This is the third post in our How to Travel for (Almost) Free, Beginner’s Guide to Travel Hacking series.

Index:
Introduction
Which Frequent Flyer Programs Should I Sign Up For
Which Hotel Loyalty Programs Should I Sign Up For?
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There are several ways to earn hotel points (such as credit cards, dining rewards programs, shopping portals, taking surveys and other partners) without actually staying at hotels.  This post addresses which hotel loyalty programs you might want to consider earning points with if you are looking to “travel hack” your way to free accommodation.

How to Decide Which Hotel Loyalty Programs to Focus On?

This post compares various hotel loyalty programs and some positive and negative aspects of these programs, but the choice also depends on YOU (your travel goals, preferences, current travel habits, future travel habits and other factors).

Questions to Ask Yourself:

Following are some questions to ask yourself in order to help decide which hotel loyalty program(s) to focus on:

1) What are your travel goals?

 One factor in in deciding which hotel loyalty programs are right for you is knowing what hotels you would like to use points for.  Some questions to ask yourself include:

  • Do you have specific destination(s) on your wish list?
  • Is there a specific hotel or hotel brand you wish to stay at?
  • Are you looking for a luxury hotel experience or just a free night at any hotel at your chosen destination?

If you have certain hotel brand preferences you might start with that program first.  If you don’t care what hotel chain you stay at, we recommend researching hotels located at your potential travel destination.

2) Do you have any hotel points or flexible rewards points already?

If you are just starting out collecting points, it might be better to focus on 1 or 2 hotel loyalty programs initially until you have enough points for at least a few nights.  If you already have some points in a hotel loyalty program (or flexible rewards points that can be transferred), that might be a reason to earn more points with that hotel loyalty program.

3) How soon are you planning to use your free hotel nights?

If you sign up for a hotel credit card that offers a signup bonus of 1 or 2 free night(s) you have to use those free night(s) within a certain time period (usually within 1 year).  If your travel plans are more than a year away, it might be better to sign up for cards that earn a certain number of hotel points or flexible rewards points as a sign up bonus.

4) Should you consider flexible rewards points in addition to or instead of points in a specific hotel loyalty program?

If you decide to start applying for credit cards in order to earn free accommodation, you might want to consider credit cards that earn flexible points (such as Chase Ultimate Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest and American Express Membership Rewards) instead of or in addition to earning points with a specific hotel loyalty program.  These flexible rewards points can be transferred to a number of hotel loyalty programs so you have lots of choices when it is time to book a free hotel room.  For example, Chase Ultimate Rewards can be transferred to Hyatt, Marriott and IHG and American Express Membership Rewards can be transferred to Hilton, Choice and Best Western.  This is generally a better option for beginners to points and miles.

5) Should you diversify your hotel points?

Once you have enough points in one hotel loyalty program for a few free hotel nights, you might want to start earning points with another hotel loyalty program so that you have more than one choice when it comes time to book a hotel room.  Flexible rewards points  allow you to transfer to multiple hotel programs so you are automatically diversified.

Other Factors to Consider When Choosing a Hotel Loyalty Program:

Once you have a clear idea of your travel goals, there are factors to consider when deciding which hotel loyalty programs to focus on in order to travel hack your way to free night(s).  These factors include the following:

1) What destinations does the hotel program have properties in? 

Some hotel brands have more properties in a certain city, region or country.  So if you have a specific destination you want to visit, research which hotel chains are located in that destination.  You don’t want to collect points in a program that has no properties in the destination(s) of your choice.  In large cities, such as New York City or London, you will find hotels from all hotel chains, but in some small cities and countries there are fewer choices.

One easy way to research which programs have hotels in a specific city is tripadvisor.com. (We like tripadvisor because you can filter hotels by hotel brand.)  In you are looking to stay at hotels within a specific hotel loyalty program, you can search for hotels on the website of the hotel loyalty program.

2) How many points are required for a free night?

Points in one hotel program are not worth the same as the same number of points from another hotel program.  For example, in order to redeem a free night at a standard room at a lowest category hotel, SPG requires only 2,000 or 3,000 Starpoints while IHG requires 10,000.  Hyatt only requires 30,000 for a standard room in its highest category while Hilton requires between 70,000 and 90,000 points for a highest category property.  It is important to keep the award charts in mind when evaluating a credit card sign up bonus.

3) When will your points expire? 

It is very important to stay on top of expiration dates so that your hotel points don’t expire before you are able use them.  Most hotel loyalty programs have their points expire after a certain amount of time but most also allow you to extend the life of your points as long as you have some activity every 12 or 24 months.  Flexible reward points that transfer to different hotel programs do not expire-this is why flexible points might be a better option than collecting points of a specific hotel program.  Also, as mentioned previously, the free nights given by hotel credit cards as a sign up bonus on your cardholder anniversary date also expire as well.

4) How easy is it to earn points without actually staying at a hotel?  

There are various ways to earn hotel points without actually staying at a hotel (hotel credit cards, dining programs, online shopping portals, surveys, transferring flexible rewards points) but not all of these methods are available for every program.  For example, Hilton HHonors offers a dining program and online shopping portal while SPG does not offer either.  Even if you do not earn a lot of points from methods like dining programs or surveys they can be a good way to keep your points from expiring by keeping your account active.

Credit cards are the fastest and easiest ways to earn a large number of points (many cards offer a certain number of free nights or a number of points as a sign up bonus and also waive the annual fee for the first year).  After the first year you would have to pay the annual fee (unless you cancel) but many hotel cards offer a yearly bonus of points or a free award night to make up for it.  If used for an expensive hotel, the free night could be worth more than the annual fee.

We plan to write about credit cards in a future post of this series but one thing to note is that you have to pace yourself.  In general, you cannot apply for multiple personal credit cards from the same bank at the same time so you need to prioritize which programs and credit cards to focus on first.  For example, Chase is the issuer of the Marriott, Hyatt and IHG credit cards so you would probably be unable to apply for all 3 of those cards at the same time.

5) Can you book premium rooms or suites with your points?  Can you use points to upgrade paid or award night stays?

Some hotel loyalty programs allow you to use points to book premium rooms or suites in addition to standard rooms while others do not.  Also some programs allow you to upgrade paid stays but some do not.

6) Can you book award stays using cash and points?

Some hotel programs allow you to book award stays using some combination of cash and points so that you need less points to make a booking.  This benefits people that have some points but not enough for a free night.  Some of the hotel programs that offer cash and point stays include Hyatt, IHG, Club Carlson, Hilton and SPG.

7) Can you transfer or combine points between family members?

It is helpful when programs allow you to combine points with a spouse or family member in order to have enough points for a free night. Not all hotel programs allow free transfers.

8) Are you interested in elite status and how easy is it to earn elite status?

Elite status entitles you to various perks depending on the hotel program, such as free breakfast, free internet, upgrades, late check-out, etc.  Some hotel loyalty programs give out elite status just for signing up for one of its co-branded credit cards.  While you do not need elite status to take advantage of free award nights, if it is easy to earn elite status just by signing up for a hotel affiliated credit card, you might want to consider doing so.  If you would like elite status, this could be a reason to apply for hotel affiliated credit cards rather than relying on flexible reward points.

Comparison of Hotel Loyalty Programs

Below is a list of hotel loyalty programs to consider for earning and redeeming points for free hotel stays.  We will keep the description brief with a focus on earning points using travel hacking strategies (without actually staying at hotels).

Hyatt Gold Passport

Hyatt Gold Passport hotels include Andaz, Hyatt Regency, Hyatt Place, Hyatt House, Hyatt, Park Hyatt, Grand Hyatt, Hyatt Zilara, Hyatt Ziva brand hotels and Hyatt Residence club.  Although Hyatt does not have a big number of hotels in its program, it is easy to earn free hotel stays at luxury hotels by signing up for credit cards.

Positives:
•Number of points required for free nights are low compared to other programs (a standard room is 5,000 points for the lowest Category 1 and 30,000 for the highest Category 7).
•Easy to earn a few free nights at expensive hotels by signing up for Hyatt credit card.  The Hyatt credit card has a signup bonus of 2 free nights which can be used at ANY hotel worldwide.
•Hyatt has some very high end properties- a lot of its Category 6 and 7 properties are very luxurious.  (For example, the Park Hyatt Tokyo, the hotel featured in Lost in Translation, would normally cost around $500 a night if you paid for it.)
•Can earn elite status just by signing up for the Hyatt credit card- as long as you are a cardmember, the Chase Hyatt credit card gives you Platinum status, which includes  complimentary in-room internet and late check out.
•Can use points for premium rooms such as suites and does not require a lot more points than for standard rooms.
•Offers a points and cash option.
•Can use a low number of points to upgrade paid hotel nights.
•Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer to Hyatt and offer good value for Ultimate Rewards points.

Negatives:
•Hyatt does not have a large number of properties -only 549 properties as of December 31, 2013.
•The majority of Hyatt properties are located in North America (especially in the US) but there are hotels worldwide.

How to earn free hotel stays:
•Online Shopping: Hyatt does not have a shopping portal but if have Chase credit cards that earn Ultimate Rewards can use Ultimate Rewards shopping portal to earn points.
•Credit Cards:  Can transfer Ultimate Rewards points from Chase credit cards to Hyatt points at a 1:1 ratio; Hyatt credit card offers a sign up bonus of 2 free nights (which can be used at any Hyatt) and 1 free night at any Category 1 – 4 Hyatt property every year thereafter.

Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG)
The Starwood Preferred Guest® program includes over 1,100 hotels and resorts in nearly 100 countries.  The hotel brands in the SPG program include are Sheraton, Westin,Four Points by Sheraton, W Hotels, St. Regis, The Luxury Collection, Le Méridien, element and Aloft.

Positives:
•The Starwood Preferred Guest program allows you to collect points for hotel stays but also transfer them to numerous airline partners.
•Starwood points transfer to many airlines at great ratios (if transfer 20,000 Starpoints to air miles, SPG will automatically add another 5,000 Starpoints) which is unique to hotel programs.
•Transfer between family members is easy- family members who share the same address can move Starpoints between accounts.
•Redeem five nights and your fifth night is free at category 3 through 7 hotels.

Negatives:
•Not a lot of ways to earn Starpoints.  There is a personal SPG American Express card and business SPG American Express card but the sign up bonus is given only once per lifetime.  There is no online mall or dining program.

How to earn free hotel stays:
•Credit Cards:  There is a personal SPG American Express card and a business SPG American Express card; Membership Rewards also transfer to SPG but the transfer ratio is very poor.

Marriott Rewards
Marriott Rewards is a large program with 15 hotel brands and over 3,700 hotels in more than 70 countries so there is a good chance you can find a Marriott at your chosen destination. Marriott Rewards includes the following brands: JW Marriott, Edition, Autograph Collection Hotels, Renaissance Hotels, Moxy Hotels, AC Hotels by Marriott, Marriott Hotels, Courtyard, Springhill Suites, Fairfield Inn & Suites, Residence Inn, Towneplace Suites, Gaylord Hotels, Marriott Vacation Club and Ritz Carlton.

Positives:
•Lots of hotels worldwide.
•Redeem 4 nights get the 5th night free.
•Many ways to earn points including Chase Ultimate Rewards credit cards and 2 Chase Marriott credit cards, online shopping and other travel partners.

Negatives:
•You can only use upgrade rewards when you are redeeming points for a hotel stay; you cannot use upgrade rewards to upgrade a paid room.
•Earlier this year, Marriott moved a large number of hotels up a category therefore requiring more points.

How to earn free hotel stays:
•Online Shopping:  Marriott has an online shopping portal and if have Chase credit cards that earn Ultimate Rewards can use Ultimate Rewards shopping portal  (we recommend you use the Ultimate Rewards portal if have access to it).
• Credit Cards: Can transfer Ultimate Rewards points to Marriott points at a 1:1 ratio and there are also Chase Marriott credit cards that offer a sign up bonus and free nights.

Hilton HHonors
Hilton HHonors has over 3,900 locations in 91 countries, and includes the following brands: Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts, Conrad Hotels & Resorts, Hilton Hotels & Resorts, DoubleTree by Hilton, Embassy Suites Hotels, Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton Inn, Homewood Suites, Home2 Suites by Hilton and Hilton Grand Vacations.

Positives:
•Many ways to earn points including credit cards, e-miles, dining program and shopping mall.
•There are 4 different credit cards (2 each from 2 different banks) which all offer a sign up bonus of points or free nights.
•Easy to obtain elite status by signing up for credit cards-the no annual fee versions offer free Silver status and the ones with an annual fee offer free Hilton Gold status (which is considered the best mid tier hotel status).
•Can use points to book premium rooms or suites with no black out dates.
•Has a points and money option.
•Hilton has a lot of hotels all over.

Negatives:
• Need a lot of points for higher category hotels- top category 10 rooms require 70,000 to 95,000 points!
• Offers seasonal pricing requiring more points in peak season.

How to earn free hotel stays:
•Online Shopping: Hilton HHonors Shop to Earn Mall.
•Credit Cards: 4 Hilton credit cards available- 2 each from 2 different banks (Citi and American Express); can also transfer American Express Membership Rewards at a so-so ratio.
•Dining Program: HHonors Dining.

IHG Rewards Club (formerly Priority Club)
There are over 4,700 hotels in the IHG Rewards Club program. Properties include Candlewood Suites, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Hotel Indigo, Intercontinental Hotels & Resorts, Even Hotels and Staybridge Suites brand hotels.

Positives:
•One of best values is IHG® Rewards Club PointBreaks which allow you to book select hotels for only 5,000 points per night-every few months a new list of hotels is published  but availability is limited.
•There is a points with cash option which allows you to buy points at a good discount.
•There are multiple ways to earn points including credit cards (Chase IHG card and Chase cards earning Ultimate rewards), various partners, e-rewards, dining program.

Negatives:
•Cannot use points to book premium rooms.

How to earn free hotel stays:
•Online Shopping:  IHG no longer offers a shopping portal but can use Ultimate Rewards portal.
•Credit Cards:  IHG Rewards Club Select credit card which offers a low annual fee and a free night each year at ANY property each anniversary; can also transfer points from any Chase cards that earn Ultimate Rewards.
•Dining Program:  IHG Rewards Club Dine and Earn.

Club Carlson
Club Carlson has more than 1,000 hotels worldwide including Quorvus Collection, Radisson Blu, Radisson,® Park Plaza,® Park Inn by Radisson, and Country Inns & Suites By Carlson.  Club Carlson hotels are not very high end but points are easy to earn if you sign up for one of their credit cards.  Club Carlson points are especially useful in the US and Europe.

Positives:
•Can use points to book premium rooms as well as standard rooms.
•Easy to earn free nights from credit cards- there are 2 versions of personal credit cards and one business version.
•Second night free on all award redemptions (including premium room awards) on a two night award stays if have Club Carlson credit card.
•Club Carlson credit cards are issued by U.S. Bank which does not issue a lot of other points earning cards.
•Can earn gold elite status by signing up for Club Carlson credit card.

Negatives:
•Club Carlson does not have a lot of luxurious hotels.
•Worldwide coverage is not great; the majority of hotels are located in North America (especially the US), Europe and India.
•There is a points and cash option, but the cash component varies by hotel and cash amount required will be provided at the time of reservation.
•Club Carlson not a partner of any flexible rewards programs.

How to earn free hotel stays:
•Credit Cards: Club Carlson offers 2 personal and 1 business card.

Summary and Conclusion

In conclusion, the above hotel loyalty programs are those that we think are the most useful for those that want to travel hack hotel points for free nights.  Since this post is so long here is a brief summary of each program:

  • Hyatt: Best program for using points for really expensive hotels; best program for using points for premium rooms; credit card offers a great sign up bonus of 2 free nights at ANY hotel.
  • SPG:  Points are the most flexible (can be used for free nights at SPG properties and/or transferred to many airlines with a bonus) but not easy to earn a lot of points through travel hacking.
  • Hilton:   Although requires lots of points for expensive hotels, there are lots of ways to earn points including dining program, online shopping and 4 credit cards from 2 different banks.
  • Marriott:  Have a lot of properties worldwide; many ways to earn points.
  • IHG:  Has a cash and points option that indirectly allows you to buy inexpensive hotel stays, credit card has low annual fee and entitles you to a free night yearly at ANY hotel; PointBreaks offer incredible deal.
  • Club Carlson:  Easy to earn points and free nights if sign up for credit card; credit card gives you 1 free night for every 2 nights you book as an award.

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