BUDGET TRAVEL ADVICE

The Breakdown on 8 Membership Programs

Can't decide if it's worth joining a hotel or airline loyalty program? We took eight of the most popular rewards programs and found out exactly how they work—from how long it really takes to get rewards to all the additional perks you get by being brand loyal.

How easy is it to use? The availability of awards is generally good, and they're easy to book online. You can also use your miles to book multicity and one-way fares, allowing you to combine first-class and economy travel in one tripor to fly one way without wasting points.

What are the fees? There are no membership fees, but you'll have to pay a $20 fee for booking over the phone (when booking an award on some partner airlines, you'll have to pay the fee because calling customer service is the only option-you can, however, book awards online for partners like Alaska Airlines, British Airways, and Hawaiian Airlines among others). There's also a  $75 fee for booking less than 21 days in advance, and a $150 fee for any changes made to a MileSAAver award ticket (there's no charge for AAnytime awards). You'll also have to pay up to $10 for the September 11 security fee and up to an additional $180 in taxes and fees for international travel.

Are there any blackout dates associated with travel? No, although seats are more limited during peak travel times. Some flights may not be available for certain award types; routes with less than daily service may also have limited award seats available.

What partnerships does this reward program offer? You can earn additional miles through partnerships with more than 1,000 participating companies, including a wide range of hotel chains, airlines, car rental companies, financial companies, and more than 500 retailers like the North Face and Barnes & Noble through the AAdvantage eShopping Mall. The AAdvantage Dining program also allows members to earn AAdvantage miles at thousands of participating restaurants, bars and clubs.

Are there special promotions available only to members? Occasionally, the airline will offer bonuses like double miles for flights; you have to register to qualify, so check online for offers before making reservations. Keep an eye out for more deals and contests posted on the AAdvantage Facebook and Twitter pages.

What are some other perks? The perks kick in once you earn elite status.

HOTELS


MARRIOTT REWARDS
What kind of rewards do you get? Points, which you can convert to airline miles or redeem for free hotel stays, rental cars or merchandise like Furla handbags and seats from the original Yankee Stadium. Through Marriott's Customize Your Rewards program (available to elite members-the lowest tier, Silver, requires at least 10 nights a year), you can also request almost anything: tickets to the U.S. Open or to Broadway shows, or jewelry from Tiffany & Co. If you have the points needed, the reward is yours.

How long does it take to get rewards? Spend $750 (equivalent to 7,500 points) and you'll earn a free night at a category 1 hotel like a Fairfield Inn (you'll have to spend double that at a Residence Inn or Towne Place Suites, where you only get five points per $1 spent). A free night at a category 7 hotel requires 35,000 points, equivalent to $3,500. To stay in Rome, Times Square, or London, you'll need 40,000 points.

What is the range of redemption options? You can use your points at any Marriott property, or make reservations at a Ritz-Carlton online. You can also redeem points for room upgrades (usually 5,000 per night), another nice feature that many other hotel loyalty programs don't offer.

How easy is it to use? Thanks to a new Instant Redemption program, you can book a room on the spot if one is available, or use points to pay for spa treatments and food and beverages during a stay without having to plan in advance. Although transferring points is free, they can only be transferred to a spouse, and paperwork is required.

What are the fees? There are no membership fees, and no fees for redepositing unused points back into the account or for transferring points.

Are there any blackout dates associated with travel? Out of Marriott's 3,600 properties, only four high-end locations (including two in Hawaii and one in Rome) have blackout dates, although they do offer plenty of open days for members.

What partnerships does this reward program offer? Earn points with Hertz, CruisesOnly, Orient Express, and more than 30 airline partners (most of the big ones, although American is not among them).

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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