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Lately, there have been quite a few changes in the world of online travel agencies (OTAs), including the launch of Expedia + Rewards, a new credit card from Orbitz, and the end of Chase Ultimate Rewards’ online shopping portal bonuses at a number of sites like Travelocity and Priceline. With all that in mind, I thought it was time to update my comparison of OTA loyalty programs and revisit how to maximize the points and rewards you earn with them.
Expedia launched its Expedia Rewards program back in 2011 and has periodically added features since. Last week, Expedia announced a new enhancement called Expedia+ Rewards that includes tiered membership levels and more opportunities to earn and redeem points.
Earning and Redeeming
Members earn a certain number of points per dollar based on the kind of travel they purchase:
- Hotels: 2 points per $1 on hotels and hotel packages
- Cruises: With Expedia+ Rewards, members earn 2 points per $1 on most major cruise line bookings
- Flight + Car packages: 1 point per $1
- Flights: 1 point per $5 – pretty dismal!
Expedia points will not expire as long as you book and complete qualifying travel on Expedia.com or redeem Expedia points for a travel reward at least once every 18 months. Qualifying travel includes any travel items that are eligible for earning Expedia points. Expired points will not be reinstated.
Members can redeem their points for coupons at certain values to use towards travel purchases and, for a limited time, experiences and charity donations. Redeeming points for flights gets you a value of only about 0.7-1 cent per point – so if all you buy on Expedia are flights, then you’re earning back 0.2% of your spending at best. To redeem for flights, you must have enough available Expedia points to cover the full cost of the airline ticket you want to book. You cannot combine points with cash for flights.
Members can also redeem points for coupons towards hotel bookings in various increments. You can start redeeming at 3,500 points for a $25 coupon, and up to 140,000 points for a $1,000 coupon. Point redemptions toward hotel coupons are at a fixed rate of 0.7 cents per point, so if most of your spending and redeeming is on hotels and packages, you’ll earn 1.4% back on your spend.
You redeem your available Expedia points for hotel coupons and then put them toward the cost of your hotel. You must redeem available Expedia points prior to shopping so that your Rewards Coupon code is available when you’re ready to book. Hotel Rewards Coupons will cover the coupon value, and you can pay the remainder with your credit card. These coupons are generally good for a minimum of 12 months from the date of issuance. No refunds are given for unused or expired Rewards Coupons.
Expedia Rewards+ is the program’s new three-tier elite status system. Basic members are +blue. There are no requirements for reaching this level.
The second tier is +silver. To qualify, a member must book 7 hotel room nights or $5,000 in eligible Expedia.com spend in a calendar year. Hotel nights must be valued at US$50 or higher. +silver members earn a 10% bonus on all base points earned and 250 bonus points for eligible hotel or package stays at hotels in the +VIP Access category. Members at this tier also receive special amenities at +VIP Access hotels, priority call routing and expedited Expedia customer care, periodic special offers, and dedicated concierge services in Hawaii, Orlando and Las Vegas.
To qualify for +gold, a member must book and stay 15 hotel room nights or $10,000 in eligible Expedia.com spend in a calendar year. Members at this higher tier earn a bonus of 30% on their base points, the same +VIP Access benefits plus upgrades based on availability at 1,400 participating +VIP Access properties, dedicated Expedia customer service, periodic special offers, and the same local concierge services as +silver members.
Eligible spend for the purposes of qualifying for elite status includes hotels, flights, car rentals, vacation packages and activities.
Elite status earned is good through February 28 of the following year.
Expedia also launched a new Business Rewards program exclusively for Chase Ink customers in September, 2012. The program is designed for small businesses, and includes travel management tools and rewards geared toward booking travel for employees.
Companies earn $100 in credit for every 10 hotel nights booked through the program, and employees can still individually participate in the Expedia+ Rewards program to earn their own rewards.
To enroll, you or your company just need to have one of the Chase Ink cards: the Ink Bold, the Ink Plus, the Ink Classic, and the Ink Cash. To enroll, go to the Expedia Business Rewards site via the Ink Insider page at InkFromChase.com. Though this is a partnership between Chase and Expedia, you can use any method of payment accepted on Expedia.com to book the travel and will still earn rewards when eligible.
To set up an account, business owners must link their employees’ Expedia+ Rewards numbers to their Expedia business account. When an employee books travel using their own number, the company automatically starts accruing those reward nights toward the $100 credit.
Eligible travel includes prepaid hotel nights as well as packages that include other components like car and airfare. The $100 credits issued, called “Flexible Reward Coupons,” can be used on future prepaid hotel stays, but not on airfare or for cash back. These coupons can be used for future travel, or transferred as a gift to an employee or friend with an Expedia+ account – the person receiving the credit does not have to be an employee. Reward nights expire 18 months after they’re earned, and the $100 coupons expire 12 months after they are created by the reward night conversion. One downside: coupons cannot be combined – you can only use one of them at a time for each trip you book.
Hotels.com’s loyalty program is called Welcome Rewards, and despite being one of the simplest OTA programs, is probably the best value.
Earning and Redeeming
The basic structure of this program is that for every 10 nights you book through Hotels.com, you earn one free night equivalent to the average nightly rate you paid for the 10 qualifying nights.
You earn (1) loyalty credit for each qualifying night’s stay on bookings made at any eligible property. You will not collect nights on bookings made through an affiliate, bookings made before you joined Welcome Rewards (so sign up prior to booking), package bookings including hotel and/or flight, free bookings, or those made through Group Travel Services.
The value of the free night will be based on the ten (10) non-expired loyalty credits associated with the reward night. The maximum value of the free night will be equal to the average daily rate, excluding taxes and fees, of the 10 nights for which the credits were earned. So if you stay 9 nights in budget hotels for rates around $80 a night, and one in a moderately priced hotel around $200, you’ll get a credit of $92 at most.
You are responsible for paying for taxes, fees, meals, incidentals and any other costs associated with the booking or stay. If you use the free night for a stay that costs more than the maximum value of the free night, you must pay the difference. So the credit can be used to cover all or part of a stay, and you can pay the difference with a credit card.
Hotels.com offers basic status and two tiers of elite status.
Members earn Silver status by booking 10-29 nights within a membership year (based on the date you created your account). Benefits include priority customer service, a hassle-free guarantee (which doesn’t amount to much except an intention to reduce change or cancellation fees if possible), and early access to deals and promotions.
Gold status requires booking 30+ nights within a membership year. Benefits include special Gold status deals and a dedicated customer service line.
Hotels.com elite status has few tangible benefits, so the main reason to join this program is the impressive 10% back on spending in the form of hotel night credits.
Orbitz launched its Orbitz Rewards loyalty program in October of 2013.
Earning and Redeeming
Customers earn “Orbucks” based on the kind of travel they purchase.
Flights: members earn up to 2% of the cost of flights, excluding taxes and fees, up to $5,000 ($50 in Orbucks) annually per member. You earn just 1% booking on Orbitz.com and 2% booking through the Orbitz app.
Hotels: Members earn a up to 5% (3% for Orbitz.com bookings, 5% for app bookings) of the amount paid to Orbitz for your eligible hotel booking, excluding taxes and fees. You will not earn Orbucks on any charges collected directly by the hotel (e.g., resort fees, room service).
Eligible Packages: Members earn 1% of the cost of package bookings collected by Orbitz for an entire package booking, excluding any change or cancellation fees as well as any additional charges collected by the hotel.
Orbucks can then be redeemed for hotel bookings made through Orbitz. They can be applied to eligible hotel bookings subsequent to the same booking for which the Orbucks are earned. Eligible hotels are designated by an Orbucks “earn” amount with the “O” symbol.
When booking, you have the option to use your Orbucks to pay for part or all of the booking. If you choose to use your Orbucks, the amount of the Orbucks you redeem will be subtracted from the total amount due for the booking. If you choose not to use your Orbucks, they’ll remain in your account for future use.
Orbucks cannot be redeemed for flights.
Orbitz is also offering a referral bonus of $25 for both the existing and new member. Click on the Refer A Friend page to get your personal referral link and share it with friends. After they join, they get a $25 promo code for their first hotel stay, and you get $25 when they complete their first stay of $50 or more (excluding taxes and fees).
When launching Orbitz Rewards, the program also introduced an elite status tier system.
- Star Members: Qualify by booking 4 hotel room nights
- SuperStar Members: Qualiy by booking 12 hotel room nights
Benefits include a special VIP line to handle travel needs, concierge service, and help booking events and entertainment while traveling. SuperStar members have access to a dedicated concierge service to help with travel needs such as arranging restaurant reservations, scheduling meeting spaces, and activities such as golf tee times and other benefits.
A collection of exclusive “All-Star” hotels offer additional benefits such as free upgrades, WiFi, complimentary breakfast and other perks. There’s also an enhanced Best Price Guarantee where if you find your trip cheaper elsewhere, you’ll get a refund of the price difference and up to $200 in Orbucks (not to exceed the total amount of the booking). While all approved best price guarantee claims get the same refund, non-members get just $50 extra in Orbucks, regular members get $100 in Orbucks, and Star members get $150 in Orbucks.
- Earn a $50 Orbucks statement credit when you spend $200 in 90 days, and automatic Orbitz Rewards Star Status (their low-level elite status that you normally earn by booking four hotel room nights).
- 10% on Orbitz Rewards hotel bookings using Orbitz.com apps for iPhone, iPad and Android (5 percent Visa reward plus 5 percent mobile booking reward) – you normally earn 5% on app bookings and 3% on computer bookings
- 8% on Orbitz Rewards hotel bookings using Orbitz.com desktop (5 percent Visa rewards plus 3 percent desktop booking reward)
- 7% on air bookings using Orbitz.com apps for iPhone, iPad and Android (5 percent Visa reward plus 2 percent mobile booking reward) – without the card you earn up to 1% per $1 up to $5,000 per year ($50 Orbucks)
- 6% on air and package bookings using Orbitz.com desktop (5 percent Visa reward plus 1 percent desktop booking reward)
- 2% on all other purchases (in the form of Orbucks)
- No annual fee
- No foreign transaction fees
So the card basically ups your earning rate on Orbitz purchases by 5% in most cases, and earns 2% back in Orbucks on all non-Orbitz purchases.
Probably the least understood and discussed OTA program is Priceline Rewards, which is closely tied to the co-branded Priceline Visa, though you don’t have to be a cardholder to participate.
Earning and Redeeming
Priceline will add “Bonus Cash” credits to your own offer price to increase your chances of getting a Name Your Own Price hotel or rental car reservation. The example they give is: If your Bonus Cash amount breaks down to $5 per night, and you name a price of $25 per night for a hotel reservation, we will submit your offer price as $30 per night. If your request is accepted, you will only be charged your original price of $25 per night, plus taxes and fees.
If you’re booking a vacation package, bonus cash works like a store coupon. When you choose a package from the site, the total price, including taxes and fees is displayed prior to purchase. Bonus Cash is then subtracted from the total package price. As an example, if your Bonus Cash amount is designated as $25 per person, per night, for a two-person, two-night Package, that’s a savings of $100 deducted from your total Package price ($25 x 2 nights x 2 people = $100).
Bonus Cash Rewards cannot be combined with any other sales or promotions. The rewards are unique and subject to availability. As you can see, there are few details about how members are awarded with these bonus points if they aren’t cardholders.
Priceline offers a credit card through Barclaycard. The current terms are:
- Earn 5,000 points on first use
- Earn an additional 5,000 points after spending $1,000 on qualifying transactions in the first 90 days
- Earn 5x points per dollar on priceline.com
- Earn 1 point per dollar on everything else
- No annual fee
Cardmembers may redeem points for a statement credit toward any purchase transaction that posts to the Account that is equal to or greater than $25. The amount of Points needed to redeem will vary by transaction.
Though the terms don’t explicitly say it, your points are worth 1 cent apiece when redeemed for statement credits on Priceline purchases.
Travelocity’s Rewards program is linked to the co-branded Travelocity American Express from Barclaycard; you must have the card in order to participate in the program, and to earn and redeem points.
Here are the current terms of the card:
- Earn 5,000 bonus points after your first purchase
- Earn an additional 5,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases within the first 90 days of account opening
- Earn 3 points per $1 spent on eligible Travelocity purchases
- Earn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
- Points can be redeemed for statement credits towards Travelocity purchases for Flights, Hotels and Vacation Packages
- No blackout dates or restrictions
- No Annual Fee
So the potential total sign-up bonus is 10,000 points if you spend $1,000 within the first 90 days. Travelocity points are worth 1 cent apiece when you redeem them towards statement credits for purchases on Travelocity. You must accumulate at least 5,000 points to redeem.
When you redeem 20,000 points, you get a credit of $400 on purchases of airline tickets or Flight + Hotel packages. In this case, each point is potentially worth up to 2 cents, and your return on Travelocity spending is up to 6% (3 points per $1 at 2 cents apiece), which is pretty good. Like many other fixed-value points programs, there are no blackout dates, and you can redeem them for a variety of statement credits, including flights and hotels, and the 3 points per $1 earning is across all Travelocity purchases, not just non-flight options like hotels and packages.
The downside is that you have to have the credit card to earn these points, but if you do, you get a pretty decent return on your spending.
While none of these programs is lucrative enough to be a major focus of my points strategy, they’re worth keeping in mind because they offer opportunities to double dip or even triple dip on your points and miles earning, especially on otherwise point-less (see what I did there?) transactions such as non-chain hotel bookings.
If you have the Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold or Ink Plus cards from Chase, you can earn multiple Ultimate Rewards points per dollar through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal. Chase recently dropped Orbitz, Priceline, and Travelocity from the portal, which is a major blow to points-earning potential, but you can still book through Expedia and Hotels.com.
Unfortunately, you earn just one extra point per $1 at the moment when booking flights on Expedia, but if you use your Sapphire Preferred to book an airline ticket through Expedia, you can earn a total of 3.21 Ultimate Rewards points per $1 on airfare (2 points for travel expenses and 1 extra from the portal, plus the 7% annual dividend), plus 1 Expedia point per $5 spent, and whatever miles you earn on your flight.
On the other hand, Ultimate Rewards is offering a whopping 5 extra points per $1 on Hotels.com. That means you could be earning a total of 7.49 Ultimate Rewards points (which I value at about 2 cents each) per dollar with the Sapphire Preferred, plus that 10% return from Hotels.com Welcome Rewards, for a total of nearly 25% back on your spending! That’s a double dip I’d book any day.
American Express Travel also offers an additional Membership Rewards point per dollar for all flights booked through the site. There is sometimes a small fee of about $5 tacked onto flights you book through Amex travel, but the extra Membership Rewards point per dollar spent can be more valuable than the fee paid. If you use the Premier Rewards Gold or Business Rewards Gold cards to purchase airfare, you earn a base of 3x points per dollar, so the additional Amex Travel point brings the total points per dollar for airfare to 4X, another great value. If you have another Amex Membership Rewards-earning card like the personal or business Platinum cards, you’ll still be earning 2X points per $1.
For more information on maximizing your travel purchases, check out these three posts: