Frequent travelers know all about airline programs. Savvy frequent travelers know airline programs aren't the whole story when it comes to getting maximum comfort, service, and value for their travel dollars.
While they've been eclipsed by airline schemes in the minds of many, the loyalty programs operated by hotel chains and rental car companies should be included in the tool kit of anyone who travels more than a few times per year. In fact, the more often someone travels, the more there is to be gained from non-airline programs.
Hotel programs: Free rooms rule
The hotel programs make much of members' ability to personalize their experience when staying at network hotels. But there's little more to those promises than maintaining contact information on file for booking and billing, and specifying such preferences as desired floor, type of pillow, and the like.
Preferred check-in lines for program members were abandoned for the most part when it became apparent that those lines became more congested and travelers jumped the barriers to get faster service in the non-exclusive lines. Elite upgrades are always a nice perk, but they will never be as relentlessly pursued as airline upgrades. Why? A bigger room is a luxury whereas a bigger seat is a necessity.
What makes today's frequent stay programs worth joining is simple: free stays. Free stays are now worth more than ever because hotel rates have been rising steadily even as airfares have been flat or in decline. Since the hotel expense is an ever-growing percentage of the overall trip bill, earning points redeemable for free room nights is just plain good financial sense.
How long does it take to earn a free night? It depends on the program, of course. In Hilton's HHonors program, regular members can earn as many as 15 points per dollar spent at almost 3,000 participating hotels. At that rate, a $250 stay would net 3,750 points.
On the award side, one free night costs as little as 7,500 points but can rise to as much as 40,000 points at a category 6 hotel like the Waldorf-Astoria. In our example, a free night could be earned in just two $250 stays, or it could take 11 stays to earn a free night at the Waldorf.
Car rental programs: The ins 'n' outs
Unlike the airline programs, which have tended toward uniformity throughout their history, the rental car programs have come and gone from the scene, and evolved in different directions. This inconsistency may account for their low visibility among the traveling public.
These days, the general approach is to combine ways to bypass vehicle pick-up and drop-off bottlenecks with a points-earning scheme that awards travelers with free rentals or airline miles.
To take one example, Hertz, the nation's largest rental car company, offers travelers regular and extra-strength versions of its program, the #1 Club and the #1 Club Gold. Members of #1 Club receive expedited reservations and check-in, discounts, and points good for free rentals and airline miles. For an annual $50 fee, renters can upgrade to #1 Club Gold and receive the following additional benefits: no check-in or an exclusive check-in counter, depending on airport, when picking up cars; and no paperwork when returning cars.
As an example of a smaller rental car company's program, consider National's Emerald Club, which offers members four key benefits. First, members can bypass check-in lines, proceeding directly to a special aisle to pick up their cars. Second, they're entitled to choose any car in the designated area. Third, when dropping off cars, there's no paperwork to complete: Members receive receipts via email. Finally, members have a choice between earning points redeemable for free car rentals or miles in select airline programs. The annual $50 membership fee is currently waived and will remain so until further notice.