Free Hotel Rooms Programs Now Officially Bite

free hotel rooms loyalty rewards programs devalued

Been planning on some free hotel nights in a ritzy location? You’d better book now, if you’re not already too late. Since the start of 2013, the major hotel loyalty programs have acted to devalue their reward programs. Any points you were saving up for a future trip are about to lose a substantial percentage of their value in some programs, according to CCN’s Melanie Hicken.

The numbers are ugly. According to Hicken, Hilton will nearly double the points you’ll need to book a free room at popular locations during peak seasons. As of Tuesday, Starwood hotels have already raised the combined points and cash needed for a reward room by about 25% at most hotels. Marriott and Ritz Carlton will also be increasing the number of points you need to buy a “free” room.

As an example, Hicken looked at the Hilton Doubletree Suites in New York City’s Time Square. She calculated that you’d need to spend as much as $6,333 to earn a free hotel room, up from around $3,333.

Hilton’s new awards chart goes into effect March 28, and the Marriott/Ritz-Carlton award chart changes in May, so you should probably go ahead and book now if you have a lot of points saved up in one of those accounts.

Priority Club (PC), which bills itself as the world’s largest loyalty hotel program with 61 million members, was a little sneakier about the recent changes they made in their program. Barbara De Lollis for USA Today said that it will raise the number of points you need to redeem for a hotel room on only about 25% of its hotels. But the increase comes on its most expensive, most desirable rooms.

True, PC has lowered the number of points you need to stay in about 20% of its hotels. But travelers are still grumbling. Priority Club’s extremely diverse program includes Intercontinental, Crown Plaza, Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express, Candlewood Suites, and Staybridge Suites. Most people who collect points were planning to stay in higher-end properties, not in the budget motels.

I’ve seen a room at a Candlewood Suites in Las Vegas for as low as $25 a night, so it isn’t something you’d really worry about saving up for. By comparison, a night at the Intercontinental Resort in Mauritius is around $250. Now that’s something that’s worth trying to get as a free reward.

If you want Priority Club to honor the old chart, you need to call them before March 18 to request the better rate.

With all of these devaluations, are hotel rewards programs still worth it? I won’t bore you with a bunch of number-crunching, but I felt like they were barely worth it before, and the changes have pushed them over the line.

Many programs could be very roughly estimated as giving you a free room for every 10 paid nights — a 10% discount. I felt like I could get a better discount than that just by knowing how to (politely) negotiate with the desk clerk and making it clear with my body language that I was willing to try another hotel if I wasn’t quoted the right price.

But the moving goalposts from the top hotel programs may have accomplished a good thing, if it gets people out of the cookie cutter chains. Even points expert Brian Kelly, owner of The Points Guy blog and normally a staunch advocate of points-earning programs, recently wrote, “Many boutique hotels offer far more enriching experiences with more amenities and at cheaper prices.”

I’ve been saying that for years. I’d rather select a special destination, rather than try to stay in a chain just to earn one of those increasingly endangered free hotel nights.

[hotel room photo courtesy Elaine Radford]