If you tirelessly rack up frequent-flier miles only to encounter snags when you try to redeem them, it's time you discovered the increasingly generous world of hotel reward programs. Short on both business and leisure travelers of late, hotel chains are doing whatever it takes to fill their beds.
"This is an awfully good time to be using hotel points," says Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com, a site that tracks loyalty programs. "You'll save money, and you shouldn't have any problems getting a free night."
Rick Ingersoll knows full well how generous hotels can be. The retired mortgage banker and his wife, Katy, aren't paying a dime for 58 of the 61 nights they've booked on an around-the-world trip starting in April. The couple piled up points with five different chains by using hotel-reward credit cards and signing up for all the giveaways they could find. (They even endured a 90-minute time-share tour in Hawaii to earn 7,500 Starwood points.)
"It takes time to learn the system, and you've got to keep your eyes open," says Ingersoll, who pens a blog on travel deals, FrugalTravelGuy.blogspot.com. "But I rarely pay for a hotel room."
Stay (almost) any night
Many travelers have long harbored a big gripe when it comes to hotel loyalty programs: blackout dates. But those discouraging words may be a thing of the past. Initially, Starwood was the only chain that allowed rewards members to trade in points for a room on any night. But then InterContinental and Hyatt followed suit in the early 2000s, and two other biggies, Hilton and Marriott, relaxed their rules this past year.
Fantastic news, right? Unfortunately, there's often a hitch: Many chains still have what are known in hotel lingo as capacity controls, or curbs on the number of rooms available to loyalty club members during peak travel times. Of the major players, only Hilton and Starwood claim not to have any capacity controls, while Marriott, InterContinental, and Hyatt admit that some standard rooms are off-limits on popular nights, such as New Year's Eve at the New York Marriott Marquis overlooking Times Square.
One other alert: Some chains require that you keep your account active every year by earning or redeeming points—or your stash will disappear.
Have a hotel shopping spree
A free room isn't the only thing your points buy—InterContinental has iPod Nanos and Nintendo Wiis for sale at its online mall, Marriott dangles rounds of golf at its links in Jamaica and Hawaii, and Hilton hawks tickets to Saturday Night Live tapings. Not to be outdone, Starwood last fall became the first chain to allow rewards members to directly exchange hotel points for airfare. For example, a round-trip ticket worth about $350 on any airline costs 25,000 points—and there are no dreaded blackout dates or extra fees.
Another plus for loyalty members is the current bonanza of point bonuses. Starwood recently showered guests at its Aloft hotels with quadruple the points they'd normally earn for a night, while Hyatt is bestowing between 2,000 and 20,000 extra points for stays of two to eight nights through the end of April. A great resource for finding these bonuses is the delightfully nerdy new website PointMaven.com, which has a database of thousands of offers across the country, color-coded to show the best deals.
Finding the right match
Because every program is different—and many can be mind-numbingly complex—comparing them is tricky. For one, every chain has its own formula for calculating how points are earned. Marriott doles out 10 points per dollar spent at most of its hotels, Starwood awards two points per dollar, and InterContinental allots 2,000 points per visit at its main brand, no matter how long you stay. Many chains also have partnerships with credit card companies, allowing you to amass points every time you make a charge. The cards are usually free for the first year, and hotels often give away as many as 25,000 points just for signing up.
Trading in your cache is another matter: Each chain requires a different number of points for a room, depending on the grade of the property and the desirability of the location. You'll spend 7,500 points for a night at a low-frills Marriott hotel (such as a Fairfield Inn) or a whopping 20,000 points to live it up at the deluxe Atlanta Marriott Downtown. To help you zero in on the program for you, we've broken down exactly how much you have to spend in dollars to earn a free night at five of the biggest chains (see the chart).
Experts have their favorites. Randy Petersen, publisher of InsideFlyer.com, another website that tracks loyalty clubs, likes Starwood's cash-and-points option, which lets travelers use money to make up the difference when they don't have enough points for a free stay. Ingersoll is a fan of InterContinental's PointBreaks promotions, which make rooms available for 5,000 points, half the normal rate.
His best piece of advice: Just dive in. "It doesn't cost anything to sign up, so join all the programs. Then stay poised for the deal with your name on it."