A while back, I wrote about becoming a member of a hotel rewards program and the revelation it was to me -- and I interviewed a number of frequent flier experts who all recommended hotel programs over airline programs for most travelers. At a time when airline awards are getting more difficult to obtain, hotel programs are getting better all the time.
It turns out that actually using hotel points is also much easier and more consumer-friendly than trying to use airline points -- just another reason to put your points into hotel programs. Most hotel websites simply have a checkbox allowing you to search for a reservation using points. Then when your search results come back, instead of showing you room prices, they show you how many points you need for each hotel. From there, you sign in and make a booking using your points.
Talk about simple and straightforward -- many of the hotel programs really have it together on this score. But as I learned when making a recent points booking at the Ritz-Carlton on Central Park South in New York City, there are still some tricks to know and pitfalls to avoid. Here are my tips for getting the most out of your hotel loyalty program, with some examples from our trip last month.
1. Make your searches reward-specific -- but not until step two.
The best place to start your search for an award room is on the website of the hotel. Most have a checkbox on the search screen along the lines of "book using points" -- but don't check the box just yet.
First do a search without checking the box; this will show you all the chain's hotels in your search area, irrespective of whether they have award rooms available or not. I recommend this step so you get the broadest possible view of the prices and locations of candidate hotels. During this step, I typically switch to "map view," as location is almost always one of my main considerations when booking a hotel.
Take a good look at your choices and make a note of which hotels you prefer; then go back and turn the "book using points" toggle on. At this point, if your preferred hotel is available using points, go ahead and book. If not, read on...
2. If you get shut out of your preferred hotel, check back later.
Partly due to liberal cancellation policies that many hotels continue to use, and also due to some yield management practices of the type that airlines employ, reward rooms can go on and off the market very quickly at many hotels. So just because your preferred hotel does not have any reward rooms the first time you check, you're not necessarily out of luck.
For example, for my Ritz-Carlton booking, a search on the Marriott website showed availability to book using points, but I called the hotel directly to make the booking. At first they accepted the booking, but then put me on hold; when the agent returned to the line, she told me the reward rooms were not available. I checked straight away, and sure enough, the rooms had disappeared from the website as well -- but only for about 24 hours. I checked the website early the next morning, and the Ritz-Carlton still showed no availability -- but when I found time to make the actual booking later that day, the room at the Ritz was available once again.
3. Ask about restrictions and fine print.
During my searches, I saw a couple of other hotels that would work very well for us, but I figured a hotel with a view of Central Park wasn't going to be in my budget any time soon, so I made the booking at the Ritz (as the points didn't cost "real" money). When I made the reservation online, I made a note in the "comments" field requesting a park-view room, which the site indicated would be honored "if available."
This did not inspire confidence, so I poked around the website for information as to exactly what type of room my points entitled me, without much success -- which led me to the next step.
4. Call the hotel directly after you book.
My solution in this case was to call the hotel directly to confirm my reservation and to inquire about the park-view request. I was told that the reward rooms were "interior view only," so I decided on the spot to cancel the reservation, as we had some great options for other hotels, and I figured there was no reason to burn up 70,000 points to stare at a brick wall. The front desk person asked me to wait a moment, and returned to the line say they wanted us to stay at the hotel, so he had switched us to a park view. Nice! I thanked the agent very much, and confirmed the booking.
Thus, I recommend that you call the hotel front desk directly to confirm your reservation, and also to confirm any requests you have for room location, special requirements such as cribs or accessible rooms, or anything else that you might need. If the property cannot accommodate you, simply cancel your reservation, ask that your points be reinstated and find another hotel that is a better fit.
Of course, not all park views are created the same. Our room was on the sixth floor, right at the tree line, so we had a very limited view of the park -- pretty much straight into the treetops.
5. The "best" hotel may not be the best hotel for you.
While it is tempting to use your points to stay at the "best" available hotel for "free," my suggestion instead is to choose your hotel in the same way you would do when paying for the room, obviously with the pricing part of the decision taken out. Read reviews and look for the factors that matter to you, not just an elite brand name.
At the Ritz, for example, there is no complimentary breakfast, no pool, no access to upper floors to peek out the hallway windows (and no hallway windows whatsoever, actually) and no coffee machine in the room (ouch). Parking was $70/day for folks with cars, and Internet $15/day for everyone. Even the cable TV offerings were pretty limited. So what we got was a fairly nice room with four to five closets but normal-sized otherwise, with a king bed and about two dozen pillows, a pretty big bathtub, and a telescope on the windowsill -- to peer out to the treetops about 75 feet away. A bag of gummy bears at the minibar was priced at $12, a small bag of potato chips at $8. Our family of three could have spent the equivalent of a night at most hotels just eating breakfast and grabbing a snack.
6. Use your membership status, not your points, for better hotel stays.
Even if you don't use your points to book a room, often your status (or even mere membership) in the loyalty program can bring you some helpful benefits. These may take the form of room upgrades, early check-in and late check-out options without fee or penalty, free night offers and more. On this trip, we did not use any of these at the Ritz, but I am pretty certain that the park-view upgrade was a result of our membership, despite the "interior view only" restriction on award rooms.
7. Consider steering points toward your airline programs.
Finally, most hotel programs allow you to apply points toward airline programs (and vice versa); this can come in handy when you are approaching elite status or a very solid award level on an airline, and need the extra boost to reach your goal.