American's Hotel Booking Bonus May Be a Bad Deal

Booking travel has never been easy.

Who has the best deal—the lowest price, the best loyalty bonus, the most customer-friendly terms?

There's no definitive answer to that question. Sometimes you'll find better deals on the airline or hotel websites, sometimes not. Sometimes third-party distributors have the best deals, sometimes not. If there were a reliably superior booking solution, everyone would use it, always, squeezing the other channels out of business.

The confusion, in other words, is a natural byproduct of competition and therefore to be expected.

What consumers have a right to expect, though, is sufficient information—clearly and simply presented—to make an informed choice among the available options.

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This new promotion from American is a textbook case of compounding the confusion by failing to reveal a key aspect of the offer.

Offer Details

Through October 11, members of American's AAdvantage program will earn 500 bonus miles for every hotel stay booked on AA.com and completed by August 31, 2011.

American claims to have more than 60,000 hotels available for sale, and promises to refund the difference if the buyer finds a comparable stay at a lower price.

Deal or No Deal

All things being equal, a bonus is better than no bonus, and a bigger bonus is better than a smaller bonus.

But are all things equal?

When choosing where to book a hotel, there are several considerations, including price and loyalty program bonuses.

It's a straightforward matter to compare the AA.com room rates with those offered on the hotels' own websites, or through such online travel agencies as Orbitz and Travelocity.

If it turns out that the prices are more or less the same, loyalty points could be the difference-maker. And if the American bonus miles are in addition to the points normally earned through the hotels' own frequent-stay programs, booking through AA.com would appear to be the better deal.

So, are the AAdvantage miles combinable with the points awarded by the hotel programs? I searched AA.com in vain for 15 minutes looking for an answer to that question. If it's there, I couldn't find it. Which means that others can't find it either. And that suggests that at least some travelers are booking on AA.com under the assumption that they'll earn both AAdvantage miles and hotel points for their stays.

They'll be disappointed.

In response to my query about the combinability of the AAdvantage bonus with Marriott's upcoming MegaBonus promotion, a Marriott representative said this: "If you book and pay for your stay with a third party, including AA, then it is not eligible for points and MegaBonus." That's the policy of other hotels as well.

Language to that effect should be posted prominently on AA.com—and in the hotel-booking sections of the websites of Continental, Delta, United, and any other airlines that sell hotel room nights.

While full disclosure is always a best practice, it's especially important today. This is a period of particularly vigorous hotel promotional activity, so taking advantage of the American bonus could preclude your participation in a significantly more valuable promotion from the likes of Hilton, Marriott, or Starwood.

Bottom line: Be sure to consider both the price and loyalty points when comparing the value propositions offered by AA.com and other travel suppliers and distributors. And unless you have evidence to the contrary, assume that loyalty points from the airline or hotel cannot be combined with bonuses offered by third-party distributors.

Reader Reality Check

Have you ever booked a hotel stay on an airline website?

Did you assume you'd earn the normal points awarded by the hotel loyalty program?

Did you earn them?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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