Post-Independence Day Thoughts: Being a Travel Loyalty Program “Free Agent”

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Handsome young man is standing near the panoramic window in airport terminal with suitcase while waiting for the flight.

©iStock.com/Vasyl Dolmatov

While my friends, family, and I enjoyed some Fourth of July festivities Thursday (and rode out an earthquake!) the subject of travel inevitably came up.

The topics of “independence” and “travel,” got my mind going a bit. I thought about “free agents”: people who shop around for the best deal and don’t stick to just one airline or hotel loyalty program.

Many Rene’s Points readers are very loyal — or at least rather partial — to Delta Air Lines. Because I’m a Delta Medallion and fly the mothership during 90% of my travels, really I’m not an airline free agent per se.

At least not yet, though the mothership sometimes does cute things to test us (like upgrade people in Basic Economy, sell first class seats for $2, devalue SkyMiles…)

Hotel-wise, that’s a different story. That’s where I am a free agent and I must say — I kind of like it.

Like most things in life, it has its pros and cons.

Advantages to Being a Free Agent

Low Expectations

I admit it: this one is laughable.

One of my clients books flights and hotels through a corporate travel agency owned by Expedia (ugh, yes.). They book the best deal presented to them — and frequently pay champagne prices for beer motels.

Other times, we’re in four- and five-star properties. Go figure.

So a 14-day span might find me in an Omni, then a Westin, then an M Life resort, and we’ll end with an independent hotel. That’s four different loyalty programs — assuming the independent property even has a program.

Other than earning points on room charges, rarely can I take advantage of my elite perks during client hotel stays. So going with their flow saves me from being disappointed, hoping to be booked into a Hyatt (or Hilton or…) only to end up in a Best Western or Days Inn (which can be nice hotels…).

Dirty bedsheets at the Days Inn Austin University Downtown in Austin, TX.

Dirty bedsheets in my “clean” room at the Days Inn Austin University Downtown in Austin, TX.

Points Transfers

Chase doesn’t have a monopoly on major hotel transfers partners, but they seem close. World of Hyatt, IHG Rewards Club, and Marriott Bonvoy (which, remember, now encapsulates Starwood/SPG) are all Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer partners. That gives Chase cardholders a nice selection of hotel brands where we can stay for free using points (or at significantly discounted cash rates).

The Chase Sapphire Preferred travel rewards credit card.

My wife and I love the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card for this reason alone. Its annual fee is affordable, the points earnings are decent, and we can always transfer points to a number of hotels.

(Business owners: take a gander at the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card)

Freedom to Shop Around

I usually go out of my way to fly Delta. I like my Platinum status and can never have too many MQM. Sometimes that means flying from LAX, even though sleepy BUR is closer to my house. I might pay a few more dollars or miles for comfort and service.

Passengers board a Southwest 737 at Hollywood Burbank Bob Hope Airport (BUR) in Burbank, California.

Sometimes, it can be worth it to take a cheaper, closer flight on Southwest — like this flight at Hollywood Burbank Airport — than trekking to a busy airport to fly one of the Big Three.

But being a hotel free agent means no pressure to stay at Marriott only or Hyatt only or wherever only. (Though having a young child and bunch of IHG points has found me at Holiday Inns more and more) If I don’t like a price — cash or points — I have the freedom to shop around. I don’t have to deal with that “But, but, but, I have to stay at Brand X because that’s where all my benefits are!” feeling. (Don’t you hate that?!)

And pretty everyone has elite status now, right? Which leads us to —

Complimentary Status

Earning hotel elite status isn’t as difficult as it used to be.

In fact, it’s not difficult at all.

Several hotel-branded and non-branded credit cards make it easy for almost anyone to attain at least mid-tier status:

The Platinum Card from American Express (learn more): Gold with Hilton; Gold with Marriott

The Business Platinum Card from American Express OPEN (learn more): Gold with Hilton; Gold with Marriott

IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card: Platinum status with IHG

Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express Card: (learn about other hotel cards): Gold status with Marriott.

Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Visa Signature Credit Card, Marriott Bonvoy Bold Credit Card and Marriot Bonvoy Business Card from American Express (learn more): Silver status with Marriott. (Seriously, though. Go with the Amex Platinum cards and get a host of other benefits.)

The World of Hyatt Credit Card: Discoverist status with Hyatt (which can be matched to M Life Pearl)

Hilton Honors Aspire Credit Card from American Express (learn more about hotel cards): Diamond status with Hilton

Hilton Honors Ascend Credit Card from American Express (learn more): Gold status with Hilton

Hilton Honors American Express Business Card (learn more): Gold status with Hilton

Hilton Honors Credit Card from American Express (learn more): Silver status with Hilton

Many of us have complimentary status with at least one — if not several — hotel chains thanks to travel credit cards. Granted, the complementary status usually doesn’t get you red carpet treatment or suite upgrades all the time. But the little differences (late checkout, a nicer room, bonus points, and FREE WATER! 😉 ) are always nice.

The dining room in a hospitality suite at the Holiday Inn Lake Elmo near St. Paul, Minnesota.

The dining room of our hospitality suite at the Holiday Inn Lake Elmo near St. Paul, Minnesota. IHG Platinum status obtained through a travel credit card scored us this great complimentary upgrade!

Hardcore road warriors spending more time in hotel rooms than their own bedrooms will naturally direct all or most of their business to a favorite chain so they can earn top tier status (and rightfully so).

Disadvantages To Being a Free Agent

High Tier Status Might Be Difficult

To be honest, I’d probably devote most of my lodging to one specific chain if my client let me book my own travel (#IndependentContractorProblems 🙂 ). Because of that, I don’t have Diamond or Ambassador or Grand Poobah status with any hotel brands.

But there is a fine line between steady employment and hotel status. Right?

Points Spread All ‘round

I have a plethora of points scattered around a half dozen or so hotel loyalty programs. Some — like IHG, Hyatt, and Marriott — have enough for plenty of complimentary nights. But others (Hilton, Wyndham, Omni, Best Western, Choice) wouldn’t combine to get me a free day room to take a nap.

Are You Independent or a Free Agent With Any of Your Travel?

If you’re not a free agent and stick to one program, tell us why — and what benefits you enjoy most. If you’re a free agent, is for airlines, hotels, or both? And why?

12 comments

  1. I have top tier status with both Hyatt and Hilton. Hyatt is definitely my primary loyalty program because of the countless suite upgrades I get – but more importantly I highly value the confirmed suite upgrades at world class properties (literally thousands of dollars in value).

    Also the breakfast value is insane. Last week I had over $300 in room service breakfasts comped for a two night stay at the Park Hyatt- another guaranteed benefit to having the top status.

    I’ve gotten so used to the guaranteed 4 pm checkout at Hyatt that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to leave my room st 11 or 12:00.

    While Hilton does not measure up to Hyatt on these counts, it’s a decent backup chain due to their massive footprint.

  2. Chris- Need to correct one thing. Amex Aspire card (not Ascend) for Hilton Diamond status.

  3. Biggest crock of [redacted] I ever heard from you. Own bought and sold by delta and others, get a job and stop mooching from your [redacted] [redacted] wife

  4. Personally, I see a lot of value of being loyal to a hotel chain than to Delta. Room upgrades and most valuable to me, late check-out, are strong and practical useful things to have. I find more hotels recognize elite status and do go above and beyond, even sometimes in small ways. As far as Delta is concerned, I find Diamond advantage to that of Platinum or Gold is virtually non-existent given how hard it is to spend GUC. Delta is consistently the most expensive and so as SkyTeam on many of the routes I fly. Slaving to Delta is just not worth it in most cases. I am not sure about free agent to airlines but at least stay with 2 airlines/alliances and shop base on fare and hit Gold level on both alliances and it’s probably the best strategy to get most useful benefits: preferred seat, priority check-in and bags, lounge access on international flights.

  5. @Will: You and @Phil in ATL both mention late checkout. It’s a great but seemingly undervalued perk. While on vacation, it allows for another day of fun and relaxation. During business trips with meetings or events ending mid-afternoon, it gives us a chance to clean up before heading to the airport.

  6. Hey Chris, it doesn’t appear that you mentioned the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant Amex which offers complimentary gold status.

  7. Ugh I hate splitting up hotel stays like that. Did so in the past a lot but now I manage to wrangle in preferred hotel stays via contract (I get to approve selection prior to booking and most of the time client will change upon my recommendations).

    I remember back in the day having to book all kinds of crazy stays during vacations because my points were all spread out and I was determined to use them.

  8. Chris, the Marriott Bonvoy brilliant Amex also earns Platinum status with 75k spend.

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