Free airline flights are easily the best known travel rewards perks. However, for frequent travelers, cashing in travel rewards for free hotel stays can offer great value, particularly when traveling to big cities where hotels can easily cost upwards of $300 a night.
“If you’re traveling on a $200 [plane] ticket to California, you may save more money using travel rewards points for the hotels,” says Daraius Dubash, founder of the blog MillionMileSecrets.com. ”On the other hand, if you’re flying to Europe, you may save more money using your air miles for the ticket. It really depends on your personal situation.”
Despite the potential payoff of hotel rewards, for travelers on a budget, finding the best hotel rewards program isn’t always easy. The most publicized hotel rewards programs involve mid- to higher-end hotels. While these programs may offer the most redemption flexibility, including the option to transfer points to airline rewards, they often don’t offer the best rewards deals for the frugal-minded.
However, there do exist a variety of hotel rewards cards for low- to mid-tier hotels. Here’s what to look for — and how to crunch the numbers to find the best deals.
Finding low- to mid-tier hotel rewards programs
When looking for hotel rewards programs to compare, you need to cast a fairly wide net. The best place to start, of course, is to look at the programs offered by hotel groups with a large portfolio of budget to mid-tier hotels, such as the Choice hotel group, as well as hotel chains like La Quinta and Best Western.
At the same time, many hotel groups with a large portfolio of upscale hotels diversify by including several low- to mid-tier hotel chains. The Marriott hotel group, for example, includes Fairfield Inn and Courtyard by Marriott.
Comparing rewards values
Once you’ve selected three or four programs to compare, it’s time calculate how rewarding they really are. This includes taking into account the hotels covered in the plan, the plan’s rewards accrual rate, the plan’s redemption requirements, bonus sign-up offers and the cash discount value of rewards.
As an example, here’s a side-by-side look at two of the more popular low- to mid-tier hotel rewards cards — the Choice Privileges Visa card issued by Barclays and the Priority Club Select Visa issued by Chase.
1. Which hotels are covered?
Choice Privileges is the credit card rewards program of the Choice hotel group, which includes more than 5,500 budget hotels, such as Comfort Inn, Quality Inn, Clarion, Econo Lodge, Rodeway Inn, and many, many more. The group has hotels in the U.S., Canada, and internationally.
Priority Club, meanwhile, is the credit card rewards program of the International Hotel Group (IHG), the parent company of Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express and Candlewood Suites, as well as numerous upscale chains.
2. What’s the rewards accrual rate?
Choice Privileges cardholders earn 10 to 15 points per dollar spent when paying for hotel stays at Choice hotels using the Choice Privileges Visa card, and two points per dollar on other purchases. In other words, for each $100/night hotel stay, you’d earn 1,000 to 1,500 points depending on which hotel you stay at.
Holders of the Priority Club Select Visa earn 5 points per dollar spent for hotel stays within the IHG group, 2 points per dollar for gas, groceries, and restaurant purchases and one point for all other purchases.
3. How many points do I need for a free stay?
The value of rewards points depends on where you redeem them. Free nights with budget hotels in the Choice Privileges program require anywhere between 6,000 to 12,000 points. IHG Priority Club earnings can be redeemed for free hotel stays at the Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express starting at 10,000 points.
4. What’s the cash discount value of the rewards?
In other words, how much of a discount do you get when you stay at the hotel and pay with your hotel rewards card? Well, if you spend $100 for a stay at a Choice Quality Inn, you will earn 1,500 points. A free night’s stay at a Quality Inn will cost 8,000 points. That puts the percentage value of your Choice Privileges rewards cards earnings at an 18.75 percent discount. That means you earn almost one free night for every five stays at a Quality Inn. (For the sake of this example, we are ignoring rewards earnings for other purchases, as these are comparatively low).
In contrast, if you spend $100 at a Holiday Inn on your Priority Club Visa, you earn 500 points. However, you need 10,000 points for a free night at the Holiday Inn, so that pegs the discount value at about 5 percent. That means that you need 20 paid stays at a Holiday Inn to earn a free night.
5. Is there a sign-up bonus?
The Choice Privileges Visa card comes with a sign-up bonus of up to 16,000 points, good toward up to 2 free nights.
In contrast, the Priority Club Select Visa card offers a generous 60,000 bonus points for cardholders who spend $1,000 within the first three months, plus one free night a year. The latter benefit is somewhat offset by the card’s $49 annual fee, however. Reward nights at Holiday Inn can be redeemed for as little as 10,000 points, so those 60,000 bonus points could net you up to six free hotel stays.
Determining a winner
Which rewards program is best? Well, it depends on your goals. In keeping with the two hotels used in this example, if you’re looking for a hotel rewards card with a bonus offer that will net you the most free nights, the Priority Club Select Visa wins hand down, thanks to its generous sign-up bonus. On the other hand, if you frequently stay at hotels and are looking for a card that will earn you the highest discount on your stays, the Choice Privileges program may be your better bet.
There are many nuances, so keep your eyes open. The Priority Club rewards program, for example, offers a “Point Breaks” option with free hotel stays for as little as 5,000 points. However, those deals are harder to come by and will take more digging and pre-planning to land.
Once you’ve checked out the terms and compared, it’s easier to decide which budget hotel rewards program best suits you. For maximum redemption flexibility, you may want to stick with hotel groups that include mainly budget hotels, such as Choice, La Quinta Inns and Suites and Best Western. If you can’t decide, you can always mix and match and take a few offers for a test ride.