Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to stay in a wide range of accommodations — from luxurious five-star hotels to comfortable, family-friendly vacation rentals — all by strategically using loyalty points and rewards programs.
This guide will teach you how.
To provide a practical example, we’ll be exploring the process of booking a six-night stay in Maui, demonstrating how to effectively utilize points to secure not only the best hotels but also other accommodations that may better fit your needs.
The First Step: Earning Points
Booking a free hotel starts with having points to use in the first place.
If you have a lot of points in your account as of today, this guide will walk you through how to get the greatest value from those points. If you’re starting from zero, this guide will help you work backwards to see the best strategy for achieving your specific travel goal.
The fastest way to earn points is through credit card welcome bonuses. In fact, one bonus could be enough for high-end lodging for an entire vacation.
Aside from credit card bonuses, you can also earn points by staying at participating hotels and using co-branded credit cards. Everyday spending on credit cards that allow you to transfer points to hotel programs is another great way to accumulate points.
Read our in-depth guide on all the ways to earn points and miles to learn more, and check out my travel hacking case studies article to see examples of some of the best free trips I’ve booked over the years.
Fixed-Value vs. Hotel Loyalty Program Bookings
Once you have points in your account — whether that’s an account with a credit card issuer like Chase or American Express, or directly with a hotel loyalty program — you have two options for booking a hotel.
- Hotel loyalty programs. These programs allow you to earn points by staying and spending at participating hotels within the program. You can also earn points by spending on a hotel chain’s co-branded card. Points can also be transferred from a credit card issuer, such as Chase or American Express, to one particular hotel chain’s loyalty program.
- Fixed-value rewards. In these programs, points have an assigned value (e.g., 1 cent per point) and can be redeemed through a travel portal provided by credit card issuers like Capital One, Citi, Chase and American Express.
While both options have advantages, hotel loyalty programs generally offer greater redemption value than fixed-value points (with redemption value being defined as the dollar value you receive for each point).
In hotel loyalty programs, the value of points can vary depending on the hotel, the time of year and availability, but they can often be worth more than 1 cent per point. With fixed-value rewards, each point has a set redemption value (typically 1 cent per point), and they don’t fluctuate based on the hotel or travel dates.
Hotel loyalty programs offer advantages when it comes to earning points, especially since many hotel chains partner with credit card companies. This means you can earn points for hotel stays regardless of how frequently you travel.
For instance, Hyatt is a transfer partner of Chase. So, if you have a Chase credit card that earns transferable points, anytime you use your Chase card you’re earning points that can potentially be used within the Hyatt loyalty program.
With all that said, there are still situations where fixed-value rewards can be helpful, such as:
- When your destination of choice does not have any hotels offering award stays.
- When award availability is limited or nonexistent at hotels that accept award stays in your destination.
- When you need a wider range of redemption options, such as vacation rentals (which are ideal for large families or unique travel experiences).
In this guide, we’ll first explore the options for fixed-value rewards. But, spoiler alert: only a few options are available due to the high prices of accommodations in Maui (which we’re using as an example to illustrate the process).
Your trip might present different opportunities, however. So understanding both fixed-value rewards and hotel loyalty programs is essential for making the most of your points.
How to Book Hotels With Fixed-Value Rewards
Booking hotels with fixed-value rewards is a flexible option for those who want to avoid being tied down to a particular hotel chain.
The value of your rewards, in addition to how you can use your rewards, is dependent on the type of credit card for which you’re earning your points.
Here’s an overview of each major travel credit card company’s fixed-value rewards programs:
|Credit Card Company
|Fixed-Value Redemption Rate
|1 cent per point
|Citi ThankYou points can be redeemed for travel through the Citi Travel Center or used to book flights directly with airlines.
|1 to 1.5 cents per point
|Chase Ultimate Rewards points vary in value depending on the card. For example, Chase Sapphire Reserve offers 1.5 cents per point when redeemed through the Chase travel portal.
|1 cent per point
|Capital One miles can be redeemed for travel expenses, such as flights and hotels, through the Capital One travel portal, or as a statement credit for travel purchases.
|0.6 to 1 cent per point
|American Express Membership Rewards points can be used to book travel through the Amex travel portal or as a statement credit for eligible travel purchases. Redemption rates vary by card type and how the travel is purchased.
Using fixed-value awards with Citi, Chase and American Express is similar to booking accommodations through travel sites like Expedia and Kayak. You search for your destination inside their travel portal, and the search results show the available accommodations.
Capital One offers a unique feature where you can use your fixed-value rewards to erase any travel-related purchase made with your card, including vacation rentals like Airbnb or deal sites like Priceline and Hotwire.
Using the Chase Travel Portal to Find Available Hotels
To help you see exactly how fixed-value rewards work, let’s explore the Chase travel portal using our Maui example.
When searching the Chase portal for a six-night stay at minimum four-star hotels in Maui, I discovered the Hana-Maui Resort listed at $685 per night.
The total cost to book this stay for six nights would be $4,920, as shown in the screenshot below.
Fixed-value rewards have a predetermined value. So, when you see a cash total of $4,920 for a stay, the points needed can be calculated based on the assigned value per point.
If you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, points are valued at 1.5 cents per point when used through the Chase travel portal. To cover the $4,920 cost for the Hana-Maui Resort stay using points, you would need to redeem 328,000 points (4,920/0.015).
On the other hand, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card offers a value of 1.25 cents per point when booking through the portal. To cover the total $4,920 cost, you would need to redeem 393,600 points (4,920/0.0125).
If you don’t have enough points, you can cover a portion of the cost with points and pay the remainder in cash.
To be clear, this is a lot of points. And as you’ll see next, it can go to show how valuable transferring points to a hotel can be.
However, the number of points required for a hotel booking may vary depending on your travel destinations and preferences.
Therefore, checking what you can get using fixed-value rewards is always an excellent first step. At the very least, you can use this information to determine if you’re getting good value from points directly with hotel transfer partners.
How to Book Hotel Stays Through Hotel Loyalty Programs
The alternative to using fixed-value awards is booking a hotel through a hotel loyalty program.
While each hotel loyalty program is different, the process generally involves exchanging a certain amount of points for a stay.
Some hotel loyalty programs have award charts that assign a category to each property within the program.
These categories are based on the hotel’s quality and amenities, with higher categories assigned to the best properties. The hotel then sets a specific price per night, which can vary depending on peak travel times.
Other hotels use dynamic pricing, which ties the number of points needed to book a night to the cash price of the room.
For example, a room may go for 30,000 points during the off-season but 100,000 points during peak travel times. The only way to know how much your room costs on the desired dates of your stay is to check directly with the hotel loyalty program.
While it can be more challenging to find deals with hotels that use dynamic pricing, it’s still possible.
Loyalty Program Transfer Partners
Earning points within a hotel loyalty program can be done in various ways, such as through hotel stays and spending at the hotel’s partners. However, earning transferable points from credit card issuers is generally recommended because it gives you more flexibility.
By earning transferable points, you can use your personal and business spending to earn points towards hotel stays in different loyalty programs.
Not all credit card issuers transfer to every hotel chain, though.
For example, Chase Ultimate Rewards can be transferred to Hyatt, Marriott and IHG loyalty programs, but not to Hilton or Wyndham. On the other hand, American Express Membership Rewards can be transferred to Marriott and Hilton but not to Hyatt or IHG.
|Credit Card Issuer
|Marriott, Hyatt, IHG
|Marriott, Hilton, Choice
|Accor, Choice, Wyndham
Hotel Co-Branded Credit Cards
An option worth considering beyond earning points through credit card issuers is a co-branded credit card that is specifically tied to a hotel loyalty program.
These cards offer additional ways to earn points, including welcome bonuses, spending at participating hotels, and everyday spending.
Examples here include:
- Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card
- World of Hyatt Credit Card
- Hilton Honors American Express Surpass Card
- IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card
- Wyndham Rewards Earner Card
Co-branded credit cards can also come with a range of benefits, such as free room upgrades, late checkout, and access to exclusive lounges.
For beginners, it’s recommended to stick to earning flexible points from credit card issuers as they offer more flexibility in redeeming your points.
But once you have a better understanding of the rewards programs and your travel preferences, co-branded credit cards can be an excellent addition to your travel arsenal.
Comparing Loyalty Program Options
With a better understanding of how hotel loyalty programs work, let’s dive back into our example of trying to find lodging in Maui for a six-night stay.
The first step is to visit the loyalty program websites of the hotel chains you’re interested in and sign up for their programs if you haven’t already.
Once you’re a member, explore the hotel options available and compare their prices in points and cash. This will give you a better sense of which hotels offer the best value for your points and fit your travel style and budget.
Running through this exercise with Maui hotels, we get some interesting options.
Remember, the cash rates for four-star hotels during this time are averaging around $665 per night for a four-star hotel, as shown in the screenshot below.
Hyatt offers the Hana-Maui Resort for just 25,000 points per night, and there are no fees on Hyatt award stays, making this a solid value for your points.
This is of course the same hotel we found in the Chase travel portal. At 25,000 points per night, the redemption value here is 2.74 cents per point — much more than you’d get from any fixed-value rewards program.
Hilton has several options in Maui, including the Hilton Waikoloa Village, which costs 75,000 points per night.
While this may not sound great, American Express points transfer to Hilton at a 1:2 ratio.
This means you’ll only need to transfer 37,500 points each night of your stay (225,000 total American Express points). This is worth remembering if there’s a really good signup bonus for an American Express card.
While there may not be many options directly with Wyndham, one sweet spot with Wyndham Rewards is the ability to book through Vacasa, a vacation rental management company recently purchased by Wyndham.
You can use your Wyndham reward points, which allow transfers from Capital One, to book these vacation rentals.
The cost is 15,000 points per bedroom per night.
For example, if you want to stay in a two-bedroom vacation rental for three nights, it would cost 90,000 points (3 nights x 2 bedrooms x 15,000 points per bedroom, per night). Our six-night one-bedroom stay would run 90,000 points.
Reviewing Our Options For Lodging
We started our search by learning that the cash rate for a four-star hotel in Maui was around $4,920.
While this could be lowered using fixed-value points, in this specific example, we found a few quality ways to redeem our points.
My personal favorite options included:
- Staying at a four-star hotel for 25,000 points per night through Hyatt, a partner of Chase. With a cash rate of $685, this means my points are worth 2.74 cents per point.
- Staying at a Vacasa vacation rental, which has a cash rate of $494 per night, by transferring 90,000 Capital One points to Wyndham provides a value of 3.29 cents per point.
If you already have the points, it’s here you’d go ahead and make the booking.
If not, my strategy for earning these points would be to get the Chase Sapphire Preferred card if choosing Hyatt, or one of the Capital One Venture cards if choosing to stay at a Vacasa vacation rental.
Overall, this goes to show the incredible value of travel rewards points.
Without rewards, travel can be prohibitively expensive for many people. But with a little bit of knowledge and strategy, you can use points to unlock incredible travel experiences and save a significant amount of money. In this case, instead of spending close to $5,000 on a four-star hotel, you’re able to get high-quality lodging for one credit card bonus.
See the existing signup bonuses on these cards and other top travel cards by visiting CardRatings.
Tips for Maximizing Your Points When Booking Hotels
Now that we’ve walked through the process of booking a hotel stay, it’s time for you to try it yourself.
Here are some tips to remember:
- Be flexible with your travel dates. You can take advantage of lower point redemption rates during off-peak travel times. This can result in significant savings and allow you to stretch your points even further.
- Book in advance. Popular hotels and locations tend to book up quickly, especially during peak travel times. Booking in advance can not only help you secure a spot, but it can also help you take advantage of lower redemption rates. Personally, I like to book as soon as I understand what the potential airfare will cost to a given destination, which is around 330 days out.
- Check for promotions and bonuses. Many hotel loyalty programs offer promotions and bonuses throughout the year that can help you earn more points or save on hotel stays. Look for these opportunities and take advantage of them when they arise.
- Calculate the point value of potential redemptions. Another important factor to consider is the value of the points themselves. Some hotel programs require more points per night than others. To ensure that you’re getting the most value out of your points, always calculate their worth. You can do this by dividing the cash price of the room by the number of points required to book it. For example, if a room costs $300 per night or 30,000 points per night, then each point is worth 1 cent.
Hotel Points Booking FAQs: Your Questions Answered
Hotel loyalty programs are offered by hotel chains that allow you to earn points by staying at participating hotels. These points can then be redeemed for free stays at those same properties or other hotels within the program. Points can also be transferred from a credit card issuer or earned through spending on a co-branded card.
Fixed-value rewards are points that are highly flexible and allow you to book a wider range of accommodations, such as vacation rentals. With fixed-value rewards, you can book hotels at a set rate, which varies depending on the credit card issuer’s travel portal or booking options.
To compare hotel loyalty programs, visit the loyalty program websites of the hotel chains you’re interested in and sign up for their programs if you haven’t already. Once you’re a member, explore the hotel options available and compare their prices in points and cash. This will give you a better sense of which hotels offer the best value for your points and fit your travel style and budget.
To calculate the value of your points, divide the cash price of the room by the number of points required to book it. For example, if a room costs $300 per night or 30,000 points per night, then each point is worth 1 cent. As you can book through a travel portal using fixed-value rewards for a minimum of 1 cent, and sometimes much more, I’d look to get above 1.5 cents for my redemption.
Taking That First Step
While it can be overwhelming to navigate the ins and outs of loyalty programs and credit card rewards, remember to stick with the core principle of achieving meaningful travel goals for yourself.
If you’re able knock $500 off a family vacation you wouldn’t have otherwise taken, that’s what travel hacking is all about — leveraging the power of points and rewards to create meaningful travel experiences.
On the other hand, if you’re dreaming of staying in a luxurious property that would normally be out of reach, using points to book a free stay can make that dream a reality.
This marks the end of our beginner series on travel hacking. We hope it has equipped you with the knowledge and tools to make your travel adventures more rewarding and memorable.
Other articles in the series include:
- Travel Hacking & Credit Impact: Mastering Financial Balance
- Earning Points & Miles: The Best Ways to Earn Travel Rewards
- The Beginner’s Guide to Choosing a Travel Rewards Credit Card
- Airline Miles 101: Earn and Redeem for Travel
- The Best Free Award Flight Search Tools
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