Rating Frequent-Sleeper Plans

Hotel programs are getting generous, but they're trickier than airlines'

Just like the airlines, nearly every major hotel chain now boasts a customer-loyalty program to lure repeat guests. Unlike frequent-flier plans, which typically grant points for miles flown, hotel programs are usually based on dollars spent, including the cost of the rooms, food, and other services but not taxes. Charge $100 to your room, and you get some multiple of that in points. Accumulate enough points, and you get a free room.

Beyond that, hotel plans are far more complex. With frequent-flier programs, 25,000 points gets you anywhere in the lower 48 states, assuming you book far enough in advance and don't travel on a blackout day. Hotel plans require different amounts of points for different properties. Hilton Hotels (HLT ), for example, has six categories that cost from 7,500 points for a night at a Hampton Inn to 40,000 points at the Waldorf-Astoria. At Hilton, every dollar yields 10 points, so to get that Hampton Inn room costs $750 in spending at any Hilton property.

FINDING FAVOR

Comparing the programs gets even trickier, because after a certain number of stays, your ability to earn points increases. Marriott's (MAR ) Rewards program has three "Elite" levels of membership. Regular members earn 10 points for every dollar spent at a Marriott property. But if you stay 10 nights per calendar year, you earn 20% more in bonus points. Stay 75 nights, and you get a 30% bonus.

There are some important differences between plans -- enough to make you favor one over another. Hilton lets you earn both points in its HHonors program and frequent-flier miles on an airline of your choice based on the same hotel stay. Other companies, such as Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide (HOT ) (Westin, W, and Sheraton) have no blackout days, so if a room is available it's yours for points.

While airlines have made it a little harder and costlier to use frequent-flier miles since September 11, hotels have gotten more promotional. Many now have tie-ins with credit cards. Use any MasterCard for two stays at a Hyatt Hotels property between now and Feb. 28, 2005, and you get a night free. Many chains are also allowing guests to earn points through spending at certain restaurants and car- rental chains and to exchange points for everything from Tumi luggage to gift certificates at Best Buy (BBY ).

While special offers may be enticing, you should find the hotel chain that best fits your travel habits and focus on its program, says Tim Winship, publisher of frequentflier.com, a travel information site. That may mean staying in a hotel in your plan that's less convenient than you'd like. Walking a few more blocks or driving a few extra miles, though, will get you those free rooms faster.

By Christopher Palmeri

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