Getting Your Travel Rewards on the Ground
Airlines were among the first travel providers to offer loyalty programs for their frequent customers, and when we think of award travel, we usually mean frequent flyer miles. And while air travel is often the most expensive part of our vacations, hotels and rental cars can equal or exceed the cost of airfare in some instances. Besides, once you have earned an award flight, your next priority is to shave as many other expenses from your trip as possible. (See also: Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards)
Fortunately, hotel loyalty programs can offer outstanding value with few of the hassles of airline frequent flyer programs. In fact, many of the most popular programs offer award nights in any available standard room, with no blackout dates or capacity restrictions.
So how do get the most value from hotel and other programs?
Hotel Reward Programs
Let's start where the savings are greatest — your hotel.
1. Find the Right Program
My favorite hotel programs include Starwood, Hyatt, Wyndham, and Club Carlson, but each has its own unique strengths.
Starwood offers award nights at mid-tier properties for as little as 2,000 points a night, while you can book the most expensive Hyatt rooms (that can sell for over $1,000) for no more than 22,000 a night. Clubs Carlson offers its credit card holders one free night with every award stay.
It can also be a good idea to consider some budget chains that offer surprisingly upscale accommodations overseas. For example, Choice hotels are often found near highway exits in small towns, but they also offer some remarkable properties in Europe.
On the other hand, several hotel programs now require tens of thousands of points for even modest accommodations as a result of recent changes. Hilton is one program that made some of the largest changes, while I have never been able to extract much value from Marriott Rewards and IHG Priority Club.
2. Choose the Right Credit Card
My love affair with the Starwood Preferred Guest Card from American Express is well known, but there are several other great hotel credit cards.
Look for programs that offer free nights at sign up, bonus points for spending at certain categories of merchants, and elite status that will offer you room upgrades, free Internet, and even free breakfast. For instance, the Hyatt card from Chase offers new cardholders two free nights at any Hyatt property and immediately grants them Platinum status.
3. Book the Best Awards
Finding a hotel award is incredibly easy compared to searching for airline awards. Nevertheless, travelers should follow many of the same rules they live by when it comes to airline awards, such as looking for awards that offer the most value per point. For example, leverage programs with no blackout dates or capacity controls when you need a room during the peak season or a special event. Also, when traveling overseas to extremely expensive cities like Paris or Milan, hotel awards can offer the most value per points.
Rental Car Awards and Travel Activities
After airfare and hotels, renting a car can be the largest expense of your trip.
Although some frequent flyer programs will allow you to use their miles for rental car awards, I have never found more than a puny one cent per mile in value from these offers. So for these expenses, I try to use points from bank rewards programs.
- Capital One's Venture Rewards card offers double miles on all purchases that are worth one cent each towards any travel expenses such as rental cars.
- Chase's Ultimate Rewards points can be used to book rental cars and activities, and holders of the Sapphire Preferred card receive a reasonable 1.25 cents in value per point.
- Likewise, Citi's ThankYou Rewards program also offers points that are worth one cent each towards rental cars and activities. In fact, the Chase Ultimate Rewards program and the Citi ThankYou program both use the same travel provider.
Using these programs, I have also found valuable rewards such as airport transfers, adventure sports activities, and scenic tours.
Putting It All Together
On a recent family vacation, we tried to see how far we could go on points and miles alone, spending as little cash as possible. First, we transferred 80,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points each to United Airlines and booked three first class tickets from Denver to the island of Maui in Hawai'i. Then, we booked seven nights at the fantastic Hyatt Maui, which normally costs 22,000 points per night. Next, I used my Citi ThankYou points to rent a car, visit an aquarium, and even take my daughter on a submarine ride.
Of course, we still needed to pay for our gas, food, and some of our activities, which was more expensive than staying home. Yet considering that we made over $10,000 worth of travel reservations, and spent less than $1,000 in cash, there is no denying that getting serious about award travel is seriously rewarding.