By Brian Kelly
When it comes to travel rewards programs, many people focus solely on airline miles, forgetting about other travel rewards programs all together. But depending on your travel goals, hotel programs may be more advantageous. Many of these programs offer easier points accumulation, superior fulfillment, more versatility, and better promotions. You can even use your hotel points to book free airline tickets. Here’s what you need to know.
1. Hotel Programs Offer Better Redemptions and Availability
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Airline miles usually amount to a value of about one to two cents each, while hotel loyalty points can be worth much more when you factor in the value—and availability—of rewards. On the airline side, the combination of rising airfares, reduced flight capacities, booking fees, and scarcer award seat availability all make finding desirable award tickets challenging. On the hotel front, although hotel rates have also risen dramatically over the past decade, capacity continues to grow as well, as hotel chains expand and add brands and locations. That means more rooms—and more expensive rooms—are up for grabs for loyalty program members.
Plus, members can take advantage of all the brands within a family of hotels like Hilton. So if you stay at Hilton brand like DoubleTree or Embassy Suites on a work trip, you can use those points to treat yourself to a weekend at New York’s Waldorf Astoria. Plus, hotel points programs don’t charge the same high fees airlines do to book an award reservation, and will usually let you cancel anytime without penalty up to 24 hours in advance.
2. Innovative Booking Options Help Maximize Reward Values
Rising airfares and gas prices have hit Americans particularly hard because of the weak U.S. dollar. That holds true for hotel rates as well, especially in Europe, where, despite recent drops, the euro is still pummeling the greenback. A hotel room that would cost $200 in Boston could go for the equivalent of $600 in Paris. That makes using your hotel points wisely more important than ever. Luckily, many hotel programs have just the answer.
Starwood Preferred Guest program has a "Cash & Points" option and Hilton HHonors has a "Points and Money" choice that get you hotel rooms for both fewer points and less money than using one method of payment or the other. For example, a Category 4 (out of 7) Starwood property like the Westin Grand Berlin, would cost you 4,000 Starpoints and $60 USD using the "Cash & Points" option versus paying over 250 euros (currently around $360). At the Hilton Buenos Aires, rooms are going for around $229 a night now, but Hilton HHonors members have the choice of using 40,000 points instead, or a combination of 20,000 points and $70 with the "Points and Money" option, stretching their dollars even further.
3. Points Can Be Used at Several Brands within a Hotel Group
Transferring frequent flyer points between airlines can be a challenge, but transferring hotel points between brands within one hotel group is a cinch. In most hotel points programs, you can earn points on stays at any brand within the group, and redeem those points for stays at other brands. These are the most robust hotel rewards programs, with the most properties at which to accumulate points:
4. Members Can Still Redeem Points for Airline Tickets
Just because you pick a hotel loyalty program and start accruing points in it doesn’t mean you can’t still use them on your airline of choice. In fact, most hotel programs allow you to transfer points to several different airline mileage accounts. For instance, Starwood Preferred Guest members can transfer their points to over 30 different mileage programs including those of American Airlines, British Airways, Delta, Air France, United, US Airways and Virgin Atlantic (see the list here), and SPG will give you a bonus of 5,000 points for every 20,000 that you transfer, making these points even more valuable.
Hilton HHonors members can do so with 40 airline partners at the moment (see the list here), while Marriott Rewards partners with 33 airlines including JetBlue, Virgin America, Cathay Pacific and United. See that list here. In general, however, hotel points are more valuable when used on hotel stays rather than on flights.
5. Hotel Programs Offer More Promotions and Specials
Where airlines target high-value frequent flyers with occasional specials, hotel programs offer seemingly limitless promotions and deals to incentivize members to earn and use points—so stay on top of your reward program’s news. For instance, Starwood recently announced its first promotion of 2012 where Starwood Preferred Guest members earn double points on stays of two nights, and triple points on stays of three nights or more at participating properties between now and April 8 (register by March 15). If you have travel coming up, that could make for a hefty haul of points. Perhaps it’s time to plan a weekend getaway?
Fodors.com contributor Brian Kelly is The Points Guy. A former road warrior, he spent years working in recruitment for a major investment bank, traveling over 125,000 miles annually, and spending well over fifty nights a year in hotels. For Brian, getting there is often more than half the fun. His passion for travel and knowledge of the frequent flyer miles and points system has allowed him to fund a luxury travel lifestyle while spending less cash than he would to fly coach and stay in hostels.
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