One of the more lucrative benefits of the Citi Prestige card is the “fourth night free” benefit. At almost any hotel, the benefit provides a credit of one night’s room rate for every three paid nights. Because we rarely stay in one spot that long, I never had the chance to use it previously. That recently changed, though. When traveling with a baby, it’s actually easier to to stay longer in one place. So for our upcoming trip to celebrate my wife’s birthday, we’re staying four nights in New Orleans. In the process of booking this trip to redeem my benefit, I learned a few lessons on how to to this correctly. Simply put – there are two ways to book, online or over the phone, but online doesn’t always mean better. And I narrowly avoided a costly mistake in the process.
(Note: I make references to a mystery hotel booking throughout. I’m not trying to be difficult. I just can’t reveal the property since it’s a surprise for my wife.)
Option 1 – Book Online Through the Thank Your Rewards Portal
About a year ago, Citi introduced a way to book Fourth Night Free awards online. To do so, simply go to the “Hotels” area of the Thank You Travel portal. Then, enter your destination and number of guests.
Then, you should see a list of eligible hotels. Pick one to see available rates.
Once you choose a hotel, the system shows you the price both before and after applying the benefit. It also shows the cost in Thank You points, if you want to go cashless. Or you can also pay partially in points and partially in cash.
However, a couple of things to note. One, the portal displays only rack rates – no special rates like AAA, for example. Second, the rack rates are slightly higher than those offered by the hotel directly. This is because the Thank You travel portal operates like a third-party booking website. A travel agency by the name of Connexions Loyalty takes care of things on the back-end. In this case, I assume the agency tacks on a small booking fee of some sort. All this becomes important later.
Option 2 – Book by Phone Through the Citi Prestige Concierge
The “traditional” method of using Fourth Night Free is to call the Citi Prestige Concierge. Apparently you can also e-mail booking requests, though supposedly Citi prefers that you don’t.
Then, it’s just a matter of walking the agent through what you want. All the Concierge does is go to the hotel’s website and book published rates. (This also becomes important later.) Thus, they can access AAA rates, loyalty program member rates, etc. The agent I worked with actually proactively asked if I had AAA so she could search for lower rates. In addition, you aren’t restricted to just the hotel options presented on the travel portal. You can ask the Concierge to book pretty much any hotel. The only exceptions are vacation rentals and condos run by management companies.
Just remember, to use Fourth Night Free, you MUST call or e-mail and book through the Concierge. If you DIY directly on the hotel website, the 4th night credit won’t apply.
The Lesson Learned
So what’s the grand lesson I learned? I should have known this, but booking through the Thank You portal is NOT the same thing as using the Citi Prestige Concierge. I really had no idea, and so I thought I had to call the Thank You travel desk to book rates not displayed. Thank You customer service connected me to the Connetions Loyalty travel desk, which is where the problem started.
I called to book a AAA rate, and the agent stated he could only book rates in his system – the same you find on the portal. Hmmm, ok. Maybe Citi just changed their policy, I thought. An annoying devaluation, but it still worked out cheaper than paying for four nights at the AAA rate. Then he said the credit card charge goes through in full at the time of booking. Again, that seemed strange, but he said I could cancel without penalty until 48 hours before check-in.
I booked my room and let my misgivings go. But then a few days later, an OMAAT post talked about the Fourth Night Free benefit. And again, Lucky mentioned how it should apply to AAA rates. Geez, what am I doing wrong? So I decided to call Thank You customer service again, this time just to ask questions about the benefit. This time, the rep said the magic words – Fourth Night Free is a benefit run by the Citi Prestige Concierge. Now it finally clicked; I called the wrong number to book. So I canceled the original booking online, then called the Concierge to book the AAA rate I wanted. Problem solved.
Thank You Portal vs Citi Concierge – The Difference
There are a few differences between using Thank You vs the Concierge, which I’ll highlight below. This can make a substantial difference in the value you receive from the benefit.
The Thank You Portal Does Not Have Access to Special Rates
If you want to use special rates, such as AAA or AARP, you must use the Concierge. In my case, the difference in the rack rate, plus the booking fee, meant the Concierge saved me $125. But, the portal does occasionally advertise specials. So always check both and do the math.
Portal Bookings Require Prepayment in Full for All Bookings
Yes, even on refundable rates. For a 4-night booking, you get charged for 3 nights room/4 nights tax up front. That’s potentially a big hit if booking an upscale property. Fortunately, after canceling, I received my money back within a few days. Still, something to be aware of if you intend to book a flexible rate.
Concierge Bookings Do Not Allow Partial Pay With Points
If booking through the Thank You portal, you can instantly choose to pay with both cash and points.
The Concierge offers no such option. You’ll have to pay in full for the three nights charged at regular price.
The Portal Has Access to Select Properties Only
In large markets like New Orleans, it’s not terribly noticeable, but the GDS powering the portal doesn’t have access to all properties. This is an issue in smaller markets where sm
Portal Bookings May Not Earn Hotel Loyalty Points
This can easily catch people unaware. As I mentioned above, portal bookings come through like a third-party website booking. I don’t now specifics of other programs, but Hilton, as an example, specifically disallows points earning on third party bookings.
If you have Diamond status with Hilton, you currently earn 20 Honors points per dollar (assuming you 5x points instead of miles as your double dip benefit). On a Fourth Night Free booking, you earn points on the full charge. So for example, if the total unadjusted cost is $1,200, you flush 24,000 points by using the portal. Ouch, if you care about the points, anyway.
Portal Bookings Are Ineligible for Status Benefits
This one is the biggie. All major chains I know of eliminate elite status benefits for non-direct bookings, with few exceptions. At Hiltons, for example, this means no free WiFi, no breakfast, no late checkout, no upgrades, etc.
Ignoring everything else, the WiFi charge on my stay alone added $65 over four nights. That’s now almost $200 from my mistake, not counting foregone points.
Obviously, if you have status with a chain, and want to use your benefit at that chain, DON’T use the portal. If you plan on booking at an independent hotel, or a chain where you have no status, then it might not matter. Regardless, be aware that many hotels, regardless of affiliation, charge for WiFi on non-direct bookings. That adds up quickly on a longer stay.
I fess up to a dumb mistake that fortunately ended up as a no harm-no foul situation, aside from wasted time. But, I’m guessing I’m probably not the only one that’s gotten confused here. Remember that the Concierge and Thank You travel portal are not created equal. Which one gives you the better answer depends on your specific circumstances.