Hotel loyalty programs are getting easier to use and more generous, often with no blackout dates, and consumers are flocking to them to earn free hotel rooms, room upgrades and many other perks.
To get the most from the rewards programs, experts suggest you focus on the hotel chain you use and like, get a co-branded credit card and use the services of that chain's business partners such as airlines or car rental companies to rack up points faster and possibly, jump to a higher rewards status.
"The frequent-flyer program has devalued. It's hard to get a flight for free. With hotels, you can redeem the points much more easily," said Anne Banas, executive editor of Smarter Travel, explaining the growing popularity of programs now offered by all major chains and even groups of independent hotels.
Experts and frequent travelers differ over which hotel loyalty program is best.
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Smarter Travel has named InterContinental Hotel Group's Priority Club Rewards as its editor's pick this year. That's because the chain has more than 4,500 hotels located in every major U.S. metro area and many international markets. It offers brands at a range of prices, from Candlewood Suites to Holiday Inn to InterContinental. The points needed for free rooms and other perks are relatively easier to earn than other programs. And the chain offers generous promotion programs, especially for summer, said Banas.
For budget travelers, Smarter Travel also finds Wyndham Rewards "a solid choice," with more than 6,500 hotels under such brands as Days Inn, Howard Johnson, Super 8, Travelodge and Wyndham.
Marriott rewards recently took the most honors at the Frequent Traveler Awards, including "Program of The Year" for both the Americas and Europe/Africa. More than one million people from nearly every country worldwide cast online ballots for the honors. Travelers liked, for example, that Marriott rewards are easy to redeem, have no blackout dates and can be used for airlines, cruises , car rentals and more.
In South Florida, frequent traveler Peter Quinter, an international lawyer with Fort Lauderdale-based Becker & Poliakoff, loves Starwood's Preferred Guest program, which offers rewards at Westin, Sheraton, W, Four Points and other brands. Quinter stays so often he holds platinum status and finds it rewards him more handsomely than high-status programs he's previously used at Hilton and Marriott.
Quinter works the program to maximize rewards. Starwood lets him qualify for free rooms based either on points or stays, so he paid for his less expensive stays in U.S. hotels and then, too k free nights at more expensive spots like Rome, Florence and Milan during his recent anniversary trip to Italy. He also racks up points for everyday spending on his American Express-Starwood co-branded credit card.
"And with Starwood, you can do combinations of paying cash and points for stays. Some other programs don't allow that," Quinter said.
Business coach Nancy Proffitt, founder of Proffitt Management Solutions of West Palm Beach, prefers the Hilton program, which eases her stays at her favored hotel, Hampton Inn, part of the Hilton group. She likes the program less for the rewards and more to underscore the consistency of the hotel rooms and the service that make her a frequent visitor at Hampton Inn anyway.
"When you're in the room three to five minutes, you know you're going to get a call: Is your room adequate? Have you found everything you need?," Profitt said.
It helps that being a frequent visitor brings her extra perks: a newspaper at the door, express check-out and a follow-up call after checkout. She also redeems points to get free rooms for vacations, she said.
Whichever program you focus on, take advantage of its special promotions and tie-ins with other business partners, advises blogger Brian Kelly, founder of ThePointsGuy.com, a website focused on travel points and rewards.
Hyatt has a promotion this summer, for example, that lets you stay five nights and get 10,000 bonus points. And Hyatt now offers a tie-in for Costco members: 10 percent off and the third night free for stays three nights or longer, Kelly said.
Sign up for email alerts with the chains you use to learn about their special offers, and also, keep up with trends by checking such sites as flyertalk.com where frequent travelers share tips, added Kelly.
South Florida hotel executives say it pays to be a frequent-guest program member for more than just points from the chains. Individual hotels often pamper loyal visitors with added perks.
The Best Western Plus Oakland Park Inn in Fort Lauderdale often gives its frequent guests a free welcome cocktail or snacks or bottled water in the room. It also tries to reserve a repeat guest's favorite room for their stay, complete with the extra towels or type of coffee or tea that the guest prefers, said the hotel's director of sales Maria Andreatta. Guests on the Best Western rewards program now represent as many as half the guests at the hotel, a portion that keeps rising, said chief executive Walter Johnson.
Even so, hotel analysts say millions more travelers could sign up for hotel programs and cash in.
A 2010 study of U.S. leisure travelers found 69 percent of respondents were members of airline frequent-flyer programs. Yet just 50 percent were members of hotel chain frequent-guest programs, according to YPartnership/Harrison Group research.
InterContinental's Priority Club Rewards signed up nearly 8 million new members worldwide last year and now has more than 56 million members, the most of any program, the chain said.
"The price of loyalty programs is included in the price of hotel rooms," said ThePointsGuy Kelly. "So, if you don't use them, you are leaving money on the table."