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Summer travel guide to independent hotel loyalty programs

You don’t need to stay at a large hotel chain to earn rewards and enjoy free perks; boutique hotels and loyalty programs also offer incentives to woo travelers


Enjoy the personal touch of boutique hotels but don’t want to miss out on rewards? Independent hotel loyalty programs can offer the best of both worlds – here’s how.

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As you make your summer travel plans, one of the most important decisions to make is where to stay.

Booking with a large hotel chain might be tempting if you have a chance to earn rewards or free nights through the hotel’s loyalty program. But smaller independent hotels can also offer rewards and other incentives to woo summer travelers.

“Just like premium credit cards, boutique hotels can have exclusive perks,” says Chris Ligan, vice president of Auric, a credit card processing company. “Savvy travelers know that getting their rewards on credit cards doubles up when they get the creature comforts of boutique hotels.”

These tips can help you decide whether independent hotel loyalty programs are the right option for booking a summer vacay.

See related: The best credit card perks for summer travel

Where to find independent hotel loyalty programs

Compared to bigger hotel loyalty programs, such as Marriott Bonvoy or Hilton Honors, independent loyalty programs tend to fly under the radar. The good news is, there are quite a few to choose from.

Mero Geesey, travel expert and owner of Fly With Points, says some of the best independent loyalty programs to know about include:

“Perks and benefits vary quite a bit with these, but they’re often overlooked and can provide some amazing value and benefits when staying at independent hotels,” says Geesey.

Other independent hotel loyalty programs include Stash Hotel Rewards, The Guestbook, Voilà Hotels and Stay Wanderful. These programs partner with smaller independent and boutique hotels to extend loyalty rewards to guests. Individual hotel chains can also sponsor programs on their own.

For instance, the Sonesta Travel Pass allows Sonesta hotel guests to earn 10 points for every dollar spent on qualifying stays, with a 5 percent off discount on your first booking. ClubONE Rewards from Club 1 Hotels offers five points per dollar for bookings made through the Club 1 Hotels website or mobile app.

See related: Best rewards credit cards

Reaping the benefits of independent hotel loyalty programs

The big question with independent hotel loyalty programs is whether they’re worth it. The answer depends on your summer travel plans and what you hope to get in return for your loyalty.

Geesey says Leading Hotels of the World, for instance, is designed for summer travelers who are looking for premium benefits and a more boutique feel.

  • Leaders Club members have access to over 400 independent luxury hotels, earning one point for every dollar spent.
  • Free nights begin at 4,000 points and additional program features include complimentary continental breakfast for two daily, pre-arrival upgrades, early check-in and late checkout.

But there are some potential snags.

  • The program does require a $175 annual membership fee and guests must go through a screening process to be approved for membership.
  • If you’re not a frequent guest at Leaders Club partner properties, the fee may not be justified.

I Prefer offers similar benefits to the Leaders Club, without the annual fee.

  • With the Small Luxury Hotels program through Hyatt, you can earn Hyatt points for stays at participating properties.
  • Access to these benefits is automatic if you’re already a member of World of Hyatt, so you can essentially get the best of both worlds when you book hotel stays.

Hotels.com allows you to earn one free night after every 10 nights booked, redeemable at the average cost of those 10 nights.

  • There are no blackout dates or awards availability to contend with.
  • Rooms can be booked at more than 300,000 locations, including independent hotels.
  • It’s free to join and anyone can sign up.

While Geesey says those are definite points in the program’s favor, there aren’t always opportunities to maximize the rewards you’re earning.

“For example, 30,000 Hyatt points may be used to stay in a room that would cost $350 a night, or in some situations to stay in a room that would cost $1,000+ per night,” he says. “The value of those points isn’t fixed in the same way that some other programs are.”

If you’d rather earn cash back instead of points, The Guestbook delivers.

  • Members earn 5 percent cash back or 15 percent Trip Cash on stays booked through participating independent hotels.
  • Trip Cash can be redeemed for a future hotel stay.

See related: Best hotel credit cards

Independent loyalty programs vs. bigger chains

“When compared against major programs or independent programs that are linked to benefit networks, independent programs struggle in terms of reach, depth of benefits and program brand partners,” says Bill Caswell, global hospitality practice leader at consulting firm North Highland.

For instance, things such as complimentary breakfast or dinner, lounge access, complimentary room upgrades or welcome gifts may not factor into the equation. But independent hotels can gain an advantage by offering customized or personalized local benefits that bigger brands may lack.

“Whether it’s a Tesla rental, an electric bike rental or attachment to a club or spa that’s hard to get into, you’ll never see those kinds of things at a Hilton,” says Ligan.

He says it’s not so much the benefits but the experience that counts when deciding whether to join an independent hotel loyalty program. “It’s the level of attention and the white glove treatment that people pay for.”

The downside of that, Geesey says, is that independent hotels may not always follow the same accountability standards as larger hotels.

“If something goes wrong and you’re unhappy, there isn’t a corporate customer service option that can try to right the wrong by giving you bonus points or a discount off a future say,” he says.

Ultimately, the decision to join a loyalty program associated with an independent hotel or a major chain boils down to your personal needs and the type of travel experience you’re looking for.

“One is not better or worse than the other,” says Caswell. “A boutique program does not necessarily have less value if it meets the needs of a guest unique to their property – just as a big brand program won’t have as many benefits for an infrequent traveler.”

Get more from independent hotel loyalty programs with a rewards credit card

One plus of joining larger hotel loyalty programs is the possibility to stack rewards with a co-branded or travel rewards credit card.

“For road warriors, using a co-branded card often allows these elite travelers to amass very significant point balances,” says Caswell, which can then be used to upgrade future trips or steeply discount the final price. Throw in extras like a fourth night free and it becomes even more appealing.

Independent hotels may not offer their own co-branded cards. But you can still potentially score some extra rewards when planning your stay with a travel rewards card.

The World of Hyatt Credit Card allows you to earn 4 points per dollar on Hyatt stays, including stays booked through Small Luxury Hotels of the World. That’s in addition to the five points per dollar the loyalty program itself offers.

If you’re a member of The Guestbook, you could use a travel rewards card to earn points or miles alongside your cash back rewards, or double dip using a cash back card. The Citi Double Cash Card, for instance, offers 1 percent cash back when you spend and another 1 percent cash back when you pay off purchases.

Just pay attention to the card’s cost, especially if summer travel involves an overseas trip.

“Rewards points quickly get eaten up if you have extra fees,” says Ligan. “Find a card that doesn’t have foreign exchange fees or annual fees… A lot of the points you earn can be eaten up by these ancillary costs.”

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