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Three Big Hotel Chains Changing Loyalty Programs

Hilton, Marriott and Starwood will require rewards members to use more points for free stays.

Hilton, Marriott and Starwood are making changes to their loyalty programs that will, for the most part, increase the number of points required to earn free nights at some of their properties. The moves are bound to anger some members, says George Hobica, a travel expert and founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. Regardless, he says such programs still will be worthwhile to many because members can often redeem points for things like event tickets and cruises, in addition to free hotel stays.

For rewards purposes, hotel chains group their properties by categories. The lower the category, the fewer rewards points required for a free stay. Hilton and Marriott each created a new top-tier category. All three chains review category assignments periodically and shuffle properties between categories based on demand and other factors.

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Hilton now has a tenth hotel category, which will include its priciest properties and require 70,000 to 95,000 rewards points to redeem a free night. Up until March 28, when the changes kicked in, the maximum number of points required to get a free stay at a top-tier hotel was 80,000. Hilton also is introducing seasonal pricing, which means that members may have to use more points to get a free room during peak travel periods.

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On the plus side, Hilton is lowering the number of points needed for a free stay in a standard room at hotels in its three lowest categories. And elite members with Silver, Gold and Diamond status will get every fifth night free (no points charged) on rewards stays of up to 20 consecutive nights.

Marriott is shifting 36% of its properties to higher categories on May 16, which will require members to use more points to stay at those properties. It also is creating a ninth category, which will require 45,000 points per night versus the current maximum of 40,000 points. Members who redeem points to book a room before the changes take effect on May 16 will be able to get the current point pricing.

Starwood in early March changed its Cash & Points program, which as the name implies allows members to use a combination of points and cash to book a room, to increase the number of points and amount of cash required to redeem a “free” night. For example, a Category 1 standard room now requires 1,500 points and $30, up from 1,200 points and $25. The biggest hike was for Category 6 rooms, which now require 10,000 points and $180 versus 8,000 points and $150. The Cash & Points redemption option for the highest category (Category 7) did not change.

Hobica says he wouldn't be surprised if smaller hotel operators start making changes to their rewards programs, too, in response to the moves by the big chains.

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