Ranking the Best Online Travel Agency Rewards Programs
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For many casual travelers, online travel agencies (or OTAs) are a great way to price-shop when booking flights or hotel stays. Most will be classified as travel purchases on cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, but did you know that a handful of them actually have their own loyalty programs? Today I’ll go through the major OTAs and highlight what types of benefits (if any) you can unlock the next time you’re booking a trip through the respective site.
What to Know Before Booking Through an OTA
Before getting into the details, it’s important to note that purchasing a flight or hotel through an OTA may not be the best option for everyone. Many carriers (most recently JetBlue and Lufthansa) are shifting away from these sites or adding fees to drive you to book directly through their sites in an effort to maintain more control and up-sell you on various additional services.
In addition, you typically won’t earn hotel points when you book through an OTA; that privilege is generally reserved for direct bookings only. While you likely will earn airline miles when you buy your ticket through an OTA, there’s an added risk that the itinerary could be classified as a “bulk” or “consolidated” ticket and thus earn you miles at a greatly reduced rate (if at all).
You also run the risk of being caught in the middle of a finger-pointing match if things go wrong. If your flight is canceled or a hotel is overbooked and “walks” you in the middle of the night, the OTA may blame the airline/hotel, while the airline/hotel may blame the OTA. A good friend of mine experienced this in 2016 when she evacuated for Hurricane Matthew. She booked a hotel in Tampa using a well-known OTA and arrived only to be told that they didn’t have a room. She did get her money back but wound up needing to crash with a friend to stay out of harm’s way.
Long story short: Beware of these pitfalls — and the benefits of booking directly with an airline/hotel — before going forward with a reservation through an OTA.
However, if you’re willing to accept these risks, there’s some decent value to be had. Here’s my ranking for the major OTAs out there.
Hotels.com’s loyalty program is called Hotels.com Rewards (creative, I know), and in addition to being one of the simplest OTA programs, it offers the best value.
Earning and Redeeming
The Hotels.com Rewards program essentially offers you a free night for every 10 nights you stay, and the value of that free night is the average rate you paid for the 10 nights. These night credits will be added to your account within 72 hours after checkout. However, there are several types of bookings that will not count toward the 10-night threshold, including:
- Bookings made through an affiliate
- Bookings made before you joined Hotels.com Rewards (so sign up prior to booking)
- Package bookings including hotel and/or flight
- Free bookings, including those you receive as part of a promotion
- Bookings made through Group Travel Services
- Some bookings made using a discount coupon, voucher or code
Once you’ve collected 10 nights, you’ll get one free night to redeem at an eligible hotel. The value of your free night will be equal to the average rate of the 10 nights you collected. For example, if you stay 7 nights in a hotel with a rate of $100 a night and then stay 3 nights in a different hotel with a rate of $200, you’ll get a credit of $130 at most.
Keep in mind that the value of the free night excludes taxes, fees and any other incidentals you may charge to your room. 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. However, if you use the free night for a stay that costs less than the free night, you’ll forfeit the difference. As a result, be choosy when determining where to redeem the award!
Hotels.com offers basic status and two tiers of elite status. Members earn Silver status by staying 10 or more 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.
Once you reach 30 nights in a membership year, you’ll earn Gold status in the Hotels.com Rewards program. You’ll enjoy all of the perks of Silver status plus exclusive deals for Gold members.
As you can see, 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.
While Hotels.com doesn’t offer its own co-branded credit card, it does offer a partnership with Capital One. As of January 2018, cardholders of both the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card will receive 10x miles on Hotels.com purchases through Jan. 31, 2020. These earnings are on top of the stay counting toward a free night in the Hotels.com Rewards program, making this an ideal credit card to use for these reservations. Remember though that you must book through a special link — hotels.com venture — in order to get the 10x miles on the Venture cards.
Earning and Redeeming
Whenever you book travel through Orbitz, you’ll earn “Orbucks” based on the kind of purchase you make:
- Flights: Members earn 1% of the flight price on the first $5,000 spent annually (a maximum of $50 in Orbucks each year, though elite members have higher limits)
- Hotels: Members earn up to 5% (3% for Orbitz.com bookings, 5% for app bookings) of the amount paid to Orbitz for eligible hotel bookings. You won’t earn Orbucks on any charges collected directly by the hotel (e.g., resort fees, room service).
- Vacation 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 you earn are deposited into your account immediately upon booking, allowing you to put them towards another trip without waiting to complete the first one. You can then redeem your earnings for hotel bookings made through Orbitz, where 1 Orbuck = $1 off.
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.
Unfortunately, you can’t redeem Orbucks for flights or vacation packages.
Orbitz Rewards also provides elite status for those who frequently utilize the site. You’re designated as Silver just for signing up, and you’ll earn Gold status by staying 4 nights in a calendar year and Platinum status by staying 12 nights in a calendar year. Here’s an overview of the benefits these tiers provide:
|Enhanced flight earnings||Up to $10,000 of spending ($100 in Orbucks)||Up to $40,000 in spending ($400 in Orbucks)|
|VIP hotel perks||Select perks like free Wi-Fi, breakfast or waived resort fees||Select perks like free Wi-Fi, breakfast, or waived resort fees; complimentary, space-available upgrades|
|Checked bag fee reimbursement||No||$50 in Orbucks per calendar year|
|TSA PreCheck||No||One authorization code every 5 years|
If you book a large number of flights through Orbitz and could also benefit from TSA PreCheck (and don’t have it through a credit card), it could be worth going for Platinum status.
If you’re looking to boost your earnings with Orbitz, you could open the Orbitz Rewards Visa Card. You’ll earn an extra 5% in Orbucks on all Orbitz bookings, boosting your return on flights and packages to 6%, your return on Orbitz.com hotel purchases to 8% and your return on Orbitz app hotel bookings to 10%. You’ll also receive 2% in Orbucks on all other purchases. The card currently offers a sign-up bonus of a $100 statement credit after you spend $1,500 in the first 90 days, and the card carries no annual fee and waives foreign transaction fees.
Expedia’s rewards program has been around since 2011 and underwent a major overhaul in 2014, shifting its name to Expedia+ Rewards and adding elite status tiers and additional enhancements to earning and redeeming points. Here’s an overview:
Earning and Redeeming
When you make travel purchases through Expedia, you’ll earn a certain number of points per dollar spent based on the kind of travel purchased:
- 2 points per $1 spent on hotels or vacation packages
- 2 points per $1 spent on activities, cars or cruises
- 1 point per $5 spent on flights
In addition, you’ll earn double points on all bookings made through the Expedia app.
Points will appear as “Pending” on your account within 30 minutes of booking, though you won’t be able to actually use them until you complete the travel and the points become available for redemption. Here’s a chart with the timeline of when this should happen:
|Eligible Booking||Point Confirmation Timing|
|Flights||30 days after travel completion|
|Vacation packages||30 days after travel completion|
|Hotel paid at time of booking||30 days after travel completion|
|Hotel paid at time of stay||35 days after travel completion|
|Car||Up to 90 days after travel completion|
|Cruise||Up to 45 days after travel completion|
|Activities||30 days after travel completion|
Your points will not expire as long as you either earn or redeem Expedia points at least once every 18 months.
When you’re ready to redeem, you have six options:
- Hotel stays: When redeeming points for hotels, you’ll typically receive a value of 0.71 cents per point, but if you book at one of 3,500+ VIP Access hotels, you’ll double the value to 1.42 cents apiece. Even better? You can redeem as little as 140 points for $1 off.
- Flights: Your points are worth 0.7 – 1.0 cents per point toward flights, and you must have enough available Expedia+ points to cover the entire cost of the ticket. These tickets can’t be changed or canceled and also must be booked over the phone, adding additional hassle and making the other redemption options more attractive.
- Vacation packages: If you’re interested in a combination of flights and hotels, you can redeem your points for coupons towards these packages. These redemptions start at 3,500 points for a $25 coupon and go up to 140,000 points for a $1,000 coupon.
- Car rentals: If your next trip involves renting a car, you can redeem your Expedia+ points with a variety of companies. For this option, your redemption value for car rentals matches that of standard hotel rooms (0.71 cents per point).
- Things to do: You also can redeem your Expedia+ points for various activities in destinations around the world, and like car rentals, you’ll get the same 0.71 cents of value from each point.
- Charitable donations: The final redemption option involves St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where 3,500 points equals a $25 donation (with 100% of the money going to your charity of choice).
The Expedia Rewards+ Program also allows you to earn elite status through hotel stays. Regular members are considered to have +blue status, with no requirements for reaching this level. To earn +silver status, you need to spend $5,000 on eligible purchases or complete 7 room nights in a calendar year. Finally, +gold status is granted by spending $10,000 or staying 15 room nights. Eligible spend for the purposes of qualifying for elite status includes hotels, flights, car rentals, vacation packages and activities, and the status you earn is good through February 28 of the following year.
Here’s a breakdown of the key benefits you’ll enjoy at these two elite status tiers:
|VIP Access Hotel bonus points||250 points||250 points|
|VIP Access Hotel perks||Free amenities at select properties||Free amenities at select properties, room upgrades, flexibile check-in/check-out|
|Priority Customer Services||Yes||Yes|
|Dedicated Customer Service||No||Yes|
While these are nice, they aren’t lucrative enough to go out of your way to earn status in Expedia+ (in my opinion).
In addition to earning Expedia+ points using the above methods, you also have two co-branded credit cards that can boost your earnings even further.
- Expedia+ Card from Citi: 3x points on eligible Expedia purchases; automatic +silver status; one elite-qualifying hotel night toward +gold status for every $2,500 in purchases on the card; no annual fee
- Expedia+ Voyager Card from Citi: 4x points on eligible Expedia purchases; 2x points on dining and entertainment purchases; automatic +gold status; $100 annual air travel fee credit for airline incidentals; 5,000 anniversary bonus points after you spend $10,000 in the prior cardmembership year; waived foreign transaction fees; $95 annual fee
The OTA made famous by William Shatner doesn’t offer a traditional loyalty program. Instead, you must have the Priceline Rewards Visa Card to enjoy any benefits through the site. The card comes with a sign-up bonus of 5,000 points after your first purchase, and you’ll then earn 5x points on eligible purchases made at Priceline.com and 1x points on all other purchases. You can redeem your points for statement credits for any purchases of $25 or more made within the last 120 days, and these redemptions will be at a rate of 1 cent per point. However, if you redeem your points for credits against eligible Priceline or other travel-related purchases, you’ll get 10% of those points back. The card also waives foreign transaction fees and doesn’t incur an annual fee.
Travelocity used to have a co-branded credit card with American Express, but this card was discontinued in 2015. As a result, there’s no true rewards program to speak of at this point. However, you can always utilize a credit card that offers bonus points on travel, and if you’re dead-set on booking through the site, you can also utilize the following strategy…
How to Double- (or Triple-) Dip
As noted above, hotels booked through OTAs typically won’t earn you points or help you qualify for elite status. However, airline travel booked through OTAs should earn you miles in the carrier’s own program (in addition to rewards through the OTA itself). Where this gets interesting is when you add online shopping portals. Many of the above sites offer bonus cash back, points or miles by first going through a portal, though be sure to read the fine print, as some won’t allow you to do both.
Here’s a quick run-down of the current offers for the applicable OTAs:
- Hotels.com: 2% cash back through Ebates; 2 miles/$ through United MileagePlus Shopping; 2 points/$ through Barclaycard Rewards Boost; 2 miles/$ through Virgin Atlantic Shops Away (Note: You cannot use a shopping portal when earning 10x miles with the Capital One Venture cards since you must instead book through the hotels.com venture specialized link.)
- Orbitz: 3% cash back (or $3 per flight booking/car rental) through Mr. Rebates; up to 7% cash back through Ebates; 1 mile/$ through United MileagePlus Shopping; 2 points/$ through Barclaycard Rewards Boost
- Expedia: 3% cash back ($2 per flight booking) through Mr. Rebates; up to 10% cash back through Ebates
- Priceline: 3% cash back ($3 per flight booking) through Mr. Rebates; up to 7% cash back through Ebates; 2 miles/$ through Virgin Atlantic Shops Away
- Travelocity: 3% cash-back ($2 per flight booking) through Mr. Rebates; up to 7% cash-back through Ebates
The major online travel agencies have scaled back a bit in their loyalty programs over the last few years as more and more travel providers implement steps to encourage travelers to book directly with them. Nevertheless, if you’re looking to have a single place to search for and book flights and hotels, or if you’re wanting to visit a property that isn’t associated with a loyalty program, an OTA could be your best bet. While Hotels.com earns the top spot on my list, both Orbitz and Expedia offer solid value propositions, and when you factor in the ability to double- or even triple-dip, these sites become a win-win(-win).
Featured image courtesy of Hyatt.
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