When Loyalty Pays: A Primer on Popular Hotel Rewards Programs
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As frequent-flyer miles have become increasingly difficult to earn and redeem, savvy travelers are taking advantage of hotel loyalty programs that offer perks ranging from free rooms to entry to shows and concerts.

“There’s little downside to joining,” says Gary Leff, a well-known blogger in the travel rewards industry. “As long as you keep your points from expiring—rules vary by program, but often some activity in an account every two years [suffices]—you eventually accumulate enough to get something for them. Unlike airline miles, which chase after what’s often a very limited number of seats, hotel points usually are good for any standard room.”

Of course, not all programs are created equal, which begs the question: How do you pick the one that’s right for your lifestyle and start accumulating points? Here’s an overview of six of the most popular programs for hotel chains with properties around the world.

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Marriott Rewards

In September 2016, Marriott International completed its $13 billion acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts. With the addition of Starwood’s portfolio, there are now 30 brands under the Marriott umbrella with more than 5,700 hotels. Members of the Marriott Rewards—which boasts a whopping 54 million members—and Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) programs were immediately able to link accounts at members.marriott.com to begin earning and redeeming points at all those hotels. You can transfer and redeem points at a three-to-one ratio—three Marriott Rewards points equal one SPG Starpoint. But you don’t have to link your accounts yet: Marriott projects the loyalty programs will continue to operate as separate entities until at least 2018.

Marriott Rewards original participating brands include The Ritz-Carlton, JW Marriott and Courtyard Hotels. Members of all four tiers—Rewards Member, Silver Elite, Gold Elite and Platinum Elite—receive perks like a fifth night free in a standard room and a 20-percent discount for converting points to United Airlines’ MileagePlus miles. You can also redeem points for exclusive cruise deals and golf lessons at a Marriott Golf Academy.

To earn more points, you can apply for the Marriott Rewards Premier card*, which is now offering a 100,000 bonus after spending $5,000 in the first three months (and another 7,500 for adding an authorized user), plus five points per dollar at Marriott hotels. You’ll also receive one free night at a category 1-5 hotel each year. It does, however, come with an $85 annual fee.

Starwood Preferred Guest

SPG is one of the most beloved loyalty programs—so it’s no wonder its 21 million members were concerned about the prospect of future changes. But the program has remained essentially unchanged. Preferred, Gold and Platinum members can still redeem Starpoints for rewards like late checkout, free rooms and upgrades at hotels like Westin, W Hotels, Sheraton, Le Meridien and St. Regis.

You can earn additional Starpoints through a credit card like The Starwood Preferred Guest Card Card from American Express, which gives cardmembers 25,000 Starpoints for spending $3,000 within three months. The $95 annual fee is waived for the first year.

Hyatt Gold Passport

Members of Hyatt’s Gold Passport can redeem points at properties like the Andaz, Park Hyatt and Grand Hyatt. Depending on your status (Platinum or Diamond, which ThePointsGuy.com suggests is the most valuable elite status), points can be traded in for such bonuses as room upgrades, free nights, car rentals and spa services. What’s more, you can combine your points with anyone, not just family members—a unique benefit not all programs allow.

One way to rack up more points is with the Hyatt Visa, which offers two free nights at any Hyatt upon signup and after spending $2,000 within three months, plus three points per dollar spent at Hyatt hotels, two points per dollar on restaurants and airline tickets and one point per dollar everywhere else. You’ll also get one free night at any category 1-4 property on your cardmember anniversary. There’s a $75 annual fee.

Hilton HHonors

The Hilton HHonors program includes properties ranging from the DoubleTree and Hampton Inn to Conrad and Waldorf Astoria. There are four membership tiers—Blue, Silver, Gold and Diamond—with all members receiving free Internet, refundable rates and late checkout. Silver, Gold and Diamond members receive every fifth night free in a standard room. You can also redeem HHonors points for miles on United and many other airline and rail brands.

Additional points can be accrued on everyday purchases by opening a free Hilton HHonors American Express, which is now offering 80,000 points when you spend $2,000 in the first three months (offer ends May 31). You’ll also earn seven points per dollar at participating hotels and five points per dollar at restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations, and three points per dollar elsewhere; or a Citi Hilton HHonors Visa, which offers 40,000 bonus points for spending $1,000 within four months, as well as six points per dollar spent with Hilton hotels, three for each dollar spent at supermarkets, drugstores and gas stations, and two points for other everyday spending. (Both cards have no annual fee.)

IHG Rewards Club

Join InterContinental Group’s program, IHG Rewards Club, and you can earn points toward stays and perks at properties including Kimpton, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo and Holiday Inn. This program also has four levels—Club, Gold Elite, Platinum Elite and Spire Elite—doesn’t have blackout dates, and allows you to transfer points to partner airlines. You can also donate points to the brand’s disaster relief program, Shelter In A Storm.

You can earn more points with the IHG Rewards Club MasterCard, which offers 60,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 within three months, five points per dollar at participating hotels and two points per dollar on gas, groceries and restaurants. It also gives you a free hotel room night once a year. (Note: All IHG points will expire after 12 months if there’s no account activity.) The $49 annual fee is waived for the first year.

Club Carlson

Club Carlson’s hotels include Radisson Blu, Park Plaza and Country Inns & Suites By Carlson. According to your status within the program (Red, Silver, Gold or Concierge), you can score free nights starting at 9,000 Gold Points for a standard room, discounts on food and drinks, partner airline redemptions, complimentary upgrades and breakfast and more.

One way to earn more points is with the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card, a $75-per-year card offering Gold Elite status and up to an 85,000-Gold Point bonus when you spent $2,500 within 90 days, and another 40,000 bonus each year you renew your card.

It’s important to remember when using any rewards cards to always pay your balance in full each month. Often these cards come with high interest rates and annual fees, and carrying a balance negates any benefits these loyalty programs offer.

Editor’s note: Grow does not receive any compensation for referrals to the credit card offers mentioned in this story. The information is for educational purposes only. This article was updated in April 2017 to include new rewards program developments and offers.

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