Hotel loyalty programs are totally worth it—even if you don’t travel often

The Athenee Hotel in Bangkok, a SPG Luxury Collection hotel
The Athenee Hotel in Bangkok, a SPG Luxury Collection hotel
Image: Courtesy/Starwood Hotels and Resorts
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When you hear the phrase “hotel loyalty program” what comes to mind? Is it a baby boomer-aged business man checking into his fourth Hilton suite of the fiscal quarter? If so, there is a strong case to be made that hotel loyalty programs are not what you think they are—and it’s time to start making the most of what they can offer.

Travel and frequent flier specialist website The Points Guy (TPG) just released its ranking of the best hotel loyalty programs. While the casual traveler may associate TPG with deep dives of Emirates’ first class suites or forensic accountings of the monetary value of a frequent flier mile, the study gives practical insight into the ways that hotel loyalty programs can offer utility to all kinds of travelers—not just those who find joy in crunching numbers or who are constantly in the sky.

In fact, according to senior TPG contributor Nick Ewen, the perception that hotel loyalty programs don’t have anything to offer less frequent or lower budget travelers is completely flawed. ”The bottom line is that hotel loyalty programs offer solid value propositions for all travelers, even those who travel infrequently,” Ewen told Quartzy. “These programs recognize that younger generations, especially millennials, are digitally-savvy and more experiential in nature and are thus looking for a combination of rewards and customization.”

The TPG study considered 10 indicators to assemble its ranking, giving the most weight to the ease and value of earning and redeeming points (40% of total score) while also considering metrics like perks available (10%), geographic spread of properties (5%), and the number of budget or economical properties included in a program’s portfolio (3%). The ranking’s top placement was Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG)—which includes brands like St Regis, W Hotels, Aloft, Westin, Sheraton, and The Luxury Collection among others—followed by Wyndham Rewards, and World of Hyatt.

Still not convinced you should care enough to sign up for a hotel rewards program? Here some standout reasons you should think again, no matter your budget or how frequently you travel.

The “perks” are not just for big spenders: You don’t have to rack up tons of hotel stays to start cashing in on loyalty program’s benefits; in fact, many programs involve automatic perks just for joining. According to Ewen: “Many programs now offer perks to all members, including members-only rates (I’ve seen discounts as high as 20%), complimentary in-room Internet, and late checkout. When you look at these benefits with the ability to earn points that can be redeemed for free nights in properties around the world, this is a winning combination for all travelers.”

Boutique hotels are getting in on the game: Not a fan of massive corporate hotel chains? Well, some boutique hotel groups such as Kimpton Hotels are aligning themselves with larger awards programs, giving travelers the benefits of a broader loyalty program, while still maintaining a unique or design-led hotel experience. Kimpton will merge its existing rewards program with IHG Rewards—a group which includes luxury brands like InterContinental and budget brands like Holiday Inn Express, and placed 7th on TPG’s list—in early 2018. In addition, select properties under the Design Hotels portfolio are also now also part of the SPG rewards program. Though certain benefits do not apply, more hotels are due to be added soon.

You can use your points on things other than hotels: Part of TPG’s study determined ways travelers can redeem their earned points for products or services beyond just hotel stays. They found six non-hotel redemptions including ”transfers to airlines, airline partnerships, earning airline miles (instead of or in addition to hotel points), redeeming for experiences, shopping portal availability and whether the program partners with a transferable point currency like Chase Ultimate Rewards.” This can be a helpful bonus for travelers who are already in the business of accruing airline points, but who only stay in hotels once in a while.

You can use budget hotel stays to earn luxury ones: The second place winner on TPG’s list, Wyndham Resorts, is a good example of how racking up points through economical hotels can help budget travelers splurge down the line with free night rewards. As the report noted, “You can redeem just 15,000 points for a free night at any Wyndham property worldwide, from the cheapest Days Inn to the most expensive Wyndham Grand resort.” In other words: it doesn’t matter what level of property you accrue your points at—when it comes to spending them, you can live it up.