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These lesser-known hotel loyalty programmes offer free, instant rewards

The luxury La Mamounia Hotel in Morocco, is popular with the rich and famous. Picture: Unsplash

The luxury La Mamounia Hotel in Morocco, is popular with the rich and famous. Picture: Unsplash

Published Apr 20, 2022


By Ramsey Qubein

On a recent trip to Paris, it wasn’t the elaborate Michelin-starred dinners that blew me away, but breakfast at the Ritz. A parade of baskets heaped with flaky croissants and pains au chocolat, silver platters of sliced fruit, and eggs as light as air were all elegantly presented on starched white linens in a glass-enclosed winter garden. The best part: it didn’t cost me a thing.

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As a newly minted member of the Leaders Club loyalty programme, which I joined for free right before my stay, the €66 (R1067) breakfast was included, from my first Paris morning to the last.

Loyalty programmes can seem like a never-ending hustle of chasing down and redeeming points and miles. But smaller brands sometimes eschew those currency systems, offering valuable perks – like that princely morning meal – for anyone who signs up.

That makes them a welcome complement to such known commodities as Marriott Bonvoy or Hilton Honors, whose good stuff (namely upgrades, free breakfast, and late checkout) doesn’t kick in until you attain a certain level of hard-won elite status.

Here are five under-the-radar, free-to-join programmes that provide instant travel gratification.

Leaders Club, by the Leading Hotels of the World (LHW)

MJZ International Cocktail as part of the Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Spring/Summer 2019 at Hotel Ritz.

The network: More than 400 of the world’s finest hotels, including such grande dames as the Ritz Paris, Villa Magna in Madrid, and La Mamounia in Marrakech.

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The immediate perks: members receive automatic free continental breakfast for two, wi-fi, and priority room upgrades upon arrival. And if you sign up online, you’ll bank an annual upgrade to apply to any single reservation on a pre-arrival basis, pending availability.

The longer game: The programme used to charge $175 (R2615) a year for membership because its perks were so generous; last year, it nixed the fee while maintaining the benefits, and those perks escalate the more money you spend at LHW hotels. Earn one point for every eligible dollar (up to three rooms at a time) and then redeem increments of 4 000 points for free nights. Spend at least $5 000 within the calendar year to unlock Leaders Club Sterling, which adds five pre-arrival upgrades to your balance.

I Prefer Hotel Rewards, by Preferred Hotels & Resorts

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The network: more than 700 properties across 85 countries. These include such well-known five-stars as Wynn Las Vegas; Grand Hotel Tremezzo on Lake Como, Italy; and the Post Oak Hotel in Houston. In addition, there are 100 Preferred Residences – think beachfront condos in Turks and Caicos and swanky Manhattan apartments where members can earn and redeem points.

The immediate perks: new members enjoy early check-in and late checkout privileges, room upgrades when available, and free wi-fi. The first of those may be the most covetable – the ability to check into a hotel first thing in the morning after a long overnight flight is priceless.

The longer game: This is the world’s largest point-based programme for independent hotels. Unlike major hotel programmes in which you’re accruing points and miles that can be exchanged for dynamically priced rewards, this system is refreshingly straightforward: for every $1 of eligible spending at Preferred properties, you’ll earn 10 points, which can be redeemed for discounts on future stays. Rack up 25 000 points within a calendar year to attain Explorer status, which earns you free welcome amenities (a bottle of wine or local souvenir, depending on the hotel) plus bonus points.

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Invited, by Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH)

The network: more than 520 boutique hotels around the world in more than 90 countries – all vetted by inspectors against a rigorous, 750-point quality control checklist including everything from the posture of staff to bathroom water pressure. On the roster are Villa Orsula and Hotel Excelsior, both just steps from the old town in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and the Refinery Hotel in New York.

The immediate perks: with advance notice you can be guaranteed early check-ins at 12pm and checkout as late as 2pm, plus free wi-fi. And the benefits escalate quickly: qualifying for elite status often happens on your first trip.

The longer game: When staying at least four nights, members earn “Inspired” status, which adds free room upgrades, pending availability. “Indulged” status kicks in if you book 13 nights per year (or spend $6 000) and comes with invitations to special events and a free-night voucher.

Discovery, by Global Hotel Alliance

The network: similar to an airline alliance, this is a network of 35 small brands including Anantara Hotels, Resorts and Spas; Kempinski; Pan Pacific Hotels and Resorts; and Tivoli Hotels and Resorts, which add up to 550 hotels around the world. They include some of the best places to stay in Thailand, Singapore, Portugal, and beyond.

The immediate perks: joining this programme means heading to the front of the upgrade line, plus the option to check in early or checkout late with no additional charge.

The longer game: it takes only two stays or $1 000 in spending to unlock Gold status, which awards bonus points. The highest tier, Titanium, can be achieved with 30 nights – $15 000 – or stays at three individual brands within the calendar year. Unlock it and you’ll get a rare prize: double room upgrades, where you jump two levels in room category, and a welcome amenity that varies by property but can include wine or a local souvenir.

1865 Privilege, by Langham

The network: more than three dozen Langham and Cordis Hotels around the world, largely in such big cities as London, New York, Chicago, and Melbourne.

The immediate perks: besides guaranteed late checkout, members get a back channel for earning airline points. Since 1865 doesn’t use a points system, it lets members set up their accounts in conjunction with frequent flier programmes, including those from American, Delta, and United. You'll earn 500 miles (804km) per night for a maximum of three nights per trip.

The longer game: after three eligible stays – or nine nights – during a given calendar year, members qualify for potential room upgrades and fruit plates on arrival. Notching five stays or 15 nights beefs up the welcome amenities and adds a suite-upgrade voucher.