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Navigating the Complex World
of Hotel Loyalty Programs
By Ann Tatko-Peterson, Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Nov. 6, 2008 - The last time I paid for a hotel room was 19 months ago. Chalk that up to Marriott Rewards.

When my parents traveled to South Carolina earlier this year, they paid $25 to buy more Hilton HHonors points and completely cover what would have been a $320 tab for a two-night stay.

A good friend just earned her second free night through Welcome Rewards at Hotels.com.

Airlines may be tightening their flight schedules, sending fewer planes into the air and, thus, reducing the number of available seats for passengers cashing in frequent-flier miles, but hotels remain in a generous mood when it comes to their loyalty programs.

Earning free nights is relatively simple -- sign up for a program, stay at a participating hotel, rack up points -- and often occurs quickly. About $500 spent on hotel stays or with participating partners nets a free room at Hilton.

Good deal, right? It can be, if you earn your points through one program.

The real question is which loyalty program to join.

You could base it on recognition. The Business Traveller 2008 Hotel Awards named Starwood Preferred Guest as having the best hotel loyalty program, followed by Hilton HHonors, InterContinental Priority Club and Marriott Rewards.

Problem is, even the experts don't agree. In April, InsideFlyer magazine tabbed Marriott Rewards as having the best program, with InterContinental named the top elite-level program.

It comes down to personal preference.

"The consumer really should decide what makes the most sense for them," says Adam Burke, senior vice president and managing director of Hilton HHonors. "In the airline industry, it's easy to compare because a mile is a mile. For the hotel industry, there's a lack of common earning structure."

In other words, every hotel brand has its own points and reward system.

At Hyatt, you receive five points for every dollar spent.
At Choice Hotels, it's 10 points per dollar but more for elite statuses and less (five points per dollar) for extended stay and economy brands.
At Hilton, it's 10 points plus airline miles or 15 if you just want the points.

Meanwhile, Hotels.com. offers a free night's stay for every 10 nights booked -- regardless of the dollars spent, as long as the room is priced at $40 or more per night.

See how it can get confusing?

Add to that the way each hotel has different point requirements for redemptions, and comparing them becomes virtually impossible.

To make it a little easier, here are four things to consider when selecting a program:

1. Location, location

A program works best when you can stay at a participating hotel brand for as many of your trips as possible. Obviously, this is the fastest way to earn freebies.

If you frequently travel to the same cities, check to see which hotel brands are available. If you travel overseas, be sure your brand has international options.

Wyndham Rewards has the largest stable of properties with more than 6,500 hotels, including Days Inn, Ramada and Super 8.

Choice Hotels boasts a whopping 5,000-plus hotels, ranging from Comfort and Quality Inns to EconoLodge and Rodeway Inn. But hotels in some of its European countries, including all of the Scandinavian ones, do not participate in the Choice Privileges program.

InterContinental's Priority Club Rewards chime in with more than 4,000 hotels, including Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn. On the other end, Hyatt has only 365 hotels but has other benefits you may find attractive.

2. Read the fine print

That brings us to the "Terms and Conditions." As with any program, each one has its own policies and rules.

Hyatt and InterContinental may be good programs for those who travel only a few times a year. That's because the points for both do not expire.

Account inactivity can result in points expiring after 12 months for Starwood Preferred Guests and 15 months in Hilton HHonors. Choice Privileges points expire 24 months after they are earned. With Wyndham, you get four years to use them. Marriott reserves the right to close the account after 24 months of inactivity but hasn't actually done so yet.

Also, take a close look at each program's blackout-date policy. Starting Jan. 15, Marriott will eliminate blackout dates at most of its 2,900 hotels. Hilton, InterContinental, Starwood and Choice already have this policy in place.

But only Hilton and Starwood say that they don't limit the number of rooms available for the free nights, though the unlimited policies apply to standard rooms only.

3. Points value

This is the hard one because, as I mentioned earlier, rarely are there set point-to-dollar ratios.

Most programs assign different elite levels to their most frequent guests. With these levels come higher bonus increases for earning points. For example, with 25 stays or 50 nights in a 12-month period, Starwood guests can reach the platinum level and earn an extra 50 percent bonus for every dollar spent.

Some brands categorize or tier their hotels. So, with Marriott, 7,500 points will get you a room at a Category 1 Fairfield Inn, while 40,000 points are needed for Hawaiian resorts in Category 7. (On Jan. 15, Marriott will add an eighth category for some of the elite properties in cities such as Paris and New York.)

Hotel loyalty programs also extend awards beyond just free stays. In addition to earning airline miles, hotels offer unique options, including Hilton's experience awards such as a day at your dream job; gift certificates with Starwood partners such as Nordstrom and iTunes; merchandise such as a Nintendo Wii for 166,000 points with InterContinental; SeaWorld tickets with Wyndham; or donations to charities such as Make-A-Wish through Hyatt.

4. Rack 'em up

How you can earn points with each program also makes a difference.

Some programs have partnerships with rental car companies, retailers and special services, such as Wyndham with Jackson Hewitt tax service. The partnerships allow members to earn points through purchases or by acquiring services.

Hilton has teamed with seven rental car companies, Choice with six wireless providers. InterContinental has a wide array of point-earning partners, including Lending Tree and Sentry Insurance.

Some, such as Hilton and Choice, also let you purchase points if you fall just short of the total needed for a redemption award. And all of the programs have credit cards that let you earn points, but be sure to check for annual fees.

These are just snippets of what the various hotel loyalty programs have to offer. The best advice: Read their Web sites or call their customer-service lines to learn more about each one. Then decide which one suits your travel and lifestyle.

Reach Ann Tatko-Peterson at atatko@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Loyalty Programs

A brief glance at some of the hotel loyalty programs that are available.

CHOICE PRIVILEGES -- Hotels: Comfort Inn, Quality, Sleep In, Clarion, Cambria Suites, Ascend, Main Stay Suites, Suburban, EconoLodge and Rodeway Inn. -- Average earnings: 10 points per dollar spent (five points per dollar for Main Stay, Suburban, EconoLodge and Rodeway). -- Minimum for free stay: 5,000 points. -- Top elite status: after 40 nights stayed in a calendar year. -- More Information: www.choicehotels.com (Reward Programs link), 888-770-6800.

GOLD CROWN CLUB -- Hotels: Best Western. -- Average earnings: 10 points per dollar. -- Minimum for free stay: 8,000 points. -- Top elite status: after 30 nights stayed in a calendar year. -- More Information: https://goldcrownclub.bestwestern.com, 800-237-8483.

HILTON HHONORS -- Hotels: Hilton, Conrad, Doubletree, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn, Homewood Suites and the Waldorf-Astoria Collection. -- Average earnings: 10 points and one airline mile per dollar, 10 points per dollar and 500 miles per stay (100 miles per stay at Hampton Inn and Homewood Suites), or 15 points per dollar. -- Minimum for free stay: 7,500 points. -- Top elite status: after 28 stays, 60 nights or 100,000 points in 12-month period. -- More Information: hhonors1.hilton.com/en_US/hh/home_index.do.

HYATT GOLD PASSPORT -- Hotels: Hyatt, Summerfield Suites, AmeriSuites. -- Average earnings: five points per dollar. -- Minimum for free stay: 5,000 points. -- Top elite status: after 25 stays or 50 nights stayed in a calendar year. -- More Information: goldpassport.hyatt.com/gp/en/index.jsp., 800-228-3360.

MARRIOTT REWARDS -- Hotels: Marriott, Renaissance, Courtyard, Residence Inn, Fairfield Inn, Towneplace Suites and SpringHill Suites. -- Average earnings: 10 points per dollar (five points per dollar for Residence, Towneplace and Horizon by Marriott Vacation Club). -- Minimum for free stay: 7,500 points. -- Top elite status: 75 nights stay in 12-month period. -- More Information: www.marriott.com/rewards/rewards.-program.mi, 800-450-4422).

PRIORITY CLUB REWARDS -- Hotels: InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, Indigo, Holiday Inn & Express, Staybridge and Candlewood Suites. -- Average earnings: 10 points per dollar (five points per dollar for Staybridge and Candlewood; 2,000 points per stay for InterContinental). -- Minimum for free stay: 5,000 points. -- Top elite status: after 50 nights stayed or 60,000 points in a calendar year. -- More Information: www.ichotelsgroup.com/h/d/pc/1/en/home.

STARWOOD PREFERRED GUEST -- Hotels: Starwood, including Le Meridien, Four Points, Westin, the Luxury Collection, Sheraton, aloft, element, St. Regis and W Hotels. -- Average earnings: two points per dollar. -- Minimum for free stay: 2,000 points. -- Top elite status: after 25 stays or 50 nights stayed in 12-month period. -- More Information: www.starwoodhotels.com/preferedguest/index.html., 888-625-4988.

WYNDHAM REWARDS -- Hotels: Wyndham, Days Inn, Ramada, Super 8, Travelodge, Wingate, Baymont, Knights Inn, AmeriHost Inn, Hawthorn and Howard Johnson. -- Average earnings: 10 points per dollar. -- Minimum for free stay: 6,000 points. -- Top elite status: none. -- More Information: www.wyndhamrewards.com., 866-996-7937.

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To see more of the Contra Costa Times, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.contracostatimes.com/.

Copyright (c) 2008, Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif.

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