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When it comes to traveller loyalty, airline frequent flyer programmes get the most attention due to the allure of their most popular awards: free flights to exotic destinations. But since those airline awards are increasingly difficulty to redeem, frequent travellers might be more satisfied investing their loyalty with hotels, where benefits and awards are more plentiful, and the likelihood of actually redeeming an award is higher.

There is no single best hotel programme. The one (or ones) to participate in are those that suit your tastes, budget and travel patterns. For example, if you primarily stay in upscale properties in major cities, the Starwood or Hyatt programmes are probably your best bets. But if you travel far and wide, and stay at hotels in small towns or along motorways, loyalty to Best Western or Holiday Inn would pay off sooner. 

Trying to compare hotel loyalty programs -- apples to apples -- is difficult, but sitting down, doing the math and determining which program works best for you will be worth it in the long run.

Unlike most airline programmes, which use the frequent flyer “mile” as an easily comparable common currency, the value of a hotel “point” varies. For example, choose a Best Western in London, and you will earn 10 points for each dollar you spend on the nightly rate. But walk across the street to a Sheraton, and you will earn just two points per dollar spent on your entire hotel tab, including the nightly rate and food or beverage costs. Stay at the InterContinental around the block and you will earn a flat 2,000 points for your stay, whether it is for one night, or seven.

The same is true when it comes to point redemptions. Best Western offers free nights for as few as 8,000 rewards points, while you need 25,000 Priority Club points for a free night at one of InterContinental’s Crowne Plaza hotels. Starwood’s Preferred Guest programme divides its broad range of member hotels into seven categories, with a free room ranging from as little as 2,000 Starpoints at its budget properties to as many as 35,000 for a free night at a posh St Regis. When it comes to redemptions, some programmes proclaim to have “no blackout dates”, which may be true. But then they impose “capacity controls” on free rooms (usually during peak travel periods), which effectively block access to available rooms.

For those who are truly loyal to the programme (staying 10 to 15 nights minimum per year), elite level benefits vary widely as well. For example, top tier elite level members of the Hilton HHonors or Marriott Rewards programmes get free in-room internet access at all participating hotels, but entry-level elites still have to pay for it. At a Radisson hotel, all you have to do it sign up for the programme to get free access

If you are after a good bargain, some loyalty programmes offer deals or discounts to members first, via email or social networking channels, that can sell out once broadly announced. Hotels also frequently roll out “stay three times, get one free” promotions during periods of low demand, like the winter months.

Once you have settled on a programme that works for you, take a look at the offers from its affiliated charge card. Promotions vary throughout the year, but many typically offer new card holders big point bonuses or free nights just for signing up and using the card one time — not a bad way to start!

Here are the key features of the largest hotel loyalty programmes (listed in alphabetical order) to help you decide which is best for you:

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