Always Join Each Travel Loyalty Program (and Use AwardWallet to Manage Your Accounts)
Many people who don't travel extensively for work don't bother messing around with hotel, airline, and car rental loyalty programs. It may seem that it will take forever to earn a meaningful number of points, it's one extra detail to worry about, and it's easy to misplace your account information in the time between your opportunities to use each program.
But, we strongly recommend that everyone take advantage of travel loyalty programs with every possible reservation. They'll help you get more from your travel dollar.
Even first time members of hotel and car rental programs get access to valuable benefits and discounted rates; and the reward points will gradually build up over time. There is no cost to join, other than the small amount of time to sign up; and an app called AwardWallet takes the effort out of managing your account information.
You should always join the hotel's or car rental company's loyalty program before booking a reservation, and you should try to earn frequent flyer miles on every flight. If you follow a few simple steps, you can do so with very little effort or stress.
Jump to Jump to:
- 1 Hotel loyalty programs will save you money
- 2 Car rental loyalty programs will save you time
- 3 AwardWallet lets you easily manage your loyalty accounts
- 4 Don't turn down free frequent flyer miles
- 5 Don't worry too much about your points expiring
Hotel loyalty programs will save you money
You don’t need to stay a bunch of nights, or achieve some level of elite status, to start getting value from hotel loyalty programs. Everyone gets immediate access to a few special benefits and (in most cases) reduced “member only” room rates.
Before you make a reservation at any hotel, you should become a member of their loyalty program. If you do, you'll be entitled to special member benefits and discounted room rates.
Don’t skip the step of joining the program because you don’t think you’ll stay often enough to earn a free night. It is worth joining even for a single visit. You’ll get extra benefits like free Wi-Fi, you're likely to save a few dollars, and it will pay off every time you stay at one of the program’s hotels in the future.
Benefits of joining
Becoming a member of the hotel’s loyalty program provides a number of benefits (even if you never achieve elite status).
- Special members only rates. Almost every hotel program offers their members discounted rates. You’ll typically get a 5-15% discount.
- Free Wi-Fi and other perks. Even the entry level of most loyalty programs provides benefits like free Wi-Fi and late checkout. Some hotels offer more unique benefits to every member. For example, entry-level members of Hyatt hotels get free breakfast at Hyatt Place hotels, and entry-level members of the Club Accor program get free access to bicycles and free rides in hotel-owned BMWs at Fairmont-branded hotels.
- Effortless reservations in the future. It does take a minute or two to enter your contact and default payment information when you sign up for a hotel loyalty program. However, once you've signed up, you don't have to enter this information each time you make a reservation. Over the long run, joining the hotel's loyalty program saves you time.
- Access to special promotions. Joining most programs gives you access to special promotions. For example, two stays at an (inexpensive) Marriott within a three month period might be enough for a free night certificate that you can use on a future trip.
- Reward points or miles. While accumulating enough hotel points for a free night might take some time, you will gradually build up your account balance. If you make the extra effort to take advantage of promotions or credit card signup bonuses, you can accumulate a bunch of points, even if you don’t stay very often. Or you can choose to earn frequent flyer miles, instead of hotel points, for your stays.
- Better treatment. If there is a problem with your reservation or your stay, you are likely to get slightly better treatment as a member of the hotel’s loyalty program. Don’t count on much, but it can help.
Major hotel programs
Here are convenient links to the signup pages for each of the major hotel programs. Most hotel chains belong to one of the following programs, although it is not always obvious which hotel program is associated with which hotel brand. There is usually some indication on the hotel's website, or you can look it up in our Comprehensive Hotel Program List.
It you take the time to sign up for the major programs now, you'll be more likely to take advantage of them the next time you need to make a reservation. You can use Award Wallet to remember your information until you need it. By signing up now, you'll avoid an extra obstacle in the future, when you might be in a rush.
DON'T sign up for Marriott Rewards until you are ready to book. They frequently offer a promotion where new members can get a free night after only two stays during a three month period. If you are not already a member, it can be worthwhile to wait until you know that you have an opportunity to make a couple of stays before you sign up. New Marriott Members Can Get a Free Night.
Car rental loyalty programs will save you time
The last thing most people want to do, after getting off a flight, is wait in a long line at a rental counter.
The best way to avoid rental counter lines and hassles is to join the rental company’s loyalty program.
Not that long ago, joining most car rental loyalty programs required an annual membership fee or a minimum number of rentals per year. Nowadays, anyone can join and there is no charge to participate.
It’s your choice. You can either take a few minutes to sign up for the rental program ahead of time; or you can typically spend much more time, when you are likely to be far more tired, doing all the paperwork at the car rental counter.
Benefits of joining
- Faster check-in. For most people, the primary reason to join a rental program is an expedited process when you are picking up the car. Given the amount of time you can save, even if you only rent one or two times per year, you’d be crazy not to register.
- Pick your own car. The growing trend at the top airport locations is to allow you to pick any car (within your car class), just by walking to the car you want, getting in and driving away. With a couple of the larger car rental companies, you can even switch to a fancier car (at the price posted on the windshield)—by just showing your ID to the gate agent.
- Easy reservations for the long run. Once you’ve signed up, you no longer need to fill in your information every time you make a reservation. Everything stays on file, and all you need to do is enter your member number.
- No “aggressive sales pitches” at the checkout counter. You’ll be able to avoid the time consuming, and sometimes annoying, sales pitch, which often accompanies counter service.
- Earn free rentals. If you don’t travel very frequently, it may take some time to build up enough points or rentals to get free rental days. However, your credits will gradually build up, and you will eventually save some cash (and not just time).
- Access to additional promotions. Normally when you sign up, you’ll start getting periodic emails letting you know about special member offers and promotions. You might want to turn these off, or you might appreciate receiving them. Either way, you’ll be eligible for a bunch of members-only promotions.
- Move up to elite status for free upgrades. Several credit cards provide automatic elite status in some rental programs. Once you’ve registered, you’ll get access to guaranteed free upgrades, and other benefits. Get Elite Car Rental Status from a Credit Card.
Each program's fast checkout options
In all cases, being a member of the rental program translates to spending less time picking up your car.
- At major airport locations, you can often go directly to your car (or your choice of car) and simply show your ID at the gate. National car rental was the trendsetter here, and still the favorite of many renters, due to the ability to pick your own car at over 60 airports.
- If you can't go directly to your car, hundreds of larger rental locations have special “VIP lines”, where you can walk up, show your ID, and pick-up your keys. At smaller rental locations, you’ll need to get in the regular line; but when it is your turn, your transaction will take less time.
Doesn’t offer any special check-in for members. However, everyone can check-in online to “skip the counter” at almost 50 large airport locations. Alamo Insiders.
Special Fastbreak counters at 800 locations. “Choice service” lets you choose your car at many major airport locations. Budget Fastbreak.
VIP checkout lines in many locations. Dollar Express Program.
VIP checkout lines in many locations. Enterprise Plus.
VIP checkout lines in many locations. Thrifty Blue Chip Program
Express checkout lines and/or machines at many locations. Sixt Cards Loyalty Program.
AwardWallet lets you easily manage your loyalty accounts
If you follow our advice and sign up for all these hotel and car rental programs, keeping track of your membership numbers, user names, and passwords could turn into a major nuisance.
Fortunately, AwardWallet takes most of the hassle out of belonging to many different loyalty programs. It keeps track of the membership information and account balances for all the loyalty programs you are a member of.
- Remembers your basic membership information. AwardWallet stores the loyalty account number, user name, and password for all your loyalty programs; and then lets you easily access this information, at any time, from your phone or your computer. Even if you have different accounts for different members of your family, you can keep track of them all in one place.
- Lets you sign in to travel sites with a single click (using your account information). When it is time to check rates, make reservations, etc., you can use AwardWallet to log into the website with a single click, rather than having to manually enter your username and password.
- Tracks your account balance (for most programs)., AwardWallet automatically keeps track of how many points or miles you have. It gets your account balance directly from most loyalty programs automatically, without you having to enter any information about your earning and redemption activity. Unfortunately, a few reward programs block AwardWallet, so your points for these programs will need to be entered manually or simply not entered into the tool.
- Makes it easy to see when points are added or taken out of your account. If you are waiting to receive award points, you can easily look at AwardWallet to see the recent activity on all your accounts. This is easier than visiting each program’s website individually.
- Warns you before your points expire. AwardWallet can remind you before your points expire, so that you can take steps to keep them from expiring. However, the free version doesn’t automatically track the expiration date. It will only warn you when you are getting close to a manually entered date. Most people don’t need to worry much about this and can stick with the free version. However, if you want to make sure you never lose any of your points, you can pay $30 a year for the premium version and get automatic expiration notices.
- Keep track of “certificates” associated with your account. AwardWallet doesn’t just track the points associated with each account, it also tracks other types of rewards like free night certificates, companion airfare certificates, etc.
- Track every kind of reward program. AwardWallet doesn’t just help you manage airline and hotel loyalty programs, you can use it for loyalty programs associated with stores, credit cards, car rental companies, restaurants, movie theaters, etc.
If you need some suggestions on how to keep your account active, take a look at our Keep Your Points from Expiring guide.
For more details about AwardWallet, see Use AwardWallet to Easily Manage Your Loyalty Program Information.
Don't turn down free frequent flyer miles
When you purchase airline tickets, you should always take advantage of the opportunity to earn miles from your flights.
Because you can earn miles for your flights with your choice of many different frequent flyer programs, you can focus your mileage earning in just a few frequent flyer accounts, rather than spreading them across many different programs.
Why collect miles?
Even if you may not earn very many miles per year, it is still worth taking a little bit of time to earn miles on every flight. Not earning miles is like leaving free money on the street. Collecting miles is likely to provide at least some value.
- You can often earn miles with one of your existing accounts, rather than needing to open a new account. As discussed in more detail below, for any given flight, you can choose to earn miles with one of many different frequent flyer programs. As a result, you can use a small set of frequent flyer accounts to earn miles from many different airlines. You just need to take an extra minute to find the place on the airline’s website where you can choose which frequent flyer program you want to use.
- You might be able to combine miles you earn from flying with miles you get from your credit card points, so you don't need to fly as much to build up the miles you need for a free ticket. Many credit cards earn points that can be transferred to a set of many different frequent flyer programs. For example, any Ultimate Rewards points you earn can be combined with your United miles. Looked at another way, any points you earn with a frequent flyer program can offset the number of credit card points you'd need to use for a free ticket. Introduction to 'Transferable' Reward Points.
- You might be able to combine miles from different family member’s accounts, to make it easier to get enough miles to book a free ticket. Many frequent flyer programs allow you to combine miles from multiple family member’s accounts. If so, it is much easier to eventually earn enough miles for a free ticket. Frequent Flyer Programs where Family Members Can Share Their Miles.
- You might be surprised, and wind up earning enough additional miles for a free flight, sometime in the future. Even if you can’t credit your miles to one of your core set of frequent flyer accounts, you should still try to earn the miles. You never know what the future holds. Perhaps you’ll wind up flying on that airline again. You don’t want to miss an opportunity for a free ticket, because you didn’t bother collecting miles from an earlier flight. Once several months have passed, it is too late to go back and claim your miles.
- Even if you never earn enough miles for a free flight, you can still get value from your points. Realistically you may never earn enough miles in some programs for a free ticket. Fortunately, most programs allow you to redeem smaller number of points for other things—allowing you to get some value from the points you earn.
Consolidating your miles in a small set of accounts
In most cases, you only need a small number of frequent flyer accounts. You can credit flights from dozens of different airlines to each of those accounts, without needing to set up separate accounts for each airline.
- It is almost always better to earn miles with as few programs as possible. The more you concentrate the miles you earn, the easier it is to accumulate enough miles for award tickets, and possibly earn enough in a year to get elite airline status. In addition, you’ll have fewer accounts to manage and keep active (to avoid losing your miles).
- You can credit airline miles from a flight to any airline in the alliance, or any other partner airline. For example, you can credit a flight on Singapore Airlines, Air Canada, or Lufthansa to your United Airlines account.
- With one account per major alliance, you can earn miles on most major airlines. Most people should choose one frequent flyer program for each alliance: Star Alliance, Oneworld, and SkyTeam. Then you can credit any participating flights on the alliance to those accounts. You can also credit flights with your program's non-alliance partners.
- Sometimes, you are just going to have to set up a new account. While you can frequently choose to earn miles with one of your core frequent flyer accounts, there will be times you can’t, and you’ll need to set up a new account. Before you rush to set up an account with the airline you are flying, make sure to consider signing up for a new account with one of their partners instead. If the partner airlines has a set of other partners that you might fly in the future, you are more likely to be able to eventually earn additional miles in that account. Or a partner program may just be a better program for earning or redeeming miles.
If you already have built up a balance with American, Delta, or United Airlines, or you fly frequently enough to earn some level of elite status, you should probably stick to those programs.
Otherwise, you should probably still choose to earn Delta miles for your SkyTeam flights and United miles for your Star Alliance flights. For OneWorld, the decision is more complicated. If you are planning to use your miles for economy class tickets, you should probably choose to earn British Airways miles for your American Airlines and other Oneworld flights. If you plan to use your miles to fly internationally in business or first class, you are probably better off choosing to earn your miles with American Airlines. The Best Frequent Flyer Programs for Earning Miles from Your Flights.
The other decision you need to make concerns Alaska Airlines. If you live on the West Coast, you may want to choose to earn Alaska miles whenever you fly one of their partners, including many American Airlines flights. If you don't, and you wind up taking an Alaska Airlines flight, there is a good chance you can choose to earn miles with American.
For Southwest, JetBlue, Spirit, Frontier, Hawaiian, and Allegiant, you'll generally need to use the airline's own frequent flyer program.
Don't worry too much about your points expiring
If you always sign up for loyalty programs, you are likely to wind up with small quantities of points spread across many different reward programs (and larger quantities of points in your favorite programs).
With most programs, you'll lose your points if your account is inactive for some period of time (usually 12 - 36 months). If you earn or spend points, your account remain active and you won't lose your points. But, if a year or two lapses without using the program, your points could disappear.
- Don't let the risk of losing your points cause you to avoid joining these program or get you too upset. In many cases, the primary reason to join is for the added benefits and convenience, the points are just an added bonus. If you aren't paying enough attention to realize that you are about to lose your points, or you don't take the effort to keep your account active, don't worry about it too much. Joining provided some benefits, don't let it turn into a negative part of your life.
- If you want to keep your account active, you don't have to stay, rent, or fly. There are a number of different ways to earn or spend some points to keep your account active and reset the clock.
- Another option is to cash-out your points. Most programs have ways to redeem your points other than on hotels, car rentals, or frequent flyer tickets. For example, you can often purchase gift cards or merchandise. Normally, redeeming for these options is not as valuable as using your points for free travel. But, if don't have enough points to redeem the normal way, and there isn't a worthwhile option to keep your account active, you can usually get some value from your points with one of the lower value redemption options.
Every program has a page on their site that lists the different ways you can redeem your points. For example, you can redeem smaller quantities of Spirit Airlines miles for magazines.
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