By Andy Shuman for GOBankingRates sister site, www.RewardandTravel.com
Using hotel loyalty points for free stays is a great way to save money on travel. International hotel chains often have attractive offers, be it through co-branded credit cards or multiple stay promotions throughout the year.
Turning these points into a free stay, however, might not be as easy as it seems. You can still get incredible deals, but might have to learn how to work around some limitations that every hotel program has.
1. There's No Such Thing as No Blackout Dates
If you wait until the last moment to book a popular hotel in a hot location during the high season, one of two things might happen.
1. There will not be any availability for the days you have chosen. Technically, it is not a blackout, but the effect is the same: you won't be able to stay.
2. The stated number of points might be replaced with a higher threshold. Instead of 20,000 points per night you might be offered to book a "premium" room for 40,000. The Hilton HHonors program is especially fond of using this method of capacity control.
Do not take "no blackout dates" seriously. Hotels booked to capacity will not give you a room for free. Try to book in advance, especially for a popular location. Since in most cases you can cancel your reservation without a penalty, there is no downside to booking early.
2. Points Can Be Devalued
Well, nothing lasts forever.
Here is a dirty secret of any loyalty program, be it a hotel or airline: your points are subject to devaluation, and that devaluation can occur at any time.
This is important to understand if you are trying to accumulate your points for the trip of a lifetime. Last spring, Hilton HHonors drastically devalued its award chart, followed by both Marriott and SPG (Sheraton, Westin, etc.). These hotels will usually give you some courtesy time to redeem the points at the old levels, but they don't have to. This winter, Wyndham devalued its program effective immediately.
Points have no value until you have used them to book a room. Changes to hotel loyalty programs are inevitable and they will keep happening, so use your points, don't hoard them.
And it might be useful to know that major changes to hotel programs often happen in the first or second quarter of the year.
3. Everything Is Subject to Availability
For every possible perk they advertise in bold typeface, there is the small print that appears to negate it. Upgrade? Subject to availability. Early check in or check out? Subject to availability. Access to the lounge? Subject to availability (and capacity control, too).
Do not take anything for granted. If you manage your expectations, you will more often be pleased than disappointed. Hotels are not in business to "get you". They want you to be happy or at least not to bother them with unnecessary complaints.
Want an upgrade or a late check out? Just ask nicely. It doesn't work every time, but if you don't ask, you will never know!
4. What Are These Resort Fees Really?
These so-called resort fees are like a pest. No matter how much travelers hate them, they are here to stay. The reason is quite simple: they allow the property to advertise a lower price and compete in the marketplace effectively, while charging more at the back end.
Resort fees are not always a bad deal. They can include free parking, free Internet and sometimes even a continental breakfast. Quite often, however, they are just a thinly veiled scheme to add to the hotel's bottom line. People hate it when hotels charge resort fees merely for access to the resort's facilities.
Read the fine print closely and choose the resort that offers a better value with or without resort fees. Still, try to remember that when you book on points, you will usually save money on taxes.
5. You Might Be Limited When Transferring Points to Family Members
It's a great idea for a couple or a family to apply for two credit cards (when a huge bonus is offered) in order to maximize their redemption options. However, using the points from both accounts might not be easy sometimes. Some hotels allow you to combine points at the time of redemption, such as Marriott and Hyatt. Some hotels allow unlimited transfers between family members, such as the SPG. Yet, others charge you for the privilege, such as Hilton and IHG (IHG covers InterContinental hotels, Holiday Inns, etc.).
Get hotel points with different loyalty programs and diversify so you could have more options. Of course, this is not what hotels mean by loyalty, but you know better.
As you can see, even with all the gotchas, you can still have a fabulous free hotel stay if you follow one simple rule: read the fine print and know exactly what you are getting.
Photo credit: Phalinn Ooi