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The Trouble with Hotel Reward Programs

hotelAt the end of a recent stay at the Sofitel Miami, Cruise Critic Editor-in-Chief Carolyn Spencer Brown was surprised to find out that her stay did not qualify for loyalty points, even though she's a member of Le Club Accorhotels. (Accor is Sofitel's parent company.) Why? She booked using a third-party website, and Sofitel does not grant points for stays booked in that fashion.

It turns out that Sofitel doesn't give points unless you book with the company directly -- and that pretty much every other major hotel chain has the same policy.

Unlike airlines, which award frequent flier miles even if you purchase your flight through a travel agent or a booking site, most major hotel chains grant points only to guests who book directly with the hotel (either online or by phone). It doesn't matter if you are an occasional traveler with a very low points tally, or a tremendously loyal, elite-level customer who chooses the hotel everywhere you go -- don't book with us, don't get any points.

I did a survey of the major hotel chains, and found pretty much unanimous prohibition of earning hotel points in any way except by booking a more or less rack rate stay directly with the hotel. Nearly everything else is excluded.

The actual terms of the programs are hard to find and involve a wall of legalese, so while I do share some policies of specific programs below, the following applies to pretty much every major hotel you can think of. Among the various booking methods disqualified from points accumulation you will find:

- Third-party booking sites (such as Expedia or Hotels.com)

- Group bookings of any kind, with or without meeting space in the hotel

- Bookings at a special rate for a conference held at the hotel, even if you book and pay for it yourself

- Bookings by a travel agent or tour operator

- Bookings by the hotel's own "vacation club" (!)

- Family rate bookings

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Here is a quick look at the policies of several big chains, extracted from their program contracts and terms of use.

Marriott International (Marriott, Courtyard, Fairfield, Residence Inn, etc.): In addition to bans on most of the above, "rooms booked through third party online retailers, such as Expedia.com, Orbitz.com, Travelocity.com and Hotels.com, as well as operators of opaque booking channels such as Priceline and Hotwire are not eligible for Points credit."

Hilton Worldwide (Hilton, DoubleTree, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn, etc.): "Specifically excluded from the definition of 'stay' are the following types of ineligible stays: wholesale/tour operator packages; contracted crew rates; travel agency discount rates, packages exclusively for casino player card holders; Team Member Travel rates, Hilton Family Travel Rates; stays secured utilizing Hilton Grand Vacations Club and Hilton Club timeshare programs, Hilton Grand Vacations marketing packages with a sales presentation requirement; complimentary or barter rooms; Reward Stays (as defined herein); NET Group rates; Series Group or IT Group rates; contracted Entertainment or Encore rates; third party websites bookings (irrespective of rate paid); and 'opaque' channel bookings where the brand may or may not be known at the time of purchase." (We included this one almost in full due to some really priceless stuff, such as redefining "stay" not to include certain types of, you know, stays.)

Accor (Sofitel, Novotel, Mercure, etc.): Again in addition to all of the above, "stays booked via a reseller, a tour operator or an online third party travel agent (such as Expedia.com, Booking.com, etc.) will NOT enable a Member to accumulate Points."

Wyndham (Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, Days Inn, Ramada, Super 8, Travelodge, etc.): Among several other exclusions, the company rules out "Internet Opaque (e.g. Priceline.com); Internet Non-Opaque (e.g. Expedia.com); Wholesale Discount (e.g. Tour Operator); Group -- Blocks created groups with or without meeting space (e.g. association)."

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide (Sheraton, Westin, W, etc.): Anything booked through tour operators; at group rates; at business, employee or family rates; and "without limitation, expedia.com, hotwire.com, priceline.com, orbitz.com, booking.com, travelocity.com, ctrip.com, and elong.com."

Best Western: Pretty much all of the above, with an added restriction on "stays longer than 30 nights."

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Why Make It So Hard?

What is going on here? Why would all of these hotel companies make it hard for their most loyal customers simply to earn some points? If the airlines can grant points booked through almost any method imaginable, why do hotels refuse to grant points unless you contact them directly?

There are often good reasons to book stays in places other than the hotels' own channels. Many travelers, Brown included, frequently find that prices are lower on the major booking sites than on the hotels' sites, whether due to special sales, more competition or other factors.

Other folks prefer to book complete trips all in one place -- airfare, hotel, car rental, done -- and all the surfing around to multiple sites seems an unfortunate inconvenience.

As for people spending their own hard-earned money to attend an event that is booked as a group, I have a trip like this coming up, and feel a bit cheated that I am paying rack rate at a hotel brand with which I have a longstanding membership, but not getting points because I am booking along with the other people in our group. Travelers in this situation are between a rock and a hard place, with the choice either to join in the fun with their group or to go it on their own and get the points, although probably at a higher price.

The policies seem especially egregious given that those who are most directly affected are the same people who have shown the greatest loyalty to the hotel. Travelers who are already members of your program are your likeliest repeat customers, so why would you make their lives harder? The answer is pretty simple: greed.

When hotel chains offer rooms through third-party outfits, they have to pay a commission on each booking that can range from a few percentage points on most sites to up to 30 percent on "opaque" or discount sites. To recoup that loss, they create a disincentive for you to book on those sites by taking away the ability to earn points. Win-win for them, lose-break even for you.

Possible Workarounds

For getting points on your hotel program, there's no real way around this one, unfortunately; either book with the hotel directly, or get no points.

If you are willing to swap points with the hotels for points with booking sites, however, there is hope. Many booking engine sites now have rewards programs for everything you book with them; here are links to a few of these programs: Expedia, Orbitz and Hotels.com.

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Getting Points for Incidentals (at Least)

hotel room service tray breakfastOne potential bright spot in all this is that many hotels do grant points for incidentals during your stay, irrespective of how you booked. So at least you get credit for purchases you make while at the hotel, such as Internet access, parking or room service.

However, when she had to fight for a few dozen points after her Sofitel stay, Brown learned that this happens anything but automatically.

"One thing that was disheartening was the absolute confusion I've had a couple of different times with Sofitel, where desk staffers swear that you get points for nothing, not even incidentals, which boggles the mind," she said. "Why wouldn't you want to provide a little encouragement to keep your guests spending in the hotel?"

In my own experience, I have to admit that I didn't even know that incidentals were eligible for points accumulation; certainly it was not mentioned by anyone at the front desk at any hotel I have ever checked into. And I don't recall ever seeing points for incidentals show up on my Marriott account; certainly none show up when I log in to my account to check.

All this goes counter to program policy as well, at least for some programs. At the Sofitel, Brown should have automatically received "2 Le Club Accorhotel points for every Euro or Dollar spent," according to program rules. As it turned out, Brown had to fight for her points via email, which resulted in a classic "sorry for the misunderstanding" message from the Sofitel Miami:

Dear Miss Brown,

I hope this email finds you well. I will like to extend an apology to you for the misunderstanding about your eligibility to gain the points for your last stay with us. Please notice in your Le club account that you have been credited for a total of 80.00 USD spent on incidentals during your stay.

I invite you to make your future reservations at www.sofitel.com or directly with us in order to avoid this kind of incidents.

Have a nice day!

Thus, after several inquiries, Brown was able to get credit for her incidentals (totaling $80), but the much larger matter of credit for the actual stay was denied -- and it is hard to miss the "invitation" to make future reservations directly with the hotel. Darn right you'd better, or you get nothing.

To compound the issue, it turns out that many hotel groups grant points for incidentals only at their upper-tier properties. Marriott, for example, grants points for incidentals at Marriott and Autograph Collection hotels, but not at Residence Inn, Fairfield Inn or Courtyard.

Another quick survey revealed the following:

- Hilton members receive points on anything charged to their room at all Hilton-brand hotels

- Accor has a tiered system based on hotel class that applies to all spending at the hotel (so if you stay at a more expensive hotel, you get more points for incidentals, but most Accor hotels offer some level of incidental points)

- Wyndham grants incidental points only at Wyndham Hotels and Resorts

- Starwood grants points on meals at some properties, but not on Internet, parking or the like

- Best Western grants no points for incidentals

As airline miles have become ever more difficult to redeem, I have been a strong advocate of participation in hotel loyalty programs. However, when policies like this reward that advocacy (not to mention my memberships) with nothing but inconvenience, excuses, reliance on fine print, poor customer service or even evasion on the part of a front desk that does not alert guests to the possibility of earning points on incidentals, it gets harder to advise travelers that these programs are the way to go.

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What are your thoughts on policies that force you to book hotels directly? Did you know about them, and are they a problem? No big deal? Let us know in the comments.

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
TravelersEd@independenttraveler.com
Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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