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Why infrequent travelers shouldn't book with hotel chains

March 27, 2021
11 min read
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Many seasoned travelers find planning the perfect flights and hotels just as thrilling as the trip itself. Chasing elite status is an addicting sport, whether you're booking a mattress run to earn Hyatt Globalist status or scoring bonus perks by status matching from another brand.

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But less experienced travelers may find the world of points and miles overwhelming, and infrequent travelers may just need a decent place to rest their heads at night.

If you typically spend fewer than 10 nights a year in hotel rooms, it doesn't always make sense for you to chase status with most major hotel chains. Marriott, Hyatt and Hilton all require 10 nights per year to earn entry-level elite status. (Hyatt and Hilton have reduced status-earning requirements to five nights for entry-level status in 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.)

A number of hotel cobranded credit cards offer complimentary elite status, such as the Hilton Honors credit cards from American Express. But if you're an infrequent traveler, those perks may not benefit you much if you only stay a handful of nights each year or if you primarily visit destinations that don't have many hotels within that brand.

If you just want an easy way to earn rewards without going down the loyalty rabbit hole, this guide is for you.

Simple tools for everyday travelers

Here at TPG, we typically recommend that travelers book directly with hotels instead of third-party booking platforms like Expedia for a number of important reasons. Change and cancellation policies are less forgiving, the discounts aren't always worth the hassle, customer service can be a joke and getting a refund when needed can be well-nigh impossible.

(Photo courtesy of Grand Hyatt Baha Mar)

All of those considerations are entirely valid, and travelers should consider online travel agencies at their own risk. That being said, there are many times when the benefits outweigh the concerns. And not all OTAs are created equal: Many of the major players, such as Hotels.com, are quite reputable, at least for third-party sites.

Related: These are the best online travel agency rewards programs

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If you're willing to consider booking through an OTA for perks, you aren't limited to programs focused on hotels. Booking.com, Expedia and Trip.com all offer unique benefits for travelers as well, from opportunities for free breakfast and upgrades to rewards that can be redeemed for a wide variety of travel.

These are some of the best OTAs for hotel bookings:

  • Hotels.com offers one free night for every 10 nights stayed, plus additional benefits for repeat customers.
  • Rocketmiles allows travelers to earn airline miles or gift cards instead of hotel points.
  • OpenTable, in partnership with Kayak, lets frequent diners spend their OpenTable points toward hotel nights.
  • Dosh is a rewards app with a hotel booking platform that offers cash back on qualified stays.
  • HotelTonight offers discounted rates on last-minute (and some longer-timeline) bookings.

Which travelers should book hotels through OTAs?

(Photo by @JulieK via Twenty20)

The following types of travelers may find the most value in booking with OTAs:

Infrequent travelers looking to maximize limited hotel stays

Infrequent travelers have the most opportunity to earn usable rewards when booking through sites like Hotels.com or Rocketmiles. These companies cater to people who don't really care about elite status or brand loyalty but still want to earn rewards.

"Most (casual) travelers won't stay enough to earn status or enough points for a free night," said TPG points and miles editor Ariana Arghandewal. Instead, she recommends programs like Hotels.com Rewards to save money and earn free nights based on a limited number of stays.

Travelers who don't care about hotel brands

Since tools like Hotels.com simply serve as the middleman between hotels and guests, travelers can easily compare properties from multiple chains — as well as independent and alternative housing options — on a single platform.

"Hotels.com is actually my top pick for occasional travelers who aren't brand-loyal," said Caroline Lupini, travel analyst at Forbes Advisor. "It's an easy way for travelers to benefit from their hotel stays, especially if they don't really travel enough to benefit from hotel loyalty perks for any of the big brands."

Travelers who don't need much customer support

Every so often, you might just need a last-minute place to crash for the night. Perhaps you're getting sleepy on the road during a long road trip or need a cheap place near the airport to sneak a nap before a red-eye flight. In situations like these, you aren't looking for special treatment like early check-in or turndown service; you just want the best deal that's available now.

App-based OTA HotelTonight is perfect in these types of situations. The tool is specifically designed to connect spontaneous travelers with hotels looking to sell last-minute vacancies on short notice. As a result, travelers can often score significantly discounted rooms on same-day or near-future bookings at prices that aren't available elsewhere, either on the hotel's website or through other third-party companies.

For example, a same-day booking at the South Congress Hotel in Austin, Texas, would cost $280 before taxes and fees through the hotel website, which conveniently shows a price comparison to major OTAs in the bottom right corner.

(Image courtesy of southcongresshotel.com)

But HotelTonight offers the same room for just $196 per night before taxes and fees, discounted from the same retail rate of $280 that's listed on the hotel website.

(Image courtesy of hoteltonight.com)

Uncertain travelers concerned about the coronavirus pandemic

Platforms like Hotels.com include bed-and-breakfasts as well as home and apartment rentals, which may feel safer for travelers concerned about social distancing.

Vacation home rental sites like Airbnb also offer private homes for short-term rent, but travelers looking for simplicity may prefer comparing hotels and private homes in a single platform.

Travelers who value independent or boutique properties

Travelers who want housing options beyond the major chains may find unique hotel options through sites like Hotels.com.

"Hotels.com Rewards is great for stays at boutique and independent properties," said TPG senior writer Andrew Kunesh, who updates The Points Guy's valuation guide on loyalty programs each month. "Earning a free night every 10 nights keeps your options open, since you’re not linked to a single hotel chain. (Hotels.com) may not get you aspirational award nights, but it’s a surefire way to get a solid return on paid stays."

Related: Here's how to maximize Hotels.com Rewards for free nights and more

Travelers with premium credit cards

TPG senior points and miles writer Katie Genter has a pro tip for travelers interested in boutique and independent hotels.

"It can be beneficial to get a mid-tier hotel credit card and then focus on that brand even if you travel infrequently," said Genter, who spent three years on the road as a digital nomad before the coronavirus pandemic.

Genter also recommends the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts program or Chase’s Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection for travelers who hold premium travel rewards cards such as The Platinum Card® from American Express or the Chase Sapphire Reserve. Hotels that participate in these programs offer cardholders elite-like perks such as breakfast, upgrades and late checkout.

Some of these properties may not cost as much as you'd think: "You can sometimes snag inexpensive stays in these programs," Genter told TPG. "I once stayed at the Loews Chicago Hotel using Amex's Fine Hotels & Resorts program and got $160 of food and drink included on a $153 stay."

Maximize your earnings

Of course, we would be remiss to leave out additional ways to boost your earning potential on OTA hotel bookings.

Use the right credit card

Since you aren't tied to a cobranded hotel credit card, you'll do best to use your favorite travel card for bonus points per dollar spent. Here are some of our top picks for travel purchases:

Each of these cards offers more than one point per dollar you spend and many include additional benefits such as trip protection. In some cases, as TPG's Katie Genter noted above, you can even score bonus perks such as free breakfast.

Use a shopping portal when booking

Leveraging an online shopping portal is one of the easiest ways to score extra rewards. Using a cash-back or rewards portal allows you to "triple dip" on hotel bookings: You earn returns through the website you book with, you earn points on your credit card and you earn bonus nights or free perks through your OTA of choice.

You can learn more about how to use shopping portals to your advantage here.

You can use gift cards

You can purchase gift cards for major OTAs such as Hotels.com in many supermarkets, office supply stores and online. Not only does this form of payment make it easy to gift travel to yourself or others, but it can also help you reach spending requirements for sign-up bonuses more quickly.

Read the fine print

Each program has its own limitations. For example, your free night credits with Hotels.com are only worth the average of the 10 nights you paid for. If you spent $100 a night for 10 paid nights, you won't get a $200-a-night room for free. Instead, you'll get a $100 discount on the $200 room. Hotels.com also has several other important caveats: No free night credits for incomplete stays, award nights and rooms booked at promotional rates.

And of course, we would be remiss not to mention the biggest, most important caveat of booking through OTAs once again: In case of emergency, you'll often have far more trouble getting the help you need, especially if you need to make any changes or cancellations on your third-party reservation.

Travel insurance

Of course, travel insurance through a premium credit card can help protect you when booking OTA hotel stays. Not only do travel credit cards pay bonus points per dollar on travel purchases, but they can also help you get your money back under qualifying circumstances.

Related: TPG's comprehensive guide to independent travel insurance

You'll want to read the fine print very carefully when it comes to credit card trip protection, especially where OTAs are involved. The minutia can make all the difference as to whether you can get support or your money back. If you're concerned about your OTA hotel purchase, consider purchasing an independent travel insurance plan for additional protection.

Featured image by (Photo courtesy of Hyatt)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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TPG featured card

Best premium travel card for value
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

1 - 10X points
10xEarn 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
5xEarn 5x total points on flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
3xEarn 3x points on other travel and dining.
1xEarn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases

Intro offer

80,000 bonus points
Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

Annual Fee

$550

Recommended Credit

740-850
Excellent
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

If you are looking to take your premium rewards to the highest level, this card is really a no brainer in our eyes. Chase's Ultimate Rewards make points easy to redeem, with a wide range of 10 airline and three hotel transfer partners and a friendly user interface. Despite the high annual fee, Chase is consistently adding new benefits to keep the card competitive in a fierce premium rewards field.

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • Access to Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel and airline travel partners
  • Unlimited 3x points on the broad category of travel and dining
  • 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Broad definitions for travel and dining bonus categories

Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
  • May not make sense for people that don't travel frequently
  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more
Best premium travel card for value
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10xEarn 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
5xEarn 5x total points on flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
3xEarn 3x points on other travel and dining.
1xEarn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

    80,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $550
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
    Excellent

Why We Chose It

If you are looking to take your premium rewards to the highest level, this card is really a no brainer in our eyes. Chase's Ultimate Rewards make points easy to redeem, with a wide range of 10 airline and three hotel transfer partners and a friendly user interface. Despite the high annual fee, Chase is consistently adding new benefits to keep the card competitive in a fierce premium rewards field.

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • Access to Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel and airline travel partners
  • Unlimited 3x points on the broad category of travel and dining
  • 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Broad definitions for travel and dining bonus categories

Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
  • May not make sense for people that don't travel frequently
  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more