How I Occasionally Get Over Half the Cost of My Hotel Stays Back in Cash Equivalent Rewards and Why Choice Hotels is the Hotel Brand I Love to Hate (Hint: the two are related)

I try to see something interesting on every trip; in this case, Texan hero Sam Houston looks solemnly out over the highway.

Hotels offer a wonderful opportunity to make some extra money when traveling for work, and mind you none of the windfall is taxable. I personally use Marriott and Choice. My colleagues (yes, even the boss, who approves my expense reports and would seem to have reason to prefer smaller numbers) mock me mercilessly for “slumming” when it comes to my hotel preferences. But I come from a humble background and to me, it’s really not a huge sacrifice. Why those two chains? Marriott properties are where I most prefer to stay (not too fancy/expensive, but also not too “questionable,” as long as you avoid certain older properties) and the rewards program is decent. So if I’m going to pay for a hotel stay on vacation with points, Marriott is a good, solid option. Choice, on the other hand, has a rewards program that makes it number one for people who want to get PAID – during two parts of the year in particular. And if you travel to the same areas regularly, you figure out pretty quickly which of their properties are fine and which are better avoided, so that aspect of things becomes less of an issue.

The key with Choice is learning the ins and outs of the rewards program. It is clearly designed to offer a lot of potential value while quietly screwing as many people as possible out of much of it. But once you know what you’re doing, it’s pretty easy to deal with. First I’m going to show you just how valuable the program can be. Then I will discuss the pitfalls and how to avoid them. The two parts of the year when I “choose” Choice (sorry) are when two specific promotions are running. Otherwise, I’m at Marriott for the better overall hotel experience.

Right now, Choice is running its “stay two times, get a free night” promotion. It’s not quite as great as it sounds, but it’s close. A typical one night stay (more on the significance of this wording later) will get you about 1000 points (roughly $100 x 10 points per dollar). But during this promotion, two of those 1000 point nights will get you a serious bonus. It gets a little strange here since supposedly you will get 8000 points total but in reality, you get a little more and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to exactly how many. But regardless, you get a minimum of 8000 points for two stays. Now to be fair, that will only get you a night at a select few Choice properties but that’s irrelevant to me because that isn’t how I use the points. I use them to buy Amazon gift cards, which are effectively cash equivalents. And the cost of a $50 Amazon gift card is 16,000 points. Are you one of the eight people who don’t use Amazon? No problem. There are tons of other gift card options as well and I believe they’re all priced the same.

The opposite promotion is twice as good. You still get 8000 points minimum for two one night stays but in addition, some of the gift cards, including Amazon, are discounted to half price – meaning you get a $50 gift card for every other night you stay. The catch here is that the discount only lasts while the promotion is running and if I remember correctly, there is a delay of 48 hours between gift card orders. So you have to stay on top of it or you will get screwed out of some of your bonus. But this can be an incredible moneymaker. Back when I was spending a few nights on the road in a typical week, I was making easily $500+ in Amazon gift cards during the approximately two months a year this promotion ran.

This pair of promotions represents the bulk of the opportunity, but I’m all about maximizing. You can make about an extra $2-10 per stay if you use ebates (www.ebates.com), depending on how much Choice is offering when you make your reservation. On my last stay, it was 10%! Usually it’s at least 2%. Another thing that is easy to overlook is the “Extras” portion. I use it to collect an additional $2.50 Amazon gift card for every stay. There are other “Extras” options but this one is the easiest for me to monetize. Finally, if you use a proper rewards credit card to pay for your stay, you will get even more cash back. I use the Wells Fargo Propel Amex to get 3%. All of these are small on their own but together, they add up to almost $10 per stay (or significantly more depending on the current ebates rate). And other than the $2.50 Amazon gift card, you can also use them at Marriott or most other major hotel chains.

What does this all look like in practice? This week I stayed a night under the “stay two times, get a free night” promotion. For the sake of simplicity, I will round the cost to $100, which is usually pretty close anyway. For my one night stay, I got: $12.50 in the form of enough points to buy a quarter of a $50 Amazon gift card, $10 through ebates, $3 through my Wells Fargo Propel credit card, and an additional $2.50 Amazon gift card through “Extras.” So in total, my $100 stay paid me back $28. If you factor in the vomit inducing amount of taxes I pay on every dollar of earned income, and will not have to pay on this since it falls under that magical “purchase rebate” category, that $28 becomes almost $40. And if this stay had instead been during the opposite promotion, I would have earned half an Amazon gift card instead of a quarter, bringing the total haul to nearly a whopping $60 with taxes factored in!   

How can you keep the clever bastards in Choice’s c-suite from conning you out of your rewards? First, you obviously have to register for a rewards account. But it’s not that simple. The two promotions above require a separate registration each time they run. So when I make any hotel reservation, I always start with the Choice site to make sure one of these promotions isn’t running. If it is, I immediately register and then use only Choice hotels for the duration. Another way they can get you is the difference between “night” and “stay.” The promotions are for “stays,” meaning that if you stay multiple consecutive nights, you have just made a terrible mistake because your multiple nights are only getting you credit for one half of the two “stays” required to earn the bonus (when multiple nights would already have earned you the bonus once and potentially more times, depending on how many there were). I believe the extras (the $2.50 Amazon gift card in my case) run the same way. So make sure you never stay two nights in a row in the same Choice hotel unless you’re ok with halving most of your payoff – and if you’re anything like me, the payoff is the only reason you’re there in the first place.

I will note that as a guy who has been to the top tier of Choice’s rewards level and well beyond, there is very little benefit to doing so. You get some bonus points on top of your regular 1000 but nothing else of value. And for me, that isn’t enough to get my business over a superior Marriott option, which is typically priced only a little bit higher. The money is made with the two major bonus promotions. There are a couple of other promotions throughout the year (for example, one doubles the points you earn from a stay) but there again, they aren’t enough to move the needle for me.

There you have it. You now have the tools to make some serious money off of your hotel stays, especially at Choice properties. Stay tuned because I’m going to post about other ways to put your travel job to work making extra money for you – and no, it’s not anything illegal or underhanded. Happy system gaming and have a great afternoon!

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