How to maximize hotel loyalty programs

By Doreen Hemlock, Tribune Newspapers

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-flier program has devalued,” 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. “It’s hard to get a flight for free. With hotels, you can redeem the points much more easily.”

Experts and frequent travelers differ over which hotel loyalty program is best.

Smarter Travel has named InterContinental Hotel Group’s Priority Club Rewards as its editor’s pick this year. That’s because the chain, with more than 4,500 hotels, is 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 easier to earn than in other programs. And the chain offers generous promotion programs, especially for summer, Banas said.

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 a 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.

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 has 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 took free nights at more expensive spots such as 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,” Quinter said. “Some other programs don’t allow that.”

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 keep up with trends by checking such sites as flyertalk.com where frequent travelers share tips, Kelly added.

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Posted on June 17, 2011, in Hospitality Digital Marketing Services. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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