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.

What are some other perks? All members get a free newspaper on weekdays and late checkout until 2 p.m. if available.

HILTON HHONORS
What kind of rewards do you get? Points, which, in addition to free stays at more than 3,800 hotels worldwide, you can redeem for park passes to Disneyland (options from 90,000 points), car rentals, cruise certificates, gift cards to Starbucks, jewelry from Tiffany & Co., electronics, Broadway show tickets, and more.

How long does it take to get rewards? Thanks to what Hilton calls Double Dipping, you can earn hotel points and airline miles for the same stay. Or you can opt to earn bonus points instead of miles and receive 10 points per eligible $1 spent. You also get the same number of points per dollar spent regardless of whether you stay at a Hampton Inn or a Waldorf Astoria. Once you spend a minimum of $500, you qualify for a free night at a Hampton Inn (7,500 points), or spend $3,334 (50,000-80,000 points, depending on your selected earnings style) for a free night at a Waldorf.

What is the range of redemption options? All properties can be booked if a room is available; nothing is off-limits. Use your points to upgrade to a premium room, combine your points with money when booking to score a less expensive stay, or donate them to your favorite charity thru the Hilton HHonors Giving Back Program.

How easy is it to use? There's no fee to change your itinerary, and booking can be done online, right up until the last minute. There's also a reservation line for making reservations over the phone. A new iPhone application allows you to redeem points while on the go.

What are the fees? There are no membership fees. There's a $25 fee for every 10,000 points when transferring points to another member (up to 200,000 points; after that, there's no fee).

Are there any blackout dates associated with travel? No. Points do not expire, but members must keep their account active by purchasing or donating points, or staying at a Hilton property once every 12 months.

What partnerships does this reward program offer? You can earn and redeem points with more than 50 airlines, six car-rental companies, and multiple dining partners among others through the Global Online Shopping Mall..

Are there special promotions available only to members? Members have access to Point Stretcher Rewards, which require 40 percent fewer points and can be booked online. Check their Facebook page for timely promotions like Triple Your Trip, giving members the opportunity to earn triple points on stays Friday thru Sunday and double points on stays Monday thru Thursday for travel thru September 30, 2012—another promotion gives members the chance to win one of seven once-in-a-lifetime vacations thru August 31, 2012.

What are some other perks? Members (regardless of status) get a special reservation line, speedier check-in and check-out, and even late check-out upon request (if available). Additional perks are available as you move up the membership status ladder-Silver, Gold, and Diamond level members are rewarded with frequent room upgrades, free wireless internet, and health club privileges depending on the hotel.

STARWOOD PREFERRED GUEST
What kind of rewards do you get? Starpoints, which you can redeem for a free night at 1,090 participating Starwood properties or for flights on more than 350 airlines with no blackout dates. Or redeem points for Amtrak train tickets, airline miles or ticket purchases, and gift cards to Starbucks, iTunes, and Amazon.com. Members also have access to Starwood's Moments, where you can use points to bid on experiences like seeing Lady Gaga perform in Vienna or attending a Madonna concert in Edinburgh.

How long does it take to get rewards? You get two Starpoints for every eligible $1 spent. Free nights at Category 1 hotels (Four Points by Sheraton and some Sheratons in international destinations) can be had for 2,000 points, so spend $1,000 and you'll get a free night. Category 7 hotels (the W Retreat & Spa Maldives, some St. Regis locations) require a minimum of 30,000 points—the equivalent of $15,000—for a free night.

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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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