Ranking the best online travel agency rewards programs
When I was in graduate school, I would book conference lodging for other students. In doing so, I collected thousands of dollars of rewards through online travel agency (OTA) programs. But, even if you're only booking for yourself, you may find value in booking through OTAs.
Many travelers use OTAs to compare prices and book travel and although OTAs are easy to use, you won't always get the best price. You may not even get elite night credits and perks at hotels when you book through OTAs. So, it's best to compare what you find through an OTA against booking directly with the travel provider.
However, not all OTAs offer rewards programs and some programs provide only minimal value. So, today I'll describe and rank the best OTA rewards programs.
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What to know before booking through an OTA
First off, know that booking through an OTA may not be the best option. You won't find some travel providers, such as Southwest Airlines, on most OTAs. And, you may find a lower price when you book directly.
Besides, you usually won't earn hotel points and perks when you book through an OTA. Instead, you usually must book directly with the hotel loyalty program to get elite earnings and perks. On the other hand, you'll usually earn airline miles when you buy your ticket through an OTA. But, the airline might classify your ticket as bulk or consolidated. And, this may yield fewer miles.
Finally, if things go wrong, you might find yourself caught in the middle of a finger-pointing match. Specifically, the OTA and travel provider may blame each other if your flight is canceled or your hotel is overbooked. So, both parties may claim the other needs to rebook you or provide compensation. Unfortunately, some travelers have learned this the hard way when trying to cancel travel during the coronavirus pandemic.
So, it's important to realize the potential pitfalls and consider the benefits of booking directly with the airline or hotel. But, if you decide to book through an OTA, you might as well choose one that earns plenty of rewards.
Related: Online travel agency vs. booking direct: Your guide to the best way to book your next hotel
Ranking the top OTA rewards programs
- Hotels.com Rewards: Best return on hotel bookings
- Orbitz Rewards: Best perks for frequent users
- Booking.com Genius: Best for easy to earn status that can provide confirmed upgrades and breakfast
- Expedia Rewards: Best for redeeming for a wide variety of travel
- Trip.com Rewards: Best for onsite perks when you need them
Now, let's take a closer look at each of the programs and options for maximizing your bookings.
Hotels.com's loyalty program is called Hotels.com Rewards. And, in addition to being one of the most straightforward OTA rewards programs, it offers substantial value. Plus, you can book many top hotels through Hotels.com, including hotels perfect for a summer vacation or family vacation.
Earning and redeeming
The Hotels.com Rewards program offers you a reward night for every ten nights you stay. The value of your reward night is equal to the average rate you paid across the ten nights. However, this calculation doesn't include any taxes and fees. So, let's assume you:
- Stay seven nights in a hotel with a nightly rate of $100 before taxes and fees
- Stay three nights in a different hotel with a nightly rate of $200 before taxes and fees
In this case, you'd earn a reward night worth $130. However, you'll still need to pay taxes, fees and other incidental costs on your reward night. And, there's a $5 redemption fee if you redeem your reward night using the desktop or mobile web site. But, you can avoid paying the $5 redemption fee if you use the mobile app when you redeem.
Some strategy is helpful when using your reward night. If you use your reward night for a stay that costs more than the value of the reward night, you must pay the difference. But, if you use the reward night for a stay that costs less than the reward night, you'll forfeit the difference. So, you'll want to use your reward night on a stay with a nightly rate just slightly higher than the reward night. When you do, you'll get an almost 10% return on hotel spending through this program.
Related: 7 of the most interesting Hotels.com properties
Hotels.com Rewards offers basic status and two tiers of elite status. Specifically, the base level status is called Rewards. And, Rewards status provides the following perks:
- Secret prices
- Earn and redeem as described in the previous section
You can earn Silver status by staying ten or more nights within a membership year, which is based on the date you created your account. Silver perks include the following:
- Priority customer service
- Hassle-free guarantee: Hotels.com will help minimize property charges or cancellation fees if you need to change or cancel a reservation.
- Price Guarantee Plus: If you find a better price on exactly the same stay, Hotels.com will match it and refund the difference.
- Guaranteed Wi-Fi at VIP access properties
- Extra perks at select properties
Once you reach 30 nights in a membership year, you'll earn Gold status in the Hotels.com Rewards program. Gold elites enjoy all the same perks as Silver elites, along with complimentary room upgrade, early check-in and late checkout subject to availability at VIP Access properties.
As you can see, Hotels.com Rewards elite status has few tangible benefits. So, the main reason to use this program is earning and redeeming. After all, getting a reward night after every ten nights is pretty sweet.
Related: Can you earn elite status and benefits when booking through Hotels.com?
Orbitz launched its Orbitz Rewards loyalty program in October 2013. And, like Hotels.com Rewards, Orbitz Rewards aims to be simpler than the average OTA rewards program.
Earning and redeeming
Whenever you book travel through Orbitz, you'll earn Orbucks based on the kind of purchase you make:
- 1x on flights and packages (1% return)
- 3x on hotels, vacation rentals and activities (3% return)
- 5x on hotels and vacation rentals booked on the Orbitz app (5% return)
Orbitz deposits Orbucks into your account when you book. Then, you can cash in Orbucks toward hotel stays at more than 385,000 hotels worldwide. When you do, one Orbuck equals $1 off your hotel stay.
You can use Orbucks to pay for part or all of a stay. If you use Orbucks, the Orbucks you redeem will be subtracted from the total amount due. Unfortunately, you can't redeem Orbucks for anything besides hotel stays and vacation rentals.
Related: How do you cancel airline tickets issued by a travel agency?
Orbitz Rewards offers elite status to frequent bookers. You'll get Silver status just for signing up, which gets you the following perks:
- Access member-only prices
- Earn Orbucks when you book flights, hotels and packages
- Access to Rewards customer service line
You'll earn Gold status by staying four nights in a calendar year. On top of the perks provided to Silver elites, Gold elites also get unique amenities at VIP Access properties.
And, you'll get Platinum status after staying 12 nights in a calendar year. In addition to the perks available to Gold elites, Platinum status unlocks the following perks:
- Up to $50 Orbucks in reimbursement for travel expenses each calendar year
- Seat assignments and upgrades, bag fees, in-cabin pet fees and inflight Wi-Fi all count
- Apply for TSA PreCheck for free every five years
- Get free room upgrades and early check-in when available at VIP Access properties
Earning Platinum status could be worth it if you can use the $50 Orbucks credit for eligible travel expenses. This is especially true if you don't already have one of the top credit cards for TSA PreCheck.
Related: 5 reasons to get TSA PreCheck now
If you're looking to boost your earnings with Orbitz, you could open the Orbitz Rewards Visa Credit Card. This no annual fee card earns Orbucks at the following rates:
- 10x on Pay Now properties booked on the Orbitz app (10% return)
- 8x on Pay Now properties booked on Orbitz.com (8% return)
- 6x on all flights booked on Orbitz.com (6% return)
- 5x on all other Orbitz.com purchases (5% return)
- 2x on all other purchases (2% return)
However, remember that you can only redeem Orbucks for hotel stays and vacation rentals booked through Orbitz. But, if you use Orbitz frequently, this card may be a good choice. The card also comes with lost and stolen baggage coverage. Plus, as a cardholder, you'll get a 6-month CLEAR trial membership and $60 off automatic renewal.
Related: Should you get TSA PreCheck or CLEAR — or both?
The Booking.com Genius loyalty program is a bit different than most of the other programs described in this guide. Specifically, there aren't any chances to earn or redeem rewards within this program. And, there's no cobranded credit card for this program. But, you can earn elite status. And, best of all, it's easy to do so and lasts for life.
The Booking.com Genius loyalty program has two elevated Genius levels. And, once you earn these levels, you'll keep your status for life.
To earn the first level, Genius Level 1, you must stay twice within two years. But, this level only provides one perk: a 10% discount at select hotels.
But, Genius Level 2 isn't much more difficult to earn. To earn Genius Level 2, you must stay five times within two years. And, Genius Level 2 provides the following perks:
- 10% and 15% discounts at select hotels
- Free breakfast at select hotels
- Complimentary room upgrade at select hotels
You can see which hotels offer discounts, free breakfast and room upgrades when you search.
So, as a Genius Level 2, you can ensure an upgrade. After all, you can book into an upgraded room at select hotels for no extra cost. And, this gives much more value than a space-available upgrade.
You won't earn any rewards within the Booking.com Genius program. But, if you're looking for a deal or upgraded room, you may find it sorting by hotels with Genius perks.
Related: Booking.com makes a big move against resort fees
Expedia's rewards program, named Expedia Rewards, provides a loyalty program that's similar to Orbitz Rewards. However, with the Expedia Rewards program, you can redeem for a wider variety of travel.
Earning and redeeming
When you make travel purchases through Expedia, you'll earn points based on the kind of travel purchased:
- 2 points per $1 spent on hotels, cars, packages, things to do and cruises (1.4% return)
- 1 point per $5 spent on full-service airlines (0.14% return)
Also, you'll earn double points on all bookings made through the Expedia app. Plus, as we'll discuss in the next section, elite members can earn points faster.
When you're ready to redeem, simply sign in to your account and start the booking process. Once you get to the checkout page, select "Use my points" under the payment section. If you don't want to use all your points on this booking, enter the amount you wish to use.
However, if you are booking a hotel, you'll need to "Pay now" if you're using points. And, if you're booking airfare, you'll need enough points to cover the entire cost. For every 140 Expedia Rewards points you redeem, you'll save $1. So, each point is worth about 0.7 cents. But, points are worth double when you book a VIP Access hotel.
Related: The complete guide to the Expedia Rewards loyalty program
There are three membership tiers in the Expedia Rewards program. You'll earn Blue tier status simply for joining Expedia Rewards. And, at the Blue tier, you'll get the following perks:
- Save an extra 10% or more on select hotels with member prices
- Earn Expedia points
- Hotel price guarantee (Expedia will match any lower price you find until midnight before your stay)
- Early access to sales and other exclusive member offers
You'll move to Silver status if you spend $5,000 on eligible bookings or stay seven nights within a calendar year. In addition to the perks available at the Blue tier, Silver elites get the following perks:
- 10% more points when you book
- Extra perks at VIP Access hotels, including 250 bonus points just for booking
- 24/7 expedited customer service via the Silver member number
And, you'll earn Gold status if you spend $10,000 on eligible bookings or stay 15 nights within a calendar year. On top of the perks available at the Silver tier, Gold elites get the following perks:
- 30% more points when you book
- Free room upgrades when available at VIP Access hotels
- 24/7 expedited customer service with specialized Gold agents via the Gold member number
The perks provided by the Expedia Rewards program aren't all that impressive, nor is the earning. I'd recommend giving this program a pass unless you have a compelling reason to book through Expedia.
Related: Why points and miles are a terrible long-term investment
If you are all-in on the Expedia Rewards program, you may want to consider one of the following cards:
Expedia® Rewards Card from Citi
- 3x points on eligible Expedia purchases and 1x points on everything else
- Automatic Silver status
- Earn one elite-qualifying hotel night toward Gold status for every $2,500 in purchases on your card each calendar year
- No foreign transaction fees
- No annual fee
Expedia® Rewards Voyager Card from Citi
- 4x points on eligible Expedia purchases, 2x points at restaurants and on entertainment and 1x points on everything else
- Automatic Gold status
- $100 annual air travel fee credit
- 5,000 bonus points if you spent $10,000 in the prior cardmember year
- No foreign transaction fees
- $95 annual fee
The information for the Expedia Rewards Voyager and Expedia Rewards Card from Citi has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Related: Battle of the mid-tier hotel cards: Which card outshines the others?
Trip.com's rewards program, named Trip.com Rewards, is similar to Expedia Rewards and Orbitz Rewards. In particular, you can earn and redeem rewards on flights and hotels. And, you can earn elite status based on your activity within the program.
Earning and redeeming
When you make travel purchases through Trip.com, you can earn points in three ways:
- 25 Trip Coins per $100 spent on flights
- 80 Trip Coins per $100 spent on hotels
- Up to 140 Trip Coins per hotel review
But, as I'll discuss in the next section, members with elite status can earn 10% or 30% bonus Trip Coins.
When you're ready to redeem your Trip Coins, you have options. You can exchange Trip Coins for flight and hotel promo codes, instant savings on hotels and hotel perks. But, if you redeem for instant savings, 100 Trip Coins are worth $1. To use Trip Coins for instant savings, simply select "Save with Trip Coins" during the booking process. However, some bookings may not have this option.
It's unclear how much value can be obtained from Trip Coins when you redeem for promo codes and hotel perks. But, based on the instant savings redemption rate, I wouldn't place too much value in Trip Coins.
Related: Why you might not get housekeeping service during your next hotel stay
There are four membership tiers in the Trip.com Rewards program. And, to advance to higher levels, you must earn tier points by booking flights and hotels. Specifically, you'll earn tier points as follows:
- Flights: Earn 25 tier points for every $100 spent
- Hotels: Earn 80 tier points for every $100 spent
Now, here's what you need to know each membership tier.
|Membership tier||Tier points required in the last 12 months||Hotel discount||Trip Coins bonus|
|Silver||49 or less||Unspecified||None|
|Gold||50 to 799||5%||10%|
|Platinum||800 to 1,599||10%||30%|
|Diamond||1,600 or more||15%||30%|
Interestingly, membership tiers are adjusted each month based on the tier points you've earned in the last 12 months. As such, it requires a fair bit of spending to reach the Platinum and Diamond tiers in this program.
Additionally, members at higher tiers in the program get additional perks. You can exchange zero Trip Coins for these perks when booking hotels marked with "Trip Coin Benefits":
- Gold members: One free breakfast, room upgrade, late checkout and free cancellation
- Platinum members: Two free breakfasts, room upgrades, late checkouts and free cancellations
- Diamond members: Four free breakfasts, room upgrades, late checkouts and free cancellations
However, you must select perks at the time of booking. Perks are provided on a limited, first-come-first-served basis depending on hotel availability. Especially since the high membership tiers require a lot of spending to reach, I wouldn't put too much value in these perks.
Related: The best credit cards to jumpstart elite status
Earn airline miles with OTAs
Finally, some OTAs allow you to earn airline miles for hotel bookings. Three of these OTAs are Agoda (through its PointsMAX program), Points Hound and RocketMiles.
Some of these programs advertise up to 10,000 airline miles per night in earnings. But, in practice, I've yet to find a good enough value to use any of these programs. However, these OTAs can be a good option if you want to earn more miles in a program you already use. Likewise, you may be able to use these OTAs to generate account activity in little-used programs. And, this activity may allow you to keep your points and miles from expiring.
Related: Using Rocketmiles to earn points and miles on hotel stays
Maximize your OTA booking
When booking through an OTA, you may be able to quadruple-dip on rewards. Specifically, you may be able to earn all of the following:
- OTA rewards
- Online shopping portal rewards
- Credit card rewards on the purchase amount
- Travel provider rewards
However, there are some caveats. You can still earn airline miles when you book through an OTA. But, most hotel loyalty programs won't offer elite earning or benefits on OTA bookings. And, some OTA rewards programs may not provide rewards when you click through an online shopping portal. So, be sure to read the fine print for your OTA and travel provider.
Related: TPG reader question: Which credit card should I use in shopping portals?
Although I regularly used OTAs when I traveled less frequently, now I usually book directly with major airlines and hotels. After all, elite earning and perks matter at hotels now that I live on the road as a digital nomad. And, it's often easier to deal with flight cancellations or changes when you book directly with the airline.
But, I do still use OTAs in some cases. I'll book through an OTA when I stay at a hotel that isn't part of a major hotel loyalty program. And, I'll book flights through an OTA if it offers a much lower price. Plus, I often book through Priceline when I use AutoSlash for cheap car rentals.
Several OTAs offer strong rewards programs. Hotels.com Rewards earns the top spot on my list, but Orbitz Rewards and Booking.com Genius also offer solid value propositions. So, if you decide to book through an OTA, it may be worth using one that provides rewards and perks.
Additional reporting by Nick Ewen.