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I have to say that I am super excited to be at the Family Travel for Real Life (#FT4RL) conference again, and once again to be live blogging.  I hope that you will follow along with me as we learn about family travel, and how those of us with families can take part in it with their families.  See below for the lineup of speakers and follow us throughout the day with hashtag #FT4RL on Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest.

This first speaker is extra tricky to live blog since…. it’s me!  Lots of people wondered how I would manage to live blog my own presentation, but it seemed pretty straight-forward to me since I already KNOW what the presentation is, that I could just recap it before-the-fact 🙂  So here goes!

What do you think about when you think of “budget” hotels

Budget hotels often come with a pretty bad rap.  You’ll see pictures like this



Please don’t steal our stuff! (From my stay at a $39 / night Rodeway Inn, which actually ended up not being so bad)

(SEE ALSO: Is it ever a good idea to book a Rodeway Inn?)

Or maybe you’re thinking more like this?


That’s an actual worm that I found in the pool of a Category 1 Country Inn and Suites!

A tale of 2 Chicago hotels, 2006

Almost ten years ago, long before I knew anything about miles and points, I had 2 different weeks of work training in Chicago.  The first week I stayed at the Palmer House Hilton, which is a Category 7 Hilton (60K points / night).  It charged:

  • Self parking $43 (valet parking is $75)
  • Wifi was $12.95 / day
  • Breakfast was super expensive
  • Though it did have a copy of “Be my Guest”, the Conrad Hilton story

The second week was at a Holiday Inn Express in the suburbs

  • Free wifi
  • Free breakfast
  • Free Parking
  • Oh did I mention it was (way) less than half the nightly rate?

I’ve written it before, but these are the reasons I think that so-called “budget” hotels DESTROY the “nice” ones

Comparing the hotels for my recent trips

For our family’s trip out to Yellowstone and Mt. Rushmore this summer, we stayed 9 nights at 8 hotels in 6 states across 5 brands in 4 different loyalty programs

  • Holiday Inn Express (Category 2 IHG) – Perrysburg, OH (2 nights)
  • Hyatt House (Category 1 Hyatt) – Colorado Springs, CO
  • Quality Inn (Category 4 Choice) – Rock Springs, WY
  • Holiday Inn Express (Category 3 IHG) – Idaho Falls, ID
  • Rodeway Inn and Suites (Category 5 Choice) – Gardiner, MT
  • Econo Lodge (Category 3 Choice) – Miles City, MT
  • Econo Lodge (Category 2 Choice) – Belle Fourche, SD
  • Holiday Inn Express (Category 3 IHG) – Torrington, WY

For the most part, we stayed at low level category hotels (the most expensive one was 20K IHG points for a Category 3 Holiday Inn Express), and they were (almost) all very nice!  I would stay at all 8 of them again.

Even the Choice Hotels in “Category 5” only cost 16,000 Choice points a night, and with the 1:3 transfer that you could do with Chase -> Amtrak -> Choice, only cost us a little over 5,000 Chase points / night, which is comparable to a Category 1 Hyatt (and less than Category 1 IHG or Marriott, 2 other Chase partners)


Though we did end up using 100,000 points for 2 nights, but I’m not sure that counts since it was on a train!! 🙂

(SEE ALSO: My (free) $6500 family train vacation on Amtrak)

On our trip to Europe, we splurged a little bit and stayed at some pretty nice hotels

But after all that, probably our NICEST hotel there (at least in the top 2 or 3) was the Comfort Hotel Fiumicino Roma – a Category 2 Choice Hotel that cost us 8,000 Choice points (literally a TENTH of some of the other hotels we stayed at!)

Breaking down the low-level options by brand

Next, we took a look at the low-level category options by brand. In more or less order from worst to best, here they were

Bad idea

Wyndham Rewards is on its own in this category – now that they have moved to a “fixed” award level, where every hotel costs 15,000 points / night no matter what, there’s no real reason to redeem at Super 8s in the middle of nowhere when those same 15,000 points could get you an all-inclusive Caribbean resort

Not that Great

Best Western, Club Carlson, IHG and Marriott are in the next group.  All of those have some low level categories, but there aren’t very many hotels actually IN those categories.  Best Western has the added problem of it not being very easy to get a lot of BW points.  Club Carlson has a few Category 1 and 2 hotels, but ever since they removed the Bonus Award perk of their credit card, the value isn’t really there (you really have to go up to Category 3 – 28,000 points / night before you start finding their hotels in most cities)

IHG and Marriott are both Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partners, but one tip that can help save you points if you’re planning on using your Ultimate Rewards is to make sure and check the Ultimate Rewards travel portal – that’s how I saved over 2,000 points on a stay at the Fairfield Inn Dayton North (Category 2 Marriott)

Getting warmerhilton-logo

Hilton has 2 good low-level categories with Category 1 at 5,000 points / night and Category 2 at 10,000 points / night.  Category 1 Hiltons are hard to find (unless you live in Egypt!), but Category 2s are a little more prevalent.  I stayed at a Hampton Inn in LaGrange, Georgia for my sister’s wedding and it was a great hotel for only 10K points / night!

The top 3 chains for low-level redemptions

My top 3 chains for low-level redemptions are Starwood, Hyatt and Choice.  Starwood has Category 1 and Category 2 hotels for only 3,000 and 4,000 points, and it’s actually only 2,000 and 3,000 points if you’re staying on a weekend.  Plus, award stays count towards elite status, AND your earnings on paid stays get you MUCH closer to free nights than with other chains.  Here’s my account statement after 1 stay at a Sheraton in Boston (where Aer Lingus put us up after they canceled my flight!)


For one $80 stay, with Gold bonus and Gold welcome gift (SPG gold status free with Amex Platinum, which I got on a recent credit card churn), I got almost 1500 points – almost enough for a Category 1 award stay by itself!

Hyatt is superb because their Category 1 and Category 2 hotels are only 5,000 and 8,000 points, AND they transfer from Chase, AND they have WAY more low-level hotels all across the US.  For example there are 3 Category 1 Hyatts in Cincinnati alone!  These are usually Hyatt Place and Hyatt Houses, which are my favorites anyways – one big reason is the full kitchens, which can help keep your food costs down

We stayed at the Hyatt House San Juan, which is a category 2, and that was a STEAL at only 8,000 points / night compared to $275!  8,000 points for a 477 square foot SUITE with a full kitchen?


For now though (at least as of 2015), I like Choice, mostly on the strength of the Chase -> Amtrak -> Choice 1:3 transfer.  Unfortunately, with the new Amtrak Guest Rewards, it’s not quite as easy to do that.  We do know that Bank of America is the new issuer of the Amtrak credit card, and you CAN still qualify to transfer Chase points, but it’s a little harder to do.  What still remains to be seen is now that Chase to Amtrak transfers are going away – will you’ll be able to transfer any currencies (Amex, SPG, new Bank of America points?) into Amtrak.  Otherwise, it will be harder to get a lot of Choice points – maybe Daily Getaways will be more relevant?

For this year though, the ability to snag decent hotels for as few as 3,000-5,000 Chase points is a huge win, not to mention the fact that in places like the western US, Choice has a HUGE portfolio where many other brands are missing in action.

Summing up – Low-level categories give you WAY more bang for the buck with your points (depending on what you value)

Thanks for following along, and thank you to those in attendance.  You can find my full presentation on Google Drive.


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