You’re planning your next vacation, surfing the web for the perfect place to stay. Three hotels appeal to you. One is part of a large international chain, and another is part of a large international chain where you’re a loyalty program member. The third is a boutique hotel you’ve never heard of, but it looks alluring and gets rave reviews.
Words start popping into your head: “elite,” “bonus points,” “late checkout,” “lounge access.” Each is pulling you toward choosing the hotel where you’re a member. But if you heed the loyalty program’s siren song too readily, you could end up a loser in the points game.
To understand why hotels, airlines and other travel providers offer loyalty programs, the name tells you everything you need to know: They want your loyalty. That’s because, despite all the free nights, in-flight accommodations and other perks they send your way, these programs ultimately earn hotels and airlines more money than they cost.
To come out on top, beware of blind loyalty. If your preferred program offers the best bottom-line option when you’re booking, stick with it. But if you can find a better deal elsewhere, grab it.
Here are four tips for keeping travel rewards as rewarding as possible.
Play the field
The more points you accumulate in an airline or hotel loyalty account, the more loyal you might feel. After all, every new plane ticket or hotel room you buy with cash gets you closer to your next free trip. But if you only have eyes for one travel provider, you could be missing out on a much better value elsewhere. It’s always smart to check the competition.
Also, don’t overlook booking sites such as Travelocity, Trivago or Hotels.com. Sometimes they deliver deals you can’t get directly on hotel or airline websites. If you book your preferred provider through one of these sites, you might miss out on certain loyalty privileges such as points, late checkout or upgrades. But the savings could make it worthwhile.
Price out package deals
Lots of booking sites can bundle a vacation for you, combining a rental car, airfare and hotel all in a single package price. Big airlines, online travel agencies like Apple Vacations and Pleasant Holidays, and discounters like Expedia and Orbitz, all offer package deals. Sometimes these can save you a lot of money but, again, you may not get the rewards that come with booking directly with the travel providers. Price out your car, flight and accommodations separately and compare that total to the bundlers’ offer to see whether you’d be better off booking directly through your rewards program.
Know the dollar value of points and perks
Imagine you’re down to two flight options: Option A will earn you 5,000 frequent flyer miles, but Option B costs $50 less. These apples-to-oranges comparisons make it hard to choose wisely. Convert this to an apples-to-apples equation by taking a quick glance at points valuation charts, which can help you estimate how much points are worth.
Then think about how you value perks. For instance, perhaps you have a credit card that gives you free checked bags on a certain airline, or access to that airline’s swanky lounge. If those are things you value, it can be worth paying a little more to fly with that airline. But if you wouldn’t pay to access a lounge or check a bag anyway, then your money might be better spent flying on a cheaper competitor.
Don’t fall for flattery
Elite status with an airline or hotel group can be beneficial, especially if it gets you a better seat or room upgrade. Other times, the prestige is mostly puffery. If your elite status will get you little more than a few free bottles of water and late checkout privileges you won’t use anyway, it shouldn’t be a factor in your hotel or airline choice. Set ego aside and look for deals from competitors. Then consider where a few bottles of water or free Wi-Fi could tip the scales.