Here’s news that will likely keep travelers up at night: thanks to recent changes, it’s going to take significantly more loyalty points to redeem free night stays at the majority of name-brand hotel chains.
Wyndham Rewards and Hilton Honors have seen the biggest spikes. With Wyndham, which also encompasses Days Inn and Howard Johnson, the number of loyalty points needed for a freebie will rise by as much as 66% for certain properties in some seasons. At Hilton (which includes Hampton Inn, DoubleTree, Waldorf Astoria and the Embassy Suites brands) users will see increases of between 14% and 50% in redemption minimums, again varying by season and property.
Starwood--the massive conglomerate that owns W Hotels, Westin, Sheraton, Four Points, Element and Loft Hotels—will raise the number of points needed for free nights’ stays by about 25% at many of its outlets.
And Marriott (which includes Fairfield, Courtyard, Ritz Carlton and Townplace suites) is seeing its minimum point requirement rise by about 30% for 1300 of its hotels. It will also be bifurcating its program, creating a higher tier for its luxury brands.
So what’s the points holder to do (beside shed a few bitter tears)? Tim Winship, the founder of FrequentFlier.com, a website that tracks loyalty programs for both airlines and hotels, advises the speedy use of points. “Use your points sooner rather than later,” he says. “Sitting on airline miles or hotel points with the idea in mind that sometime in the future you’re going to take a dream trip is a sucker’s bet. At their whim, these companies make changes to the program that substantially devalue the points—it’s a pattern we’ve seen repeated over and over.”
It’s important to note that while the majority of hotels owned by the above brands will have a higher point minimum, some will see their minimums go down. These prices will be listed on the brand sites, though they’re not always easy to find (some are encased in widgets, others are simply part of long lists, hidden deep within brand websites). Still, those who are willing to do the research, and who can be flexible with where they vacation, may be able to find good deals.
And not all brands have announced increases. Choice Hotels, a budget group that includes Rodeway Inn, Clarion Hotels and others, has been holding steady with the rewards offered by its Choice Privileges program. But Winship doesn’t think that will be the case for long. “Given the competitive pressure to stay in conformity with what other hotels are doing. I would be very surprised if we didn’t see some adjustments from the chains that haven’t yet raised their point requirements,” say Winship. “The prevailing tactic is to do as much in the way of price increases as you can get away with without consumers squealing too loudly.”
Ultimately, it all comes down to knowing what sort of traveler you are, and thus what sort of program will work best for you. “The more frequently you travel, the more reason there is to continue to participate in these programs, if for no other reason to get the perks that come with elite status,” says Winship. He also recommends that road warriors sconsider credit cards with convertible or flex points, which confer rewards at a range of brands in both the hotels and airline sphere (he particularly likes the Starwood Card and the Chase Sapphire Preferred Car for this.)
For the rest of the traveling public, Winship’s advice is surprising, as it comes from a man who’s spent years studying and writing about miles and points. “If you’re an infrequent leisure traveler, there’s less and less reason to invest the time, energy and money into focusing on a particular hotel loyalty program,” he states. “So look at the pricing of individual hotels and let that be the driver, rather than the loyalty program.”