By Mitch Lipka
March 8 If you've been hoarding hotel rewards
points for your next vacation, you could be in for a jolt when
you try to book your free room. Most of the major hotel chains
have either devalued their points already or will soon.
"This is the worst year I've seen for this," says Brian
Kelly, of ThePointsGuy.com, a website that monitors loyalty
programs. "It has been a really bad year for hotel points."
Blame the travel industry rebound, says Kelly and others.
Demand and prices are rising, so hotels no longer need
points-toting guests to fill their rooms.
The main takeaway for loyalty program travelers? Book as
soon as possible, lest your points lose their power.
Changes to the Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc
program took effect on Tuesday. Hilton Worldwide Inc
changes go into effect March 28. Marriott International Inc
changes start May 16. InterContinental Hotels Group Plc
changes started in January but the company says it will
honor the old rates until March 18. Wyndham Worldwide Corp
starts its new plan on March 14.
What do the changes look like? Here's one example: A free
night at the New York Hilton will cost a HiltonHonors member
60,000 points this month but 80,000 points next month.
Wyndham's list of hotels that will take more points to book
after March 14 spans 215 pages -- though it also lists 42 pages
of hotels that will require fewer points. (Changes tend to be
based on supply and demand, so dropping the points required
could help fill beds in a less desirable property.)
Kelly says he has been planning a trip to the Maldives that
would cost 50,000 points a night under Hilton's current plan and
95,000 points a night under the new one. He's racing to finish
booking the excursion by March 27, even though he's not
traveling until April 2014.
'A SUCKER'S GAME'
So, what do you do if your hotel rewards program has
announced a change? Make your move fast.
"Always book before these changes go into effect," Kelly
says. You don't have to complete the travel before the program
changes, you just have to book it. In fact, you can often book
stays as far as a year in advance.
Don't build up a huge pile of points that can't quickly be
converted into a reward, says Tim Winship, editor and publisher
of FrequentFlier.com, because points can always be devalued.
"Hoarding your points or miles is really a sucker's game,"
It is also a good time re-evaluate your loyalties, he says.
Just because you've always booked at one chain doesn't mean you
need to stick with it, so compare your rewards deals with
"Always be ready to jump ship if your program gets out of
alignment with what's going on industrywide," he says.
You can also use up points by upgrading your rooms. That's a
favorite strategy of Dan Sondhelm, 40, a Washington, D.C.,
marketing consultant who has been a Starwood loyalist for about
a decade. But he now fears that Starwood plan changes will hurt
Starwood Senior Vice President Chris Holdren says top-level
players like Sondhelm, who stays at Starwood hotels up to 30
times a year, won't notice the changes.
HOTELS BOUNCE BACK, GUESTS PAY
Tinkering with points programs is an annual exercise, but
those who closely follow hotel points say this year's
restructuring was extraordinary.
After some rough years, hotels are feeling a bounce-back,
says Maryam Wehe, senior vice president at Applied Predictive
Technologies, which works with 13 of the top 25 hotel brands.
"Now, what you're seeing in the hotel industry is that demand is
perceived to be pretty much there ... and the hotel industry is
looking at increasing their rates."
Those rate increases are a big part of the reason why points
are being devalued. Another, says Kelly, is that consumers have
accumulated so many points through credit card offers that the
travel companies want to clear them off their books.
COMPLAIN EARLY AND OFTEN
If you've been affected by the changes, don't just roll
over, Kelly says. "Complain to the hotel loyalty programs and
complain to the credit card companies. That's what is really
going to get the hotel companies to put the brakes on these
Credit cards that are paired with loyalty programs and offer
bonuses for signing up or for usage become less lucrative when
points are devalued. So, for example, if you have a Hilton
credit card through American Express and you are a HHonors
program member, you should turn to both to voice your
Hilton spokesman Scott Carman says the company notified its
members five weeks ahead of the changes and added some
enhancements, like a fifth night for free if you redeem four
nights. "Like all loyalty programs, we periodically make changes
to the HHonors program," he says.
Intercontinental spokeswoman Monica Smith says about 40
percent of its hotels stayed at the same level in the recent
round of changes, while 30 percent went up and 30 percent went
But add it all up, and members will give up more than they
gain from all of these program changes, says Kelley. "There are
many more losers than winners."