4 ways hotel points beat airline miles

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Vintage white 'HOTEL' sign leaning against dark wooden wall in lobby of ACE Hotel in Portland, Oregon.
If you're facing sticker shock from your travel this summer, earning points and miles is a great way to save on next year's vacation. And while you might think airline miles are the best place to start, there are several ways hotel points can save you more with less hassle. They're worth a look if you've given up on airline miles, or of you're just getting started thinking about travel rewards.

1. Finding rooms with points is easier than flights with miles.

Hotels aren't as aggressive with blocking rooms from awards as airlines are. While there are some restrictions, most of the big programs let you book just about any standard room with points. If there's a room for sale with cash, you can book it with points, and don't have to pay double the points on popular days. It's a lot easier to score one hotel room in a good location for your family than 4 award seats on the same flight at a reasonable time.

2. They're more flexible.

Hotel rewards don't have change fees, and you can often cancel them right up until a day or so before you arrive, so you have lots of flexibility. Adding or deleting a night is just a quick phone call.

And if you decide you're just not interested in hotel rewards, most hotel points can be transferred into real airline miles, though they'll get diluted some in the process.

3. You can earn them more quickly.

Many hotel credit cards let you earn bonuses in categories like dining and gas spending, while the big airline credit cards tend to only give you one mile per dollar spent on anything but tickets with the airline. So with the right card, you can earn miles a lot faster.

If you want to compare the best hotel credit cards, this calculator at MileCards.com lets you see what the hotel points you earn from various cards mean in dollar rewards, so you can compare more easily.

Several cards also throw in a free night each year, without having to use points.

4. You can share them easily.

Some of the big hotel programs let you share points with family for free or a small charge. So if your spouse has just enough points to top off your account to get a free night, you can combine your points. Hyatt Gold Passport and Starwood Preferred Guest let you do this free, while Marriott Rewards charges a small fee.

Airlines charge you for this privilege, often hundreds of dollars, so the cost of combining miles is often more than buying a ticket in cash without miles.

The downside to hotel points is they can be harder to compare than airline miles. A mile gets you pretty much the same thing at each of the big airlines. But with hotel programs, what a point means varies a lot more.

If you're trying to pick a hotel points program, this tool lets you see a map of what hotels are available in a city, and exactly how many points they cost. It's a good way to get a sense of which hotel program has the most convenient hotels in places you want to visit.

RELATED: 13 tips to get the best hotel rates

13 Tips for the Best Hotel Rates
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13 Tips for the Best Hotel Rates
Before you book a room, call the hotel itself (the specific location, not the chain's 800 number) during business hours to see if the hotel will match or beat rates you've found online. Sometimes they'll throw in extras such as free Wi-Fi, breakfast or late checkout. This gives you maximum flexibility because you usually don't have to pay in advance, plus you won't need to deal with a third party if something goes wrong or you come across a cheaper alternative.  
Some hotels charge a resort fee that may not be included in an online quote. Others charge for Wi-Fi, breakfast or use of the gym. In a city center, parking can cost $35 or more a day. To avoid unpleasant surprises, always ask about which fees are included and how much they'll cost you.
Many small hotels don't want to pay search site commissions and therefore they don't participate. When you call them, you're often talking to an owner or manager who is empowered to offer a discount. TripAdvisor (TRIP) is a good site to use to identify these small hotels, but you should go directly to the hotel to make reservations.
If you're traveling with a family or planning a longer stay, look into renting an apartment or house. You can find listings at HomeAwayFlipKey and VRBO, among other services. Many of these lodgings charge a cleaning fee, so keep that in mind when you're calculating total costs. But with a kitchen you may save on food because you can cook some meals.
On a road trip, pick up the coupon books at rest stops and convenience stores. Those coupons, offered by the owners of individual franchises, often beat the national deals advertised on the chains' websites.
This doesn't work at the height of the tourist season, but often times it will get you the best deal at hotels that start the day with plenty of empty rooms. If you just show up, you can also see the room before you commit. Several apps, including Hotel Tonight, cater to travelers looking for a room on the fly.
If you book with a service that requires payment in advance, read all the fine print. And make sure you know how much it will cost if you have to cancel.
In Europe particularly, tourist offices offer room-finding services for same-day rooms. Even in the United States, some cities, such as Newport, R.I., get a list every morning from local hotels of rooms they want to sell for that night. "Think of this as an old-fashion version of Expedia.com, only a real-life person finds the accommodations that is right for you ... at the right price," says Andrea McHugh, marketing and communications manager of Discover Newport.
Sites such as BetterBidding.com allow you to find out what other travelers have paid at HotWire and Priceline and can sometimes identify the "mystery" hotels that keep their name and location secret until you book.
Groupon (GRPN), LivingSocial and other deal-of-the-day services offer travel deals, but most of the time you must act quickly to snag one.
If you're traveling to just one destination, look for a deal that includes hotel, airfare and car rental, which may be cheaper than buying these components individually.
Many credit cards offer points equivalent to several nights' hotel stays just for signing up, plus you can earn points when you use your new credit cards. "Using hotel points for free stays is the best deal in the travel industry," says Kevin Barry, who publishes Frugal Mouse, a website about traveling to Disney parks. "Last fall I went on a two-week vacation to Europe. ... One hundred percent of our hotel stays were covered by hotel points, and we stayed at very nice locations."
That means fall in Florida and summer in the Caribbean, winter in Europe, weekends near convention areas and weekdays in resort areas.
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