09/02/2011 08:46 am ET | Updated Nov 02, 2011

The Points Guy: Taking Advantage Of Hotel Points

When people think about travel points, the first programs that come to mind are usually airline mile accounts. However, the number, variety and value of great hotel points programs have grown exponentially over the past few years, and consumers are starting to take notice. Thanks to their versatility, flexibility and elite perks, hotel points are some of the hottest commodities in travel points.

The bottom line is: Hotel points matter--even if it's free airline tickets you're after. Here are a few of the reasons why, and what you should be thinking about as you get started with them.

Higher Value: Unlike airline miles, which usually amount to a value of about 1-2 cents each, hotel loyalty points' value can be worth much, much more. The combination of rising airfares, reduced flight capacities and scarcer award seat availability can make finding ideal award tickets challenging. On the other hand, although hotel rates have also risen dramatically over the past decade, capacity keeps on growing as well (or at least remains fixed since you can't switch buildings if you don't sell out your hotel, whereas you can switch out aircraft) as hotel chains expand and keep on adding brands. That means that more rooms--and more expensive rooms--are up for grabs to loyalty point program members. Enough stays at an Embassy Suites can translate to overnights at a Waldorf Astoria. The 20,000 Starwood points you earn staying at a Sheraton can get you a night at the St. Regis Rome.

Exchange Rates:
Airfares were high this summer thanks to a number of factors including the skyrocketing cost of gas, but Americans have been feeling even more of a pinch thanks to the weak US dollar. That holds true for hotel rates as well, especially in Europe, where the Euro is pummeling the greenback. A hotel room that would cost $200 in Los Angeles could go for the equivalent of $600 in Paris. That makes using your hotel points wisely more important than ever. Plus, the Starwood Preferred Guest program has a "Cash & Points" option that gets you hotel rooms for both fewer points and less money than using one method of payment or the other. For example, a Category 4 (out of 7) Starwood property like the Westin Grand Berlin, would cost you 4,000 Starpoints and $60 USD using the "Cash & Points" option versus paying over 250 euros (around $360 at the moment).

More Options: Though hotel points are generally only redeemable within a single hotel group (like Marriott or Hilton), most of these chains have created, incorporated or bought other brands to put under their umbrella and usually you can both earn points on stays at any of the brands within the chain, as well as using points earned at any of the brands within the chain for stays at any of the other brands. Just to give you a quick rundown of some of the biggest:

-IHG Priority Club: This is the biggest group, with over 4,000 properties worldwide, and brands like InterContinental, Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn.

-Hilton HHonors: Another huge hotel group of over 3,600 hotels worldwide with familiar names like Hilton, Waldorf Astoria, DoubleTree, Embassy Suites and Hilton Garden Inn.

-Marriott Rewards: The next largest chain, with over 3,400 properties in the Marriott, JW Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, Renaissance, Edition and Residence Inn brands.

-Starwood Preferred Guest: This group has over 1,000 properties across several great brands including Westin, St. Regis, W Hotels, Sheraton, Element and Aloft.

-Hyatt Gold Passport: One of the best hotel programs out there (which I'll talk about in a future post) even though they only have just over 400 properties across brands like Hyatt, Park Hyatt, Andaz and Hyatt Place.

Airline Transfers: Just because you pick a hotel loyalty program and start accruing points in it doesn't mean you can't still use them for airfare. In fact, most hotel programs allow you to transfer points to several different airline mileage accounts. For instance, right now, Starwood Preferred Guest members can transfer their points to 31 different mileage programs including those of American Airlines, British Airways, Delta, Air France, United, US Airways and Virgin Atlantic (see the list here), and SPG will give you a bonus of 5,000 points for every 20,000 that you transfer. (What does that tell you about the value of hotel points versus airline miles?). Hilton HHonors members can already transfer points to 40 airline partners (see the list here). In general, however, hotel points are more valuable when used on hotel stays rather than on flights.

Constant Promotions:
Whereas airlines are much more targeted and seemingly random with promotions, hotels are known for offering constant promotions and deals to earn and use points, so staying on top of the news can be extremely beneficial. Right now, for example, Hyatt just announced a promotion where Gold Passport members earn 5,000 bonus points for every three nights they stay in a Hyatt property, up to a limit of 30,000 points. While this is a lower bonus level than some of Hyatt's previous promotions, it's still a good deal. Starwood has also recently announced that Starwood Preferred Guest members will earn triple points on every stay between September 6-December 18, 2011, on stays that include either a Thursday or a Sunday night. This is clearly aimed at non-business travelers, but could still be quite lucrative for members with flexible schedules, and SPG members will at least earn double points on all other stays for the same period. You just need to register here.

Elite Status: Like airlines, many hotel brands offer their most loyal customers elite status upon completion of a certain number of stays or amount of money earned within a set time period (usually a calendar year). Once earned, elite status confers upon members a host of great value-added perks like early check-in, late check-out, room upgrades which can be worth hundreds of dollars, and more. For example, higher-level Starwood elites get free internet access that routinely saves me somewhere around $15 a day when I stay in one of their properties, while one of my favorite perks as an InterContinental Priority Club Royal Ambassador lets me take anything I want from my minibar for free.

M&M's anyone?


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