Staying loyal is a hit-and-miss affair

For the hotel faithful, loyalty programs can seem to be all effort for little benefit. But hassle-free ways in which to earn points for stays are emerging.

ON A recent holiday, I was talked into signing up to the hotel group's loyalty program, to collect points for my stay.

I now receive all-too-frequent email updates about my "status" but am coming to the conclusion that I am unlikely ever to use the points.

I don't seem to have enough for anything useful, yet as a traveller who will always pick the best deal or most appealing hotel on offer at the time, it could be some time before

I stay in another participating hotel and add to my points.

With about a dozen major hotel groups in Australia alone, not to mention all the smaller chains and individual properties, your points can be spread pretty thin as a leisure traveller.

It's no wonder that the founders of the loyalty program-tracking website Perkler ( estimate less than one-third of Australians regularly redeem awards from loyalty programs.

All too often we sign up and then find it's too hard to redeem our points, either because we don't have enough or because the scheme is too complicated.

Should you be loyal to one chain or just opt out and save yourself the trouble? Or is there a way to collect some benefit without getting too bogged down in it all?

The Expedia-owned recently launched a program that could be an easier option for occasional travellers. With no complicated points system, status tiers or other hard-to-understand calculations, it offers a free night for every 10 nights booked.

The value of the free night is the average spend of the 10 nights booked (not including taxes and fees), so the scheme is reasonably transparent and easy to follow.

Then again, what are you going to do if Wotif or another site has the listing for a hotel you want to stay in - advertised for $10 a night less?

Are you going to stick with to earn one-tenth of a free night, which you could give a paper value of $15 on a $150-a-night room, or save $10 in real terms by booking elsewhere?

Nothing is ever simple when it comes to loyalty schemes because they are by their very nature trying to influence behaviour.

"The whole point of loyalty schemes is to lock you into a particular provider," says a spokesman for Choice magazine, Christopher Zinn. "One hates to be a spoilsport, because the concept of getting something for nothing is a very attractive one but I think we would say that someone has to pay ... the cost has to be borne somewhere."

If you do want to collect hotel points, it is important to understand that loyalty schemes rarely belong to a single hotel brand. Most are run by hotel groups, so you need to know which brands belong to which umbrella companies.

For example, the Accor group's brands include Novotel, Sofitel, Ibis, Mercure, Pullman and All Seasons, while the Starwood group encompasses brands such as Sheraton, Westin, Four Points, Le Meridien and W Hotels.

Points can be earned and redeemed across any brand in the group and in some cases this provides a range of price points, from budget to five-star. Look at what hotel brands you are realistically likely to use before signing up to a program.

If you're staying in a Sheraton or Le Meridien for a special occasion but normally stay in more modest hotels, you're unlikely to accumulate enough points in future to redeem them for accommodation in the Starwood group. However, there can be other benefits to being a member, such as sales and discount rates that are limited to loyalty program members.

The hard part is staying on top of the offers, especially if you belong to multiple programs.

If you are a very infrequent traveller, one option is the scheme offered by the accommodation website, which gives you "member dollars" to put towards your next booking.

The returns are modest, at 4 per cent to 6 per cent of the value of the booking - $6 to $9 on a $150-a-night room, depending on how many bookings you make a year - but you don't have to wait to redeem your rewards.

Even if you have only one member dollar in your account, that's a dollar off your next booking.

Frequent-flyer points in the mix

IF YOU decide not to bother with hotel loyalty schemes, it still pays to ask about frequent-flyer points when you check in. Most major hotels are linked with one or more frequent-flyer programs and usually all you have to do is hand over your membership card at check-in. The Qantas frequent-flyer program offers points for thousands of hotels around the world; the Virgin group's Velocity Rewards program works with a range of hotel groups, with points redeemable for everything from flights to shopping vouchers.