In general, it doesn’t make too much sense for international visitors to sign up for U.S. airline frequent flyer programs (or “schemes” as our UK friends say). It’s usually better to book your air through a code-share agreement and gain frequent flyer miles in your own program. (For example, if you fly United from Germany to the U.S., it’s better to book your flights through Lufthansa – a United Star Alliance partner – and you can get Lufthansa miles in your account even if you’re on a United plane.)
Yet many hotel chains also offer “frequent guest” or “frequent stay” programs, and it may be worthwhile to sign up for some of those. If you’re traveling around the U.S. and expect or want to stay in the same chain’s properties in several places, you can build points for free rooms and other discounts quite quickly.
For example, if you like Hilton-level hotels (Hilton, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn, others), joining the Hilton HHonors program can gain you points you can use worldwide. Likewise, if your budget leans more toward mid-range motels, the TripRewards (Days Inn, Ramada, Travelodge, Super 8, others) or Choice (Comfort Inn, Quality, Clarion, Sleep Inn, others) programs may be worthwhile on your travels.
Not only do you acquire frequent-guest points, but many plans offer room upgrades, free newspapers, the ability to trade points for airline miles, and other small amenities for program participants.
The programs which to us seem to be the best possibilities for international visitors include:
Hilton HHonors (Hilton, Doubletree, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn, others)
Priority Club (Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, InterContinental, others)
TripRewards (Days Inn, Ramada, Travelodge, Super 8, others)
Choice Privileges (Comfort Inn, Quality, Clarion, Sleep Inn, others)
Starwood Preferred Guest (Westin, Sheraton, Four Points, St. Regis, others)
Other programs, which may have less variety and geographic distribution, fewer amenities or point trade possibilities, or are limited to only one property (Best Western) yet which may still be worth considering include:
Best Western Gold Crown Club
Hyatt Gold Passport
Even if you’re initially unsure of what properties you’ll be staying at until you begin travelling, you can usually sign up for a hotel’s program upon check-in for your first stay. Then, if you continue to stay with that hotel, you’ll be building points in the program immediately.
All these programs have extensive websites detailing their offerings. We belong to many of these programs, but for our travels we most frequently lean toward the Hilton HHonors and Choice Privileges programs. Most programs have no cost to join, so sign up for any you think you might use. And for U.S. residents, several of these programs have associated credit card programs, where you can accrue hotel points with your charge purchases. We are happy with the Hilton American Express card, and have also heard good reports about Starwood’s America Express card. Several other hotel chains have credit cards associated with their programs.