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Free hotel nights and upgrades

So you want to stay for free at that fancy five star hotel? Or just want to pay the cheapest room rate and get upgraded to a suite?  Travel industry fact: Be loyal, get rewarded.

To enjoy free nights, you’ll have to collect points…lot’s of loyalty points.  To enjoy free upgrades and benefits,  you will need to obtain an elite level.  Different elite levels can be achieved by staying a certain number of nights/stays, by collecting a certain number of points or simply by buying yourself an elite level.  The more precious the metal, the higher your elite level. (Silver, Gold, Platinum, etc..)

Before you can start collecting points, you’ll need to make-up your mind on which hotel chain you like the most. You’ll need to make an assessment on which brand matches your budget, travel frequency, destinations and personal preferences.  Once you have selected a particular hotel chain (or two), stick to it.  Sign-up for the loyalty program, enroll for all promotions and stay at their properties as much as possible.

Here’s an overview of 7 hotel loyalty programs with a global property network:

I included  links to fast-track elite status offers for HHonors and Club Carlson.  These will allow you to enjoy elite benefits from your first stay onwards.

Once you’ve signed up for the program it’s time to review the bonus offers of your favorite hotel chain.  FrequentFlyerBonuses.com has an excellent overview of all point promotions per hotel program.  Sign-up on as much promo’s as possible for your hotel loyalty program.  Instead of those 2000 base points at your first stay, you might cash in 10.000 points!  Yes, it requires some effort tracking all those offers, but it’s very rewarding.  Soon you’ll find yourself addicted, checking your points balance on a weekly basis.

Not convinced? Here are some examples of point rewards I cashed in via my favorite loyalty program PriorityClub

  • Two free nights at the brand new InterContinental Kiev for just 10.000 points using PointBreaks (value: 400 euro)  Effort: used points of two previous stays (on which I spent 150 euro)
  • Two free nights at Holiday Inn Munich City Centre during the opening weekend of OktoberFest 2009.  (value: 500 euro) Cost: 30.000 points + $120.  PriorityClub has no blackout dates, so even during festivals, new year, etc.. you can still get that free night! You can also combine points with cash to get rewards faster.

Aside from point promotions, hotel loyalty programs also frequently run “Stay X nights/times, get one night free” promotions.  Last quarter of 2010, InterContinental’s PriorityClub had a promo called ‘Sweet Dillema’.  For every two stays (a stay is defined as any number of consecutive nights at one hotel) you received one free night with a limit of 5 free nights.  If you use this kind of promotions in a creative way, it can result in some great opportunities. In my case I stayed 10 times 1 night at cheap Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza’s.  This resulted in 5 free nights which I could use at any IHG property from Nov 1,2010 until May 2011.  Here’s what I received in return for spending 10 nights at IHG properties. (cost: +- 700 euro)

Convinced? You bet! Be loyal, be creative!

Planning: weekend trip to Bucharest

Here’s the work flow I used to book my weekend trip to Bucharest, Romania.

Step 1: Flight

As I live near Brussels airport (BRU) I try to avoid booking flights departing from the low-cost Brussels South airport (CRL) which is located near Charleroi, a 45 min drive from Brussels.  Airport parking is expensive at both Brussels and Charleroi airport.  This is one of the reasons I prefer to depart from Brussels Airport so I can leave my car at home.

There are multiple carriers connecting Brussels with Bucharest, but only Blue Air and TAROM Romanian Air Transport have direct flights from Brussels Airport.  Blue Air is a low cost carrier connecting Brussels Airport with Baneasa airport (BBU) which is only 8.5km from downtown Bucharest.  The second airline serving Brussels airport is Tarom, the flag carrier and oldest currently operating airline of Romania. It had the hottest female CEO ever, until Ruxandra Brutaru resigned on March 15, 2011.  Tarom connects Brussels Airport with Romania’s busiest international airport Otopeni (OTP) located 16.5 km of downtown Bucharest.  Note: At Brussels South airport (CRL) WizzAir has a direct connection to Baneasa (BBU).

To determine the cheapest (and most comfortable) fare I used several websites including Kayak.com and Bravofly.com The first one came up with the conventional airline routes, the latter also included most low cost airlines and made a mix of one way tickets to find the cheapest fare.  I noticed two things: Blue Air had the cheapest fare for the roundtrip BRU-BBU and Brussels Airlines was selling the Tarom flights as codeshare partner at a cheaper price.  Some of the disadvantages of Blue Air: Very strict carry-on luggage enforcement (7KG max), 15 euro fee (per leg) for checked luggage, regular flight delays,  operates at the overcrowded Baneasa airport and your flight might arrive late at night at BBU which means you’ll have a hard time finding an honest taxi driver.  Tarom provides better service, free in-flight food and beverages, uses the OTP airport which has a reliable taxi queue and is part of Skyteam. (collect miles and status privileges)

In this case I decided to make a combination of one way tickets.  I paid 49.99 euro (incl. all fees i.e. 15 euro checked bag)  for a Blue Air flight from BRU to BBU on Friday night and 116.66 euro for the Brussels Airlines flight (operated by Tarom) from OTP to BRU on Monday afternoon.  Total airfare: 166,65 euro.  Not the cheapest fare for a round trip Brussels – Bucharest, but I only booked three weeks in advance.  I also have checked luggage both ways and can collect miles since the return flight is sold by Brussels Airlines, a Star Alliance member. (see  Brussels Airlines & non Star Alliance partner = 0 miles)

Step 2: Hotel

I’m a fan of the InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG) for many reasons, of which Priority Club (PC) is number one.  I had countless upgrades and free nights at IHG properties (Holiday Inn, InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, …) just by using my Priority Club loyalty card.  If you keep an eye on the PC offers, points count up quickly and after your first two or three stays you can already cash in on a free night using the PointBreaks list.  I have saved thousands of euros using this program and received incredible upgrades.  Being loyal in the travel industry can be very rewarding. More about this later.

First I checked if any IHG properties were available in Bucharest. Yes, there’s a Crowne Plaza and an InterContinental hotel.  As we like to travel in luxury and since IC Bucharest is one of the cheaper InterContinental hotels in the IHG portfolio I decided to go for it.  I’m also an InterContinental Ambassador, a paid membership which upgrades your Priority Club level and provides you with privileges like a guaranteed room upgrade, 4pm late check-out, welcome gift, etc…

To check the hotel rate I used HotelsCombined.com , a hotel price comparison engine which collects all the rates from different booking sites like Hotels.com, Booking.com, Travelocity.com, etc…  In most cases the IHG website rate is the lowest, but in this case Skoosh.com was offering the Superior room rate including breakfast for two nights at 155 euro as where the IHG rate was 226 euro.  In this kind of situations, you can rely on the IHG Lowest Internet Rate Guarantee.  If your claim is valid (read the rules very carefully!) IHG not only matches the lower rate, but gives you an additional 10% off!  I must admit it took some effort to get my claim validated this time (email discussion about room type description) but I managed to get the rate from 226 euro to 139,50 euro. (lowest rate found at Skoosh.com 155 euro -10%) On top of that, my stay will qualify for points, which is not the case when you book through a third party website.

For my third night, I wanted to try something new.  The Radisson Blu Bucharest was listed as the number one luxury hotel in Bucharest on Tripadvisor (the single most reliable site for hotel reviews) and was also rewarded the Carlson Global Hotel of the Year award. I checked the regular rates at HotelsCombined.com for the Radisson Blu and got 118 euro as the cheapest room rate without breakfast. Quite expensive for one night in Bucharest, so I started looking for a way to get the rate down.  As I don’t collect loyalty points with the Carlson group, I didn’t care about non-qualifying rates. I learned about the Radisson Family and Friends rate, which offers almost every Radisson Blu property at 80 euro per night including breakfast for two.  The only requirement is to have a friend or family member working at a Carlson property.  One of my friends works at a Park Inn hotel, so I could use her details to secure this great rate.

Step 3: Airport to Hotel transportation

One of the most frustrating annoyances about travel is coping with corrupt taxi drivers. They have them in every city around the world, but Bucharest has a large share of scam artist.  As indicated before, I will arrive late at Baneasa airport. Last year November, I also arrived late at Baneasa airport and had a very hard time finding an honest taxi driver.  In fact, all taxi drivers in the official queue outside the airport collaborated to scam foreign visitors.  Every single one of them asked 100lei (25 euro) for the 8.5km trip to downtown Bucharest which should only be 35 lei (8 euro) max.  As I wanted to avoid the hassle this time, I checked for websites where I could book the airport taxi or limo online.  The cheapest rate I found was 20 euro.  I finally decided to book the InterContinental Bucharest limo service.  A Mercedes Benz E Series with driver will be waiting for me at the airport.  At 23 euro it’s much more expensive than a regular taxi, but since they are so hard to get late at night, I decided to go for the safe and reliable option.

Step 4: What to see, do, eat, drink in Bucharest?

A good start to plan your activities is Wikitravel. An other trustworthy resource is Lonely Planet. More later.