Earlier this year, I wrote about how I gradually find myself paying cash for hotel stays more often, seeing that the value of the newly-launched Marriott Bonvoy program had declined sharply from the peak of its powers (or should we say, the powers of the legacy SPG and Marriott Rewards programs) a few years ago.
As a result, whereas previously I was focused on redeeming points for my stays whenever possible, nowadays I’m paying a lot more attention to improving the value I get when paying cash for hotels, whether it’s by hunting for special deals to lower the nightly rate as much as possible or booking through specific channels to maximize the benefits I enjoy during my stay.
In particular, in this post I wanted to talk about third-party hotel booking services, which I’ve been researching and using more and more recently as I plan my hotel stays. These services can help you get a considerable amount of extra perks and benefits out of your hotel stays and continue to earn loyalty points and elite status, all while paying not much more than, if not exactly equal to, the publicly available flexible rate.
In This Post
- Why Use a Third-Party Booking Service?
- 1. American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts / Hotel Collection
- 2. Virtuoso
- 3. Chain-Specific Booking Services
- Maximizing Third-Party Booking Services
Why Use a Third-Party Booking Service?
While the prevailing advice for booking hotels is to always book directly with the hotel chain in order to maximize your participation in their loyalty program, there are many reasons why a third-party booking service might come in handy as well.
(Note that the third-party booking services I’m referring to are not the same as online travel agencies like Expedia, Hotels.com, or Booking.com. While these websites are convenient for comparing all lodging options in a certain locale, their bookings almost never qualify for earning points or status within the loyalty program or reaping the benefits of your status level, and in fact they’re usually the last in the pecking order when it comes to enjoying any type of special treatment during your hotel stay.)
First off, for travellers who don’t stay with a single hotel chain often enough to earn meaningful elite status, third-party booking services usually provide you with enough benefits to make you feel like you do have elite status, thus immediately elevating the quality of your hotel stay.
Most services also do not charge a markup from the standard flexible rate, nor do they charge for providing a quote, so it’s not costing you anything compared to booking directly with the hotel.
Even if you have earned elite status with a certain program, your preferred hotel chain might not have any properties in the location you’re travelling to, or you might simply wish to try something different. Third-party booking services allow you to continue to enjoy the same elite treatment that you’re accustomed to while doing so.
Finally, even when you’re staying with your preferred chain as an elite member, it could be worthwhile to shop around on these booking services, since they’ll never take away from your usual elite benefits – you’ll still earn rewards points, be eligible for promotions, earn elite qualifying nights, and enjoy your usual elite benefits – but they can still provide additional benefits on top for no additional cost.
There are quite a few third-party hotel booking services out there. Some are affiliated only with a specific chain, while others have wide-ranging partnerships with hotels across the board. With the exception of Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts, most hotel booking services require working with a dedicated booking partner or travel advisor, who provides you with a quote for your stay upon submitting an inquiry.
Let’s take a look at the major services and see what they offer.
1. American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts / Hotel Collection
Perhaps the most well-known bespoke booking service is American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts (FHR), a program that you’re automatically enrolled in when you apply for the Amex Platinum Card or Business Platinum Card (as well as the US versions of these cards).
The FHR designation is reserved for high-end or luxury properties, whereas hotels and resorts that fall more in the “mid-range” or “upscale” category tend to be a part of the American Express Hotel Collection instead, although the two programs work in much the same way.
You can access the service online through the Amex FHR website. You’ll be prompted to search for your destination and dates, and you’ll then be presented with a list of participating properties, their nightly rates, and the perks that come with booking through FHR.
When you book through FHR, your benefits will include:
Room upgrade on arrival (including suites), subject to availability
Daily breakfast for two
Guaranteed 4pm late checkout
Noon check-in, subject to availability
Unique property amenity
Usually a US$100 property credit, but it could also be a food & beverage credit, a complimentary spa treatment, a complimentary airport transfer, etc.
Meanwhile, the benefits at less glamorous properties within the Amex Hotel Collection include:
Room upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
4pm late checkout
Unique property amenity
It’s worth noting that, unlike many of the other third-party booking services, sometimes the Amex FHR rate is higher than the publicly advertised flexible rate. In these cases, you should think about how much you value the Amex FHR benefits compared to the difference in rate.
For example, if you’re already a Platinum Elite member with Marriott Bonvoy, then you’d value the room upgrade, breakfast, and 4pm late checkout benefits at $0, since you’d already get that by booking directly with Marriott. So the decision may come down to the unique property amenity vs. the difference in rate – and you should also account for how likely you are to use the unique amenity in the first place (for example, I’ve personally never gone for a spa treatment at a hotel, so I really wouldn’t place much value on that perk at all).
Hotels that participate in Amex FHR also sometimes put on third-, fourth-, or fifth-night free promotions, which can deliver amazing value if you can take advantage of them. For example, the Conrad Singapore is currently offering at third night free in addition to all of the other FHR perks:
Also, note that while most Amex FHR bookings are flexible and you can choose to pay upon departing the hotel, you do need to present an Amex credit card for payment at the end, so make sure you don’t leave your Amex at home!
Of course, there are also reasons why you might choose to pre-pay in advance, such as taking advantage of the 5x MR points on prepaid hotels booked through Amex Travel on the Amex US Business Platinum Card.
I most recently booked two nights at the Park Hyatt Siem Reap via Amex FHR and had an amazing stay – they even threw in an additional three-course Khmer dinner as an additional unadvertised FHR benefit. I had also used the Amex Hotel Collection to book three nights at the Grand Hyatt Melbourne, although Prince of Travel reader Glen alerted me that I should’ve also looked at Hyatt Privé instead (see below for why!)
Virtuoso is another well-known hotel booking service with partnerships with a reputation for stellar customer service and a wide portfolio of mid-range to luxury hotels and resorts around the world.
Virtuoso bookings must be made through a dedicated Virtuoso travel advisor who earns commissions on helping guests make Virtuoso bookings. ClassicTravel.com is a popular website for this purpose, allowing you to search for and book Virtuoso hotels directly online without having to communicate back-and-forth with a travel advisor.
Many of the world’s best hotel chains that don’t place a great emphasis on their own loyalty programs, such as Shangri-La, Four Seasons, or Rosewood Hotels (i.e., hotels that can’t be booked via free night redemptions the way St. Regis and Waldorf Astoria can) are affiliated with Virtuoso, and you should therefore always consult a Virtuoso agent when considering one of these properties.
Virtuoso benefits include:
Room upgrade on arrival (including suites), subject to availability
Daily breakfast for two
US$100 property credit
Early check-in and/or late checkout
3. Chain-Specific Booking Services
Many of the major hotel chains have their own dedicated booking services similar to Virtuoso, which they operate in partnership with travel advisors. These include:
Marriott STARS (for high-end Marriott properties: St. Regis, The Ritz-Carlton, The Ritz-Carlton Reserve, Luxury Collection, EDITION, BVLGARI)
Luminous (for mid-range Marriott properties: Autograph Collection, JW Marriott, Le Méridien, Marriott, Renaissance, Westin, W Hotels)
Shangri-La Luxury Circle
Four Seasons Preferred Partner
You can find travel advisors for all of the above programs quite easily through their respective programs’ websites or with a quick Google search.
The benefits included as part of these programs may overlap with those of Amex FHR or Virtuoso, although there may also be some notable differences (for example, Hyatt Privé offers early check-in and late checkout subject to availability, whereas Amex FHR offers guaranteed 4pm late checkout but no early check-in), so it’s important to shop around before deciding.
When booking the Grand Hyatt Melbourne, if I had booked through Hyatt Privé instead of the Amex Hotel Collection, I would’ve been entitled to daily breakfast and the early check-in and late checkout benefits. Thankfully, I never needed to make use of these (and in fact, I had to go out of my way to fully use up the US$100 property credit in the end), although they certainly would’ve been nice to have!
Maximizing Third-Party Booking Services
Remember, third-party booking services are designed to complement, rather than replace, all of the benefits you get from booking direct with the hotel.
So even if you already have elite status and would be entitled to suite upgrades, free breakfast, and late checkout, you could potentially earn even more benefits (like the US$100 property credit) by using a third-party service instead.
Don’t forget to also email the hotel in advance, or reach out through the chat app if available, in order to maximize your chances of getting a nice upgrade. Both of my bookings through American Express have resulted in a one-category room upgrade, although I wonder if I might’ve received an even better upgrade if I had reached out proactively.
Finally, don’t forget that the US$100 property credit (or equivalent unique property amenity) is granted on a per-stay basis. Usually, if you were to make several separate bookings on consecutive nights at the same hotel, they’ll automatically combine them into a single “stay” for these purposes.
However, if you’re travelling as a couple, you could very easily make two or more separate bookings in each of your names in order to fully maximize your on-property perks!
Through delivering a set of bespoke benefits during each stay, services like Amex FHR, Virtuoso, and the chain-specific travel advisor programs can effortlessly elevate the quality of your hotel stays at no additional cost compared to the publicly available cash rate. I do regret the fact that I haven’t been too proactive about taking advantage of these services in the past, and I’ll definitely be shopping around more diligently to snag the best deal for my hotel stays going forward.