Wednesday, December 26, 2012

For the new year, plan your hotel stay strategy to garner the most free rooms

    From time to time I tout various hotel loyalty programs depending on what their promotion of the season is. For the last part of 2012 it was Marriott all the way for Jinny and me as the Megabonus gave us one free night certificate for every two nights stayed.
    Now the certificates were only good in Category 1-4 hotels, generally Courtyards and Springhill Suites but not full Marriotts. This suits us just fine. Jinny and I were able to attend a couple of away football games and will spend a couple of nights in Birmingham for the Compass Bowl courtesy of Marriott free night certificates. We couldn't afford these trips without the free hotel nights!
    So we're a few days away from a new year. If you aren't signed up for hotel loyalty clubs you should be  -- for every single hotel chain where you lay your head at night.
    So where do you stay? At whatever chain has the best offers! And right now that's still Marriott, in my view. Once again they've got their Megabonus promotion going from Feb. 1 to April 30. Each Marriott Rewards member will get an individualized offer on the Marriott website, but most casual travelers will get a stay-two-get-one-free offer, with a maximum of three free night certificates.
    Marriott has three of these Megabonus offers each year, so there is the opportunity to earn nine free nights per year, or 18 nights per married couple. That's a lot of free hotel nights earned without a lot of hotel spending. And of course you'll be earning regular Marriott points along the way, along with Silver status, which isn't worth much but is better than nothing.
    I used to travel quite a bit, but now just every so often. But I still log enough hotel nights to make the Marriott Megabonus deal a great one for me. And of course Jinny is doing lots of travel with work, so she'll earn her three Megabonus nights while still taking advantage of what the other hotels have to offer.
    Here's a quick hotel strategy guide. Be aware that even if you spend only a few nights per year in a chain hotel you can earn free nights. But you have to join the club! I keep all my hotel club numbers in my phone so I have them handy; but remember, whenever possible reserve in advance on the Internet.

    Marriott: Take advantage of the three Megabonus offers that are likely to be offered this year. Stay-two-get-one is a really generous offer and that's what most casual travelers will get as their personalized offer. If 2012 is any guide you will be able to earn nine free nights for 18 stays during the next 12 months. Best of all, you can earn your points by staying in sub-$100 Fairfield Inns and then use the free rooms for Category 4 Courtyards and Springhill Suites that might run $150 or more per night. During the times when the Megabonus isn't active, take your business to greener pastures.

    Priority Club: Priority Club is the loyalty program for Holiday Inn and associated properties. These properties have been getting a bit of a face lift lately. They needed it. Priority Club points never expire and there are quarterly bonuses that you can place on your account to get extra points. Visit the Priority Club Forum on to find out the details about how you can use this program to your benefit. Ole Miss played Tulane this year on the same weekend as an AARP convention and hotel rates were sky high. We used Priority Club points to get a $450 Crowne Plaza French Quarter room for $70 and 25,000 points. Obviously we couldn't have afforded the trip without the almost-free room. One tip: Priority Club has terrible "elite" benefits, but is a great program for people wanting to earn points for free rooms for family vacations. You are much more likely to get a "family" room in Europe or elsewhere with Priority Club and the points accrue faster.

    Choice Hotels: Not many business people on expense accounts stay at Choice hotels. This chain includes Comfort Inn, Sleep Inn, Quality Inn, Rodeway Inn, and EconoLodge, among others. But for those traveling on their own dime they are sometimes adequate. And they sometimes have outstanding promotions. Last year they had at least two promotions that awarded 8,000 bonus points for each two stays booked on the Internet. In some cases that's enough for a free night. Sometimes they have Europe sales so that 8,000 to 12,000 points gets a decent hotel in Europe. So two nights in a $59 EconoLodge or Sleep Inn can earn you enough points for a room at the Hotel Diana in Venice or the Hotel Axel Opera in Paris. I've stayed at both at 10,000 and 8,000 points respectively and they are fine budget hotels. Choice Hotels have limitations on how far ahead they can be booked, and the Europe properties aren't always on sale, but this is a fine program for the budget lodging crowd. This chain's current promotion is triple points; not the greatest, but not terrible, either.

    Club Carlson: This loyalty program has essentially bought themselves some attention recently with some unbelievable stay-one-get-one offers. For just a few stays Jinny and I have about 250,000 points between us as well as two free night certificates. Points can be cashed in on free rooms for 8,000 to 50,000 each. This one is worth joining. Keep an eye out for additional generous offers. Club Carlson has both the Radisson hotels, which can be weak and variable in the U.S., and the growing and popular Country Inn and Suites, which I think are a notch above a Hampton Inn. They have a fairly large footprint in Europe with their Park Inn and Park Plaza brands.

    Hilton: I've listed this program fourth. There is nothing wrong with Hilton, but it's really not a great program for casual travelers; certainly not when compared to those above. Jinny is a HHonors Diamond and will likely stay enough next year to requalify for 2014. The Diamond status is great to have and the points do add up quickly for elite members. Hilton's first quarter promotion is double points and it's not a bad promotion, but not nearly as good for casual travelers as Marriott's Megabonus. I just think Hilton is a better choice for those who can earn Gold or Diamond status instead of the casual traveler. On a personal level I used to have Hilton Gold status and I'm now satisfied to stay four times a year to keep Silver status so that I will have access to VIP point redemptions. Hilton has "double-dipping," giving both hotel points and airline miles. The best airline is probably American, even though they have poor flights to Memphis. Their program is so much better than Delta, so their miles are worth about 50 percent more.

    Starwood and Hyatt: Nothing wrong with these programs, but they have so few properties in the South that the average traveler can't take advantage of most of their promotions. But if you find yourself staying in one of them, by all means join their loyalty program.

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