Photograph by Eric Martin, Figarophoto/Redux
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The Ritz Paris Hotel, France

Photograph by Eric Martin, Figarophoto/Redux
TravelThe Strategist

Why Hotel Points Programs Matter

Learn how to pick a program and earn rewards fast with these simple steps.

When it comes to loyalty programs, most people immediately think of airline miles. However, hotel points can be even more valuable in terms of saving money and earning travel rewards quickly. Here’s how to pick the right hotel program for your needs.

Join the Club

The first step is to register for accounts with the major hotel chains, regardless of whether you plan to stay at their properties in the near future or not. Aside from earning points on stays and special promotions, several loyalty programs offer free benefits just for being a member. For example, IHG Rewards, the loyalty program of deluxe InterContinental hotels as well as Holiday Inn, Hotel Indigo, and Kimpton, gives all members free Internet access. So just signing up for free can save you a bit of money, even as an infrequent traveler.

Analyze Your Travel Habits

In simpler times, a Hilton was just a Hilton. These days, however, each of the major hotel chains includes a multitude of brands under its umbrella. Starwood encompasses everything from St. Regis luxury properties to design-driven Ws and business-friendly brands like Element and Aloft. InterContinental Hotels Group has over 5,000 hotels in over a hundred countries, while Hyatt has under 700 properties worldwide.

The key to determining which hotel loyalty program is the best for your needs is to analyze your travel habits and pin down both the kinds of properties where you pay to stay and the hotels and destinations at which you eventually hope to redeem your points for award nights. From there, you can choose a program with a hotel portfolio that includes a cross section of those types of properties.

Pay to Play: Earn and Redeem Points

In general, you earn a certain number of hotel points per dollar you spend at affiliated properties. That not only includes money spent on stays, but also at on-property facilities like restaurants and spas in many cases.

The number of points you earn varies widely from program to program. Starwood Preferred Guest members earn just two points per dollar on stays, while Marriott Rewards members earn 10 points per dollar spent at most properties. Hilton HHonors even lets you earn both hotel points and airline miles on stays with its so-called Double Dip options.

From the earning numbers alone, it might seem like you’d want the hotel program that rewards members with the most points per dollar, but don’t forget to take into account the redemption side of the equation.

Just as each hotel program has its own earning formula, they each have unique award charts as well. For the purposes of award redemptions, most major chains classify their properties into categories. Hyatt has seven categories with award-redemption rates for standard rooms ranging from 5,000 to 30,000 points per night. Club Carlson, the points program of hotels like Radisson and Country Inns & Suites, also has seven award categories, but rates for standard rooms range from 9,000 to 70,000 points. For its part, Wyndham Rewards (including Wyndham, Ramada, Super 8, and Howard Johnson) prices all award nights at all properties at a flat rate of 15,000 points per night.

So even if you only earn two or three points per dollar spent, you might be able to redeem an award night for just 8,000 points versus a program where you earn 10 points per dollar but may need 70,000 points for an award night.

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The JW Marriot Venice Resort & Spa, Italy

Go for Gold: Elite Status

Hotel loyalty programs offer elite status to travelers who stay a certain number of times or nights in their hotels each year. Status tiers convey certain value-added benefits such as bonus points, room upgrades, and free breakfast. The status-qualification requirements vary from loyalty program to loyalty program, and so do the perks.

For example, Starwood Preferred Guest members qualify for Gold status after 10 stays or 25 nights in a calendar year and enjoy benefits such as earning one more Starpoint per dollar spent at Starwood properties (a 50 percent bonus), late checkout, space-available upgrades, a welcome amenity, and complimentary premium Internet access.

By contrast, Marriott’s first tier of elite status is called Silver, and members qualify by staying 10 nights in a calendar year. That seems like a better deal, right? Except Marriott Silver members earn just 20 percent bonus points, late checkout, and a 10 percent discount at Marriott gift shops. So Starwood status is much more valuable.

Look up the elite-status benefits of the various programs, and determine whether you will complete the required number of stays to achieve the status. Keep in mind that several credit cards, including those co-branded by Hilton, Hyatt, IHG Rewards, and Marriott, confer automatic hotel elite status just for being a cardholder.

Don’t Forget Smaller Chains

Several smaller hotel groups (usually on the boutique or luxury side) offer non-points-based loyalty programs that are well worth considering depending on your activity.

Leading Hotels of the World’s Leaders Club is a great example. A yearly $150 membership fee earns one free night for every five stays you complete, free Internet access, daily complimentary breakfast for two, discounted room rates, and room upgrades based on availability. All of that can equate to thousands of dollars per year in value.

Transfer Partners

One final, but major, factor to consider is whether you want to use your hotel points on something other than hotel stays, such as airline tickets. Although several hotel programs let you convert your points into airline miles, conversion rates can be abysmal. Two hotel programs in particular stand out, though.

The first is Starwood Preferred Guest, which lets members convert points into frequent-flier miles at a one-to-one ratio with over 30 airlines. When you transfer 20,000 points at a time, SPG even gives you a 25 percent bonus. Marriott offers “Hotel + Air” packages that let members use their points to combine hotel and airline redemptions at bargain prices.

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The W Bogota Hotel, Colombia

Accelerate Your Earning

No matter which hotel program you settle on, there are several ways to earn points and elite status faster.

Credit cards: Carrying a credit card that earns points on day-to-day purchases is probably the best, fastest way to rack up points. All major hotel loyalty programs field co-branded credit cards. Even better, many offer multiple points per dollar on purchases at specific kinds of merchants like gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants, or car-rental agencies. Several, including the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve card and the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature, confer automatic elite status. Others, such as the Hyatt credit card and the IHG Rewards Club Select credit card, offer cardholders a free night at certain properties every year, so their value goes beyond just points.

Seasonal promotions: Hotel programs tend to offer points-earning promotions on a regular basis. IHG Rewards fields “Accelerate” offers several times a year, when members can earn tens of thousands of bonus points for doing things like completing a set number of stays in a given month, booking reservations at certain brands within the portfolio, or signing up for a co-branded credit card. Starwood’s seasonal promotions usually include the opportunity to earn double or triple points on stays.

Shopping: Like frequent-flier programs, several hotel loyalty programs, like Choice Rewards (including Comfort Inn, Quality, and Clarion), Hilton, and Marriott, also field online shopping portals with links to major retailers like Bloomingdale’s, Apple, and Bed Bath & Beyond. When you log into the online portal and click through to a merchant to make purchases, you can earn bonuses of up to 30 points per dollar spent.

Book direct: The terms and conditions of most of the major hotel loyalty programs specifically preclude bookings made through an online travel agency like Expedia or Orbitz (which have their own loyalty programs) from earning points and elite status. Thanks to the best-rate guarantees most hotels now offer, you can get the same price on a room no matter which channel you book it through, so it’s better to book directly through the hotel and be sure you’ll earn points and credit toward elite status.

The landscape of hotel loyalty programs is expansive and diverse, but by asking a few specific questions, analyzing your travel habits, and harnessing your spending power, you can focus on the programs that best suit your needs and put the travel rewards you want within reach.

Eric Rosen is a freelance travel writer and loyalty-program expert who contributes regularly to National Geographic Traveler, the Los Angeles Times, The Points Guy, and more. He is also the founder of ClusterCrush.com, an insider’s guide to the world of wine from grape to glass. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter for more travel tips.