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Many seasoned travelers find planning the perfect flights and hotels just as thrilling as the trip itself. Chasing elite status is an addicting sport, whether you’re booking a mattress run to earn Hyatt Globalist status or scoring bonus perks by status matching from another brand.
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But less experienced travelers may find the world of points and miles overwhelming, and infrequent travelers may just need a decent place to rest their heads at night.
If you typically spend fewer than 10 nights a year in hotel rooms, it doesn’t always make sense for you to chase status with most major hotel chains. Marriott, Hyatt and Hilton all require 10 nights per year to earn entry-level elite status. (Hyatt and Hilton have reduced status-earning requirements to five nights for entry-level status in 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.)
A number of hotel cobranded credit cards offer complimentary elite status, such as the Hilton Honors credit cards from American Express. But if you’re an infrequent traveler, those perks may not benefit you much if you only stay a handful of nights each year or if you primarily visit destinations that don’t have many hotels within that brand.
If you just want an easy way to earn rewards without going down the loyalty rabbit hole, this guide is for you.
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Simple tools for everyday travelers
Here at TPG, we typically recommend that travelers book directly with hotels instead of third-party booking platforms like Expedia for a number of important reasons. Change and cancellation policies are less forgiving, the discounts aren’t always worth the hassle, customer service can be a joke and getting a refund when needed can be well-nigh impossible.
All of those considerations are entirely valid, and travelers should consider online travel agencies at their own risk. That being said, there are many times when the benefits outweigh the concerns. And not all OTAs are created equal: Many of the major players, such as Hotels.com, are quite reputable, at least for third-party sites.
Related: These are the best online travel agency rewards programs
If you’re willing to consider booking through an OTA for perks, you aren’t limited to programs focused on hotels. Booking.com, Expedia and Trip.com all offer unique benefits for travelers as well, from opportunities for free breakfast and upgrades to rewards that can be redeemed for a wide variety of travel.
These are some of the best OTAs for hotel bookings:
- Hotels.com offers one free night for every 10 nights stayed, plus additional benefits for repeat customers.
- Rocketmiles allows travelers to earn airline miles or gift cards instead of hotel points.
- OpenTable, in partnership with Kayak, lets frequent diners spend their OpenTable points toward hotel nights.
- Dosh is a rewards app with a hotel booking platform that offers cash back on qualified stays.
- HotelTonight offers discounted rates on last-minute (and some longer-timeline) bookings.
Which travelers should book hotels through OTAs?
The following types of travelers may find the most value in booking with OTAs:
Infrequent travelers looking to maximize limited hotel stays
Infrequent travelers have the most opportunity to earn usable rewards when booking through sites like Hotels.com or Rocketmiles. These companies cater to people who don’t really care about elite status or brand loyalty but still want to earn rewards.
“Most (casual) travelers won’t stay enough to earn status or enough points for a free night,” said TPG points and miles editor Ariana Arghandewal. Instead, she recommends programs like Hotels.com Rewards to save money and earn free nights based on a limited number of stays.
Travelers who don’t care about hotel brands
Since tools like Hotels.com simply serve as the middleman between hotels and guests, travelers can easily compare properties from multiple chains — as well as independent and alternative housing options — on a single platform.
“Hotels.com is actually my top pick for occasional travelers who aren’t brand-loyal,” said Caroline Lupini, travel analyst at Forbes Advisor. “It’s an easy way for travelers to benefit from their hotel stays, especially if they don’t really travel enough to benefit from hotel loyalty perks for any of the big brands.”
Travelers who don’t need much customer support
Every so often, you might just need a last-minute place to crash for the night. Perhaps you’re getting sleepy on the road during a long road trip or need a cheap place near the airport to sneak a nap before a red-eye flight. In situations like these, you aren’t looking for special treatment like early check-in or turndown service; you just want the best deal that’s available now.
App-based OTA HotelTonight is perfect in these types of situations. The tool is specifically designed to connect spontaneous travelers with hotels looking to sell last-minute vacancies on short notice. As a result, travelers can often score significantly discounted rooms on same-day or near-future bookings at prices that aren’t available elsewhere, either on the hotel’s website or through other third-party companies.
For example, a same-day booking at the South Congress Hotel in Austin, Texas, would cost $280 before taxes and fees through the hotel website, which conveniently shows a price comparison to major OTAs in the bottom right corner.
But HotelTonight offers the same room for just $196 per night before taxes and fees, discounted from the same retail rate of $280 that’s listed on the hotel website.
Uncertain travelers concerned about the coronavirus pandemic
Platforms like Hotels.com include bed-and-breakfasts as well as home and apartment rentals, which may feel safer for travelers concerned about social distancing.
Vacation home rental sites like Airbnb also offer private homes for short-term rent, but travelers looking for simplicity may prefer comparing hotels and private homes in a single platform.
Travelers who value independent or boutique properties
Travelers who want housing options beyond the major chains may find unique hotel options through sites like Hotels.com.
“Hotels.com Rewards is great for stays at boutique and independent properties,” said TPG senior writer Andrew Kunesh, who updates The Points Guy’s valuation guide on loyalty programs each month. “Earning a free night every 10 nights keeps your options open, since you’re not linked to a single hotel chain. (Hotels.com) may not get you aspirational award nights, but it’s a surefire way to get a solid return on paid stays.”
Related: Here’s how to maximize Hotels.com Rewards for free nights and more
Travelers with premium credit cards
TPG senior points and miles writer Katie Genter has a pro tip for travelers interested in boutique and independent hotels.
“It can be beneficial to get a mid-tier hotel credit card and then focus on that brand even if you travel infrequently,” said Genter, who spent three years on the road as a digital nomad before the coronavirus pandemic.
Genter also recommends the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts program or Chase’s Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection for travelers who hold premium travel rewards cards such as The Platinum Card® from American Express or the Chase Sapphire Reserve. Hotels that participate in these programs offer cardholders elite-like perks such as breakfast, upgrades and late checkout.
Some of these properties may not cost as much as you’d think: “You can sometimes snag inexpensive stays in these programs,” Genter told TPG. “I once stayed at the Loews Chicago Hotel using Amex’s Fine Hotels & Resorts program and got $160 of food and drink included on a $153 stay.”
Maximize your earnings
Of course, we would be remiss to leave out additional ways to boost your earning potential on OTA hotel bookings.
Use the right credit card
Since you aren’t tied to a cobranded hotel credit card, you’ll do best to use your favorite travel card for bonus points per dollar spent. Here are some of our top picks for travel purchases:
- The Platinum Card from American Express: Best for welcome offer.
- Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card: Best for earning miles.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: Best travel credit card for beginners.
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: Best for travel credits.
- Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card: Best for no annual fee.
Each of these cards offers more than one point per dollar you spend and many include additional benefits such as trip protection. In some cases, as TPG’s Katie Genter noted above, you can even score bonus perks such as free breakfast.
Use a shopping portal when booking
Leveraging an online shopping portal is one of the easiest ways to score extra rewards. Using a cash-back or rewards portal allows you to “triple dip” on hotel bookings: You earn returns through the website you book with, you earn points on your credit card and you earn bonus nights or free perks through your OTA of choice.
You can learn more about how to use shopping portals to your advantage here.
You can use gift cards
You can purchase gift cards for major OTAs such as Hotels.com in many supermarkets, office supply stores and online. Not only does this form of payment make it easy to gift travel to yourself or others, but it can also help you reach spending requirements for sign-up bonuses more quickly.
Read the fine print
Each program has its own limitations. For example, your free night credits with Hotels.com are only worth the average of the 10 nights you paid for. If you spent $100 a night for 10 paid nights, you won’t get a $200-a-night room for free. Instead, you’ll get a $100 discount on the $200 room. Hotels.com also has several other important caveats: No free night credits for incomplete stays, award nights and rooms booked at promotional rates.
And of course, we would be remiss not to mention the biggest, most important caveat of booking through OTAs once again: In case of emergency, you’ll often have far more trouble getting the help you need, especially if you need to make any changes or cancellations on your third-party reservation.
Of course, travel insurance through a premium credit card can help protect you when booking OTA hotel stays. Not only do travel credit cards pay bonus points per dollar on travel purchases, but they can also help you get your money back under qualifying circumstances.
Related: TPG’s comprehensive guide to independent travel insurance
You’ll want to read the fine print very carefully when it comes to credit card trip protection, especially where OTAs are involved. The minutia can make all the difference as to whether you can get support or your money back. If you’re concerned about your OTA hotel purchase, consider purchasing an independent travel insurance plan for additional protection.
Featured photo of The Cape, a Thompson Hotel courtesy of Hyatt.
SPONSORED: With states reopening, enjoying a meal from a restaurant no longer just means curbside pickup.
And when you do spend on dining, you should use a credit card that will maximize your rewards and potentially even score special discounts. Thanks to temporary card bonuses and changes due to coronavirus, you may even be able to score a meal at your favorite restaurant for free.
These are the best credit cards for dining out, taking out, and ordering in to maximize every meal purchase.
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.