When I was a kid, almost all of our family trips were by car to different parks or small towns in California. We rarely flew anywhere, and we certainly didn’t stay in hotel suites when we arrived.
We did this out of necessity. Try taking three squabbling kids anywhere, especially when the parents are divorced so that there’s only one adult at any given time supervising the angry masses. Cost and time are serious concerns even for more stable scenarios.
Much of my travel today is to major metropolitan areas and foreign countries, and I do this often enough that I earn top-tier elite status with multiple airline and hotel loyalty programs to earn free upgrades and so on. I write about maximizing these programs to save money, and such tricks provide me a fairly consistent five-star experience at a three-star price.
However, I do miss some of those family road trips and wondered just how well my current strategy would apply if I could go back and give some tips to my parents. Since I don’t actually have kids of my own or take road trips regularly, I’d appreciate any suggestions from readers who do. I’m working on hindsight here. (Although I do still hum “On the Road Again,” just like my mom.)
I already knew I couldn’t expect quite the same level of service. There are plenty of fine hotels and motels out there, but some markets just can’t support a Grand Hyatt or a St. Regis. That’s fine. They’re probably overkill when your real goal on a road trip is to experience the surrounding area outside the confines of the hotel.
Join Every Loyalty Program
You never know what your options will be on the road, so you might as well join all the major loyalty programs. That’s why I offer links to most of them. Keep track of the membership numbers, passwords, and points balances with a free account at AwardWallet or MileWise.
I know many family members who take road trips and stay at hotels with some frequency but don’t join a hotel loyalty program. They’re missing out. You don’t need to be a very frequent traveler to benefit. A few points here and there add up. You can get a room at some Starwood properties (like Four Points) for only 2,000 points per weekend night. Hyatt has free nights that start at 5,000 points per night.
One of the most important rules is to book directly with the hotel. Booking through a third-party website like Orbitz, Expedia, Hotels.com, or Priceline often means you will not earn any points or credit toward elite status. Read on for why this is important.
But most hotels have Best Rate Guarantees, and you may be able to use AAA or other discounts to book refundable rates at the same low price offered by an online travel agency, letting you change your plans if necessary.
Try to Stay Loyal
It would be great if you could pick and choose which chains you will stay at on every trip. Unfortunately you don’t always have that choice on the open road. Try to think ahead to where you might be going. If you can’t pick one chain, then pick one or two plus a backup. When on the road and looking for rest, you can use Hipmunk or Kayak or some other app on your smartphone to compare rates, but then go to the hotel’s own website or app and see if you can get the same deal.
Hilton and Marriott are two of the largest hotel chains in the world, so it would make sense to join Hilton HHonors or Marriott Rewards. You’ll be able to find a Hampton Inn (Hilton) or Residence Inn (Marriott) in many smaller cities across the country.
However, Hyatt and Starwood are expanding rapidly with some budget properties that are competitively priced and offer generous amenities. Rooms at Hyatt Place, comparable in price but with better amenities than Hampton Inn, include a separate sitting area with an L-shaped sofa, ottoman, and a large screen TV that includes A/V ports for attaching your computer or video game console.
In some cities without the high density of New York or Chicago, you may even find that a full-service Hyatt Regency can be booked for $80-90 a night. Sign-up for Hyatt Gold Passport and Starwood Preferred Guest just in case you come across one of their more affordable options.
Finally, keep a wild card in your back pocket. I am not a fan of Holiday Inn Express, but they are literally everywhere. If my preferred chains are unavailable, that’s where I stay. Priority Club points are easy to earn and redeem, with many promotions that stack for extra bonus points.
I know other people who prefer Club Carlson (Radisson and Country Inn properties) because of annual promotions that allow you to earn enough points for two or three free nights. Less generous programs like Wyndham Rewards and Choice Privileges include roadside options like Days Inn, Super 8, Ramada, Comfort Inn, and EconoLodge.
Earn Elite Status
Joining loyalty programs allows you to earn points toward free nights, but the real value comes from elite status. Many budget properties already offer things like free WiFi or a continental breakfast, so what’s the point of status?
First, you earn bonus points on every stay, so you will get free nights faster. It’s not uncommon to get a 25% bonus and maybe a few hundred extra points on top each time you check in. Second, you get better treatment. Say goodbye to rooms next to the dumpster or the building’s noisy air conditioning and ventilation unit. Some properties will even welcome you with a free drink or snack. My own experience is that in particularly rural areas, you may be the first person with status they’ve seen all week. Several times I’ve gotten the very best room available even though I’m probably paying the lowest rate.
Earning the lowest level of elite status can be simple or difficult and can usually be earned with either nights (good for long trips) or stays (good for short stays at multiple locations). Once you have status with one program, you may also be able to match it to other programs. But because many matches are one-time only, it is best to do this only if you expect to earn it for real by the end of the year.
I realize many people are skeptical of applying for lots of credit cards. All I can say is that if you are responsible with your credit and never carry a balance, they will not hurt your credit score in the long run. Applying for a card carries a temporary hit, but it wears off in months and may be worth the benefits of having that card.
Many cards provide a sign-up bonus. It is not uncommon to see offers for 50,000 points or more if you spend $1,000 in the first three months. Most people can probably achieve this just with regular expenses. Those 50,000 points can be worth four or more free nights at a cheaper roadside property.
All of these cards also have an annual fee, usually between $50-100. The fee is worth it. Most credit cards offer free elite status just for having them, like free Platinum status from Hyatt Gold Passport if you have a Hyatt Visa from Chase or free Gold status from Hilton HHonors if you have a Hilton HHonors Reserve card from Citi. I’ve previously reviewed several cards that offer free hotel status or accelerated progress.
This can make it easier to get elite status with several programs without having to staying loyal to one brand. By earning points with these cards on everyday spend, it also prevents your points from expiring just because you haven’t stayed at their hotels in the last year.
Finally, many cards also come with a free night each year, like the Hyatt and Priority Club cards, that can be worth more than the $75 annual fee. One example is when you’re passing through a big city and there’s a convention in town so all the cheap rates are gone. Other cards like the Club Carlson Visa from US Bank give you an extra free night every time you redeem points.
Even though most loyalty program fanatics focus on luxury properties in European capitals or resorts in the South Pacific, such programs still make sense for the budget-minded traveler crisscrossing the United States. The dreamers are looking to stay in $1,000 rooms they could never afford. That’s fine. But as someone who takes road trips, your goal is likely just to save a little money at a place you would have visited anyway.
Top tier status doesn’t matter as much when amenities are included at budget brands, so you can spread yourself a little thin across two or three chains, depending on what’s available. That actually makes it easier. Keep an eye out for deals, and keep stocking up on points. With a couple of credit card bonuses thrown in, you may be able to book a significant number of your hotel nights for free!