Taking stock: How to add up—and spend—year-end travel perks

The New York Hilton midtown hotel is show in this December 2013 photo.
Victor J. Blue | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The New York Hilton midtown hotel is show in this December 2013 photo.

Frequent travelers, take heart—the time of the year is at hand that marks the perfect time to take stock of accumulated points, and decide whether you need to shift loyalties next year.

However, hotels are working hard to keep fickle travelers by rolling out a slew of new bells and whistles to keep you from straying.

Changes in hotel frequent stay program rules, member amenities and alliances, your own travel patterns and rising room prices makes the holiday season the right time to take inventory of potential bonuses and rewards.

A recent lodging outlook from PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) predicts that in 2015 industry-wide occupancy levels are expected to reach 64.9 percent, the highest since 1984.

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That may give hotel operators more confidence to hike prices. Additionally, it may also be the trigger behind some recently announced policy changes for 2015—most notably the decision by Hilton Worldwide to adopt a stricter cancellation policy.

Canceling without penalty

Effective Jan. 1, 2015, "penalty-free cancellations" at the hotel's properties "must be made by 11:59 p.m. local hotel time the day prior to arrival," and not by 6 p.m. local time the day of arrival, currently the standard at most hotels.

The change is "designed to make more rooms available for travelers needing last minute accommodations," said Jim Holthouser, Executive Vice President, Global Brands, Hilton Worldwide.

Still, the policy, which is reportedly also being adopted by Marriott International next year "is a decided negative for travelers," said Tim Winship, editor and publisher of FrequentFlier.com. This could have implications for business travelers who often make last minute changes in their plans.

Winship and others expect other hotel companies to follow suit, so be sure to check the policy wording when you make 2015 reservations.

Beginning Jan. 15, 2015, Marriott Rewards members will get free Wi-Fi at close to 4,000 properties in the company's portfolio. There is a catch, though: Travelers will only get the perk by making a direct booking on the hotel's website, through its mobile app, 800-number or directly with a hotel.

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This doesn't sit well with travel agents who stand to lose customers and commissions. However, some direct-booking partnerships, like those offered through Concur's TripLink solution, may offer a way to get the Marriott's Wi-Fi perk while staying within corporate booking requirements.

Some hotel chains have recently added useful program perks, many of them technology-driven, with more planned for 2015:

Kimpton won't talk yet about the changes it has in store to its loyalty program for 2015, but it did recently introduce Kimpton Karma Rewards. The program offers members perks ranging from free Wi-Fi and $10 credit for in-room snacks, to welcome amenities and complimentary upgrades.

In July, Marriott began using beacon technology to send geographically-targeted offers for food and beverage, golf, spa deals and more to Rewards members at several hotels. The LocalPerks program should be at work in a dozen Marriott properties by the end of this year, so keep an eye on your mobile devices as you wander through participating hotels.

Hotel key? There's an app for that

Many hotels are now coming into the 21st century by using smartphone applications to lure in tech-savvy travelers.

Hilton announced recently that by the end of this year, guests will be able to use their mobile devices, tablets and computers to check-in, choose a room and order items delivered to their room at more than 4,000 properties worldwide.

Starting in 2015, Hilton HHonors members will be able to access their hotel rooms via mobile-key technology at all U.S. properties across four of the company's brands, said Geraldine Calpin, senior vice president and global head of digital at Hilton Worldwide.

The HHonors app will also unlock other rooms that typically require room keys such as the fitness center, executive floors, elevators and parking facilities.

And earlier this month Starwood Hotels and Resorts rolled out SPG Keyless, at the first 10 hotels that will allow Starwood Preferred Guests to use the SPG app on their phone as a hotel room key.

Additionally, hotel loyalty programs are also expanding their partnerships with airlines.

Starwood recently announced a strategic partnership with Emirates that gives members added benefits and earnings when they stay Starwood and fly Emirates. "Other loyalty programs, like Delta/Starwood and United/Marriott have linked up as well," says travel writer Ramsey Qubein.

"Just be sure to link you accounts via the hotel programs websites and always monitor your account to make sure stays post properly," he added.

At the end of the travel day, "If you feel like the loyalty is going both ways then you should stick with that program," said Brian Kelly of ThePointsGuy.com. "Many programs under-promise and over-deliver, but some programs do the opposite."

—By Harriet Baskas, special to CNBC.com. Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas . Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.