Wanderlust Wednesday is a series that shows my behind the scenes travel planning. Today I’m talking about how to use hotel points and how we planned a South American trip for next fall around points.
Hotel reward points have been a huge part of our travel over the last few years. Neither my husband nor I have a lot of work travel to rack up hotel points, so we mostly accrue them through credit card spend and signup bonuses. Trying to use your points can feel limiting, but with a little bit of flexibility and knowing how to plan, you can score big! First, there are few things to keep in mind for points bookings in general:
Some chains will give you the fifth night free on points (5 nights for the price of 4).
City/tourism tax or resort fee may still apply to points bookings.
Planning further in advance typically means more availability.
Most hotels don’t have dynamic points pricing, meaning that you can get a points booking on a holiday or during an event for the same number of points as a normal non-peak night. (For instance, we stayed at the JW Marriott Cannes on points during the Cannes Film Festival when the price in dollars was 4x the standard rate.)
If you don’t have enough points for your full stay, try to use points on the nights that are the most expensive.
There are a few different scenarios and approaches for using hotel points:
You already have a destination in mind
This situation has the most straightforward approach. It’s as easy as going to the website of the hotel chain whose points you have and searching your destination(s) and dates. Check the “use points” option, and see what’s available. If there’s no availability showing up for your desired dates, try searching each night individually or looking at an availability calendar. Booking a few of the nights on points is better than none! And if you don’t have enough points for a full night, some chains offer a points + cash option.
You have a state, region, or country in mind
This is almost as straightforward as the last scenario because most hotel websites let you search by state, region, or country. I like to use the map view to help narrow down which areas have availability. The browse feature can also work well, since most have lists broken down by state (domestic), continent, and country.
You’re wide open and looking for trip inspiration
This is the fun part! Maybe you have a stack of hotel points that are burning a hole in your virtual pocket, or perhaps you have a certificate for a free night from a credit card or loyalty program. This is when the hotel website’s browse feature really comes in handy. If the hotel chain has a specific brand that you really like, narrow your search in that way. For instance, say you have IHG points, you might check the Intercontinental brand specifically. You could also look through the hotel chain’s Instagram or Pinterest for visual inspiration.
If you have a certificate for an unlimited free night, the possibilities are endless! You can snag one of those if you sign up for some hotel credit cards, and other cards give you a free night every year you keep the card (and pay the annual fee). If you have a more limited certificate, like the category 1-5 anniversary night from the Marriott credit card, it’s best to search the hotels by category. I typically start with the highest possible category (5 in this case), and browse the list for places that catch my eye. If you have the flexibility to go somewhere international or off the beaten path, sometimes you can land a nicer hotel for less points than in more popular destinations. Some of my favorite examples are:
A newly-renovated hotel in the heart of Quito is steps away from Ecuadorian chocolate, hiking in the Andes, and a very affordable South American trip. It’s bookable with the annual free night certificate that comes with the Marriott credit card.
This fourteenth century monastery turned luxury golf resort located in a national park outside of Lisbon is very high on our list of places we want to go! At tier 2, it takes fewer points to book than the nicest Marriott properties–it’s the equivalent of a category 8. (Image via their website.)
Here’s a little peak into how we recently planned travel with hotel points. We decided that we want to go on a fall trip to South America, and we wanted to use Hyatt or Marriott/Starwood points. We’re planning around football season (eye roll), so we had a specific weekend to work around (bye week). Since we’re planning to go for less than a week, we didn’t want to waste time with connections. So we first narrowed our search to cities that have non-stop Delta flights from Atlanta:
Sao Paulo, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Buenos Aires, Argentina
We knocked out Quito because we’ve been before; we want to stay in a Four Seasons hotel in Bogotá but don’t have the budget for this trip, so we nixed Colombia. In the positive direction, we already have Brazilian visas, and Argentina and Chile no longer require expensive tourist visas. For those and a variety of other reasons, we narrowed down the list to four cities.
Next, we looked at our hotel options for each place on our short list:
JW Marriott Lima (Marriott)
Courtyard Lima – Miraflores (Marriott)
Westin Lima (SPG)
Sheraton Lima (SPG)
Rio de Janeiro
JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro – Copacabana (Marriott)
AC Hotel Rio de Janeiro – Barra da Tijuca (Marriott)
Courtyard Rio de Janeiro – Barra da Tijuca (Marriott)
Sheraton Grand Rio (SPG)
Sheraton Liberator (SPG)
Sheraton Buenos Aires (SPG)
Ritz-Carlton Santiago (Marriott)
Marriott Santiago (Marriott)
Renaissance Santiago (Marriott)
Courtyard Santiago – Las Condes (Marriott)
Hyatt Place Santiago – Vitacura (Hyatt)
Sheraton Santiago (SPG)
W Santiago (SPG)
As you can see, the good news is that we had a variety of hotels to choose from in each of the four cities. They ranged in category, so we had flexibility with being able to book 4-5 nights on points. The final decision came down to a few things:
After bumbling through Brazilian Portuguese in March, I was leaning toward a Spanish-speaking country (we both know some Spanish). That knocked out Rio.
We’d really like to hike parts of the Inca trail if we go to Peru (although Lima itself still seems totally worth a trip). Time wouldn’t allow visiting Lima and Cusco/Machu Picchu this trip. Similarly, we’d love to travel down into Patagonia if/when we go to Chile, and we were looking to make this less than a week-long trip, which doesn’t work well for remote hiking.
The Park Hyatt in Buenos Aires was hands down our favorite hotel on the entire list. It’s a category 5 (out of 7) property, which requires a reasonable number of Hyatt points. And lastly, we found great flights to Buenos Aires! So to Argentina we will go!!
We didn’t have enough Hyatt points to book 4 nights at 20,000 points/night (80,000 points total), so we opted for the points + cash option. That gave us a room for $125 + 10,000 points per night ($500 + 40,000 points total). That was a great deal since the room rate is $500/night ($2,000 + tax total)!
(Hotel photos from Park Hyatt’s website.)