I Travel More Than 200 Days a Year—These Hotel Rewards Programs Have the Best Savings and Perks

The best hotel rewards program can save you time and money. In fact, my favorite has saved me thousands.

Who doesn’t love getting the VIP treatment while on vacation? (Complimentary cocktails and canapés with a sunset view, anyone?) But if you’re traveling on a budget, you might think these perks are beyond your reach. Well, I’m here to tell you that you can have all that and so much more you if sign up for the best hotel rewards program.

I know this firsthand, because I travel a lot. I’m usually on the road 200 to 250 days a year as a professional photographer and travel expert. But this year, my husband and I decided to go nomadic, so we’ve been in a new location every week. Booking hotels from brands we know and trust helps us find the perfect hotel every time, not to mention reduces travel stress. Plus, in the 10-plus years we’ve been using the best hotel rewards programs, we’ve saved thousands of dollars—and yes, indulged in those free sunset cocktails and canapés!

Based on my experience, here’s what you need to know about the hotel loyalty programs, from finding the ones that are right for you to knowing when to book a hotel to get a program’s prime perks.

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How do the best hotel rewards programs help you save, exactly?

A Couple Sitting on a Couch in a Hotel Room of Walt Disney WorldCourtesy Mikkel Paige Photography

Being a member of hotel rewards programs gives you access to savings and perks you wouldn’t get otherwise. These rewards may include members-only offers such as room upgrades, free parking and Wi-Fi, a free night when you book four nights, and discounted rates if you book early or pre-pay for a stay at participating hotels.

The points you earn—through paid nights and linked credit card purchases—can also be used for free hotel stays. We’ve earned free nights at luxury properties like Le Méridien Chiang Mai, Thailand (where we stayed at the concierge level for free) and a historic grand mansion called Hospes Palacio de los Patos in Granada, Spain. We’ve also enjoyed fun getaways, like our stay at Disney World, where we only had to pay the taxes and the resort fee. (Fees vary by location, FYI, and we have gotten completely free stays at some places, while others have charged taxes or other fees, anywhere from $2 to $30 per night).

Membership can also save you time. Some hotel rewards programs give priority to members for early check-in and late checkout. Those extra hours are a major perk when you’re trying to maximize your enjoyment of a hotel and destination!

How do you sign up for these programs?

Hotel rewards programs are quick, easy and free to sign up for online—even when you’re not looking for them. If you’re booking a stay through a hotel’s website, you may be prompted to sign up for their rewards program to access special “members only” pricing before confirming, and many hotels will also incentivize you to sign up for their rewards program on arrival in exchange for free Wi-Fi. But you don’t have to wait for a prompt; you can search for your preferred hotel rewards program and register at any time.

Be sure to save your login name, password and membership number so you can use it when booking and to access future savings and perks. I keep this information in a password-saving app and on my computer, but you can also flag the membership confirmation email or create a folder for it in your inbox so it’s easy to locate.

Which is the best hotel rewards program?

Reception View of A Hotel in Maine PortlandCourtesy Mikkel Paige Photography

For us, the best hotel rewards program is Marriott Bonvoy, which is also one of the largest hotel loyalty programs in the world. Marriott owns 31 hotel brands, and with more than 7,000 hotels around the world, there’s usually a Marriott-brand hotel where we’re traveling. My husband and I love that there’s so much variety. There are unique boutique hotels, like The Press Hotel in Maine, which was the home of the Portland Press Herald from 1923 to 2010 and incorporates typewriters, typography and quotes in its lobby and rooms. There are also casual, long-stay hotels with kitchenettes, like the Courtyard by Marriott, and a large selection of sophisticated properties. Thanks to our Marriott Bonvoy status, our stay at the Renaissance Bordeaux in France was memorable and affordable—we booked with points, were upgraded to a corner room with a fabulous view, and earned 10 Marriott Bonvoy points per $1 spent when dining at their popular rooftop restaurant.

We also appreciate the consistency across the brand. All Marriott’s Moxy hotels, for example, are virtually identical, whether we’re staying at the Moxy Athens City or Moxy Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. Travel can be stressful, so it’s nice to know what to expect, no matter where the hotel is.

Other perks that make Marriott Bonvoy the best hotel rewards program for us include:

  • Priority early check-in and late checkout
  • Honoring room preferences, such as a room on a high floor or near the elevator, when possible
  • A free fifth night when booking five consecutive nights
  • Room upgrades
  • Complimentary parking, snacks and drinks (at some hotels)

When you’re tired, hungry and dehydrated from traveling, it’s refreshing to be welcomed with chocolates, free parking and vouchers for complimentary drinks! And that’s exactly what we got when we arrived at the Courtyard Santa Ana Orange County, California, thanks to our Marriott Bonvoy status.

Which other hotel rewards programs are worth looking into?

You may not always find a room available in your first-choice hotel rewards program for your preferred travel dates and location. But if you’re planning to stay in a hotel, you don’t have to completely miss out on those points and perks. You can register with other hotel rewards programs, such as IHG One Rewards, Hilton Honors, World of Hyatt (a favorite for travelers who tend to stay in cities) and the Choice Privileges Program (popular with budget travelers). We are members of IHG One Rewards and Hilton Honors, in addition to Marriott Bonvoy.

IHG One Rewards

On the rare occasion that we can’t find a Marriott Bonvoy hotel available for our preferred dates and location, we search IHG. IHG has 6,000-plus properties across 19 brands, ranging from budget to high end, including InterContinental, Kimpton, Crowne Plaza and the luxury Six Senses resorts. The number of points you earn varies by hotel, and perks include a 2 p.m. late checkout for all membership tiers. If you use an IHG co-branded credit card, you are entitled to a fourth night free.

When we stayed at the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, we enjoyed the complimentary happy hour with drinks and hors d’oeuvres in their gorgeous lounge, and also loved that they are a pet-friendly hotel—they welcome any pet that can fit through the door. Although we mostly saw dogs, we did watch a llama enter the hotel for a holiday event!

Hilton Honors

The best hotel rewards program for you may be the one that has properties near friends and family you frequently visit. There are more than 7,000 Hilton hotels worldwide, and one of them is the Hampton Inn in East Aurora, New York—close to some of our family. That makes it worth it for us to maintain a membership with Hilton Honors as well. Discounted member pricing, free Wi-Fi and no resort fee on reward stays are some of the Hilton Honors benefits we appreciate. At the Elite level, you can also access the fifth-night-free benefit, free breakfast, room upgrades, spa discounts, bonus points and more.

How can you save the most with hotel rewards programs?

A Couple Somewhere in Nuremberg GermanyCourtesy Mikkel Paige Photography

In addition to registering with multiple hotel rewards programs, there are several ways to ensure you are earning points and saving money. Here are some tips:

  • Book with your membership number. Whenever you book a participating hotel, double-check that your membership number is attached to the reservation so that the points are added to your account and you can enjoy the on-site perks when you arrive.

  • Use a rewards program–linked credit card. We earn a ton of points by using a Marriott Bonvoy American Express card that allows us to maximize our points by buying everyday items, such as groceries or clothing, or paying for bills, with the credit card. Signing up for this travel credit card is a separate process from registering with the rewards program. You go to the American Express website, view the available options for this particular credit card, and apply. (There are usually one or two different cards you can apply for under Marriott Bonvoy, based on your travel habits and how much you travel and spend.)

  • Take advantage of member savings beyond the brand. The Marriott Bonvoy American Express credit card offers rewards at certain stores and brands that I can opt into each quarter. For instance, I love Kendra Scott jewelry, so I make sure to opt into the Marriott Bonvoy American Express offer for $25 back on a purchase of $75 or more in-store or online. Of course, you first have to opt into the offer and then remember to use your credit card for the purchase to cash in on the benefit. Other examples include a Poshmark offer to spend $50 or more and get $10 back, or spend $25 or more for $5 back at the casual eatery DIG, which I love going to when I’m in New York City.

  • Check out promotional offers. If the hotel rewards program you use provides a way to opt in for notifications for promotions (via their app, website or email), do so to ensure you don’t miss out on members-only offers. Hotel rewards programs may run promotions for you to earn more points than usual. That said, some programs don’t send out notifications or emails for promotions, so you may have to make a habit of logging into the app or website to check for offers and opt into the ones that interest you.

  • Consider member pricing for vacation packages. Marriott Bonvoy Escapes vacation packages are available to anyone, but only members get 20% off the package. The worldwide deals are released every two weeks and include travel for the upcoming eight weeks. So if you prefer package trips and you’re able to travel with only a few weeks’ notice, you’ll want to pay attention to these.

  • Get tips from other members. There’s an active official Facebook group run by Marriott Bonvoy’s team, called Marriott Insiders. With more than 184,000 members, it’s a great place to go to see how others are using their rewards. If you choose a different hotel rewards program, you can search for a similar group.

How long do your rewards last?

Given our travel lifestyle, the thought of our hotel rewards program being inactive never crosses my mind! But if you are not as frequent of a traveler, it’s wise to check the policy for your rewards program, as points expiration depends on the program and your status level. (Points never expire for Elite members of IHG, for example.) For most hotel rewards programs, points won’t expire as long as you’re actively booking hotels and earning and redeeming points. If you are inactive for a given period of time (12 consecutive months for non-Elite members of IHG, and 24 consecutive months for Marriott Bonvoy), your points may expire. It’s generally easy to check your activity; just log into your rewards program account and look up the date of your last qualifying stay. Make sure to do this with your frequent-flier rewards programs too.

Be aware of these common restrictions

While restrictions vary by program and you’ll need to check the specifics, here are a few general things to be aware of and travel mistakes to avoid:

  • Availability. We don’t typically run into restrictions, but the most common issue for us is if we want to book a hotel on points but there aren’t any points reservations left. While hotel rewards programs tend to advertise that they offer reward reservations with “no blackout dates,” each hotel has a limited number of points-based reservations available per day. So, on popular travel dates, you may have trouble finding available rooms at your preferred hotels, or the available rooms may cost more points than during non-peak times. If you have some flexibility with your dates and staying at a particular property is your priority, the best time to book a hotel may be during off-peak travel times, when you’re more likely to find availability and fewer points are required.
  • Third-party bookings. Some hotel rewards programs may not reward points if you book through discount or third-party websites.
  • Minimum stay. Some programs may require a minimum stay, such as three nights, in order to redeem points.
  • Properties that opt out. Some hotels within the brand may not participate in the rewards program, so it’s always good to confirm whether you can earn and redeem points before booking.

Can you use your hotel rewards points on anything else?

A Girl Standing Near Palacio De Los Patos GranadaCourtesy Mikkel Paige Photography

You can use hotel rewards for other things, but the specifics depend on the program, and the conversion may not be worth it, so make sure to check the details of the program you’re registered with to determine if it’s a good idea for you.

For Marriott Bonvoy, you can convert your points to miles on 39 airlines, including major airlines (such as Delta, Southwest, Frontier and United) and others you might not expect (Alaska Airlines, Japan Airlines, Air Canada, Turkish Airlines, Qatar Airways, etc.). For some hotel rewards programs, you can also apply points to other travel-related experiences, such as spa treatments, meals and cruises. Marriott has the Ritz-Carlton Yacht, so Marriott Bonvoy members can now earn and redeem points on cruises. And if you really love the brand, you can use your points to shop for things like Marriott and Westin pillows, slippers, candles and more.

Mikkel Woodruff has been a professional photographer for more than 16 years and a travel writer and content creator for seven years. She has been exploring the world and staying in hotels since childhood. When she met her husband, Dan, in 2015, they co-founded Sometimes Home, a travel resource for couples. They also co-own Sometimes Sailing, a cruise-planning website that focuses on small ship and luxury cruise experiences.