Hotels offer flexibility to earn loyalty

What makes a hotel loyalty program most competitive? Is it the elite benefits it grants its best customers or the variety of options it offers for redeeming earned points? Does it matter who’s asking: a program executive or a traveler?

It turns out, it does. As a customer, if I decide to be loyal to a hotel chain, the first thing I do is look up the requirements for achieving top elite status, and then the benefits that status would give me. Only after that do I consider the value of the program’s points. However, Steven S. Sickel, senior vice president for distribution and relationship marketing at the InterContinental Hotels Group, who oversees the chain’s loyalty scheme, Priority Club, has a different perspective…

Hilton devalues its loyalty program

Elite members of Hilton HHonors, the hotel chain’s loyalty scheme, have been puzzled for years by its sliding competitiveness. Now the company’s management has stunned them by devaluing the program even more at a time when the industry desperately needs frequent travelers.

Beginning in January, you will need about 25 percent more points on average to book a free night at a Hilton chain hotel, including Conrad, Doubletree and Embassy Suites. That is the combined effect of increased redemption requirements and raised “award” categories of many properties…

Will cost-cutting trim elite hotel perks?

Do you still find having top elite hotel status worthwhile? Are you worried that cost-cutting might take away some of the benefits that make you stay loyal to your preferred chain?

The management of those loyalty programs desperately wants you to believe that, despite the hard times in the travel industry, the perks you’ve become used to aren’t going away. After all, the last thing they want in this difficult economic environment is to lose their best customers. As if they needed a reminder of the dire business climate, the latest figures for the week that ended Aug. 22 showed that U.S. hotel occupancy fell more than 7 percent to about 60 percent compared to the same period last year…

Paradise so close, yet so far

Do you sometimes find yourself unjustifiably envied by friends or colleagues for taking a business trip to a place known as “paradise on Earth”? Do you try to explain to them that you don’t really have time to enjoy it, or have you given that up?

“Tough life” is a sarcastic exclamation I often hear before traveling overseas, and to some extent I understand it. As often happens, at the beginning of the summer several friends asked me about my upcoming trips with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Two of our planned destinations were the Greek island of Corfu and the Thai resort town of Phuket. No wonder people think I lead a charmed life. Although I have no reason to complain, the reality is very different…

Top hotel benefits suddenly denied

An automatic upgrade to a hotel’s executive floor, including free access to its executive lounge, is one of the most cherished benefits of top elite status with large chains, such as Hilton and Starwood. So what do you do when it’s denied to you?

I tried to find the right answer to that question in Bangkok last week, but, of course, it depends on the reason for the denial — perhaps a lounge closure due to renovation or cost-saving by reducing staff — so I wanted to make sure I understood it well before complaining too much and asking for an alternative benefit during my one-night stay. Many hotel programs used to offer free upgrades and lounge access to their gold members, but in the last year or so, they have limited them to the highest elite level…

NATO hotels greet America’s military

Access to a wide network of special military hotels around the country is a well-known benefit for members of the U.S. armed forces and their families, but apparently few of them know that they can stay at hundreds of similar hotels throughout Europe at bargain prices.

It’s natural that most service members spend their vacation in the United States — it’s easier, cheaper, and soldiers just back from an overseas tour are not that keen on heading abroad again. There are many decent domestic military hotels offering very attractive rates, often half of what you can find on the regular market. Then there are a few properties that seem to be known by just about everyone. Among them is the Hale Koa Hotel on Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach…

Flu controls surprise travelers

How would you feel if you were detained for more than a week upon arrival in a foreign country for reasons that had nothing to do with you — and you missed your meeting or never even made it to your destination?

Thousands of passengers to Asia, where governments have implemented the most draconian measures to prevent the spread of swine flu, have been facing that prospect every day for two weeks. Unfortunately, in most cases, they were not given all the information they needed in advance so they could plan accordingly. Beginning April 28, dozens of planes arriving daily in Japan from North America have been held after landing until a team of health inspectors…

Bed & breakfasts are back in fashion

When was the last time you stayed at a bed and breakfast? Are you planning to do it again soon? Or are you one of those travelers who have become so addicted to collecting points for “free” stays through hotel loyalty programs that you’d rather put up with monotonous chain hotels than visit smaller but more original properties?

If you are, then we are very much alike. The last B&B I stayed at was up in the Shetland Islands, in the very north of Scotland, 14 years ago. During the past decade, I’ve convinced myself that monotonous is not necessarily bad — in fact, although one could hardly distinguish hotels from the same chain in different cities or even countries, one always knows what to expect…

Year-end travel deals trimmed

Does elite status with your preferred airline or hotel chain seem elusive this year? The good news is, year-end promotions offering elite fast-track and bonus points are back. The bad news is, they are fewer and less generous than in the past.

That, of course, is hardly surprising, with all the ills that have befallen the travel industry in recent months. What is surprising is the diversity of those deals, depending on the loyalty program to which you belong. No two of them are exactly alike — except that most require registration and end Dec. 15, so holiday travel is not covered. American Airlines is offering its customers who fly a round trip between the United States and Britain a free companion ticket for a future trip to either Britain or the Caribbean…

Traveling solo has its charm

How many times have you wanted to take a trip somewhere, but ended up staying home because you didn’t want to travel alone? Next time, don’t let that ruin your plans. Traveling solo is a great way to see new places and make new friends.

I don’t mean joining a tour group, though that’s certainly one way to meet like-minded people. Such groups tend to visit the most obvious tourist sites and don’t interact with locals — not the best path to learning about other cultures and lifestyles. If you pay for a plane ticket to a foreign country, you are probably not the type to spend the trip watching MTV in your hotel room and eating at McDonald’s. And most likely, you do at least some preparation by reading travel guides to figure out what places you should visit…