New Loyalty Program Options: Fighter Jet Rides and Beyond

Hotels are expanding their loyalty programs and making it easier to use points not only for rooms, but also on a wide array of experiences, merchandise and entertainment.

Fighter jet ride, anyone?

An F-16C Fighting Falcon flies by during a U.S. Air Force firepower demonstration at the Nevada Test and Training Range September 14, 2007 near Indian Springs, Nevada.
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An F-16C Fighting Falcon flies by during a U.S. Air Force firepower demonstration at the Nevada Test and Training Range September 14, 2007 near Indian Springs, Nevada.

Here's a round-up of some of the most unique items:

Global Hotel Alliance's 14 brands include Kempinski, Omni and Anantara. Its 2-year-oldGHA Discoveryloyalty program offers more than 700 cultural experiences worldwide in addition to free room nights or upgrades. This program is popular with road warriors who want an authentic local experience, but only have a limited amount of time in their destination. For example, you can take a 2-hour private salsa dancing lesson at a top Los Angeles club, enjoy a day at the races in Malmo, Sweden, or go behind the scenes at a traditional Thai puppet show. Experiences get more exclusive depending what level of the three-tiered program you qualify for.

With Hilton's HHonorsprogram you can purchase an array of merchandise, redeemable with points, in the Rewards Marketplace. This online shopping mall offers everything from electronics equipment, to musical instruments (a Yamaha grand piano, anyone?), to entertainment and adventure experiences like a taping of Saturday Night Live or a ride-along with a military fighter pilot (for a mere 702,000 points). Another great feature is the Double Dip program, which lets you earn both HHonors points and air miles at the same time, for every night you stay.

With Hyatt's Gold Passport program you can now use points to buy meals or services at nearly 100 participating Hyatt spas and restaurants. And you don't need to be an overnight guest to do so. For example, 15,000 points will buy you a $100 steak dinner in the Duhau Restaurante and Vinoteca at the Park Hyatt Buenos Aires. Another new feature of the program is the ability to purchase points, donate points, or combine your points with another Passport member, which of course gives you a better chance of bumping yourself (or a friend) up into free upgrade/massage/car rental territory.

One of the best features of the Marriott's Rewards program is that you can exchange your loyalty program credits for air miles on dozens of airlines. The ratio is about 10,000 hotel points per 2,000 air miles, with the ratio becoming more favorable the more hotel points you redeem. You can also "buy" vacation packages that include a week of hotel accommodations, enough air miles to get you to a participating destination in the US or Europe and a 25 percent Hertz rental car discount. You can even get a one-year travel insurance policy for 30,000 points. And a new auction program lets you bid on experiences and events. This year was a trip to the Super Bowl.

As of June 2012, the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) is offering a Digital Rewards program which lets members of its Priority Club purchase and download an array of electronic media such as games, music and software. The program was designed with customers with low balances in mind — those who want to redeem their points, but don't necessarily have enough to earn a free night or upgrade. Music downloads start at 300 points, video games at 800 points and software at 1,100 points per item. IHG also offers more than 1,700 "experiences" as part of its rewards program, such as scenic biplane rides, race car driving, sailing lessons, and wine tasting.

Frequent flyers should consider joining Leading Hotels of the World'sLeaders Clubwhich has an "unlimited" membership option that gives guests VIP access to over 600 airport lounges in 100 countries worldwide. And a guaranteed upgrade at the time of reservation. It costs $1,200 a year to join, but could well be worth it if you spend your life in airports and airplanes. If you can't afford it, the standard member benefits are pretty sweet: free hotel nights and upgrades, complimentary continental breakfast, daily internet access and early check-in/late check-out.