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Last year, Kevin Feyen dotted the country three times with his wife
and two children, visiting family in Baltimore, San Francisco and Chicago. New Jersey-based Feyen even managed to squeeze in a romantic weekend getaway in Manhattan.

Flexible vacation policy? Not quite. Feyen, 39, hits the road about 20 times a year visiting college campuses in his role as vice president in the Digital Product Development group at a major publishing company. As such, he racks up loyalty points with Hilton HHonors.

And he’s not shy about using them.

“A lot of times it is to visit family to go to weddings,” he says. “We use the points to primarily pay for lodging. That’s where you can find the greatest savings and value in points paying for the stay.”

Feyen is part of an expanding group of travelers reaping hotel loyalty points. The number of travelers enrolled in such programs grew 26% from 2010 to 2012, to 223,550,000, according to the 2013 Colloquy Loyalty Census, a yearly report that which monitors loyalty program memberships in the US.

“The larger chains have loyalty programs because there is a lot of sameness in hotels in a good way,” says Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research Group. “Hotels have, over the past 15 years, invested collectively billions of dollars in improving their guest experiences. They’re offering better bedding, design, bathrooms and showers. They have installed spas, and improved menus with healthier options. They are elevating their guest experience, but it is still a fragmented industry.”

Indeed, while 39% of business travelers, in a survey commissioned this month by the Hilton HHonors™ Surpass® Card from American Express, said they use their points to secure free leisure travel, hotels are differentiating themselves by offering point holders more than just free rooms and upgrades.

“We are seeing many amenities such as “special rates” extended only to members says Luciana DiMarco Paris, Luxury Travel Specialist with ProTravel International,“as well as breakfast, free WIFI, bottled water in room and admission to fitness centers.”

Some brands are allowing members to trade their points for gift certificates, concert and event tickets, and even airline miles. Travelers may find they can choose to have complimentary wine, beer, and fruit and cheese in their rooms, while others have access to an on-call concierge service.

“They can get you a VIP table in the lounge, if there is an event taking place in the city while you are traveling they can help get you the tickets,” says Harteveldt. “They can help with dining reservations, they can arrange a car and driver. If you are in New York, and you really want to find the hot new restaurant, or what is the hot new gallery or the best new boutique, they help you really get an authentic sense of the place.”

Others are focusing on status as a selling point, giving travelers late checkout times and no-fee upgrades after a handful of visits per calendar year. If travelers don’t plan on meeting the yearly minimum visit, they can attain status with a hotel-branded credit card, like the Hilton HHonors Surpass Card from American Express. This also allows travelers to accrue points for free stays faster with each purchase they make on the card and get bonused when they do use the card at the hotel properties.

But since individual locations are franchiser-owned, travelers should be aware that not all amenities may be available at each and every hotel in the program.

“The hotel owner may chose to participate in certain aspects of the loyalty program or they may receive a waiver not to participate in certain aspects,” says Harteveldt.

Still, if the goal of travelers like Feyen is to use their points toward complimentary rooms for family travel, having a wide selection of choice in location is paramount. The bells and whistles are gravy.

“When we rack up these points, there is a nice range for different kinds of leisure travel,” he says. “My wife and I, when we go for a weekend getaway, we like the Conrads. If we are traveling with our kids, we really like the Embassy Suites, because when you have two rooms that makes all the difference in having a baby sleep at night. And you don’t have to leave the building to get breakfast.”

This content is created collaboratively in partnership with our sponsor, American Express.