NerdWallet: You don’t have to be ‘loyal’ to get hotel upgrades and other perks

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This article is reprinted by permission from NerdWallet.

Hotel loyalty benefits — such as access to room upgrades, late checkout and other amenities — aren’t reserved only for the most faithful, highest-spending customers anymore. With the right credit card, you can get them, too.

That’s because automatic elite status in hotel loyalty programs is an increasingly common feature on credit cards associated with these programs. Now, some hotel cards — such as the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Luxury Card AXP, -4.20%   and Hilton HLT, -3.62%   Honors American Express Aspire card, which both carry annual fees of $450 — even give cardholders access to the upper echelons of elite status.

“The status does make a difference” for consumers, says John Grund, managing director at Accenture Payments, a firm that provides consulting services for banks and payment providers. “[It has] high aspirational value and could certainly be a deciding factor” on whether to get a card.

It’s not the most predictable credit card benefit; perks can vary based on availability. But if you travel enough, getting a hotel card with automatic elite status can be a clever shortcut to more pleasant stays.

Room upgrades

Joe Hegedus of Orlando, Florida, isn’t particularly loyal to any one hotel brand — but his co-branded hotel cards still help him get room upgrades. Once, while spending one night at a hotel in Fort Pierce, Florida, with his wife, Sharon, he says he was upgraded to a three-room suite for no extra charge after checking in.

At the front desk, “they were like, ‘Oh, you’re a Platinum member? Thank you so much. We went ahead and upgraded you to one of our suites on the top floor,’” says Hegedus, who works as a pharmacist and co-founded the award travel blog Your Mileage May Vary.

Potential room upgrades are common as a midtier hotel elite status benefit. They aren’t a sure thing, Hegedus notes; they depend on availability. Landing a major upgrade is also rare. But if the hotel has plenty of open rooms, you have a better chance.

Flexible check-in and checkout

For weary travelers, the option to check in early or check out late can be a huge relief. And often, the elite status that comes with hotel cards makes this possible.

“We don’t usually take advantage of a late checkout, but I’ll try to get an early check-in,” Hegedus says, noting his hotel cards offer these benefits. “Most times, it just means I show up at the hotel early and they see I have some status with the program. Hopefully it means they give me [an early] room.”

This perk also depends on availability, he notes. But he estimates he’s received early check-in more than half the times he’s requested it.

Other amenities and benefits

The hotel elite status that comes with your card might not make your trip significantly cheaper, but it can make it more comfortable. Some hotel chains, such as Hyatt H, -4.12%   and InterContinental Hotels Group, IHG, -2.88%   promise elite members a dedicated check-in area or phone line. Others offer a free breakfast to those with status.

There’s also the potential to rack up free hotel nights faster. With elite status, you generally earn a bonus of 10% to 100% on any points earned through the hotel for your stay, depending on your status and the program. Combined with the points you’re already earning on your hotel credit card, that could help you cover a vacation with your rewards a lot sooner.

What about the annual fee?

With hotel cards, higher annual fees translate to more perks. But how much value you get from those perks depends on your travel habits. The good news: You have options.

“What I would call the laddering of benefits [on hotel cards] has become more sophisticated, more refined and certainly tied in with an expanded portfolio of credit card offerings,” says Grund of Accenture Payments, noting that several hotel brands have recently updated offers or debuted new cards. Nowadays, you can find hotel cards with annual fees of $0, $95 or $450, and benefits that run the gamut from free anniversary nights each year to airport lounge access.

Don’t plan to stay with a certain hotel more than once? You’re probably better off without a hotel card. But if you can use the benefits enough to make up for the annual fee and then some, such a card could be a worthy addition to your wallet.

More from NerdWallet:

Claire Tsosie is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: Twitter: @ideclaire7.

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