Frequent air travel became the norm for Americans in the early 1980s, but hotels didn’t provide much for regular customers. If you were lucky, you’d get a fruit basket on arrival or a complimentary breakfast in the morning. My how things have changed. In an effort to increase travel and attract repeat customers, hotels and other hospitality entities have begun rewarding frequent guests. While this is not a new concept—credit card companies such as American Express have rewarded traveling customers for years—the types of benefits have become more glamorous. Some hotel chains offer free rooms and upgrades, while others give airline points and hotel amenities.
With the new year comes new expense account restrictions and business travelers, more so than any other frequent traveler, need to optimize their travel. If you’re anything like George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air, you’ll be racking up points in no time regardless of your employer’s new rules thanks to top-tier rewards programs. Here are our picks for the best hotel loyalty programs. All are free to join.
Starwood Preferred Guest
Starwood Hotels and Resorts has some of the most glamorous properties in the world so its award program attracts business and leisure travelers. Starwood operates the luxury St. Regis brand as well as W and Sheraton; more than 940 hotels around the world. The Starwood Preferred Guest program offers three tiers of membership from basic (Preferred Guest) to the more rewarding Gold Preferred and Platinum Preferred levels. The basic membership awards guests with two points for every dollar spent and points can be used for free nights, flights, room upgrades, goods and even charity. Business travelers can easily reach Platinum level status, getting more bang for their buck as well as amenities and upgrades. How else can you stay at the Sheraton Boston for business and the St. Regis Bora Bora for pleasure?
Starwood’s W brand hotels continue to pop up in prime locations with recent openings in Austin, Barcelona, Boston, New York (downtown), Taipei, and Vieques Island (Puerto Rico).
Intercontinental Priority Club
Intercontinental Hotel Group, which owns and operates more than 4,500 hotels around the world including the Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza chains, has arguably the largest loyalty program in the industry with 52 million members. Intercontinental Priority Club members earn points for hotel stays, airline miles, car rentals, dining out and gift certificates. The highest level of membership—Platinum Elite— offers guests free room upgrades and 50 percent bonuses on base points. Just this month, the hotel company introduced a bonus points program that awards members with up to 30,000 additional points if they stay in a group hotel between Feb. 1 and April 30, 2011. For every three nights a guest stays in any of the hotels, he or she receives 3,000 bonus points. Points don’t expire and blackout dates don’t apply.
Hilton Worldwide has some of the most popular accommodations for business travelers and the Hilton HHonors loyalty program lets these same travelers quickly earn points and miles. Hilton operates more than 3,600 hotels around the world, many in popular urban centers such as Los Angeles and New York. Stay at a Hilton or Doubletree and redeem the points for a getaway at the luxurious Conrad Hilton Maldives. Members can earn points with stays or by using the Hilton HHonors Visa.
HHonors is unique in that you aren’t the only person who benefits from the program. You can transfer points to a family member or friend who is also a member. If you’re feeling even more charitable, points can be given to philanthropic organizations. JetBlue TrueBlue members earn more TrueBlue points for staying at a Hilton hotel and anyone who uses Energy Plus as his/her electricity provider earns bonus points as well. Stay at a Hilton hotel from now until March 31, 2011, and earn up to quadruple points for your stay. Points can be redeemed for stays, cruises, car rentals and golf lessons.
Hyatt Gold Passport
Hyatt Hotels Gold Passport is one of the top-tier loyalty programs because you can get points fast. With three membership levels—Gold, Platinum and Diamond—the Passport program allows guests to earn rewards quicker than other loyalty programs. Guests earn five points for every dollar spent and redeem them for upgrades, free rooms and airline miles. Members get discounts on car rentals through Avis and Sixt. With higher levels of membership, guests can receive point bonuses or food and beverage amenities such as free meals and Starbuck gift cards.
—Shandana A. Durrani