Want to save a few bucks on your next trip? Try a hotel rewards club, where membership (still) has its privileges.

By Ashley Tate
Updated May 12, 2014

You’re an avid rewards earner, whether it’s through a frequent-flier program or a credit card. But in recent years many of these rewards initiatives have gotten stingier with their redemption opportunities. The exception to this trend? Hotel loyalty programs. “It takes a lot of points to earn free flights, but the threshold tends to be lower to qualify for complimentary nights at hotels,” says Anne Banas, the executive editor of SmarterTravel.com, a travel website. What’s more, membership is usually free.

With most large chains, like Hilton Hotels & Resorts, the number of points you earn corresponds to the amount of money you spend at the hotel, whether the charges are for the accommodations, the breakfast buffet, or even a $5 bag of minibar M&M’s. In contrast, some midsize chains and independent hotels base their incentives on the number of nights you stay rather than a points system. Smaller chains and affiliate hotel groups, such as the Leading Hotels of the World, offer rewards such as free meals and airport transfers in addition to comped nights, says Brian Kelly, the founder of ThePointsGuy.com, a website about maximizing travel points.

In many cases, regular account activity extends point expiration dates, so you can sign up for as many loyalty programs as you like. However, for optimal benefits, it’s best to join just one or two and aim to make reservations only at member hotels when traveling. That’s because members who log frequent stays are rewarded with elite status, which comes with additional perks: free Wi-Fi, room upgrades, complimentary access to fitness centers. You’ll also earn points at a faster rate.

So which program(s) should you go with? Obvious yet crucial: Pick one that serves the locations you're most likely to visit, says Kelly. Then it’s a matter of finding a program that’s compatible with your travel personality. Here’s a handy cheat sheet.

Best for Families

Hyatt Gold Passport
Hyatt offers great kids’ programs at some of its resorts. Children ages 3 to 12 can engage in activities like racing down water-slides and roasting marshmallows. You can redeem your points at any time, with no blackout dates. Once you reach platinum status (five qualifying stays or 15 nights in a calendar year), you get free Internet access and can remain in your room until 2 P.M. on checkout day. Sign up at hyatt.com.

Best for Impulse Travelers

Starwood Preferred Guest
Looking for a room on a holiday weekend or when the hotel is hosting a business convention? As long as a standard room is available, you can use your points to cover the cost. And if you don’t have enough points to book an entire stay but still need to get away, stat, you can take advantage of the Starwood Cash & Points program, which lets you use a combination of money and points to pay for a room. Sign up at starwoodhotels.com.

Best for Frequent Travelers

Marriott Rewards
With more than 3,700 hotels worldwide to choose from, Marriott is the best pick for globetrotters. As a member, you earn points at 16 different hotel partners, including Courtyard, Residence Inn, and the Ritz-Carlton. Sign up at marriott.com.

Best for Luxury Seekers

Kimpton InTouch
Not only are Kimpton hotels more luxurious than many other lodging options but the perks are top-notch, too. Program participants enjoy amenities like a $30 in-room spa credit, a $10 minibar credit, pillow preference, newspaper delivery, and free Wi-Fi during every eligible stay. Sign up at kimptonhotels.com.

Once you’ve found a match, sign up immediately so you can accrue points on your first stay. And bear this in mind: Whenever you book a room, use the hotel’s website or toll-free number. Many chains don’t allow you to earn points if you reserve through a third-party site, like Priceline.com, says Summer Hull, the founder of MommyPoints.com, a blog about the best uses for rewards points.