The Best (and Worst) Hotel Rewards Programs for Every Traveler
Unlike major airlines, which usually don't give two shits about customer loyalty, hotels have actually made an effort over the past year to improve the value of their rewards programs. Two-thirds of hotel chains last year offered more reward dollars per dollar spent than in the year before. Stiff competition will do that (looking at you, Airbnb). And while better rewards might entice you to check into a legit hotel instead of some random dude's spare room, which hotel you pledge loyalty to depends on a lot of factors.
WalletHub, that analyst of all things consumer, compared the rewards programs of the 12 largest hotel chains. In a gigantic study, it examined 21 different categories -- including the number of properties, the value of rewards, and the ease of redemption -- to find the best value for heavy, moderate, and light travelers. For the most part, the larger the chain, the worse the rewards, but there are some standout winners.
Wyndham Hotels and Resorts
The best-rated program for any traveler on ANY budget
Major brands: Days Inn, Ramada, Super 8, Knights Inn, Howard Johnson, all Wyndham brands
Pros: Earn the same points at all properties, no markup on points purchased
Cons: Fewer international hotels
Reward value per $100 spent: $12.20
No matter how often you travel or where, the Wyndham chain rated the very best among hotel rewards programs. Because the hotel giant encompasses 30 different brands, it romps for the sheer number of hotels where you can rack up points. Not only that, it gives the same number of points at a Super 8 as it does at a Wyndham Grand, so luxury travelers aren't the only ones making out. Wyndham is also the only rewards program that doesn't mark up cash purchases of hotel points, instead marking them DOWN about 11%.
Ideal for infrequent domestic travelers who want points that don't expire
Major brands: All Best Westerns including Plus and Premier
Pros: Points never expire and are redeemable across brands
Cons: Purchased points are marked up 16% (though that's still relatively low)
Reward value per $100 spent: $9.66
For domestic travelers, Best Western is your second-best bet. Like Wyndham, it allows points to be redeemed among all its various brands, and rewards the same number of points no matter where you stay. Best Western is also the only rewards program where points don't expire due to inactivity. That makes it a solid option if you travel irregularly -- or if you find yourself dating someone too prissy to stay at Best Westerns, you can hold on to those points until you break up! For comparison's sake, a quarter of all loyalty programs have points that expire within a year, including Hilton, IHG, and Starwood. The rest expire between 18 months and two years.
Great for international travelers
Major brands: Residence Inn, Fairfield Inn & Suites, Courtyard Marriott, Starwood properties
Pros: Number of hotels, especially internationally
Cons: Different brands award different points and some brands are excluded
Reward value per $100 spent: $11.64
Marriott tied with Best Western, keeping pace thanks to its sheer international presence. So for globetrotters, this is the way to go. Just know that Marriott excludes certain brands where you can redeem points. Even though Marriott acquired Starwood Hotels this past fall, their two loyalty programs will remain separate for now.
If you want the best return on your money
Major brands: The full suite of La Quinta brands
Pros: High rewards value per dollar spent, points are shareable between accounts
Cons: Restrictive blackout dates, fewer hotels
Reward value per $100 spent: $14.17
In perhaps the most surprising revelation of the study, budget chain La Quinta gives guests the most for their money, with $14.11 in rewards per $100 spent. Wyndham was second with $12 per C-note, followed by Choice Hotels, Marriott, and Drury, all around the $11.50 range.
If you want to purchase points to earn free stays faster, consider the markup that your favorite chain is charging. To repeat, Wyndham discounts points that you purchase by about 11%, and is the only rewards program without a markup. On the other end of the spectrum, Hilton HHonors marks up points about 45%. La Quinta's markup of almost 11% was the smallest in the survey.
One thing to note about La Quinta, though, is it's the only chain with restrictive blackout dates. So you'll be disappointed if you try to redeem points to get your own room away from the fam at Thanksgiving or Christmastime.
The worst-rated program
Major brands: W Hotels, St. Regis, Sheraton, Westin, Le Méridien
Pros: Large number of hotels in top 10 US cities, number of international hotels
Cons: Some of its sister Marriott brands limit the earning and redemption of points, low rewards value per dollar spent, 26% markup on purchased points
Reward value per dollar spent: $5.12
The Starwood Preferred Guest loyalty program was the only program to rate in single digits for total value across all levels of travel. It marked up its purchased points a whopping 26% (still behind Hilton HHonors' 45%). Even after the Marriott-Starwood merger, some Marriott properties have restrictions on Starwood members' earning or redeeming points at those hotels. You can find the fine print on that here.
Of course, not every traveler fits a specific profile, so WalletHub has a handy calculator that allows you to enter your annual hotel budget and see which program works best for you. And remember that no loyalty programs give points for anything booked through third-party vendors, so if you want to cash in, use the Orbitzes and Kayaks of the world to compare prices, then call the hotel directly to book.
No matter which program you're loyal to, there may always be a better one out there -- such is life. But hotels, facing new competition, still tend to treat their regular customers' loyalty better than the airlines. If only there were an Airbnb for airplanes.
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