Miles, points, vouchers, gift cards ... sure, as loyalty program awards, they all have value. But as natural as it's become to think of these incentives as "loyalty currencies," they'll never deliver the convenience and flexibility—and thus the value—of dollars or yen or euros. Cash is king.
Still, with the exception of a few rebate credit cards, cash is rarely used as a loyalty currency (not to be confused with discounting as a short-term sales tactic).
An intriguing exception to that rule is the new program from AmericInn, a chain of more than 220 mid-priced hotels in 22 states. Its Easy Rewards program promises members that you'll "Earn cash for your stays."
The program also claims that it's easy. And it is.
On the earning side of the program, members earn one point for every night they stay at an AmericInn hotel. And on the redemption side, 10 points can be cashed in for either $40 cash or a $50 room voucher. So you're earning a $4 rebate for every room night, or a $5 credit on a future stay.
Members must have activity every two years or their accounts will be deactivated and their points terminated.
The room vouchers have a pretty onerous restriction: "Room voucher(s) cannot be redeemed for stays when you are paying a discounted rate such as a corporate rate, government rate, AARP/senior rate or AAA rate or for any rooms booked through on-line travel agencies such as Orbitz.com, Travelocity.com, Expedia.com, Hotels.com, etc." So in many cases, you'd be better off staying at a discounted rate and opting for the $40 cash rebate.
Based on just a few random test bookings I made, room rates at AmericInn hotels average around $100 per night, or a bit less. At that rate, a $4 cash rebate amounts to a 4 percent discount, after spending $1,000. While not spectacular, that's solid value, especially when rates are already reasonable and include free Internet access.
And unlike other loyalty currencies, cash can be used to buy anything. Or saved for retirement.
AmericInn is too small and geographically concentrated to put any competitive pressure on the larger hotel chains' loyalty programs. That's too bad—the points-versus-cash debate is a discussion worth having.