At the time of the writing of this article, I’m recovering from COVID-19.
I want to thank all my good friends in the Miles & Points community for their amazing support, but also take this time to personally entreat folks to take the virus seriously. Wash your hands, wear a mask – heck, I took precautions and still got it, so let’s all be smart and stay safe!
Regardless, it looks like this winter won’t see a huge upswing in foreign travel, and I think many of us are looking forward to Christmas at home, or at least within our borders.
Within such a context, who wouldn’t want to go on a great Canadian ski trip or a visit to the next city over? Our country has a lot to offer, and even though we are an expensive, developed country, there’s no reason to break the bank whenever we travel domestically.
So, for those of us looking at “staycation” options, we’ll probably need places to stay, especially when travelling outside drivable distances. We’ve already talked about the awesome value of Airbnbs, so let’s now talk about ways to save your cash on hotel bookings.
The methods I want to detail here I think are valuable enough to merit their own consideration, but not grand enough in scope to deserve individual articles. At the same time, they’re a bit unorthodox – full spoiler warning, I even think there are circumstances where it’s OK to redeem your airline points on a hotel stay!
So let’s dig in.
Hotels.com Rewards: Stamps & Secret Pricing
The first program I’d like to highlight is Hotels.com Rewards. This program has excellent potential value, in my estimation, and is quite easy to sign up for. Just register and, boom, you’re a member.
As we’re going to see, Hotels.com Rewards can offer some great value, but there is some fine print in the program to be aware of. As always, make sure you read and understand fine print and terms and conditions before making your booking.
So without further ado, here’s the Hotels.com Rewards chart:
Something that’s a bit unique about this chart is that Hotels.com doesn’t offer any kind of points like Marriott Bonvoy or Hilton Honors. What they offer instead is a fiat currency called “stamps”. A stamp is earned for every eligible night that you stay at a property you booked through Hotels.com. Once you reach 10 stamps, you get a “free night.”
Now, the value of this free night certificate is equal to the average cost of nights you booked.
So if you’re budget-minded like me, it’s not a big deal to get an extra night at a no-name mom and pop, but you can’t scale 10 EconoLodge bookings into a Four Seasons stay (if you do figure out a way to do so, I’ll buy you a beer).
Also be aware of the fact that you must book at properties eligible to earn stamps, and not every property is eligible. Look out for the purple symbol to ensure your chosen hotel is eligible to collect stamps.
The second benefit of Hotels.com Rewards is “secret” pricing: this means that you’ll get a little bit of a discount when you’re logged in.
This can be a discount of a whopping $0, but there are certainly plenty of properties where it logs anywhere between 5% to 15% off. If you spend a lot at Hotels.com, you can also earn Silver or Gold status with tiered rewards and discounts, but unless you always book via the platform I don’t think these are worth chasing.
To illustrate some of the advantages of this program, let’s look at an example in the scenic resort town of Banff, Alberta. Here are the prices for a “mid-tier” non-chain hotel the weekend before Christmas, according to Google:
We see prices with a low of $168 and a high of $200. Not too bad, and certainly not unaffordable. As we can see, Hotels.com’s public price is $168 – but now let’s login to our newly created Hotels.com Rewards account and look at the same hotel:
Whoah, not bad! An extra $26 off per – a real savings of more than 15%. And as we can see, the property is eligible for stamps, so we can bank these stays for future vouchers!
Of course, as stamps are accumulated based on average price, we are probably going to want to use them on another secret price property, but overall, I think this offers great value. For the weekend before Christmas at the height of ski season, I’m not going to complain unduly!
To make these deals even sweeter, there are also plenty of opportunities to earn extra stamps via coupons or promotions, for example by downloading and booking a stay through the mobile app.
Just be sure to add any such coupons beforehand – apparently, Hotels.com customer service is within the realm of decent, but I suspect you have better things to do than wait on hold and argue with a representative over a single Hotels.com Rewards stamp.
Now that we’ve discussed the benefits of Hotels.com… it’s time for my patented Debbie Downer moment: when you book through Hotels.com or a similar third-party service, you are being knocked down to the “bottom rung” of customers.
You won’t earn elite qualifying nights or points in the hotel’s internal rewards program, and your booking is one of the easier ones for the hotel to “bump” you from (though you’ll usually receive a refund in such an instance).
You’ll also need to know Hotels.com’s cancellation policies like the back of your hand, as they may differ from the property’s. If you looked at the “list prices” section above, the property will let you cancel up to 72 hours in advance – but Hotels.com might not.
Make sure you check before you book so you aren’t spending out of pocket if you must cancel. These are some of the small risks you take from booking through services such as Hotels.com, so you’ve been warned.
Overall, the relative advantage of using a booking aggregator such as Hotels.com is not only the ability to collect stamps, but also the fact that you’re not beholden to the pricing of any one chain.
I love Marriott and Hilton, and I collect their points – but I’m really not a huge fan of their cash pricing. Using Hotels.com, I can look up all the no-name independent hotels, as well as price-shop for the cheapest option and still earn some kind of reward.
Finally, if you wanted to take your Hotels.com Rewards game to the next level, I’d note that they’ve just launched a co-branded credit card with Wells Fargo in the US, which gives you collect one stamp for every US$500 that you spend on the card – a great way to fast-track your stamps for those who qualify!
Monopoly Money for Hotel Gift Cards
The next unorthodox hotel redemption I think could provide us with some value is what I like to dub “monopoly money”.
These are the internal points currencies issued by the Big 5 banks: Avion for RBC, Aventura for CIBC, and Scotia, TD, and BMO Rewards for the eponymous banks.
Ricky made a video explaining how to try and wring some value from these programs, as they can be quite daunting. I’m here to state that there is one area you may not have been thinking of, but which can offer a decent (and I do mean decent, not great or stupendous) value: hotel gift cards.
Most of these points programs offer an internal points “store”, where you can redeem your points for hotel gift cards, usually denoted in increments of $25, $50, $100, or even up to $500. These might be for chains, such as Fairmont or Best Western, or for booking services, such as Hotels.com. In fact, redeeming for Hotels.com gift cards can even stack with the Hotels.com Rewards program we discussed above and get you rewarded twice on the same redemption.
(As of the time of writing, the above hotel gift cards are available within the RBC Avion, CIBC Aventura, and Scotia Rewards programs. Meanwhile, BMO Rewards and TD Rewards can only be exchanged directly for hotel stays through their respective travel booking portals, rather than through gift cards.)
Now, many of these gift card redemption options won’t always represent the best value. So instead of redeeming points at the list price, wait until hotel gift cards go on sale.
An example of a default market rate might be 14,000 in-house points for a $100 gift card, or 0.71 cents per point (cpp) – not a great value. However, if due there’s a Black Friday promotion and you can get $150 in gift cards for the same amount (a value slightly above 1cpp), well… were you that attached to your Aventura points to begin with?
The program I’d like to hone in on here as my personal favourite is RBC Avion, where Fairmont and Hotels.com are always available for 1cpp, and occasionally get a 30% discount!
Certainly, there are a variety of stronger sweet spots for RBC Avion points out there, both in terms of airline transfer partners and fixed-value redemption avenues (especially when paired with the Visa Infinite Privilege or Visa Infinite Business), but I do feel that these hotel gift card options offer some great value too.
After all, here in Canada, ways to transform points into hotel stays aren’t as easy to come by as flights, giving these options a little leg up on the utility front for my money.
Sacrilege: Airline Points for Hotels?!
OK, OK, calm it with the incendiary devices and farming equipment – I’m not recommending you drain your Aeroplan or Avios accounts to book hotels on principle.
With both of these programs, of course your best redemptions will always be on flights. There’s no disputing this. That doesn’t mean you have to redeem on flights, especially if there’s a dream destination or place you’ve wanted to stay that you may have felt priced out of previously.
With that being said, I know there’s a lot of us who have accumulated more in one or even both of these programs than we’d ever thought we’d use up. In such situations, I’d advise you to be a bit of a ninja: scout out the platform where you’ve gotten all these points, and see if there’s a decent alternative redemption somewhere in there.
Remember, you’re probably never going to get the killer values using these programs as you will with multiple-leg round-the-world trips in business class, but sometimes, it’s OK to just redeem points if you can strike a balance between a decent cents-per-point and the attractiveness of the stay.
Here’s an example from London, the home of Avios, where we would pay a cash rate of $102 (CAD) per evening:
We then have the option to book via Avios itself for an even 1 cent per point:
It’s easy in this game to get a bit of tunnel vision on the super-luxurious flight and hotel redemptions out there and ignore the possibilities of slightly homier redemptions that may still have great value to us as individuals.
This isn’t the best redemption you could ever find with Avios, but at 1 cent per point, it isn’t horrible. If you’re getting a free room for a trivial amount of points you weren’t using anyway, where’s the harm?
Over on Aeroplan’s side, I’ve found that the program routinely gives 30–40% discounts on points bookings for stays, and the new Aeroplan program has hinted at add more competitive ways to redeem points for hotel stays in the future.
I can’t see hotel availability as of the writing of this article, as they’re in the chaotic period of switching from the old Aeroplan to the new, but when the program launches and hotel bookings resurface, I may just revisit the topic to share with you any pockets of value I find.
MBNA Best Western: Still Going Strong
If you’ve read this article and still get that itch, as I often do, where you desire a new credit card and welcome bonus, then don’t forget: the MBNA Best Western Rewards Mastercard is still better than free!
Many scenic destinations right here in Canada have Best Westerns, and it may be a bit more of a “no-frills” hotel chain, but if you’re like me, that’s not a deal-breaker. The signup bonus should be enough for at least one night, and more likely two, at a decent hotel somewhere you actually feel like going.
Be aware, of course, of the MBNA 5/6 rule.
To wrap up, there’s no need to break the bank on your hotel stays, and it’s worth looking beyond the usual suspects like Marriott and Hilton every now and then to book cheaper stays along your trips.
While online travel agencies such as Hotels.com might not always be our first choice for booking hotels, I really can’t argue with the value they’ve created for through their “stamps” system.
On top of that, with a little creativity, it’s possible to use your frequent flyer points that may otherwise be lying fallow for that dream vacation or resort trip you’ve always wanted. Whilst such redemptions aren’t always ideal for everyone’s situation, I wanted to make folks aware that the option was out there and could yield dividends.
And, of course, if you just have that late-fall itch to take some points and run, the MBNA Best Western is one of my favourite freebie cards for a weekend getaway.
Until next time, stay stylishly safe.