Dear Cashing In,
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Me: Happy to be off the unemployment rolls. Yay! You: Helping me out, please? For my new job, I'll be traveling a lot, major metro areas, setting up convention space, spending up to a week at a time in one place. But it's contract work, so I'll be using my own card. Which hotel card would suit me? I hear the hotel cards have gotten chintzy lately. -- Miranda
Congratulations! You should be able to rack up piles of points with this situation. Which hotel loyalty program you choose depends partly on your travel budget, of course, but just to give you some idea of your fellow travelers' preferences, here's a look at the hotel loyalty programs and credit cards frequent fliers ranked highest at the 2013 Freddie Awards.
As usual, Marriott Rewards nearly swept the hotel category in the Americas, winning program of the year, best redemption ability, best customer service and best earning promotion. Assuming your business travel will be primarily in North America, you can't go wrong with Marriott, and it's pretty solid overseas, too.
The Chase Marriott Rewards Visa card ($45 annual fee, waived the first year) earns 3 points per $1 spent on Marriott and 1 point per $1 spent on other purchases. You get 30,000 points after spending $1,000 in the first three months, a one-time bonus of two free night stays and 10 credits toward elite status every year.
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The Premier version has an $85 annual fee (waived the first year), offers 50,000 points after you spend $1,000 in three months, 15 credits toward elite status annually, 5 points per $1 spent at Marriott, and 2 points per $1 on restaurants, car rentals and airline tickets purchased from the airline. It comes with chip technology and no foreign transaction fees. Both cards offer 1 credit toward elite status with every $3,000 you spend.
You can find lots of promotional deals for Marriott Rewards members on the Marriott Rewards website, starting with a free continental breakfast for two for Gold and Platinum elite members beginning June 22 and triple Avios points now through September when you stay at any of 3,700 participating hotels.
You should also look at what all those weeks on the road will get you in terms of elite status. The one category Marriott didn't win was for best elite level. Hyatt Gold Passport won that, and its credit card gets you Platinum membership automatically. Among other things, that means a 15 percent point bonus on each room stay, complimentary in-room Internet access and expedited check-in.
Hyatt Visa ($75 annual fee, waived the first year) comes in chip form with no foreign transaction fees (important if some of your travel is overseas) and offers two free nights for $1,000 spent in the first three months, 3 points per $1 spent on Hyatt and 2 points per $1 spent on dining, airline and car rental.
If you travel overseas, Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) was the top pick for elite level and redemption ability in Europe and Africa. One perk of earning points via Starwood and the SPG American Express is the ability to redeem points on 350 airlines with no blackout dates.
You might also look at Club Carlson. It hasn't yet secured a place in the top-ranked loyalty programs and credit cards, but it's trying harder. Last year, Carlson Hotels and Rezidor Hotel Group merged, with a new credit card and loyalty program covering about 1,000 hotels worldwide (including Radisson, Park Inn and Country Inns & Suites).
Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa card offers automatic Gold elite status and up to 85,000 bonus points at sign-up -- 50,000 after first purchase and 35,000 after spending $2,500 in three months. After that, you get 10 points per dollar spent at participating hotels and 5 points per dollar elsewhere.
You also get 40,000 points each year when you renew your card (for a $75 annual fee). If you have a Club Carlson credit card, you get the last night of any award reservation of two nights or more free. Juicy promotional deals are always popping up on Club Carlson website.