How to stay at budget hotels using rewards

Credit cards that earn rewards points with 'value' hotel brands can help you score deals and find adventures on the road less traveled


Taking spontaneous road trips off the beaten path can be a great summer experience – but the trip can be even sweeter if you can redeem points for hotel nights instead shelling out dollars out of pocket. The trick? Picking the right rewards card and hotel chain.

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As you know, I’m a big fan of summer road trips, whether they be fly and drive, drive and camp or even the traditional “jump in my car and see where I wind up.”

Last week I found myself on this latter spontaneous type of road trip with my niece exploring the Oregon coast. Because our goal was fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants exploration, we didn’t have any hotel plans. We simply figured we’d stop whenever we hit a town where I could use my rewards points to stay for free.

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Using hotel points off the beaten path

The first night this plan worked. Still on the “main” road, we were able to use 8,000 points earned with my World of Hyatt Credit Card to stay at a nice new Hyatt Place in Eugene, Oregon.

As we got further off the beaten path, however, our plan went awry. The smaller the coastal towns got, the more the hotel options dwindled. With our accommodation options essentially limited to Motel 6, Super 8, Quality Inn and Best Western, I found myself in a points conundrum.

While I have a solid stash of points across the largest hotel groups (Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt and IHG), these rewards currencies were inefficient for booking the hotel options that were before me and I needed a place to sleep.

I did two things. First, I simply found the cheapest, cleanest and safest hotel available and paid for the night – ensuring that I was a member of their loyalty program before booking.

Second, I vowed to do all of the research on how you and I can both be better prepared with rewards points for value hotel brands and small-town stays before my next road trip. We all might as well learn from my mistake.

See related:  Best hotel credit cards

Value hotel brands, rewards programs and credit cards

When I talk about booking a “value” hotel, I’m referring to the hotel chains that cater to cost-conscious travelers looking for a clean room without any frills.

Most hotels in the value category provide free breakfast and Wi-Fi, and sometimes even a pool. What they won’t provide are the amenities of a full-service hotel like a concierge, valet parking or onsite bar and restaurant (unless it’s a Howard Johnson, which always seem to be connected to a Denny’s).

These value hotels belong to bigger hotel groups that have their own loyalty programs as well as their own credit card options. For example:

  • Wyndham: Days Inn, Super 8, Howard Johnson, Travelodge Microtel, LaQuinta and Ramada.
  • Choice Hotels: EconoLodge, Rodeway Inn, Comfort Inn, Sleep Inn, Quality Inn, Clarion, MainStay Suites, WoodSpring Suites.
  • Best Western: Best Western, Best Western Plus, Best Western Premier.

Just because a hotel falls into the “value” category, however, doesn’t guarantee it will be inexpensive. The Best Western in the small coastal town of Bandon, Oregon, for example, was charging a summer weekend rate of $300-plus a night when we passed through.

Times like these are when you want to have rewards points for these hotel programs in your back pocket.

Here are three cards that can come in handy for the off-the-beaten track road tripper to earn rewards:

  • Wydham Rewards Visa Signature card: 5 points per dollar spent on Wyndham hotel stays; 2 points per dollar spent on groceries and utilities; 1 point per dollar spent on other purchases. Plus, a sign-up bonus of 15,000 points with your first purchase and 15,000 additional points if you spend $1,000 in first 90 days.
  • Barclay Choice Privileges Visa Signature Credit Card: 5 points per dollar spent on Choice Privilege hotel stays, points and gift card purchases; 2 points per dollar spent on other purchases. Plus, a sign-up bonus of 32,000 points if you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days. Additionally, 8,000 points if you spend $10,000 by your card’s anniversary.
  • Best Western Rewards Mastercard: 3 points per dollar spent on Best Western stays (up to 13 points per dollar spent when combined with Best Western Rewards); 2 points per dollar spent on other purchases. Plus, a sign-up bonus of 16,000 points with your first purchase and 16,000 points after your first stay.

Each of these cards gives you enough rewards points to cover up to four nights free at a hotel within their respective property group once you’ve met the terms and conditions.

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Can’t I just use flexible rewards points to pay for my value hotel stays?

If you are earning points in a flexible rewards program like Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi Thank You points or American Express Membership Rewards, another option is to use your rewards points to pay for a stay at a value hotel. This option certainly works in a pinch.

On my Oregon coast road trip I chose to fork out $120 to stay at a Quality Inn instead of using points from my Chase Sapphire Reserve card to book the better Best Western because the value didn’t work for me.

At the cost of $309 plus taxes, one night at the Best Western was going to be 22,278 Ultimate Rewards points. I personally like to transfer my Ultimate Rewards points to World of Hyatt and know that 20,000 Ultimate Rewards points would be more useful for me to stay at any Category 5 Hyatt in the world that would cost way more than that Best Western!

Sometimes it will be smart to use your points this way. Just do the math first to see what makes the best financial sense for you.

Use your ‘value’ brand points at higher budget hotels

Even if you don’t stay in value brand hotels very often, the rewards points you earn in these hotel programs are still worth the effort and can be used when you’re looking for a more lux stay domestically or internationally.

These hotel groups also have options for both higher end and boutique hotels within their portfolio. For example, if you aren’t using your Wyndham points at the Travelodge, you could be redeeming them at a place like the Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa, California.

Whether you’re staying at a value hotel in a small town or an expensive hotel for a great rewards value on a grand adventure, the power of your rewards points is in using them.

For me, I think it might be time to add a new card to diversify my portfolio for summer spontaneity.

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