Why I (no longer) prefer 5% Orbitz Rewards over 10% Hotels.com

I began this post with a simple concept: “Why I prefer 5% Orbitz Rewards over 10% Hotels.com.”  The post idea was a reaction to Rapid Travel Chai’s post “Hotels.com 9% Cashback + 10% Rewards + Stack Coupons.”  Despite the fact that Hotels.com offers the equivalent of 10% back for hotel stays vs. 5% back with Orbitz, I have long felt that Orbitz’ rewards program was better than Hotels.com’s program.  Here’s why:

  1. With Orbitz you can earn rewards, not just for hotel bookings, but for buying airfare and travel packages as well.
  2. Orbitz lets you use your rewards immediately.  With Hotels.com, you have to rack up 10 nights before you get your one night reward.
  3. As many have pointed out, you can get extra rewards with Hotels.com by clicking through a portal first, but that’s not much of a differentiator:  Orbitz is available through portals too.

To me, the ability to use Orbitz rewards (Orbucks) immediately is the key differentiator.  Hotels.com requires ten nights before you get a reward.  If you ever stop using Hotels.com, it is likely that rewards will be partially earned and therefore never redeemable.

So, that was the concept: Orbitz Rewards 5% is better than Hotels.com 10% mostly because of the immediate availability of the rewards.  In the course of researching this post, though, I changed my mind

Background

Orbitz and Hotels.com are two popular online travel agencies that can be used to book hotels.  Both are available through online portals (for extra rewards) and both have their own rewards program.  Assuming prices are the same and portal rates are similar, the primary differentiator is the rewards programs.  Let’s take a look at each:

Orbitz

Orbitz Rewards

Orbitz Orbucks

When you book hotels, flights, or vacation packages through Orbitz, you can earn Orbitz Rewards’ Orbucks.  Orbucks can be used to pay for future hotel stays (but cannot be used to pay for airfare).

Orbitz also has an elite program.  With 4 stays per year, you get Gold status, and with 12 stays you get Platinum status.  Platinum status actually has a few somewhat noteworthy perks.  For example:

  • Platinum members get an authorization code to sign up for TSA-PRE (which would otherwise cost $85)
  • Orbitz will reimburse Platinum members (in the form of Orbucks) for up to 2 checked bags per year.

Hotels.com

Hotels dot com rewards

Hotels.com’s loyalty program is based on the number of nights you book.  Once you book and stay 10 nights, you get “a free night”.  What you really get is credit towards a night equaling the average you paid for the prior 10 nights.

  • The value of a free night does not include taxes and fees.
  • You can redeem your free night for a night of greater value and pay the difference.
  • You can redeem your free night for a night of lesser value and forfeit the difference.
  • You can redeem only 1 free night for each night of your booking.

Note a little “gotcha” in the terms.  If you want to spend your free night at a hotel that is more expensive, on average, than the 10 nights that got you there, then you’ll simply pay the difference in the rate.  If you spend the free night at a cheaper hotel, though, you’ll lose the difference in value.

Like Orbitz, Hotels.com has an elite program, but the benefits of that program are less clear.

% Rebate

When cobbling together the basic information about the two programs (shown above), I discovered something about Orbitz that I had forgotten.  In order to get 5% back in rewards for hotel bookings, you have to book through their app.  If you book your stay through a web browser, you only get 3% back in rewards.  This is problematic since booking through the app eliminates the option of earning extra rewards through a portal!

So, now I was comparing 10% in rewards from Hotels.com (despite some “gotchas”) to only 3% back from Orbitz.  My faith in Orbitz began to weaken…

Portal Rebates

Maybe portal rebates can reduce the spread between Hotels.com and Orbitz?  Let’s use CashBack Monitor to look at the historical cash back rebates available to each.

Orbitz:

Orbitz cashback best rate history

Hotels.com:

Hotels dot com Cashback Best Rate History

As you can see above, Orbitz has often been available for 6% cash back whereas Hotels.com has usually been available for 7% cash back or more.  Hotels.com has at least a 1% cash back edge over Orbitz with regards to portal rewards.

My faith in Orbitz crumbled some more…

Rewards Expiry

Going into this analysis, I knew that Orbitz’ Orbucks usually expire a year after being earned (promotional Orbucks credits usually expire faster).  If Hotels.com had a similar policy, then my faith in Orbitz would be justified.  After all, for some, 10 paid nights can take a long time to accumulate.  If those paid nights expired before the free night was earned, then the so called 10% rewards would really be closer to 0%.

Orbitz

As expected, I found that most Orbucks expire a year after being earned:

Non-Promotional Orbucks: Except as otherwise provided in these Orbitz Rewards Terms and Conditions, all non-promotional Orbucks earned through the purchase of Eligible Bookings and through the Best Price Guarantee, other than Orbucks earned pursuant to the terms and conditions of the Orbitz Rewards Visa Card, expire at 11:59 p.m. Central on the 365th day after they were earned. Once Orbucks have expired, they cannot be reinstated under any circumstances.

Hotels.com

Hotels.com, it turns out, has a more lenient expiry policy.  You can keep your accumulated nights and free nights alive by using Hotels.com at least once per year:

All nights, including free nights, expire after 12 months of inactivity in your account. Account activity includes redeeming a free night or collecting nights by completing a stay at any eligible hotel.

I still do not like the idea of being locked into using Hotels.com at least once per year, but at least that’s not a terribly big hurdle.

Wrap Up

Orbitz is still my go-to place for booking flights since it’s possible to stack portal rewards, Orbitz rewards, and airline mile rewards with each flight (see: Buying flights: Extreme Stacking savings and rewards).  But, I no longer see Orbitz as the obvious choice for hotel bookings.

Will I start to use Hotels.com instead?  The answer is complicated.  When booking a paid stay with a chain hotel, my preferred approach is to go through a portal to the chain itself.  That way, I can earn cash back from the portal, hotel points from the hotel, and can make use of discount rates available to hotel rewards members, government rates (when travelling with my wife), AAA rates, etc.  And, if I have hotel chain-specific gift cards that I had bought at a discount, this approach lets me make use of them when checking out.  This approach also works well when the hotel chain in question has a valuable promotion going on.  For example, I recently earned a free Marriott night after two one-night stays thanks to their latest MegaBonus promotion.

If I plan to book 4 or more paid nights at a hotel, I’ll generally book through the Citi Prestige Concierge in order to get the 4th Night Free.  See: Complete Guide to Citi Prestige 4th Night Free.

I turn to online travel agencies (OTAs), like Hotels.com or Orbitz, when booking small chains without meaningful loyalty programs, or in cases where the OTAs offer much better rates.  I’ll also look into OTA pricing when booking independent hotels, but it’s often possible to negotiate better rates with those hotels directly.

And, of course, I often book hotels for free with points or with free night certificates earned from promotions or from credit card perks.

Given all of the above, I don’t really have many opportunities to book hotel stays through OTAs, so the Hotels.com requirement for having account activity once per year to keep nights alive is actually a steep curve for me.

My conclusion: when using an OTA, I’ll book whichever OTA offers the best price (after coupons + portal rewards) regardless of their own rewards program.  I don’t use OTAs often enough to ensure that I’ll get any value from their rewards, so I don’t think it makes sense to use their rewards program as a differentiator.

About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

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  1. […] Why I (no longer) prefer 5% Orbitz Rewards over 10% Hotels.com by Frequent Miler. Honestly don’t even know how this is a competition. You can just book a $1-2 hostel to extend your nights if they are due to expire. Plus Topcashback usually has some sort of coupon that stacks with the cash back and Hotels.com rewards program. […]

Comments

  1. Hotels.com usually has a 10% coupon available, often with portal cashback. If you use it, you don’t earn a night toward the ten nights, but I much prefer the discount up front. If you aren’t using a portal for some reason, cheap tickets or venere often offer 15-18% off. Per t&c portal cashback is not available when gift cards are used for payment, a restriction which I’m in the process of testing.

      • FYI I used a hotels.xom gift card vi top cashback and the purchase did track despite the t&c excluding GC redemption. Will see if it pays out but I think it will. Splender is a bit less but doesn’t exclude GC redemption.
        GC aside, Orbitz seems better with 15% coupon vs. 10% on hotels.com, earning orbucks even when using coupon. Portal cashback is usually a bit less than hotels.com, at least in topcashback but overall is still makes up for the loss of 2% orbucks by not booking via orbitz app.

    • I’m assuming you’re joking, but in case you’re not…
      Yes, I pay for tickets when:
      1) the expense will be reimbursed (a lot of my wife’s travel fits here), or
      2) when miles offer poor value compared to cash for the particular flights I need

      • Yep, if I can get a RT flight from DFW to NYC on AA for $77 like I did last fall, why on earth would I use 25k award miles?

        Greg,
        How would you rate Priceline and the 15% cashback via ebates? I never really appreciated the value of cash-back portals until I started following your daily postings a year or so ago. Thanks!

        • When looking at cashback rates for Priceline or other OTAs, look carefully at the terms. eBates, for example, offers its highest rates only when you book a cruise. For hotels, they are currently offering less than 6% cash back.

        • Good point Greg,
          The only time I’ve used them is for cruises so the 15% sticks in my heads. Needs to double check before I do any other purchases that it is indeed the lowest.

  2. don’t forget that Hotels and Orbitz all offer bookings with Disney. Disney is one of the hardest trips to use points/miles for. Especially if you want to stay on site. Ultimate Rewards and AmexMR can be used to book hotels but generally not a great use of your points. With this stacking you’re at least getting a bit of a discount on an on property resort. There is no difference to Disney how/where you make your reservation, so these sites are perfectly fine to book your stay at. They are usually the same price as Disney.com but you do get the rebates and portal dollars which helps to soften the blow.

  3. In my experience, the hotels.com lodging sites that offer credit toward a free night stay are like the Alps, high and obvious. The ones that let you cash in those credits for a free night are like molehills, but smaller. It takes a sieve to find the ones that let you cash out. And, as noted, you’ll always, always, always get a better rate at small hotels simply by walking up to the check-in desk than by booking online.

  4. A reminder that you should always compare the price for a particular hotel on both Orbitz and Hotels.com before you book. My limited sample size (and now dated sample size) suggested that listings on hotels.com might sometimes be more expensive than similar listings on orbitz.

  5. I find that Kayak.com does a good job of comparing prices across many websites (including Orbitz, Hotels.com, and many others). The only catch is that it won’t account for coupons you may have access to for the OTAs or other discounts (group memberships, government rates, etc.) when booking direct with a hotel. So, I start with Kayak, then check prices with each site directly when I have coupons or other discounts.

  6. Used to book through orbitz all the time because in case of price being lower in other websites they gave 200 then 100usd as brg. However this became less attractive with many new restrictions. Recently I was told that the difference must be at least 5usd

  7. Are you pre-paying hotels on Hotels.com and Orbitz? In my experience when not pre-paying that the markup on those sites and missing out on “members only” rates washes out any savings. It’s better for me to just book direct with the hotel, since that gives you more control in the event that something goes wrong, and you can still get the portal cashback.

    • Yep, as noted at the bottom of the post, I rarely book through OTAs and only use them when the price is better (accounting for discounts available directly with the hotel). Most OTA bookings are pre-paid, but many are still fully refundable. I try to only do the latter.

      • Orbitz rewards are limited to $50/year if you aren’t also buying hotel nights. It takes 4 nights to hit Gold (or their credit card) which raises the limit to $100/year. At 12 nights you hit Platinum for $400/year. The dining, credit card, baggage, and price guarantee orbucks don’t count towards this limit.

        As William states below, all of the Expedia-owned sites (including Orbitz and Hotels.com) have similar rewards for their status – Orbitz’s just requires the fewest nights, and seems to be the most generous when focusing on them as a travel portal.

  8. liked hotels.com when it first started (free night was not based on average). It still is useful for hotels with no program (or one I don’t use) as a way to get added value. I check to make sure price is competitive….also I have had a free night expire after a year and with one phone call had them extend it another year for me. They have customer friendly phone reps, can Orbitz say the same?

  9. I’ve been using Priceline instead of Orbitz to book flight because it pays $5 per one way flight through TCB versus $3 for Orbitz.

    • Good tip for low cost fares. Spender offers 2% cash back at either one (Priceline or Orbitz). So, if your airfare is more than $250 each way you’d be better off there.

  10. I have gold status with hotels.com, you need 30 nights per year. Gives you access to exclusive offers (never used), better customer service, early access deals and some other stuff. It’s basically worthless.

    A lot of the coupons for hotels.com don’t invalidate the stay 10 get 1 loyalty program, especially when it’s a mail in rebate. I usually get a discount of around 25% of the rack rate.

  11. Could you do a post on what hotel chains/brands offer OTA bookings any points or elite benefits for brand loyalty. I don’t think any offer points/rewards, Hilton used to honor status. They changed their terms and conditions awhile ago stating they didn’t have to offer elite benefits for OTA bookings, and I still have some hotels grant me elite benefits if I mention it to them or call ahead of time.

    • Thanks, that’s a good suggestion for a post. Anyone know of a good source for that info? I think Dan’s right in that most hotels don’t offer points or elite qualifying nights when you book through an OTA. Some will honor elite status, but some do so unofficially.

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