The Most Undervalued Hotel Loyalty Programs
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Most of us are aware of the fantastic value you can reap from collecting and strategically redeeming points from Hyatt and Starwood. And even with Hilton's award chart devaluation and Marriott's high point requirements for award nights, you can still maximize the programs through smart redemptions and elite status benefits. However, it's also worth exploring the rewards offered by other, smaller hotel chinas. Today, I'll cover a few loyalty programs that don't routinely command headline space, but perhaps should.
Choice Hotels Choice Privileges
This program is most often overlooked because Econo Lodges and Sleep Inns aren't normally high on one's list of places to vacation. The chain doesn't have a reputation for offering desirable properties here in the US, but Choice does have the Ascend Collection with mid-tier hotels in destinations like the Berkshires. And in Europe, Choice Hotels are often great options. Look at the Comfort Hotel Bolivar in Rome for only 10,000 points or the Comfort Inn Buckingham Palace Road in London for 25,000 points.
Earning Choice Privilege points here in the States can be tough, as there's only a handful of transfer partners. You can move points over from the American Express Membership Rewards program at a 1:1 ratio; Amtrak Guest Rewards points at a 1:3 ratio; and Diners Club points at a 1,250:2,400 ratio. You could also open The Choice Privileges Visa Signature Credit Card, which will give you 32,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days of account opening. It'll also earn you 15 points per dollar at eligible Choice Privileges locations, and it doesn't have an annual fee.
Besides great deals on free nights in Europe, the Choice Hotels program offers the ability to use points or points and cash to redeem for free nights at Preferred Hotels & Resorts. With redemptions starting at 25,000 Choice points or 10,000 points and $112.50, this option lets you book award nights at boutique and luxury properties located all around the world.
This program is working hard to make itself relevant to leisure and business travelers alike. Back in 2015, Wyndham made the bold choice to move to a 15,000-point flat rate for award nights for any property in its portfolio. This provides great value for higher-end properties like the Shelborne Wyndham Grand South Beach, but it's a little less appetizing at the Super 8 in York, Nebraska. Wyndham also announced a new elite status program earlier this year, and it does have a few benefits that stand out as above average. For example, space-available suite upgrades — even on award nights — are a wonderful perk for Diamond members.
Recently, the chain even had a unique promotion encouraging SPG members to donate all their Starpoints to charity and switch over to Wyndham —while this ended up being pulled before ever going live, it shows the effort Wyndham's taking to attract new, loyal customers. You may not be sold on the program yet, but it could be worth searching for Wyndham properties (now including vacation properties) the next time you're headed on vacation to see what kind of return 15,000 points could give you.
The Wyndham Rewards Visa with an annual fee ($75) comes with a sign-up bonus of 30,000 points — 15,000 after your first purchase and another 15,000 points after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days. The card will earn you 5 points per dollar on Wyndham purchases, 2 points per dollar on eligible gas, utility and grocery store purchases and 1 point per dollar on everything else. You’ll get automatic Platinum status, which will give you a preferred room, late checkout, early check-in and a 6,000-point bonus on each account anniversary.
ltrmont President's Club
With a relatively small footprint compared to the big contenders, Fairmont can easily be overlooked when you're searching for your next luxury hotel stay. The program is often ignored because earning free nights at a Fairmont property is difficult compared to your options with the larger chains. However, you shouldn't gloss over this program completely, as it offers some compelling perks, and it's relatively easy to earn elite status.
After just five stays in a year (or 10 nights), you'll qualify for Premier status, which gives you certificates for one complimentary room upgrade and one complimentary suite upgrade — each good for a stay of up to five nights. You'll also earn 750 miles per stay with one of 14 different airline programs, a $50 dining certificate, free in-room internet, a complimentary third night on a three-night stay and entertainment perks like two-for-one rounds of golf at select Fairmont properties. Definitely not bad when you only need five stays a year to qualify!
At 10 stays or 30 nights in a year, you'll qualify for Platinum status, which gives you more upgrade and suite certificates, a $100 dining credit, a complimentary night at any Fairmont hotel, 1,000 airline miles per stay, guaranteed early check-in and late check-out, and the ability to earn a free night for every ten nights you stay beginning at 40 nights.
If you don't want to complete five stays to earn Premier status, you can sign up for the Fairmont Visa (discontinued as of January 2017), which gives you Premier status along with a sign-up bonus of two free nights at any Fairmont property after spending $3,000 within the first three months of account opening. The card has a $0 annual fee the first year and $95 each year afterward.
I somehow earned complimentary Premier Status in the President's Club without having the credit card a few years ago. (I've tried to remember how each year but cannot figure it out.) It's been renewed without stays ever since. There are more Fairmont hotels around the world than I had ever paid attention to, which opens up fantastic possibilities for a free suite upgrade on a five-night stay. That's a huge benefit for a traveling family at normally high-priced, luxury locations like Monaco, Banff and Telluride.
Kimpton Karma Rewards
Currently offering properties in just 33 cities but with nine more to be added soon, Kimpton Hotels is a collection of boutique hotels, each with its own personality. Now owned by IHG, Kimpton, like Fairmont, doesn't make it easy to earn free nights, but it does a great job at rewarding its loyal customers.
What makes Karma Rewards interesting are the top levels of the elite status program: Tier 3 and the highest, Inner Circle. You'll earn Tier 3 after 7 stays or 20 nights and Inner Circle after 14 stays or 40 nights — or through status matches the program has done in the past. Inner Circle status offers perks like a free night and $50 dining credit at new Kimpton properties, a $30 in-room spa credit, a free night after 7 stays or 20 nights, a welcome amenity unique to each property, complimentary chef tastings for dinner at the hotel and complimentary upgrades at check-in.
Kimpton loyalists are a group of die-hards, and with the brand expanding overseas to Paris and Amsterdam next year, it's only becoming easier to be a loyalist. Kimpton also posts a secret word on social media which you can say at check-in to get things like free parking, wine or breakfast. Thanks to perks like this, I keep looking for an excuse to try a Kimpton hotel.
There's been word that IHG Rewards and Kimpton Karma may merge in 2017, but there's no update as of late — the FAQ section of Kimpton's site still says there are no immediate changes planned. It'd be a shame for Inner Circle members if the Karma Rewards program goes away altogether.
Small Luxury Hotels of the World The Club and Leading Hotels of the World Leaders Club
Both of these programs are unique consortiums of small properties around the world, most of which are on the luxury (read: pricey) side of the spectrum. What makes these programs great are the benefits they offer for the first level of elite status, one of which you can buy.
For just signing up with Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH), you'll be a Special member of The Club, which gets you a room upgrade and access to The Club special rates (usually 20% off daily rates). After just one stay at an SLH property, you'll earn Loved status. This gives you free continental breakfast for two adults and late check-out. After your sixth stay, you'll become an Honoured member and earn a free night at any SLH property, plus early check-in and the ability to earn a free night for each addition 5 stays at SLH properties.
Alternatively, Leading Hotels of the World has The Leaders Club, which offers two levels of membership available for a cost. For $150 per year, you'll be a Leaders Club member, which earns you a free night after every 5 stays, complimentary continental breakfast, one-category room upgrades, free in-room internet, early check-in and late check-out when available, a welcome gift from each hotel and discounted rates with a few travel partners.
For $1,200 per year, you'll become an Unlimited member and receive all of the Leaders Club benefits plus a free night after every 4 stays, free one-way airport transfers in 30 cities, Priority Pass airport lounge program membership, the ability to give three family members Leaders Club membership, guaranteed late check-out and access to one-of-a-kind specially created experiences (with no further details for that benefit given). I'm not sure $1,200 is worth the benefits listed and would't recommend paying for this status.
Those are all great benefits for each of these groups of properties if you can find a location that works for you. Free breakfast each morning alone could be worth $30 per adult per day in addition to room upgrades. These properties are in many destinations where chain hotels cannot be found. I was able to score free Leaders Club base membership for free thanks to an offer earlier this year, but haven't had a chance to try out a property yet.
Additional programs like Le Club of Accor Hotels have certain functions and niches that are worth exploring. Accor properties are located around the world but mainly centered in Europe. The Le Club program has a revenue-based earning and redemption structure which can reward big spenders. It also has some admirable elite status benefits, such as a welcome drink, late checkout and exclusive rates.
Spanish chain Melia runs the Melia Rewards program (with a few US properties). It often sends members emails to alert them that bonus points have been deposited in their accounts — often enough for a one-night stay at select hotels. You can also transfer Melia points to Lufthansa's Miles and More or Air Berlin's Top Bonus program.
If you're headed off the beaten path or simply looking to try something different for an upcoming vacation, check out the above options. You may be surprised at the value — and unique experiences — offered by these lesser-known loyalty programs.
What are the most undervalued hotel loyalty programs in your opinion?