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Does a “Best” OTA Loyalty Program for Business Travelers Really Exist?

January 21st, 2017 /

Is it possible to use an OTA rewards program to get the hotel perks you want? Image credit:  Flickr user Hotel Montecatini Terme (CC BY 2.0)

Do you ever click around travel websites just to kill time, hoping you’ll stumble across a good deal? I do—usually when I’m waiting at the airport and have already scrolled through my newsfeed three times. But the instant you visit an online travel agency (OTA), your screen is bombarded with flashing pop-ups that have nothing to do with adware and everything to do with becoming a member of the site’s rewards program.

I’m on the road often enough that I’ve given some serious thought to OTAs. They advertise the ability to save by booking via their sites—and to save even more by becoming a member of their loyalty programs. And who doesn’t like a discount? So let’s take a look at three of the top OTA rewards programs and see how the numbers actually stack up.

best ota loyalty programs

How much do you actually save, and how much is the OTA making off the deal? Image by Flickr user Sean MacEntee (CC BY 2.0)

Earning with Expedia

The blue and gold giant is known for having a complicated rewards program that resembles a travel credit card—except, I’d argue, without the value.

With a basic free membership, you’ll earn two points per dollar on the website for booking hotels and bundled activities, but you’ll only earn a lousy one point per five dollars on flight purchases. Not a great incentive for a frequent flyer. Not only are Expedia points worth little, they also expire—you’ll need to book or redeem every eighteen months.

Here’s where you’d logically ask about higher earning tiers, since the base level doesn’t offer much. Get to +silver by booking seven nights through Expedia, and you’ll start earning 10% more points. You can also achieve +gold after fifteen nights for a 30% increase in points.

It would be pretty easy for business travelers to achieve +gold status, but I’m not sure you’d want to. Apart from a slightly better point payout, the only additional benefit includes the possibility of upgrades at VIP+ locations—but these are few and far between. Fewer than 1,500 of Expedia’s listed hotels have this status (about 3% of the total properties the company books with).

With the Expedia+ Voyager credit card, your earnings do increase a bit more, with four points per dollar on the site, two on entertainment, and one elsewhere. But even with highest-tier membership, the credit card, and running a transaction through a third party site with an Expedia discount, my imaginary traveler saved, at max, 9.5% on their hotel stay.

Orbitz and Orbucks

Orbitz has a rewards program that’s a lot less complicated. Book hotels through their app for 5% back (or 3% back if you’re on your desktop). Unfortunately, flights here are also a bust, at 1% back.

A plus is that Orbucks are a lot easier to earn, at a trade-in rate of one point per one dollar. Earning Gold (four nights) or Platinum (twelve nights) gives you a TSA pre-check fee reimbursement (worth $85). You also get two free checked bags, but before you get too excited about that, know that your yearly bag benefit caps out at $50. That won’t even cover you and your assistant checking bags round-trip with AA.

The Orbit Visa Rewards Credit Card gives you an additional 5% back on Orbitz purchases, giving our imaginary traveler a max savings of 11.25% when booking with a third-party discount.

Happy at Hotels.com

Keep in mind that this OTA (among countless others) is owned by Expedia. However, they have the simplest rewards program around, and I sincerely appreciate the straightforward nature of the punch card-style system.

Every ten nights, you get a free stay. That’s it. Book your free stay carefully, though, because if your night costs less than the average price of your previous ten, you forfeit the difference. Silver status (after ten nights) and Gold status (after thirty nights) offer no notable upgrades other than a customer service line. The main benefit of Hotels.com is that you can save 14% max if you also use a shopping portal like Ebates. If I were to book through an OTA, this option would be my clear pick.

the best ota loyalty program for business travelers? I'm not sure there is one

It’s no surprise customers are more excited over their hotel rewards programs. Image by Flickr user m01229 (CC BY 2.0)

Why OTA Rewards Programs Are (Still) Not Great

Overall, I find my hotel rewards program offers better perks with less effort. As far as I’m concerned, the point of a rewards program is to be, well, rewarded for your brand loyalty. But nothing about these OTA programs inspires loyalty in me.

The thing is, hotel and airline rewards provide plenty of non-monetary benefits. You get seat and room upgrades. You get priority treatment and that eerily elusive “status” boost. But OTAs aren’t ultimately in control of your experience once you’ve arrived at your hotel—and what they can offer just isn’t that enticing.

best ota loyalty programs

If hotel stays only cost $3, maybe OTA rewards programs would be worth the hassle. Image by Flickr user Tara Hunt (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Can Business Travelers Find Value from Loyalty?

If OTA programs are going to tap into the business travel market, they’ll need to perform a serious overhaul on their services. Their programs must include elite tiers that actually mean something and give value beyond a small discount.

For now, I’d suggest forgoing OTA programs entirely and looking for other ways to save. There are a few methods of doing this. I’ve mentioned choosing the right hotel loyalty program already, but a good credit card for frequent travelers is also worth your while. If you’re serious about saving, you should read up on rate parity, too, so that you understand the inherent challenge in trying to negotiate lower hotel prices.

And, of course, I’m always happy to suggest a subscription with JetLux Hotels. For an annual membership fee (or a lifetime fee of $199), you can get 15-40% discounts on luxury hotels throughout the US. Non-monetary perks include things like suite upgrades, higher quality rooms, and complimentary WiFi.

As a frequent traveler, you’ve got plenty of people trying to earn your loyalty. I’ve personally found that OTAs aren’t worth it—I’m looking for a luxury experience that they’re just not able to offer. If you, too, have your eye on VIP treatment, I’d strongly suggest that you give JetLux a try.

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