Save on Hotel Rooms: How to Use Loyalty Rates

A hotel sign in Denmark Kieran Lynam/Flickr
When it comes to booking a hotel room, it's no longer enough to search an online travel agency (OTA) like Travelocity or Expedia. Now the big hotel chains claim they offer the lowest prices to those who join their loyalty programs and book directly through their sites. It’s a pretty big promise. But does the guarantee sound better than it actually is? And just how are you supposed to go about looking for a good deal on a room these days? After putting the hotels and deal sites to the test, we’ve got some answers.

ALSO RECOMMENDED: Our 8 tips for saving money the next time you look for rooms online.
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How loyalty rates are displayed at Hyatt's website screenshot
Also called “member rates,” loyalty rates can be found on hotel websites displayed next to a room’s standard rate. These special discounts are reserved for guests who have enrolled in the hotel’s loyalty program—but don’t worry: signing up is totally free.
 
Room Key—a search site funded by major hotel chains—claims to include loyalty rates in search results for rooms, too. Click a Room Key listing, and you’re taken directly to a hotel’s website to book. But we’ve found Room Key to be unreliable, posting rates that are actually higher than what’s available at the hotel site as well as what’s available at OTAs. 
 
For loyalty rates, you’re better off checking the hotel site directly. 
 
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Exterior of a Marriott-branded hotel Peter Kaminski/Flickr
The hotel companies that have announced exclusive discounted rates for loyalty members are:

  • Hilton Worldwide (brands: Waldorf Astoria, Conrad, Curio, DoubleTree, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn, Homewood Suites, tru, and anything with “Hilton” in the name)
  • Marriott International (brands: Edition, Ritz Carlton, Renaissance Hotels, Delta Hotels, Gaylord Hotels, AC Hotels, Towne Place, Protea Hotels, Moxy Hotels, Courtyard, Fairfield Inn, SpringHill Suites, Residence Inn, and anything with “Marriott” in the name)
  • Hyatt Hotels (brands: Andaz and anything with “Hyatt” in the name)
  • InterContinental Hotels Group (brands: Hotel Indigo, Even Hotels, Kimpton Hotels, Crowne Plaza, Staybridge Suites, and all Holiday Inn properties)
  • Choice Hotels International (brands: Ascend Collection, Clarion Hotels, Comfort Inn & Suites, Sleep Inn, Econolodge, Rodeway Inn, Mainstay Suites, and Quality Inn & Suites)
  • Wyndham Worldwide (brands: Baymont Inn & Suites, Days Inn, Ramada, Tryp, Super 8, Howard Johnson, Microtel Inn & Suites, and anything with “Wyndham” in the name)
 
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Screenshot comparing prices for booking a room directly through the hotel website vs. an online travel agency Screenshot
We ran extensive tests, comparing rates at hotel sites with deals at third-party booking sites (click here for our guide to the best and worst of those).
 
The verdict: We found that, yes, hotel sites did offer lower rates to members of their loyalty programs than what we could find offered elsewhere for the same rooms—though sometimes hotels’ member rates were identical to what was available at OTAs. Savings from booking directly with hotels were as low as $2 in some cases and as high as $30 in others, but were usually in the $10-$20 range per night. To get closer to the $30 savings, it seemed to make a difference when we checked dates during slow travel periods, when a hotel's expected occupancy might be lower (some tips for booking rooms in slow travel periods).   
 
Of course, there’s a big caveat the hotels would prefer you forget . . .
 
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Screenshot showing a small sampling of hotel rates available in San Antonio from Expedia Screenshot
It might be stating the obvious, but at a hotel chain’s site, you’ll only see rates from that chain. Searches at third-party booking sites like Expedia and Kayak (which compiles deals from many different sources) show you dozens of rooms on the same dates at a range of comparable properties—other chains, independent hotels, even rentals in some cases—that might have lower rates.

That’s one of the main draws of third-party booking sites in the first place—that they help you find an affordable room, not just the most affordable Hyatt or Marriott room.

The smart move: Start at a site that aggregates lodging pricing information, like Kayak or Momondo, then once you find a rate that appeals to you, check that hotel’s website to see if there’s a lower loyalty rate for booking directly through the hotel.

And despite what hotel companies tell you, some experts think you might STILL find a lower rate at OTAs than what's listed at hotel sites in certain cases.
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Interior of a giant clock Nick Webb/Flickr
Travel-industry expert Bjorn Hanson, a professor of hospitality and tourism at New York University, isn’t so sure that loyalty rates will always be lower than what you’ll find at third-party booking sites. “Although there’s a better chance of getting the best rate on a hotel’s site than ever before,” he says, “it’s still uncertain.” 
 
He points to timing and availability as major factors. By the time you start looking to book, a hotel might have run out of rooms allotted for its specially discounted loyalty rate, while cheaper offerings at the same hotel might still be available at an OTA.
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An airplane wing soars over a mountainous landscape Sandra/Flickr
Rooms in airfare + hotel packages at OTAs might be cheaper, too, thanks to special rates negotiated among OTAs, airlines, and hotels. As an alternative to these bundles, you could book your room directly through the hotel and purchase airfare separately, but in our tests that turned out to be more expensive, even after factoring in hotels’ specially discounted member rates. For a 2-night stay in Cancun with a flight from Los Angeles, for example, we were able to knock off nearly $100 from the total cost of the trip by selecting a package at a third-party site, compared to booking the lowest rate we could find at Marriott directly through the hotel and then booking a flight separately.

In other words, a bundle can still save you a bundle. 
 
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Promotional material for Hilton's loyalty program, Hilton HHonors Screenshot
Enroll in as many as you come across. If you do decide the chain you’re looking at is offering a good deal, the rewards program allows you to earn points that can be redeemed for room upgrades, hotel meals—even free nights. Just make sure you compare the chain’s rate with comparable rooms at third-party sites.
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Hands poised over a computer keyboard Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung/Flickr
So taking this all into account, here’s how you can use hotel loyalty rates and third-party booking sites to your advantage:

* Step one: Look at hotel rates at OTAs like Expedia and aggregator sites like Kayak that compile deals from numerous sources.
* Step two: Cross-reference whatever rate you find in those places with the lowest rate available for booking directly through the hotel’s website.
* Step three: If there’s a lower rate at the hotel for joining its loyalty program, join—it’s free!
* Step fourBook directly through the hotel or return to the third-party site to find lower rates at comparable hotels.  
 
 
 
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A neon sign reading "More" vjlawson2001/Flickr
To get the most savings, there's still some other stuff to keep in mind when you're looking at rooms, including rates that change by season, vacation rentals from companies like Airbnb, unconventional lodgings like hostels, and more. Don't worry—we've got you covered. Check out our 8 tips for saving on rooms the next time you travel.
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