Image: Hilton hotel room
Courtesy of Hilton Hotels
The only program that counts award stays toward elite status; allows hotel-stay credit to be used for both HHonors points and airline miles (more than 60 participating carriers); no blackout dates for award bookings.
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updated 6/2/2009 3:55:19 PM ET 2009-06-02T19:55:19

With the hotel industry hit by falling occupancy and revenue numbers, properties looking to fill beds are turning to value-added promotions such as third-night-free packages and reduced rates for advance bookings. But some of the best deals around are offered in conjunction with guest-recognition programs.

Realizing that brand loyalty is one of the keys to surviving the downturn, hotels are amping up the enticements of these free-to-join plans, in which members accrue points through hotel stays and redeem them for rooms, upgrades, and even airline miles.

To keep travelers returning, hotels are beginning to relax program rules, at least for the short term. In years past, Shangri-La’s Golden Circle required guests to stay 20 or 60 days per year to retain executive or elite status. But this year, the company renewed all members who had logged at least one night in 2008.

Hyatt, meanwhile, has completely redesigned its Gold Passport program: in April, Platinum members began receiving the best room within the category booked, and Diamond-level guests started receiving guaranteed suite upgrades four times a year.

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Bargains are plentiful right now if you’re paying with points. InterContinental is running frequent promotions that let you redeem as few as 5,000 points for some rooms. And in March, Marriott Rewards launched a promotion, running through September 7, that offers members every third night free when redeeming two consecutive nights.

The world's best hotel bedsMarriott’s program also provides new access to its luxury Ritz-Carlton partners. While you can’t earn Marriott points for a stay at a Ritz-Carlton, you can redeem Marriott points at almost all Ritz-Carlton hotels—a first for the program.

Just as scoring a room using points has become increasingly easy, so has finding promotions and deals available only to loyalty program members.

Check out pointmaven.com, where you can search by plan or destination, or flyertalk.com, a site that posts up-to-the-minute loyalty program news. And for those who use Twitter, the specials come thick and fast: one of Marriott’s recent rewards promotions was posted to Twitter on a Friday, but wasn’t announced to the general public until the following Tuesday.

Though signing up for recognition clubs is simple and free, calculating how you earn and spend points on rooms can be more complicated, because each company has its own formula. Marriott Rewards, for instance, gives 10 points for each dollar you spend at most of its hotels (a $250 room will net you 2,500 points).

On the other hand, InterContinental doles out 2,000 points per visit, regardless of length of stay. And while blackout dates have plagued programs in the past—until recently, Starwood, InterContinental, and Hyatt were the only chains that allowed members to redeem points on any available night—Hilton and Marriott have now both changed their rules to allow guests to book at any time. There’s never been a better moment to show your loyalty.

Copyright © 2012 American Express Publishing Corporation

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