The passing of 2008 isn't likely to be mourned by anyone with an interest in either providing or consuming travel services.
Airlines and hotels saw traveler numbers dwindle, along with their profits. The suffering went well beyond paper losses, destabilizing the industry overall and jeopardizing the very existence of a number of carriers.
Last year's casualties included Aloha, Big Sky, Skybus, ATA, Silverjet, and Eos. Frontier and Sun Country are operating under protection of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. And those liquidations and bankruptcy filings took place earlier in the year, before the current global financial meltdown had pushed demand for travel off a cliff.
Consumers bore their share of the industry's misfortune. As profits plunged, the airlines imposed fees galore, and further devalued their loyalty programs by upping award prices and tightening restrictions.
The harsh economic climate shows no signs of abating, guaranteeing that 2009 will be another tough year for airlines and hotels. But amid the travel gloom, there's a silver lining for consumers who buck the just-stay-home trend and continue spending on plane tickets and hotel rooms. The falloff in demand for travel should force the airlines and hotels into generous bonus promotions and aggressive price discounts—both positives for consumers.
On the price side, we're already seeing widespread airfare sales for flights, and Las Vegas hotel rooms are selling for as little as $14 per night. If it's not yet a buyer's market, it's certainly headed in that direction.
The expected surge in mile and points promotions has been slower to develop, at least among the airlines. But in the hotel sector, the first signs of industry-wide loyalty program promotions have materialized, with significant new bonus offers from six of the largest hotel groups launching this month or next.
Here's a roundup of the hotel bonuses currently on offer, followed by some thoughts on which offers are the best deals for which travelers.
Through February 14, members of Best Western Rewards (formerly called Gold Crown Club International) can earn double points for two nights, triple points for three nights, and quadruple points for four nights. Members earn an additional 250 bonus points when booking their stays on bestwestern.com.
Qualifying stays must be charged to a MasterCard. And as with all these hotel promotions, program members must register to earn the bonuses.
Through April 6, members of the Hilton HHonors program will earn double Base points for stays at more than 2,400 participating Hilton Family hotels, including Hilton, Conrad, Doubletree, Embassy Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton Inn, and Homewood Suites.
Through April 30, members of Hyatt Gold Passport program can earn up to 20,000 Hyatt Gold Passport bonus points or airline miles at any of more than 365 Hyatt hotels in 45 countries.
Bonuses are awarded as follows: 2,000 bonus points or miles after two nights; 4,000 additional points or miles after four nights; 6,000 more after six nights; and 8,000 more after eight nights; for a total of 20,000 bonus points.
Through April 30, Priority Club Rewards members can earn 3,000 bonus points or 1,000 bonus miles for every third night at InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo, Holiday Inn, Staybridge Suites, and Candlewood Suites hotels. There's a maximum of 30,000 bonus points or 10,000 bonus miles that can be earned during the promotion period.
Between February 1 and April 30, Marriott Rewards members can earn 2,500 bonus points for the second and subsequent stays at participating Marriott, JW Marriott, Renaissance, Courtyard by Marriott, Residence Inn, TownePlace Suites, Fairfield Inn, and SpringHill Suites hotels, up to a maximum of 25,000 bonus points during the offer period. Alternatively, Marriott Rewards members can choose to earn double airline miles during the same period, with no maximum imposed on the bonus.
Starwood Preferred Guest members can earn 500 bonus points per night, plus an extra 5,000 bonus points after the tenth night, for stays completed through April 30 at participating Sheraton, Westin, Four Points, Le Meridien, W, St. Regis, and The Luxury Collection hotels. So for every ten nights, they'll earn 10,000 bonus points. There's no limit to the number of bonus points that can be earned during the promotion period.
Your Mileage May Vary
All together, the offers from the six hotel chains apply to stays at approximately 15,000 hotels worldwide. But while these promotions all add extra value to qualifying hotel stays over the next few months, they differ in their suitability to various types of travelers.
For infrequent travelers, there's the entry hurdle to consider: how many stays or nights before the bonus takes effect. Travelers staying at Hilton or Starwood properties will begin earning bonuses on their first night. At Best Western, Hyatt, and Marriott, bonuses require a stay of two or more nights. And Priority Club Rewards members won't qualify for a bonus until their third night.
It's also worth noting that whereas the other four hotels' offers run through the end of April, Best Western's ends on February 14, and Hilton's remains in effect only through April 6. While the Marriott promotion extends through the end of April, it doesn't begin until February 1. Duration matters.
At the other extreme, for the ultra-frequent traveler, there's the cap to factor in: the maximum number of bonus miles or points that may be earned, no matter how many nights are logged. The Hilton and Starwood offers are not capped—the sky's the limit. But the Best Western bonus applies only to the first four nights; Hyatt customers may only earn 20,000 bonus points or miles, regardless of the number of nights they rack up; Marriott customers are subject to a limit of 25,000 Rewards points but no limit on the number of airline miles; and Priority Club members max out at 30,000 points or 10,000 miles.
High-frequency travelers have two choices: participate in a promotion with no bonus cap, or mix and match promotions to ensure that all stays qualify for extra points.
With these new promotions, the hotels have done their part to shore up slumping travel demand. But hotel stays only account for part of the cost of an average trip. What's needed next is similarly generous promotional offers from the airlines. That would make 2009 a thoroughly rewarding year for travelers.