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Choosing which hotel loyalty program to enroll in is like picking your favorite Jelly Belly flavor. You have many to choose from, and they all offer something unique for your palate.
Because most hotel loyalty programs are free to join, the answer is obviously, "Why not sign up for all of them?" You can. But to maximize your rewards, you’ll probably end up focusing on one or two hotel loyalty programs for your travels.
Here are a few questions to ask before making your choice.
Things to consider before joining a hotel rewards program
1. Are there a good selection of hotels where I’m headed?
The number of hotels that participate in a given program and their locations should be the most important factor you consider ahead of signing up. The bigger the selection in places you travel to, the more properties you’ll find where you can earn and use points.
Wyndham Hotel Group leads the pack for the number of properties available, with about 9,300 hotels worldwide in 2020. Wyndham’s top competitor, Marriott International, has about 7,500 properties, followed by Choice Hotels International with 7,100 hotels and Hilton Worldwide Holdings with about 6,200 properties. Radisson has fewer than 1,200, and Hyatt has about 940.
Do some searches to see which hotel brand aligns with your travel patterns. Additional considerations you might make include:
Which company has a nice selection of hotels in the areas you’ll visit most?
Will you be traveling to big cities or suburbs?
Do you travel domestically or internationally?
If your employer pays for your lodging, does the company you work for prefer a specific chain?
In short: You run the risk of getting less value out of your hotel loyalty if you join a program that has few properties where you travel most frequently.
2. How easy is it to earn points?
One major perk of hotel loyalty programs is the ability to earn points that you can later use to redeem for free stays. Though you can often earn hotel points in a variety of ways, staying at hotels is generally the easiest way to do it. For example, Marriott Bonvoy members earn 10 base points per dollar spent on eligible charges at most participating hotels.
Earning rates vary across hotel brands, so it pays to have a general understanding of not only how easy it is to earn points, but also how quickly you'll be able to spend those points. For instance, earning 10 points per dollar might sound great, but if the lowest redemption is 80,000 points for a night at a certain hotel you want to stay at, you will have to spend $8,000 at the hotel program before you can redeem your points for a free night. Promotions and credit cards can help speed this process up.
Beyond the typical earning rate associated with individual brands, you might consider keeping an eye out for specific promotions that can help you earn points more quickly. For example, earlier this year, Marriott ran a Better Two-gether promotion, where Marriott guests earned 20 base points instead of 10. On top of that, elite night credits were also doubled. So on a five-night stay, guests earned 10 elite night credits instead of five.
Normally, IHG Rewards members earn 10 points per dollar spent on the base room rate at most participating properties and 5 points per dollar at Staybridge Suites and Candlewood Suites hotels. But an IHG Rewards promotion called Triple Your Points pays double points on a second stay and triple points on all stays after that through Aug. 16, 2021.
Hilton runs periodic promos, too, like an offer for double or triple Honors points on stays through Sept. 6, 2021.
In many cases, you must register for one of these promotions, then complete a stay according to the offer terms to get the extra points.
Hotel credit cards
One way to earn a lot of points quickly is to get a co-branded hotel credit card. These cards pay you points when you charge everyday purchases. Plus, many cards pay bonus points in certain spending categories like gas, groceries or dining out. And new cardmembers can usually earn bonus points by meeting a minimum spend requirement in the first few months after opening the card account.
When comparing hotel loyalty programs, look at all the ways to earn hotel rewards, including regular stays, promotions, co-branded cards and other partnerships.
3. How easy is it to redeem award nights?
Some hotel loyalty programs, like Marriott Bonvoy and World of Hyatt, use charts to determine the number of points you need for a hotel night. In other hotel loyalty programs, including Hilton Honors and IHG Rewards Club, points rates mimic cash rates on any given date and fluctuate with demand. The latter is called a dynamic pricing model. The more expensive a room is with money, the more points you'll need to book it.
This can make a difference when it comes to blackout dates. With dynamic pricing, you will likely still get access to rewards nights, but at higher rates. Programs that use award charts may not show the room as available for points on high demand dates.
Resort fees can also set loyalty programs apart. With some chains, such as Hilton and Hyatt, when you redeem points for a stay, you won’t have to pay the resort fees. With other programs, like Marriott Bonvoy, you still have to pay these fees, even if you paid for the room with points.
Browse multiple hotel rooms in a few loyalty programs to get a feel for how many points you’ll need for your next hotel stay and to see how resort fees could affect your bottom line.
4. Will you reach elite status?
Hotel elite status perks can make a trip less taxing and more enjoyable. Elite members typically get extra perks on stays, which might include free breakfast, free space-available upgrades and late checkout.
Earn through stays
You can earn elite status by staying a certain number of nights or completing a certain number of stays. So when you’re comparing hotel loyalty programs, ask: How many nights do you have to stay to start enjoying elite member benefits?
Hilton Honors guests reach Silver status after staying 10 nights or completing four stays. Gold tier takes 40 nights or 20 stays, while Diamond tier requires at least 60 nights or 15 stays per calendar year.
World of Hyatt members normally reach Discoverist, the lowest elite status level, in 10 nights. Globalist, the highest tier, is earned at 60 nights at Hyatt hotels.
Marriott awards Silver Elite status after 10 nights, but reaching its highest status level of Ambassador Elite requires staying at least 100 nights and spending $20,000 with Marriott each calendar year.
With IHG Rewards, you can earn Gold Elite after 10 nights and reach Spire Elite, the highest level, after staying 75 nights.
Note that many of these requirements have been reduced for 2021 due to COVID-19's impact on travel.
Earn through cards
If staying at hotels to earn elite perks the hard way isn’t your thing, some co-branded cards can help.
For example, the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card is your ticket straight to the top of the elite status chain — you get Hilton Diamond status just by becoming a cardmember. Terms apply.
The Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card will earn you Gold Elite status with Marriott, but so will The Platinum Card® from American Express, which also comes with Hilton Honors Gold status. Enrollment required. Terms apply.
If you’re considering a hotel loyalty program
Although there’s no harm in joining every hotel loyalty program under the sun, you’re most likely to maximize value if you focus your efforts on one or two hotel brands.
When it comes to loyalty programs, one size doesn’t fit all. Figure out how big a portfolio of properties you want to be able to choose from and their locations. Then, consider how easy it is to both earn and use rewards, as well as how quickly you can reach a meaningful elite level, before making your final selection.
All information about the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card has been collected independently by NerdWallet. The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card is no longer available through NerdWallet.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2022, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card