It’s hotel 101 time. But be warned, this isn’t your typical 101. I think we’ll actually stray greatly from what would usually be spoken about here in travel blogging communities. Are you ready? Let’s get to it, and then let us know if you agree or disagree.
First things first: if you’re a millennial, it’s a lot harder to be loyal to a hotel program than an airline. In frequent flyer 101, we discussed the value of loyalty. Loyalty equals elite status and elite status translates into bonus miles, priority check in, upgrades to first class, faster customer service, etc…
For hotels, that’s theoretically true but the payoff (to us at least) is not as big. An upgraded room is nice, but personally, we feel all that’s needed in a hotel is a good bed, awesome pillows, and a great shower. What’s more, much of the travel Laura and I do takes advantage of one of two things:
- We have friends in the city we’re visiting, and crash on their couch or in their spare bedroom.
- We’re not too picky in our travels and don’t mind paying dirt-cheap rates for rooms that are nothing more than adequate.
- And with my job, I spend about half of my travel sleeping on floors everywhere from Tijuana to San Jose!
But all that being said, there’s still a way to maximize stays and points. The most simple strategy would be to sign up for the following programs: IHG Rewards, Hotels.com Rewards, and then Marriott and perhaps Starwood Preferred Guest. If you really want to kick butt, well then sign up for the Hyatt Gold Passport program as well as Hilton HHonors. But here’s why we suggest what we do.
IHG by far has the most properties around the world at an affordable price point. Holiday Inn, Hotel Indigo, Crowne Plaza, and CandleWood are just a few of their properties. They also have a higher-end chain, InterContinetal. The elite benefits for IHG aren’t great, but here’s what we really like about this loyalty program:
- Points don’t expire. No need to get points every X months before losing them. For the non-frequent traveler- this is a nice benefit.
- They often have cool bonuses they will send to you.
- IHG has a great quarterly promotion called Points Break, where selected hotels worldwide are available for as little as 5,000 points (which is very little).
Hotels.com Welcome Rewards
We actually use hotels.com a lot. Often, we find the best rates in boutique hotels on the site. What’s more, we enjoy staying at such hotels for a more personalized and intimate touch. Finally, hotels.com has the best rewards program out of all the third party booking websites (e.g.,Expedia, Hotwire, Priceline, etc) … Hotels.com Welcome Rewards works like this: Stay ten nights, get one free night. They average the amount you paid across the 10 nights, and whatever the average is, you have that credit toward a future stay.
But the real secret is this: With hotels.com and similar travel engines, your student loans can earn you quite a bit of points. I’ve still got some outstanding student loans, and my loans are with Sallie Mae. If you’re in the same boat, go to www.upromise.com and set up an account right now. Even if you’re not, it’s worth considering starting up their high interest savings account, which we also have. It’s got a great APR, and they match 10% of your Upromise earnings at the end of the year provided you meet a few simple requirements. Start any online shopping you ever do by first logging on through this Upromise portal and you’ll earn a small percentage back on your purchases. This is incredibly advantageous with hotels.com, where the earning percentage is 5%. So when I booked hotels for work as an admission counselor (first logging on to the Upromise portal and then going to Hotels.com), I was getting 5% of every purchase back AND earning rewards to redeem for personal travel later on. This is great anywhere, but it really was a nice bonus when staying in cities like New York or San Francisco where the nightly rate was much higher!
I am not a huge Marriott fan. Have nothing against them, but I also feel no allegiance toward them. What they have going for them is a large amount and a diverse group of properties, meaning you can almost always find a Marriott property where you are going.
I just love Starwood. As we referenced in an earlier post, people under the same roof (or sharing the same PO Box even) can transfer points back and forth, which is rare for any type of a loyalty program. The properties are usually pretty good and elite status, even the lowest, has some good benefits like bonus points, being upgraded to a club floor (free breakfast and more), and late checkout at 4 pm when available. But the prices usually are a little bit higher. They aren’t the most expensive properties, but they also aren’t the cheapest. Redemption is easy, and you can transfer Starpoints to a number of airlines, receiving a 25% bonus when you transfer at least 20,000. So transfer 20,000 Starpoints to American Airlines, and you in fact get 25,000 miles!
What about the others? It’s all about the number of properties
I hear nothing but good things about Hyatt, and the elite rewards are probably the best. But the properties are usually more pricey, and as of December 31, 2013 they only had 549 properties around the world. Compare that to the over 4,600 hotels that IHG has, and you see why it is easier to find IHG while on the road. For the real travel hackers, Hyatt is a no brainer. For the casual traveler, we tilt toward the strategy we outlined above.
What about Hilton? I mean, they’ve got DoubleTree and DoubleTree gives you a warm chocolate chip cookie at check in! Hilton has some cool properties, but the problem is simple: Their points are the equivalent of Delta SkyMiles (read: the most devalued currency in the industry). So Hilton simply isn’t for everyone or some might say- anyone.
In a nutshell
Find a way to get Upromise, whether it’s through your student loans or a high-yield savings account. Sign up for hotels.com Welcome Rewards, IHG Rewards, Marriott, and Starwood. And at the end of the day, stay with friends when you can. Check out airbnb.com which is quickly becoming the largest “hotel chain” according to Fast Company. The coolest stay experience I ever had was on a houseboat, in Hong Kong. Sometimes the hotel brands, nice as they may be, inhibit us from really connecting with people and exploring a city.
What’s the best hotel experience you’ve had or the best experience you’ve had with a hotel loyalty program?