Travel Tip: LOYALTY PROGRAMS and Uber travel

The last two weeks were spent on the road.  From a bitter cold trip to Washington, DC with Carpet One to an even colder trip to New York City and the Retail Show with WiPro, and finally to the icebox of Chicago with the Travel Channel and the Travel and Adventure Show.

It’s that last stop where I found myself listening to a national PBS travel host presenting travel tips for an hour to a group of coat wearing, rather subdued Chicago-ites dreaming of palm trees, sandy beaches, geisha girls and Thailand (CENSORED)…never mind.
And while I agreed with most of what he said, there were a few things that I thought were cracked.
He insisted it was better — you’d receive a better rate, better room, better perks — if you talked directly to the hotel when you book your room.  Want free parking in San Fran (a $65 / day value)?  Talk to the hotel when bargaining for your room.  Want free wifi?  Again, ask.  Talk to the hotel directly, not the reservations agent (usually off site) or the front desk, but the manager on duty.  
I guess that makes sense — especially for the average traveller that goes on a trip or two a year.  It never occurred to me to call the hotel, except when I’m preparing to warn them I’m about to ship 400 lbs of equipment to their front desk, staged for my arrival, and I’d love it if they could put it in my top-floor suite with it’s own balcony side lap pool.
Maybe I’m crazy — falling into the hotel’s loyalty program trap — but I find I get most of the perks he discussed automatically because of a high standing with their loyalty program.  All without chit-chat, begging, or feeling like I’m asking for something I shouldn’t.
In my view, being able to book on line, or, even  better, on the hotel’s iPhone ap, with a few click click clicks lines me up for a room I want with the perks I get automatically.  All without having to talk to anyone, or beg for anything.  And since I’m basically anti-social when I’m not working (avoiding all contact with anything with a pulse) the last thing I want to do is negotiate for a room.
What this national personality argued was:
1) talk to the manager on duty (MOD).
2) only the manager on duty knew what was going on with that local hotel.  
3)  the manager on duty is under pressure to put heads in beds and will deal.
Maaaaaybe.  The MOD may also be a tired, arrogant prick.
But….I’m platinum with Starwood, Diamond with Hilton, Elite with La Quinta (yes you read that right) and platinum with Hyatt.  The first two are my favorite, go to brands, followed by La Quinta as a budget alternative.  For those three I’m at the top of the food chain.  For Hyatt, Platinum is actually the second highest, and from what I can see the only perk you get is free interent and a slightly better room (perhaps on the executive floor, which is usually higher up, but otherwise the same as any other room).
My point is this.  What’s important to me when I travel is 1) I’m recognized as a frequent customer and have access to the normal free stuff, plus what I say is taken seriously.  2)  I have a quiet room and it’s the largest available.  3)  If I have pacakages arrive, they don’t kill me with handling fees. 4) If they are hosting a Cheerleading convention, I’m put as far away from the evil girls as I can get, and they respond if I bitch to the front desk — which I will — upon hearing the first “RAH RAH SHISH COMB BAHH!”
What I don’t want is to ask for more coffee and have them charge $2 per pack (Marriott), have the front desk go into meltdown if I need extended checkout (Marriott), and I like my free breakfasts without having to ask (Starwood and Hilton).  In almost all the loyalty programs, those stupid perks are automatic as you work up the food chain.  By the way, free internet is a perk of almost every loyalty program at their most basic level.  So join, and save $12 / day right from the start — without asking. Regarding breakfast:  that saves me $30 / day when travelling with Matthew, who eats breakfast one and breakfast two for free before moving on to brunch, lunch, lunch two and finally supper then dinner (followed by snacks one and two).  See Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings for more information.
Here’s my point.  If you are heading to an odd ball hotel outside a national brand, maybe calling the manager on duty is a good way to go, and one I hadn’t considered.  But for national brands, pick your favorite and join their loyalty program.  Here are the programs I think are the best bang for the buck:
1)  Starwood.  As you move up the food chain, your perks increase.  At the top, platinum, you receive certificates to suite upgrades which — when leveraged smartly — can get you a $1,500 St. Regis suite for $150.  Butler included.  Or, even at the Westin LAX, get a corner room suite and just — be — while watching planes take off and land from your balcony.  For some reason, I love that.
2)  My favorite runner up is Hilton.  Free nights accumulate quickly with Hilton Honors, free breakfasts at most hotels not offering free breakfasts, upgraded rooms on a regular basis, preferred parking for Diamond members, free goodies at check in — none of it is high dollar stuff, but make travel just a little more sophisticated.  I guess that’s more important to me:  sophisticated experiences vs. bargain rates.
3) Hotels.com.  An alternative to traditional loyalty programs, the booking web site offers one free night for every 10 nights you stay.  I’ve leveraged those coupons to book good deals in San Franscisco at Kipton Hotels, and New York City where budget hotel rooms come with bed bugs as an amenity.  I’m not a huge fan of booking rooms on third party web sites (you tend to get treated like a leper when you arrive) but sometimes it’s necessary.  Oh, and another warning — pay no attention to those star ratings.  And remember, you can’t cancel as easily as you can when booking directly from the hotel’s web site.  Despite what they may say.  A few stays you pay for but don’t stay for (read:  wait, this isn’t a four star, this is a truck stop) quickly eat up any value for those free night certificates.  I’ve found refunds non-existent and the wait on hold to fight for them aggravating and pointless.
4)  (Ranked one for airline)  Southwest.  Do you realize I accumulate at least two free round trip tickets a month?  That Matthew flies free when he flies with me because I fly the airline so much?  If I use one of those free tickets and Matthew is with me?  We are both free.  Heck,  I don’t even pay for overweight bags because they like me.  Do you know how much money that saves me?  Worth flying into Midway instead of O’Hare even when the event is being held at a hotel adjacent to Chicago’s crazy airport and $60 cab ride ($40 uber return) over.  On United’s frequent flyer program I accumulated exactly 0 round trips, though did upgrade to business class a few times, which was nice.  I like warm cookies.  
5 ish)  Marriott Rewards.  I’d put this 125th if I’d researched that many loyalty programs, but I am bored with my ADHD.  I’ve never been a fan of Marriott — see blog post series on the World’s Suckiest 5 Star Hotel — and talking to those high in the Marriott Rewards food chain reinforces my opinion.  Most say the free rooms are great, most other perks so-so.  No one received their own monogramed bath robe like I did from Westin (Starwood), and those suite upgrades seem as scarce as a virgin on the campus of LVU. If you’re experience is different and I’m being unduly harsh, comment to this post.
Travel gets cheaper the more you travel — but only if you leverage those programs so the companies you deal with know you are a decent customer.  Call the hotel if you feel social, ask to speak to the manager on duty, negotiate like a horney guy hiring a hooker, or just sign up and work the system.  
One thing, though.  Understand this.  The average cost of flipping a room in today’s hotel industry is $50.  That means, it costs the average hotel $50 for you to check in and check out for a one night stay.  So, if you are asking for a $75 rate, the hotel is only making $25.  How many perks do you think they will actually give you?  More likely the maid will “forget” to clean your room or give you shampoo.
Recent “3.5 star” room from Hotels.com.  What does a 2 star look like?  A yurt and a porta pot?
An “upgraded suite” (La Quinta) with a really pretty mirrored tub architectural detail that sat in the bedroom.  I wore my socks the entire time.  Rate (during Indycar race) $150.  Note original artwork relfected in the 1970’s vintage mirror.

An upgraded Hilton suite, ’cause I’m diamond.  Rate, about $95 / night if my memory is right.  So, yes, this room was cheaper than the La Quinta or the 3.5 star Hotels.com room above.  Of course, hotels jack up rates during special events (like Indycar) , so perhaps I’m being snarky.

I’ve shown this before.  Upgraded St. Regis suite, my rate about $150 euro a night.  Rack rate, about $2,500 / night.  It came with a butler.  This is why I put Starwood at the top.  Call me silly.  In fairness, this was in February, not prime travel season for Rome.  But that’s when you can score a deal.   And, a trip in the middle of February?  Priceless.

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