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We’ve covered a lot of ground, but we’ve only just begun!
So far, just about everything we’re discussed has been about earning travel currencies to find and book almost-free flights.
But if we took a step back, a trip is more than just a flight there and back. That’s just the way of getting there.
So to wrap up the course, we’re going to round off your trip planning by walking you through the following topics in the next several lessons:
Let’s start with getting where you stay sorted out.
Here’s a sampling of hotel night redemptions
This is just a sample; your own itinerary will have very different numbers.
Right off the bat, you can see how Hilton makes for a poor transfer. At a 1:2 transfer ratio, it would cost 66,500 Amex Membership Rewards® to redeem one night at the Hampton Inn in Manhattan.
That’s more than enough for a round-trip flight to Tokyo on ANA!
The other reason we’ve de-prioritized hotel redemptions is that there is usually an abundance of choices for nights, but far fewer for flights.
Unlike flights, there are usually dozens of lodging options even in small cities, and there are often ways to bring those prices down.
Another reason we are less excited about hotel redemptions is that they don’t always work well for larger families unless you reserved two rooms or are somehow able to confirm a suite.
Either way, it could get expensive very quickly.
Let’s look at each briefly.
Airbnb has become a mainstream alternative to hotels. One of the best ways to get a good deal on a stay is through Airbnb gift cards bought from third parties.
You can get discounted gift cards for Airbnb at Raise.com.
Hotels.com is not the only Online Travel Agency (OTA) out there. It’s owned by Expedia, who also owns other big name OTAs like Trivago, Hotwire, Orbitz, Travelocity, and more.
What sets Hotels.com apart is its digital punch card system, which rewards you with a (sort of) free night for every 10 nights you stay. We say "sort of" because it’s not an actual free night, just a rebate for the average of what you spent over the previous 10 nights.
Like with Airbnb, you can get discounted Hotels.com gift cards from Raise.com.
In our "Embracing Retirement" segment, Tim & Amy Rutherford discussed how they used Trusted House Sitters to travel the world for free. Well, sorta free, since they trade their time to watch their hosts’ home and care for their pets.
So if you and your family want to slow travel and really get to know a destination, consider house-sitting. It helps if you love animals.
If you are a solo traveler or traveling with one other person, one option might be staying in hostels–check out hostelworld.com. Expect very little privacy, and a crowd that’s young and boisterous.
This was how I started traveling right out of the army and had to stretch every dollar. It was a great way to meet new people, and I still keep in touch with a few travel pals from 25 years ago.
Another thing I did as a young man was couch surf, although it wasn’t called this back in 1995, and it definitely was far harder to set up. There are similarities between staying in hostels and surfing couches, but the biggest difference is that couch surfing is free.
There’s a whole community of people hosting and getting hosted. It’s like the open-source version of Airbnb. If that is something that sounds like fun, check out couchsurfing.com.
Couch surfing may or may not involve sleeping on a couch–alternatives include air mattresses, sleeping cots, or a sofa bed. If you are super lucky, you may actually have a real bed and your own room.
We’re going to be covering six hotel groups here. Are there more?
But we’ll focus on these six because, together with Airbnb and Hotels.com, that’s all I’ve needed in the last five years to slash my accommodation expenses down to the bone.
Of the six, Hyatt, Marriott, and Hilton are my go-to loyalty programs where I happily stash points by earning the bonus on their co-branded cards.
Sometimes, if there is a great redemption but I am a little short, I transfer points (reluctantly) from a flexible program like Chase Ultimate Rewards® and American Express® Membership Rewards® to top off the balance on my hotel program.
The other three programs–Wyndham, IHG, and Choice–I keep in my back pocket, with enough points and activity so that I can grab 1-2 nights in case I need them in a pinch.
We’ll discuss each program in turn, starting with my favorite.
My favorite hotel loyalty program is World Of Hyatt. It has the best customer service in my experience, and World of Hyatt customer representatives often go all out to advocate for you.
Also, when every other chain was busy devaluing their programs with point inflations, Hyatt held the line for the most part, and even made it a little more attractive with Milestone Rewards (see below).
This makes Hyatt the program that consistently provides the best redemption values and customer experience. You simply get more stays for your points at some solid properties.
On the lower end, brands like Hyatt Place and Hyatt House are spacious suite-like rooms that can easily sleep four (with a sofa bed) and these often cost only 5,000 or 8,000 points per night! Then there are the top brands like Park Hyatt, Andaz, and Grand Hyatt. Hyatt’s all-inclusive resort brands like the Ziva and Zilara are also fan favorites.
The only downside I can think of is that it has a far smaller footprint than most chains, but what I’ve seen has consistently impressed me.
Here are some other things I really like about the World of Hyatt:
You can transfer Chase URs 1:1 into the Hyatt program, and if you have the Chase Freedom Unlimited® and can earn 1.5x points on non-bonus spend, you’ll build up those Hyatt points even faster.
You get recognized even when you have yet to reach higher elite status levels. This program is called Milestone Rewards. The current elite status levels are Discoverist (10 nights), Explorist (30 nights), and Globalist (60 nights). Starting at 20 qualifying nights, Milestone Rewards would provide extra perks like Club Lounge access, gift cards, suite upgrades or bonus points every 10 qualifying nights through 100 nights.
You can transfer your Hyatt points to anyone you choose. You could even transfer the points to someone who is at a Hyatt Globalist member, and have them book the room for you. Depending on the property and how busy it is, you may even get upgraded to a suite.
You earn a free night at a Category 1-4 property after staying at 5 of the 13 Hyatt brands, and then another free night when you check into another 5.
Co-Branded Credit card: The World Of Hyatt Credit Card
The Marriott group of hotels is the third largest chain in the world, even after acquiring Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide in 2016. It has a brand for every spectrum of hotel classes across the world, from motels to top-end luxury accommodations.
However, despite having far more properties than Hyatt, we’re mentioning it second because the Bonvoy loyalty program was significantly devalued when the merger was completed in 2019. Significant issues with the integration on the backend have led to many anecdotal accounts of points not showing, redemptions disappearing, and customer representatives giving inaccurate information.
That said, Marriott Bonvoy does have some decent benefits, such as:
You can transfer points to Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan (not to be confused with earning Alaska miles with the Bank of America co-branded cards) Since Alaska Airlines’ points are so valuable, especially if you are maxing out the stopover perk, this can be a decent value for your Marriott points if the ratio remains at 60,000 Marriott to 25,000 Alaska miles.
You get 10% more points when you transfer Marriott Points to United’s Mileage Plus program. So, 60,000 Marriott points will get you 27,500 miles, which may sound like a lot until you consider that you can transfer Chase URs at a 1:1 ratio.
When you redeem four nights, you get a free fifth night. This benefit is activated automatically when you put in a five-night stay when searching for award nights. When you click through to the end, you’ll see that both four and five nights cost the same number of points in total.
You can transfer up to 100,000 points in a calendar year to any Marriott member you choose. Conversely, you can receive no more than 500,000 points a calendar year (five members x 100,000). It doesn’t have to be a family member living in the same household. There are some restrictions, such as the accounts have to be active for 60 days.
This is great because you can send the points to the person in your group with the highest elite status, or, gather enough points for that big redemption. One downer is that you’ll have to call Marriott Rewards Guest Services (1-801-468-4000) to do this, which always makes me nervous because not all of them are well trained.
Co-Branded Credit card:
The issue I have with the Hilton Honors program is how my point balance always looks so impressive but are actually worth so little.
So you earned a bonus of 130,000 Hilton points with a co-branded card? Great! Except that it may only get you a single night in a pricey city, like New York City, and only during off-peak seasons.
If there ever were an inflated travel rewards currency, Hilton Points would be it (with Marriott a close second).
Now that I got my ranting out of the way, I concede that Hilton tries to make up for its funny money currency by giving big multipliers for earning points. The Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card earns you 6x at U.S. restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations, and 3x on daily spend.
Personally, I prefer to earn bonus points by meeting minimum spend on new credit cards, which earns me more points for every dollar spent.
That said, if you’ve already earned a bunch of points, here are some ways to get the most out of them:
Hilton gives you a night free when you redeem at least four nights. If you ever have to stay in one place for an extended time, this is a great perk.
Hilton makes it easy to transfer points online, without having to call a representative. You can transfer up to 500,000 points and receive no more than two million a calendar year, so the person with the higher status can book the room for you.
You can pool points for a mega redemption. Whereas points transfers are 1 to 1, pooling can involve up to 11 people – one initiator and 10 participants. The quota is shared with points transfers–if you already transferred 100,000 points, your maximum is reduced to 400,000 for transferring or pooling.
Co-Branded Credit card:
These three hotel loyalty programs did not quite make it to the ranks of the top programs for me, but they can still be useful and sometimes, even surface a good redemption or two.
Let’s take a look.
We’ll start with a program that used to be one of my go-tos.
Despite limited ways to earn points besides the co-branded card, Wyndham Rewards would have been a top tier because a flat 15,000 points could earn you a free night at any Wyndham property worldwide, even the top-tier Wyndham Grand resorts.
Given that it is the world’s largest hotel chain, it was easy to do some rate arbitrage by staying in lower cost properties like Microtel, Super 8, Days Inn, Travelodge, and Howard Johnson, and earning points at 20x a night (10x for members staying at Wyndham properties, 2x with the Wyndham co-branded card).
At ~$60 a night after taxes, it would just take 12.5 nights to earn a free night at a $300+ property.
But that potential for great value vanished in April 2019, with Wyndham going back to a tiered system. At 7,500-, 15,000-, and 30,000-point tiers, redemptions at lower-end properties became more affordable, but the crown jewel properties doubled in cost.
Like with Choice Hotels, which we discuss later, I still use it when it makes sense, but it is no longer a program I recommend for folks to start with.
Co-Branded Credit card: Wyndham Rewards Visa
Another program that used to be a favorite of mine is IHG Rewards Club. It’s the fourth largest chain with a good mix of property classes, which meant good room availability.
If you’ve ever stayed in a Holiday Inn, you’ve stayed at an IHG property.
I especially liked two standout features:
However, the IHG Rewards Club has been steadily gutted in the past few years, with less appealing PointBreaks offers and a program-wide point devaluation, especially for US properties.
While many hotel loyalty programs consistently devalue their points by pushing properties up tier levels or even creating new higher ties (I’m looking at you, Marriott and Hilton), IHG really went the extra mile to strip the amazing value that Rewards Club used to offer.
I still have points with Rewards Club, but in 2018, I stayed at no IHG properties. That’s a first for me.
Co-Branded Credit card: IHG® Rewards Club Traveler Credit Card
Choice hotels may not be a well-known brand, but chances are, you know of at least one of its brands, although none of them will bowl you over.
Ever stayed in an EconoLodge, Rodeway Inn, Quality Inn or Comfort Inn during a road trip? Yup, you guessed it, those are all Choice brands, and they are all no-frills properties, just like the Choice Privileges loyalty program.
Despite the underwhelming brand names in the group, I make sure I keep some points in my Choice Privileges for a few reasons.
Choice hotels have good proximity to airports, where there is often better value to be had than other brands. I’ve used Choice hotels a few times during overnight layovers that I just couldn’t avoid and I didn’t want to waste Hyatt or Marriott points.
Sometimes, there are just no vacancies at my preferred chains. Maybe there is a graduation or a big game. But chances are, Choice will have a room because it is a relatively unpopular brand.
Choice brands are actually pretty good redemptions in parts of Europe, where accommodations, in general, are relatively expensive.
Redemptions start at 8,000 points, so the 32,000 bonus that can be earned with the co-branded Choice Privileges Visa Signature Card from Barclay will actually get you four nights. The card’s 2x on all spend makes it relatively easy to earn more points, although, you really shouldn’t be thinking of getting this card until you’ve maxed out on other more desirable ones.
That’s a wrap on getting your accommodations for squared away. Now that we’ve covered flights and lodgings, it’s time to get to the frills: car rentals, travel insurance, elite status, airport lounge access, and programs that expedite US security and immigration processing.
That’ll be the topic of our final few lessons.
If you found this course on travel rewards helpful, you may also enjoy this free illustrated guide, packed with many other ways to get more for your buck and win back your financial independence.
Course content originally produced by ChooseFI was edited/updated by CardRatings for this lesson.