amount when you book the room, Honig says, so cancellations are expensive. When you book directly through the hotel, you usually get a more generous cancellation policy.
You can stack deals through third-party sites as well. Start at cash-back sites such as topcashback.com, fatwallet.com or ebates.com, search for, say, Hotels.com, and get the cash back and the Hotels.com rewards. “You can get an additional 2 or 3 percent off in addition to Hotels.com,” Dubash says.
For even more flexibility, use general travel cards
In addition to co-branded credit cards, many savvy travelers swear by another shovel to dig for travel treasure: the best general travel credit cards such as Citi Prestige and Chase Sapphire Preferred.
“I like that I have the flexibility of transferring points to different airlines and hotels,” Dubash says. “This makes it easier to make redemptions and book airlines and hotel stays because I have the option of considering different airlines and hotels. For example, with the Sapphire Preferred, I have the option of booking on say, United, Southwest and British Airways.”
Using these cards makes even more sense in categories where bonus points are offered, Dubash says. “Chase Sapphire Preferred gives me double points for all travel and dining expenses,” he says. “And the Citi Prestige gives me 3x the points on air and hotels and 2x on dining and entertainment. So I’m earning more per $1 spent.”
Does it ever make sense to use these general travel cards when you have a card linked to the hotel chain or airline you’re using? Sometimes, but usually not, Dubash says.
“For example, the United card gets you one free checked bag, so better to use the United card to book the flight on United to take advantage of the free bag,” he says. “However, Southwest offers two free bags to all passengers. So you could use the Chase Sapphire Preferred for travel or dining expenses, and still have the flexibility to transfer the points to Southwest or United, etc. “
The beauty of good rewards management? Each trip helps pay for or enhance the next trip. So even as your vacation is ending, you’re already well on the way to the next one.
|SOLD OUT? MAYBE NOT|
|If your destination city appears to be booked solid when you check online, you may want to both investigate third-party booking sites and call hotels directly yourself, especially if you have elite status. “When a city is sold out, some third-party sites may have a certain allocation of rooms not sold yet,” Dubash says.|
On the other hand, if you have a hotel credit card or are an elite member in a hotel rewards program, that status also might get you a room in a so-called full hotel, Honig says. “Even if a hotel is full, they have a couple of rooms they hold for elite members,” he says.
“Or they may have to move someone who does not have elite status or who booked through a third-party site,” he says. “Of all the reservations they have, the ones they feel least loyal to are individuals who don’t book through the chain.”