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The case against hotel loyalty points

They’re often inflexible and difficult to use; here’s what to do if you’re fed up

Summary

Hotel loyalty points can be valuable if you’re flexible in terms of where you want to travel and when. But for many points-earning travelers, they’re inflexible and difficult to use. Read on as experts discuss what options are available if you’re sitting on a pile of hotel points you simply can’t use.

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When Renee Newman of Fayetteville, Arkansas, realized she had amassed over 1 million hotel points across the IHG Rewards and Hilton Honors programs, she thought she was in good shape to cover hotel stays for two European trips later this year.

The first planned trip was just for two – Newman, 55, and her spouse – so it wasn’t too difficult to find award space, she says. For the second trip with their three granddaughters, however, she ran into a host of problems.

Newman initially figured she would book two adjoining hotel rooms with points to accommodate their party of five. The problem is, she couldn’t find award availability for rooms that slept three people at certain hotels she was trying to book – even though you could book a room for three if you paid in cash.

Chase Ultimate Rewards, Airbnb save the day

Prime examples are the Hilton Paris Opera and the Waldorf Astoria Versailles, she said. At the Hilton Paris Opera, a room for two people was ringing up at 80,000 points per night, but a second room for her three granddaughters was going to cost her 224,000 points per night. And the same was true at the Waldorf Astoria Versailles – the hotel wanted 269,000 per night for a second room that sleeps three children.

Newman said she found even basic hotels like Hampton Inn Paris Clichy wanted 79,000 points per night for a room for three when the same room for two was only 40,000 points per night. Staying in a Hampton Inn near Paris wasn’t ideal anyway, so she didn’t want to get fleeced for the privilege.

Another problem Newman faced across all hotel brands she searched with included scarce award availability – as in, there were no rooms available for some of her dates.

Eventually, she gave up on the idea of using her giant stash of hotel points and booked apartments or hotels in six different locations across France, Switzerland and Italy using Chase Ultimate Rewards points and by paying cash for an Airbnb.

“In Venice, I reserved a sweet apartment in San Polo,” she says.

And for two nights in a huge two-bedroom apartment, she only paid 23,100 Chase Ultimate Rewards points.

“The girls were in love with the Venetian style of the apartment and I didn’t spend hours trying to find availability or choking on the price,” she says.

See related: Avoid these 7 hotel rewards mistakes

Should you give up on hotel loyalty points?

Newman’s story is, unfortunately, not unique. While it’s easy to cash in hotel points for double occupancy rooms when you find availability, using points with kids in tow can seem impossible –  especially in Europe and other destinations outside the U.S.

But there are other reasons hotel points can be difficult to use – and even worthless in some cases.

Travel rewards expert Brandon Neth of Finance Buzz says that to begin with, people don’t always get enough time off work to adequately leverage their hotel points. And if they’re stuck traveling during school breaks when hotel award availability can be scarce, they may not be able to cash in their points at all — or they might have to fork over considerably more points for the same room.

Additionally, hotel points are not all that flexible. There are some exceptions – for example, you can cash in Marriott Bonvoy points for air-and-hotel packages, and Hilton and Marriott let you cash in points for experiences like concerts and events – but most of the time you’re stuck using your hotel points for hotel stays.

According to travel expert Scott Mackenzie of Travel Codex, hotel points still offer a lot of value – if you’re in a good position to use them. Hotel loyalty points may be best for couples due to the fact it’s easier to find award bookings with double occupancy, but also “because each person can earn points, and many programs allow free transfers between accounts,” he says.

And you only need to pay for a room for two people once, whereas you need double the airline miles to pay for two people to fly somewhere.

Of course, hotel points may also be best for consumers who have some flexibility in terms of when they travel, but that’s really the case with any airline or hotel loyalty program. You’ll also have more luck if you’re flexible in where you go — the more options you have, the better.

See related: 6 ways to maximize hotel rewards

Tired of hotel points? Here’s what to do next

If you are sitting on a pile of hotel points you simply can’t use, it may be time to switch to a different type of award currency altogether. And that could mean signing up for a new credit card that lets you earn flexible points you can use in more than one way.

Neth suggests earning points in the Chase Ultimate Rewards program first and foremost – at least if you can qualify for one of their credit cards due to their archaic 5/24 rule.

“Most of their cards offer great value, good sign-up bonuses and amazing long-term perks,” he says.

Cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Ink Business Preferred Credit Card all let you earn points in this program. You can redeem rewards for travel through the Chase portal or transfer 1:1 to popular airline and hotel loyalty programs like Hyatt, Marriott, IHG Rewards, Air France, Southwest and United MileagePlus.

If you have points in a flexible program like Chase Ultimate Rewards, you have the option to transfer them to hotel programs if you want – but you don’t have to. Instead, you can decide to transfer to airlines or redeem them for gift cards, statement credits or merchandise.

Travel writer Ramsey Qubein also suggests earning flexible points, but for a different reason. As airlines and hotels move away from transparency in award costs and toward dynamic award pricing, flexible points allow you to redeem points for whatever travel you want, whether it’s hotels, rental cars or experiences.

You may not get as much value in return in some cases – and especially when you redeem for business or first-class airfare – but travel portals are much easier to use.

Outside of Chase Ultimate Rewards, also remember other flexible programs like American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou points. Both let you transfer points to airline and hotel programs or book directly with points through their respective travel portals. Some of the top rewards credit cards that let you earn points in these programs include the Citi Prestige card, Citi Premier Card and The Platinum Card® from American Express.

Finally, don’t forget about cards that offer flexible travel credit, including the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard and the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. Each of these cards gives you 2X miles for each dollar you spend plus a big sign-up bonus. They also let you redeem miles for any type of travel at a rate of one cent per mile, though Barclaycard redemptions start at 10,000 miles ($100).

When you sign up for a credit card that doesn’t tie you down to a single program, you can rest assured you’ll never have a million or more points you can’t even use.

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The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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