Hotel loyalty is the great overlooked area amongst many travelers. Everyone is so worried about squirreling enough airline miles away for an upgraded flight experience-that they forget flights only last hours, whereas trips last days. If you want to upgrade your stay on the ground, while earning yourself free nights, you need the right program. Here’s a handy guide to help decide…

Step One, Footprint…

Having free nights and elite status in cities you don’t visit is absolutely useless. Not being able to earn points in most of the cities you visit, also useless. Before any other considerations, you need to look at which hotel chain: SPG, Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt, IHG, Accor, etc offer the most properties in the destinations you’ll frequent, or the ones you’d like to vacation.

Likely Consideration: Marriott. 

Other Consideration: Hilton

Step Two, Earning Ability…

This is a vast topic with three main considerations. Credit card programs, travel patterns and promotions. Ideally you want a hotel group that fits your travel patterns and standards for both leisure and business, has a credit card where you can earn points for all purchases, is also a transfer partner of  credit cards like Amex, Chase or Citi and finally, one that offers generous points promotions. 

Easiest Program To Earn: SPG/Marriott, since points are transferrable between the two.

Other Considerations: Hyatt (In the US), Hilton (Worldwide), IHG (Worldwide).

Step Three, Recognition Of Benefits…

Holding the highest available elite loyalty status with one chain can be less rewarding than a mid tier status at others. Some chains reward and recognize loyalty differently than others. If free breakfasts are your thing, find the chain that offers the easiest opportunity to earn yourself free breakfasts. If suite upgrades are more your style, find the program that offers the most generous upgrades and suite certificates.

Best Benefits For Top Guests: Hyatt, with suite upgrades and breakfast.

Other Considerations: SPG, IHG.

Step Four, Ease Of Redemption…

Having a million points you can use is, once again, useless. Some hotel chains are easier to redeem than others. Hyatt for example allows you to use your points without blackout, so long as there’s a standard room available at a standard rate. You want to find a chain which between your loyalty with your stays, your credit card points and any other considerations allows you to earn free nights and benefits quickly.

Easiest Points To Redeem: Hyatt, especially if you have Chase Ultimate Rewards points.

Other Considerations: Hilton, SPG, Marriott, IHG. 

Don’t Forget Smaller Loyalty Groups As well…

SLH and LHW are two great programs which are very simple. You earn things like room upgrades and breakfast after completing just a few stays (or paying) and then you receive a free night on every fourth or fifth stay. We’ve examined these programs more closely here, and they are worth considering if you travel more for leisure.

A Case Study, For My Personal Travel…

I choose Hyatt for my main hotel loyalty program, though I hold elite status with Hilton and Marriott as well. My wife and I each have the Chase Sapphire Preferred/Reserve credit cards, which allow us to transfer points to Hyatt at a 1:1 ratio. A top tier night at their fanciest hotels runs just 25,000-30,000 points, whereas Marriott, Hilton and others are often double. SPG offers similarly low rates, but credit card points cannot be transferred to SPG at a 1:1 ratio. The Andaz brand from Hyatt is conducive to my tastes for business and pleasure, with hotels in Los Angeles, New York, London, Tokyo and other places I frequent. In other cities they offer very palatable hotels such as the Hyatt Regency, Hyatt Place and on the high end, Park Hyatt, and at 12,000 points a night, there are many exceptionally solid hotels in other cities. I find I am rewarded in points at very similar earning rates to other hotel chains, yet as a top tier elite receive truly excellent suite upgrades and breakfast for two, amongst other things.