Editorial Policy

Hotel Rewards Tips for Road Warriors

Eva Norlyk Smith Ph.D.

September 25, 2012

QHi Eva,

My family takes a lot of road trips, so I’m looking into credit cards that give hotel rewards. Will we be limited to certain hotel chains if we want to get or redeem our rewards? And what are some things I should know about these cards in general? We generally stay at affordable places (Holiday Inn and similar — we try to stay under $100 per room per night) instead of fancy places, so I want to make sure any card I get would fill our needs. Thanks for your help.  — Gabrielle

AHi Gabrielle,

Well, get your researcher’s hat on, because there are lots of options, and the savings can pay off big time. There are many ways to earn rewards toward free hotel stays, and it is well worth familiarizing yourself with them to get the most value from your purchasing and travel dollars.Ask Eva

Hotel loyalty programs function much like frequent flier programs. You earn credit toward free hotel nights and elite status each time you stay at the hotel. To further boost earnings, you can sign up for the affiliated hotel rewards credit card, which lets you reap even greater rewards.

Elite memberships associated with hotel rewards programs come in different elite levels (such as Gold, Platinum and Diamond), and each level gives you access to exclusive member-only benefits. These can range from free Internet and late check-out privileges at the first elite level to complimentary room upgrades at higher levels. Typically, to reach the first elite rung, you have to stay in participating hotels for 10 nights a year. The next tier generally comes after 25 nights.

The elite tier system is generally a way to reward people for spending their hotel dollars with one hotel group. However, if your main goal is to earn free hotel stays and you don’t really care that much about reaching elite levels, you will have greater freedom of choice, because it becomes less important to stick with the hotel chains of one hotel group.

If you are concerned about being limited in your choice of hotel chains, consider signing up for multiple hotel rewards cards to gain maximum flexibility in your award booking. There are several plusses and a few minuses with this strategy. On the plus side, since most hotel rewards cards often come with bonus sign-up offers worth one to four hotel nights, you will get several free hotel stays instantly.

In addition, signing up for several hotel rewards programs will give you a chance to “test drive” each program, so to speak. It’s difficult to know the full value of a hotel rewards program until you’ve tried it. When you sign up, you will know how many rewards points you will earn, but it is hard to know how easy — or difficult — it is to cash in rewards for hotel stays in your price range on the routes you frequently travel. For that reason, trying out two to three hotel rewards programs before settling on your preferred program can make a lot of sense.

The downside? Applying for multiple hotel rewards credit cards may ding your credit score temporarily for five or six months. So if you’re looking to take out a mortgage or other major loan, don’t employ this strategy. Secondly, by spreading out your spending among multiple programs, you will be missing out on the perks that come with achieving elite membership levels. However, you may well find that this is a small price to pay for the increased flexibility.

There are lots of programs to compare, and they all offer great benefits. Once you’ve tried out a few, you can decide which one suits you the best. Most hotel groups, such as Marriott, Starwood and International Hotel Group (the parent company of Holiday Inn) include mid-tier hotels, so their hotel rewards cards are worth exploring too. However, for maximum flexibility, you may want to stick with hotel rewards card programs that include mainly mid-tier hotels, such as Choice Privileges, La Quinta Returns and Best Western Rewards. Good luck!

Got a question for Eva? Send her an email.