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The Ultimate Guide to Travel Hacking: Hotel Rewards

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Most people who start earning miles and points focus initially on award flights.

There’s no denying the huge chunk of a travel budget airfare occupies, even as airlines compete with one another to offer the best pricing and offer periodic promotions.

However, hotel rewards offer tremendous value, as well. On a typical 1-2 week trip, using points for award nights at a hotel can save hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

And, this is before you factor in the value of any elite hotel benefits you’re eligible to receive.

Even vacation rentals can be quite expensive without the help of cashback and other travel rewards to offset the cost.

In this post, let’s take a break from award flights and focus instead on using points to earn hotel rewards.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Hacking: Hotel Rewards

Hotel Indigo Verona Italy IHG
My (free) hotel room in Verona, Italy at the Indigo Blue hotel, an IHG brand

Step 1- Hotel Brands

There are many hotel programs that have loyalty programs. However, a few, in particular, are popular with points and miles enthusiasts.

These hotel brands are:

  • Hyatt
  • Hilton
  • IHG
  • Marriott
  • Radisson
  • Choice Privileges
  • Wyndham

These brands are popular because of their global footprints, the convenience of earning points & free nights through co-branded hotel credit cards and travel rewards credit cards with transferrable points programs, as well as because of the status and elite benefits they offer.

Each hotel brand includes a variety of hotel properties that include budget lodging, luxury accommodations, and everything in between.

For example, IHG encompasses Holiday Inn Express, Crowne Plaza, and Intercontinental Hotels. These brands range from low to high, in terms of cost.

The chart below shows a small sampling of hotels, their loyalty programs, and the type of brands they are.

Hotel Brands
Hotel Brands
Luxury Hotel BrandsFamily Hotel Brands
Holiday Inn Express (IHG)Four Points by Sheraton (Marriott)Ritz-Carlton (Marriott)Embassy Suites (Hilton)
Tru (Hilton)Doubletree (Hilton)Park HyattResidence Inn (Marriott)
Aloft (Marriott)Crown Plaza
Waldorf Astoria (Hilton)Hyatt Place

It’s important to know which hotels belong to which brand, as well as how to go about earning points for hotel rewards.

ProTip: Also, look at A Beginners Guide to Hotel Reward Programs. There’s a handy chart that gives a complete look at brands, the hotels they include, and the pros and cons of each of the major hotel reward programs.

Step 2- Strategies for Hotel Rewards

As with earning miles and points for award flights, you want to target the hotel points you earn toward your short and long-term travel goals.

Initially, as you get started with points and miles, focus on the destination(s) you would like to plan trips to in the near term.

Some research will help you to understand which hotel brands have hotels where you want to stay.

ProTip: Use tools like Hotel Hustle and AwardMapper to see which loyalty program hotels are in the destination to which you want to travel. These websites can be helpful but are also just a starting point on which to base your hotel research.

In bigger cities and popular destinations, you’re likely to find hotels belonging to several of the brands mentioned above.

You might also prefer to earn hotel points with a particular hotel brand you like.

One of the benefits of hotel brands with a large reach is you can find the same amenities and comfort level you’re used in a range of destinations.

For example, staying at a Hampton Inn is likely to be similar whether you’re in Florida or California simply because of the standards the brand aligns with.

Both are effective approaches, especially if your aim is to make points and miles a long-term habit.

Just keep in mind that you never want your hotel points (or airline miles) to sit too long unused because of the risk that their value can decrease or even expire.

where to stay in paris
What type of accommodations do you prefer?

Of course, your travel style factors into your decision and influences which hotels are better suited to your tastes.

  • Do you prefer upscale or more modest accommodations?
  • Do you travel as a family and need more space or extra beds?

Certain hotel brands will fit your needs and preferences better than others.

ProTip: What happens if there’s no loyalty program hotel in your destination? Or perhaps there’s a cute boutique hotel you’d like to stay in instead? Use a program like the Rewards program to earn towards a free night.

Step 3- Earning Hotel Rewards

As with earning miles for airfare, credit card welcome bonuses can be quite lucrative for earning hotel rewards.

Co-branded hotel credit cards will allow you to earn points with just that hotel program.

These include cards like:

  • Hilton Honors Credit Card
  • World of Hyatt Credit Card
  • IHG® Rewards Premier Credit Card
  • Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® Credit Card

Flexible point-earning cards, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve or the American Express Gold, will let you transfer your points to a variety of hotel reward programs.

But, you’ll want to be careful about transferring high-value flexible points to lower-value hotel programs. 

For example, Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer to Hyatt, IHG, and Marriott.

Ultimate Rewards points are valued at about 2 cents each. Consider that IHG points are worth .7 cents each and Hyatt points about 1.8 cents each.

These values are relative and often just the starting point for how much value you can get when maximizing your award travel redemptions.

Transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards points to IHG for a .7 cent valuation would be considered a loss on the value of your points.

Instead, it’s wiser to save your Chase points and easily earn IHG points in other ways, like with the IHG trick.

In contrast, Hyatt is arguably the best Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner. Hyatt redemptions are typically high value given the upscale nature of their hotel lineup and the benefits that are possible with elevated status.

Annual Fees

Co-branded hotel credit cards typically have an annual fee, like many travel rewards credit cards.

If you’re like many miles and points beginners, you’re probably wondering whether paying an annual fee is worth it or not. 

Yet, co-branded hotel credit cards are where the value in paying the annual fee just might be the most obvious.

Consider Chase’s World of Hyatt Credit Card with its $95 annual fee.

Each year you renew your card by paying the annual fee, you’ll earn a free night certificate for a Category 1-4 hotel.

Depending on the destination and the hotel, a Category 4 Hyatt hotel can cost $300+. Paying the annual fee becomes a no-brainer with this type of return value.

Chase’s IHG® Rewards Premier Credit Card and Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® Credit Card card both earn a free night each year you renew your card. In both cases, the annual fee is more than offset by the value you’ll get for a free hotel night.

Eating at a restaurant

Another way to earn hotel points is through shopping portals and dining program rewards. These provide even more options to earn hotel points from everyday spending.

Lastly, hotel reward programs often run promotions. You can earn bonus points or award stays for completing a challenge or staying some number of nights. These promotions generally happen each season or quarter.

For example, years ago I took advantage of a Radisson promotion by staying at an inexpensive hotel outside of Washington, DC.  The hotel stay hit many of the promotion’s bonus tiers and earned enough points for all my hotels on a trip to Europe.

Promotions can also be stacked with co-branded hotel credit card earnings.

For instance, the Hilton Honors Surpass earns 12x the points for every dollar spent on Hilton purchases. During a promotion, like earn 2,500 Hilton points per stay, you’d earn the points from your credit card, plus the points from the promotion.

It’s always a good idea to sign-up to receive emails, follow hotel brands on social media, and even check your snail mail for the latest hotel promotional offers.

When you see them pop up, register for them right away even if you don’t have a stay planned. If your plans change, you’ll be ready to take advantage of the promotion.

Bottom Line:

Hotel rewards can deliver a huge return and save you a lot of money on your next trip.

Spend some time investigating hotels in your next destination. If you haven’t already done so, sign up for hotel loyalty programs and add your member number and password to your travel hacking spreadsheet.

Investigate the hotel co-branded credit card that’s right for you.

What is your strategy for earning hotel rewards? 

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Ultimate Guide to Travel Hacking- Hotel Rewards
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