How to maximize your stays at Airbnbs, hostels, campgrounds and more
Hostels, guesthouses, family-run pensions, campgrounds and Airbnbs can provide a great lodging experience. However, these types of properties have been getting more expensive recently and rarely belong to points programs. Luckily, there are still plenty of options to earn points or get cash back when staying at independent properties. Some earning strategies are straightforward and universal; others take a few steps for double or triple dipping.
Today, we're going to break down the best way to book and maximize your earnings on these less conventional lodging options. As you'll see, each site has its own benefits and strengths. But first, we need to cover some basics.
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Pick the right portal
We've talked plenty about using online shopping portals and how they can help you earn extra rewards on online lodging reservations. There are a number of shopping portals out there, so getting started can be overwhelming. But one website greatly simplifies the process: Cashback Monitor.
Cashback Monitor tells you how much cash back or how many points you'll earn using different rewards portals for a given website. It's laid out simply and will even link you directly to the portal you choose.
Related: Maximizing shopping portals for your online purchases
There are many cash-back portals, but the most popular tend to be Rakuten and Top Cashback. Rakuten offers a handy browser extension that will notify you when you are on a website where you can earn cash back. You simply have to click the “activate” button and you'll earn rewards for qualifying bookings. Also, Rakuten gives you the option to earn American Express Membership Rewards points instead of cash back.
While all of that sounds great, you should always compare Rakuten’s rates with other portals via Cashback Monitor. Keep in mind that airline, hotel and even credit card portals sometimes offer enticing returns as well.
Related: How to use Rakuten to earn bonus cash back or Amex points
Use the right credit card
Generally speaking, the Chase Sapphire Reserve and American Express® Green Card are the best cards to use for Airbnbs, hostels and campgrounds. Both cards earn 3x points on lodging and both Chase Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards points are valued at 2 cents each. Paying with either of these cards is the easiest way to earn at least 6% back on your bookings. Otherwise, you can use another card that earns bonus points on travel, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which has a lower annual fee than the aforementioned cards.
One big exception is if the property can be booked directly online and you're staying for at least four nights. In this case, the fourth-night free benefit on the Citi Prestige® Card can save you serious cash. Unfortunately, many less conventional independent properties don't qualify and this benefit is capped at twice per year.
The information for the Citi Prestige card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
You can also use the 2 miles per dollar spent earned with the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card to cover travel charges on your statement, which works great when redeeming other points isn't an option.
Related: Best travel credit cards for travel purchases
If you're booking an Airbnb
Rumblings of an Airbnb loyalty program have been around for a while, but so far, nothing has materialized. However, there are several stackable options to earn a decent return on your stay.
Airline Airbnb portals
Delta and British Airways both have Airbnb portals that allow you to earn miles on your bookings. All you have to do is go to this link for Delta or this link for British Airways, enter your frequent flyer number and you'll be taken to Airbnb's website. Any booking made during your session will earn you 1 Delta SkyMile (a 1.1% return based on TPG valuations) or 2 British Airways Avios (a 3% return) per dollar spent.
Related: Everything you need to know about staying at an Airbnb right now
Buying Airbnb gift cards
If you're planning to rent an apartment or home for your trip, be sure to check your local pharmacies, office supply stores or grocery stores for Airbnb gift cards. If you have cards that earn bonuses at any of these merchants, it can help boost your earnings significantly.
Otherwise, purchasing Airbnb gift cards through United's MileagePlus X app will currently earn you 2 MileagePlus miles per dollar spent, plus a 25% bonus, if you have a cobranded card like the United Explorer Card, which you don't actually have to use.
If you're seeking simplicity, Chase and Amex code Airbnb as a travel provider, so you can still get 3x points using the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Amex Green.
Related: A guide to the best credit cards for Airbnb stays
Reserving stays through Hotels.com
Hotels.com has its own loyalty program that awards you a reward night after 10 paid nights. Or, you can earn "stamps" through spending with the Hotels.com® Rewards Visa® Credit Card (rates & fees). The reward night is worth the average value of the 10 paid nights, so this works out to be a 10% return. That's a better return than you get with the rewards programs of other popular online travel agencies like Orbitz or Expedia.
The information for the Hotels.com Rewards Visa has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
That said, Hotels.com doesn't always have the lowest prices on stays, and it doesn't factor in many taxes and fees until a few steps into the booking process. It also doesn’t have as many alternate lodging options as other sites. Still, when a property is listed on Hotels.com, it usually ends up being the best value when factoring in the overall return.
Related: These are the best glamping spots in the US
When you're using Booking.com
Booking.com is probably the most popular site for alternate lodging. It has a huge selection of independently run guesthouses and has been increasing its hostel offerings too. You can even reserve campsites and igloos, among other lodging options.
Booking.com has a Genius loyalty program that isn't as great as the name makes it sound. After completing two stays in two years, you'll unlock savings of 10% or more at select properties. Completing five stays in two years gets you discounts of up to 15% plus free breakfast and room upgrades, based on availability. There are no points earned on bookings.
While it doesn't compare to the loyalty programs of traditional chains, it may still help you score a discount on properties that can't be booked online elsewhere.
The real value of this site is found through shopping portals. Both Rakuten and Top Cashback usually offer 6% to 7% cash back.
Related: The complete guide to the Booking.com Genius loyalty program
Booking shared stays on Hostelworld
While there are advantages to booking directly with hostels, Hostelworld remains the go-to site for online hostel bookings.
More and more hostels are appearing on Booking.com, which also has preferable cancellation policies. Hostelworld charges a nonrefundable “down payment” on all bookings made less than 14 days in advance and some made further in advance, depending on the rate. Meanwhile, Booking.com and Hotels.com allow you to cancel according to the accommodation's refund policy, which often includes a full refund.
If you do need to book through Hostelworld, you can typically use Top Cashback to earn returns on this down payment (which is at least 15% of the price of the stay). With Top Cashback currently offering up to 10% back on this down payment, you’ll get a return of at least 1.5% on your stay. As you can see, you may be able to get even more back through another portal. The remaining balance will be paid directly to the property on arrival.
If you book any of these properties directly online, via email or through Hostelworld, you'll usually owe a balance on arrival. Occasionally, these properties tack on a surcharge for credit card payments. Compare the surcharge to the value of your return to decide if it's better to pay with cash or a credit card.
For example, if the surcharge is 3% and you pay with your Chase Sapphire Reserve, you're getting greater than a 3% return (since you'll earn 3x points worth 2 cents apiece). So it's still best to pay with the card. And for dealing with cash while abroad, see TPG's full guide on avoiding fees on foreign currencies.
Related: 6 tips for picking the perfect hostel every time
Bonus: Marriott Homes & Villas
In 2019, Marriott entered the vacation rental market with the launch of Homes & Villas by Marriott International. These homes are available for both paid and award reservations.
Paid reservations at any of these properties earn 5 Marriott Bonvoy points per dollar spent on the base price (excluding cleaning fees and add-ons). Plus, each night will count toward your Marriott elite status qualification.
These rentals will almost always impose stricter cancellation policies than Marriott’s usual brands, but are often more flexible than Airbnbs. Many homes allow you to cancel within 30 days without a penalty, or for a limited time due to the pandemic, within 10 days for only a $75 credit card processing fee.
On the redemptions side, Marriott appears to offer a fairly consistent redemption value of 0.6 cents per point. However, the process for redeeming points is a bit convoluted and may require you to contact the reservations team.
Related: I earned 15,000 Marriott points just by renting a home for 10 days — here’s how
You don't need to stay at a major chain hotel to earn or redeem points on your lodging. Using these tips and tricks, you'll be able to earn rewards on everything from campsites and hostels to igloos, independent boutique hotels, Airbnbs and more. Even if you don't travel often, you'll see that these points add up pretty quickly.
Additional reporting by Brian Biros.
Feature photo by Cavan Images/Getty Images.