Since airline awards are increasingly difficulty to redeem, frequent travellers might be more satisfied investing their loyalty with hotels, where awards are more plentiful.

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:

Best Western Rewards
Like Marriott, it is difficult to find a country that does not have at least one Best Western. Members can earn and redeem Best Western Rewards points at more than 4,000 midscale hotels in 100 countries. They earn 10 points per dollar spent on room rates or can opt instead to earn airline miles in 21 frequent flyer programmes. Award nights go for as few as 8,000 points at basic properties in small- or medium-sized towns, to 36,000 points at its larger, more upscale downtown or resort hotels, now known as Best Western Plus or Premier. As an added bonus, members can redeem points for more than hotel stays. Available gift cards also include dining, merchandise and even charities. Elite level members enjoy early check-in/late check-out privileges, they get the best available room at check-in, and they get a 30% point bonus per stay. Its “Status Match, No Catch” plan offers automatic elite status to elite level members of any other hotel programmes.  

Club Carlson
The Carlson group of hotels, which includes Radisson, Country Inns & Suites, Park Inn and Park Plaza hotels, completely revamped its old Goldpoints Plus programme in 2011 and renamed it Club Carlson. The programme made a big splash last spring when it announced that all members (not just those at elite levels) now get free high-speed internet access at all Carlson hotels globally, even the upscale Radisson Blu brand. Members earn 20 points per dollar spent on the room rate and the food/beverages chages. To redeem, hotels are split into six tiers, with rooms going for as few as 9,000 points per night for a basic Park Inn and up to 50,000 points for iconic locations, such as the breathtaking new Radisson Blu Aqua hotel in central Chicago. Another unique feature of the programme is that points can be redeemed for vacations at 80 popular Club Med resorts. Elite level members get complimentary room upgrades, free breakfast and early check in/check out privileges.

Hilton HHonors
There are more than 3,750 Hilton-branded hotels around the world, from budget friendly Hampton Inns to classy grand dames like New York’s Waldorf-Astoria. HHonors members earn 10 points for every dollar spent on the nightly rate at budget brands and on the entire tab at upscale properties. HHonors is perhaps best known for its practice of allowing members to earn both programme points and airline miles (with 50 carriers) for hotel stays, a practice it calls “double dipping”. Most other hotel programmes ask members to choose one or the other. HHonors is also unique in that award stays are counted toward elite status. Hilton Worldwide brands include Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn, Doubletree, Hilton Hotels, Conrad, Homewood Suites, Hilton Garden Inn and Waldorf-Astoria.

Hyatt Gold Passport
Compared to other hotel chains, Hyatt is relatively small (478 properties), with mostly upscale properties in major cities, but that is changing as the chain focuses on expanding its increasingly popular midscale brands Hyatt Place and Hyatt House. Members earn five points for every dollar spent at the hotel, or 500 miles in any of the more than 40 airline programmes. Redemption levels are based on six different hotel categories, starting as low as 5,000 and up to 33,000 for a suite. Hyatt’s Gold Passport programme went through a major revamp in 2009, offering more frequent upgrades and free wi-fi to its top Platinum and Diamond elite level members. One unique feature allows members to combine points with any other member of the Gold Passport programme to redeem awards. Hyatt brands include Park Hyatt, Andaz, Grand Hyatt, Hyatt Regency, Hyatt Place and Summerfield Suites/Hyatt House.

Marriott Rewards
The Marriott Rewards programme is best known for its ubiquity. There is a Marriott branded hotel in nearly every major city in the world. Members earn 10 points, or two airline miles (at 30 partner carriers) for every dollar spent at the more than 3,400 Marriott brand hotels. For redemptions, Marriott splits its brands into eight categories, with rooms going for as few as 6,000 points to as many as 40,000 for a night at a swank Ritz-Carlton. As a unique perk, book a stay using your points and then pay $25 per night to upgrade to a better room when you arrive at the hotel. Marriott biggest brands include Marriott, JW Marriott, Renaissance, Courtyard, Residence Inn, TownePlace Suites, Fairfield Inn and SpringHill Suites.

InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) Priority Club
The IHG Priority Club is one of the largest programmes in the world due to the popularity and ubiquity if its most recognized brand, Holiday Inn. Members earn 10 points for every dollar spent at its midscale brands, a flat 2,000 points per stay at its luxury InterContinental brand, and five points per dollar spent at extended stay brands such as Candlewood Suites. Members can also earn airline miles instead of points on more than 50 airlines. Priority Club’s most unique feature is its “Any hotel, Anywhere” plan, which lets members convert their points to American Express prepaid hotel cards that can be used at any hotel, anywhere that accepts American Express. Redeeming points this way is not as good a value as when redeemed at member hotels, but it does open up the whole world to free stays. There are nearly 4,400 hotels in Priority Club, including brands like Intercontinental, Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Crowne Plaza, Candlewood Suites, Staybridge Suites and Hotel Indigo.

Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG)
SPG is a favourite among upscale, urban travellers who are on expense accounts because the bulk of its hotels are at the high end of the scale, primarily in big city centres and resort locations. The downside is there are fewer earning/burning opportunities in small/midsize cities. On the upside, redemptions can be made in sexier destinations — like the brand new W hotel Opera in Paris, opening later this winter. Members earn two Starpoints per dollar spent on the entire hotel tab, including food and beverage charges. Starwood Preferred Guest is lauded as the programme that truly has no blackout dates or capacity controls on award nights; if there is a room available, you can buy it with your points. If you do not have enough points for a free stay, SPG allows you to combine cash and points to claim an award. Member hotels include W, Sheraton, Westin, Four Points, St Regis, the Luxury Collection, Le Meridien, Aloft and Element.

Chris McGinnis is the business travel columnist for BBC Travel