How to make the most of loyalty award programs when you travel

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Frequent travellers are spoilt for choice when it comes to hotel loyalty programs that open up an array of upgrades and freebies around the globe.

By Michael Gebicki

Spending tonight in a hotel? If you’re a member of your hotel’s loyalty program, you’re probably bedding down in a better room than you might have done otherwise, with extra perks and a brighter smile at the check-in desk – as well as earning some free nights for your next holiday.

Travel dollars are full of untapped potential for those in the know, and hotel reward programs are a classic way to put yourself in the winner’s circle at no additional cost. 

Over the past few years, hotel groups have ramped up their reward schemes to mesh with airlines and other major players in the travel industry. This enables you to earn points when you use your hotel’s travel partners and to convert hotel points for non-hotel travel rewards if you choose.

Hotel reward programs are free to join and, in many cases, the perks begin as soon as you sign up. As with platinum flyers, those who demonstrate their loyalty with repeated nights in-house get red-carpet treatment: suite upgrades, early check-in and late check-out, a more diligent level of personal attention and more points for every dollar spent.

Starwood's Prince de Galles.Like most frequent flyer schemes, hotel loyalty programs have status levels, and it pays to climb the ladder. Look for a scheme with a relatively low threshold for elite levels, such as Hyatt’s Gold Passport program.

Platinum members, who qualify with five stays or 15 eligible nights in a calendar year, get a 15 per cent points bonus, free premium internet access, room upgrades and 2pm checkout.

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Starwood Hotels & Resorts stipulate 10 eligible stays or 25 eligible nights in a calendar year for clients to become Gold Preferred Guests. Once they qualify, they get a 50 per cent points bonus, room upgrade, 4pm checkout and conditional complimentary premium wi-fi. 

The marriage between Starwood and Marriott International has created the world’s biggest hotel group, with 5500 hotels and resorts in more than 100 countries. Both accommodation chains are continuing to operate their loyalty schemes independently, with a combined program to emerge in 2018.

Until that happens, it’s likely that members of Starwood and Marriott programs will be able to use their points at both hotels.

“You’ll be OK,” says Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson, assuring members of both programs. “I want to make sure we continue to earn that loyalty.”

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Using the right credit card is another way to give your loyalty points a boost. Although the best deals apply to US cardholders, a stand-out for Australians is the Citi Prestige Visa Infinite credit card. Cardholders get instant Hilton HHonors Gold status with just two stays instead of the usual 20 stays or 40 nights, plus a truckload of other hotel privileges.

For example, stay four consecutive nights in any Hilton hotel and earn an additional complimentary night, plus earn upgrades and VIP treatment at Starwood, Ritz-Carlton and Mandarin Oriental hotels.

It’s not just hotel stays that accrue points. Hyatt Gold members can earn points using the services of 28 participating airlines, including Emirates, Etihad, Qantas, British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways and Lufthansa.

Avis car rentals also earn points for Hyatt’s members. Hilton HHonors members acquire points when they fly with Cathay Pacific, Virgin Australia or British Airways, or when they rent a vehicle from Avis, Budget or Europcar. They can also earn points to bank in their airline frequent flyer schemes when they stay at properties within the Hilton group of hotels, or top up their frequent flyer account with hotel points.

American Express, Citi and Diners Club points can also be exchanged for HHonors bonus points. Starwood’s Preferred Guest program and Marriott Rewards operate along similar lines.

Frequent flyers with elite status in their airline’s own loyalty program can also benefit from reciprocating companies. For example, Virgin Australia’s Velocity Gold members receive complimentary Gold Partners membership with Hilton HHonors or IHG Rewards Club.

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As a general rule, hotel loyalty points do not expire, as opposed to airline reward schemes. Some require annual account activity, but even if you’re not staying in one of their hotels, this could be as simple as taking a flight that feeds some points into your account.

If you have frequent flyer airline points about to expire, converting them to hotel loyalty points is a great way to preserve their value.

Sheraton, Huzhou, ChinaOne of the pay-offs for hotels from their loyalty programs is that they channel reservations through their own booking systems rather than through third parties, which take a commission from each transaction. Just like airline points, you won’t be rewarded if you book your hotel stay using an online travel agent such as Priceline or Travelocity.

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Some hotel booking sites, such as Expedia and Orbitz, operate their own loyalty programs. If you frequently use these websites to book your hotel stays or if you don’t want to commit to any one hotel program in particular, these booking site programs offer a decent alternative.

As well as discounts, elite members of Expedia+ or Orbitz Rewards might qualify for some of the perks of hotel loyalty programs, such as room upgrades or free wi-fi.

Picking a winner from the various programs depends on which group you are most likely to patronise in the course of your business travels, as well as where you intend to stay when you want to use those points.

For most travellers, the sheer size and reach of the Starwood-Marriott group is a persuasive argument in favour of either the Starwood Preferred Guest Program or Marriott Rewards.

Read next: Which is the world's best airline lounge?


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