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My family and I are in the process of planning and taking a summer vacation trip out west.  On our way to see Yellowstone National Park and Mt. Rushmore, we are taking a cross country, overnight, train trip.  Travel bucket list item… CHECK!

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

Staying at Choice Hotels

In the Western United States, Choice Hotels is very well represented among chain hotels.  Along our entire route (through the states of Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota), there are maybe 2 or 3 Hampton Inns (Hilton) and not a single Starwood hotel.  Hyatt’s only offering is in Denver and Colorado Springs.  There are a few Best Westerns, and Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express hotels (IHG) are fairly plentiful, but the #1 hotel portfolio by far is Choice Hotels.  Everywhere we go, there are tons of Econo Lodges, Sleep Inns, Rodeway Inns, Comfort Inns, and Quality Inns.  I was a little leery before my latest Rodeway Inn stay, but afterwards, I had to admit that it was not that bad!

You know when you're at a place that tells you how much it will cost if you steal the alarm clock, you're in for a classy stay!!! :-D

You know when you’re at a place that tells you how much it will cost if you steal the alarm clock, you’re in for a classy stay!!! 😀

Most of these hotels are fairly low-end “budget” hotels, but that’s okay – my kids don’t want “5-star” hotels – all they want is a swimming pool and a waffle maker!  I have to say, I prefer them too – I get sick of the “luxury” hotels nickel and dime-ing you for breakfast, wifi, parking and everything else.  It’s one of the 3 reasons “budget” hotels DESTROY nice ones

Getting Choice Hotels points

choice-hotels-logoI have a bunch of Chase Ultimate Rewards.  They’re my favorite currency out there.

(SEE ALSO: Chase Ultimate Rewards: 5 reasons I think they’re the best miles out there)

Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer 1:1 to Amtrak Guest Rewards, and I used 100,000 Chase points to transfer to Amtrak to book what would otherwise have been a $6500 Amtrak train trip.  A 1-zone trip on Amtrak (from Ohio to Denver) in a family bedroom (sleeps 4) is only 25,000 points.  We need 2 bedrooms, so the roundtrip cost was 100,000 points.

In addition, Amtrak transfers to Choice Hotels at 1:3, and if you have Amtrak elite statue, or have the Amtrak credit card and spend $250 on Amtrak, you can transfer 25,000 Amtrak points a year to Choice Hotels (giving you 75,000 Choice Hotel points)

(SEE ALSO: Why you want to transfer Amtrak points to Choice Hotels)

I transferred 20,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards to Amtrak, and then redeemed those 20,000 points for 60,000 Choice points.  You have to transfer Amtrak to Choice points in increments of 5,000.  My heart skipped a beat when I read that the transfer takes 4-6 weeks (I didn’t have that much time), but in actuality, it only took about 2 weeks to transfer.  Coupled with the points from my Rodeway Inn stay and another paid stay I had for work at a Cambria Suites, it left me with 61,120 points.

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Planning our Choice Hotels award reservations

My itinerary called for 4 nights at Choice Hotels

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  • Quality Inn in Rock Springs, Wyoming – 12,000 points / night
  • Rodeway Inn and Suites, Gardiner, Montana – 16,000 points / night
  • Econo Lodge Miles City, Montana – 10,000 points / night
  • Econo Lodge Belle Fourche, South Dakota, – 8,000 points / night

Adding that up (and remembering that our family of 8 generally needs 2 rooms a night) – we need 76,000 points for these 4 bookings.  I had only transferred over 60,000 points, so I didn’t have enough to book all of them (originally one of those 4 bookings was going to be at an IHG hotel).

But… for a strange reason, Choice Hotels does not debit the points from your account when you make a reservation.  This is different than every other hotel chain I’ve booked awards at – everywhere else, when you make a reservation, your account is debited the points, and should you cancel, the points are returned.  Here, I seemingly could book 1,000,000 stays as long as I had enough points for one of them.  I assume that if I have a points stay booked and not enough points in my account on the day of the stay that I’d just have to pay the cash rate, but I’m just guessing.

Should I just pay cash?

I know many people argue that low end hotel stays are perfect times to save points and pay cash.  I disagree with that for a few reasons.  First of all, I am points rich and (relatively) cash poor.  I am ALWAYS going to pay with miles and points because the cost of generating these points is so low.

Secondly, the Chase -> Amtrak -> Choice transfer tree is SO lucrative, it makes everything work out.  Take the “worst” redemption of the 4 – the Quality Inn, which costs 12,000 points for a room that is retailing at $80 / night (plus tax).  4,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards for $80 is 2 cents a point of value, which is pretty respectable.  Also remember that this is peak summer travel season at one of the most popular national parks in the country.  That night at the Rodeway Inn and Suites is going for nearly $300!

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For 5,333 Chase Ultimate Rewards, that’s nearly 6 cents a value, topping what I scored at the Hyatt House San Juan Puerto Rico.

Wrapping it up

So at this point it seems like a pretty good deal.  I am a little nervous that because it didn’t take the points out when I booked the reservation, when I get there they will have given away my rooms (similar to my experience at my worst hotel stay ever).  I assume that my points will be debited when I actually check in and stay.

Personal Finance Digest over at Saverocity wrote about the flip side of this story – a guy who realized that apparently the Choice Hotels booking system didn’t erase his rewards when he cancelled a paid booking stay, so he racked up nearly $50,000 which he redeemed in, for some reason, Applebee’s gift cards?!?

Hopefully it will all work out – nothing like a super stressful vacation when we have nowhere to stay!

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