Need to know: hotel loyalty schemes

Earn perks for nought with our insider tips

Jill Starley-Grainger
The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, 2017

Hoteliers are facing fierce competition from the likes of Airbnb, so they’ve all revamped their free loyalty schemes recently. And the good news is that you no longer need to be a big spender to be a big winner.

Don’t pay to surf.

Many chain hotels still charge for in-room wifi, but don’t just whip out your credit card. Instead, call down to reception to see if you’d get it free by signing up to the loyalty programme. They rarely shout about it at check-in – they want the extra income - but among the many who offer this perk from the moment you sign up are Hilton (hiltonhhonors.com), IHG (ihgrewardsclub.com), iPrefer (iprefer.com), Marriott (marriottrewards.co.uk), Wanup (wanup.com) and Wyndham (WyndhamRewards.co.uk). Even better, IHG lets you use Wifi at any of its 5,000 worldwide hotels, including Intercontinentals and Holiday Inns – whether you’re staying or not. Simply pop into reception, show them your loyalty number and they’ll give you the password.

Check in earlier, check out later and get upgraded – for free.

Is your plane arriving or departing at an awkward time? Many hotels will let you use your room longer – for extra cash. Yet loyalty-scheme members of iPrefer, Wanup (wanup.com) and Booking.com can check-in early or late for free at many properties. You can get to your room faster by skipping the line at check-in, too - members of Wanup, Hilton and Marriott all have fast-track queues for members. Better still, members of iPrefer’s scheme get an automatic space-available upgrade at check-in. And while this isn’t a listed perk of other schemes, loyalty members are usually top of the list to be offered free room upgrades if a hotel has overbooked.

Stay for free.

No longer do you need to be a frequent traveller to get free nights. With some schemes, you can earn free stays fairly quickly, from eight nights with IHG, 10 nights with Hotels.com and 13 nights with Hyatt (goldpassport.hyatt.com). With Wyndham Rewards, if you’ve stayed six nights in a £200 room, you could bag a free night. It would take you 15 nights to earn a free Wyndham’s stay if you’d paid just £100 a night – but you can use that free night at any of their hotels, even a swanky £300 city-centre five-star.

Hate bland business chains? Luxury and boutique hotels have schemes, too.

You might not realise, but your favourite small hotel could be part of a global empire, so you could earn points whether at the beach or in the city. Conrad is part of Hilton; and Ritz-Carlton, Edition, Autograph, W hotels, Element and Design Hotels are part of Marriott.

Several loyalty programmes cover a huge array of independent hotels, too, including Hotels.com, Wanup, iPrefer, Best Western (bestwestern.co.uk/rewards) and Booking.com – although for the latter, called the Booking.com Genius Programme, you have to be invited to join.

You could earn free nights before you set foot in the hotel.

Many schemes let you earn points through affiliates, typically car-hire companies and airlines, but also in restaurants owned by the brand, so keep your loyalty number handy. You can also get bonus points by referring friends to the scheme and with special offers from branded credit cards, including IHG (creation.co.uk/credit-cards/IHG-card) and Hilton (barclaycard.co.uk/Hilton). But note that these rarely offer the best interest rates, so get them, earn the welcome bonus, then cancel and switch to a better-value credit card.

Skip the spam.

You’ll have to hand over your postal address, email and phone number to join, and unless you want to receive special member offers from the scheme, look for the opt-out box, which is sometimes hidden in the T&Cs. And if a check-in agent is signing you up at the hotel front desk, they often forget to mention this, so make sure to ask for your name removed from their marketing database.

But there’s sometimes a catch – in the price.

Most programmes require you to book directly with the hotel or on the brand website to earn points and benefit from perks - and it is never worth paying a higher rate just to earn points. But there’s an easy way around this. Find the cheapest deal, then call or email the hotel to see if they will beat it. The vast majority will at least match it, plus they’ll often throw in extras – free breakfast or room upgrade - which means you’ll get the cheapest rate, earn the points and get the best perks.