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Travel providers lure social media stars with special perks, discounts and freebies nowadays. Check-ins on Foursquare or Facebook, tweets, retweets and Instagram posts are traded as currency in exchange for loyalty points or discounted rates. In most cases, the more followers you have, the larger your reward. But even an everyday traveler with a less-than-impressive fan base can leverage tweets and likes to save money on travel.
Many of these influencer promotions come and go. Last year, American Airlines gave complimentary airport-lounge passes to passengers with high Klout scores. In 2012, United ran a promotion bestowing airline miles upon Foursquare users who checked in at airports. Official tourism boards often run limited-time offers on sites like Pinterest and Facebook; follow your favorite destinations to keep an eye out. For the best offers that you can use now, I've focused on active promotions, many of them permanent (or at least semi-permanent) loyalty or reward programs that compensate social media activity.
Foursquare, the location-sharing app that allows users to virtually check in, blast their activity to friends and trade tips about visited spots, is a terrific resource for travel coupons. Businesses around the world, from hotels to restaurants to attractions, offer discounts or perks via the app. (Users are awarded points and special badges for check-ins; discounts are often offered to those with points.) In the past, airlines have offered lounge access to avid Foursquare users. Although big-ticket Foursquare promotions from travel providers aren't as common today as they were a few years ago, there are still deals to be snagged. Right now, for example, Boston's Midtown Hotel offers free parking and Wi-Fi to guests who check in with Foursquare. Discover more up-to-date offers for various destinations by using the search tool on the Foursquare website or app.
It's important to note: Be careful about sharing check-ins on Foursquare when traveling. As a rule, it's unsafe to divulge up-to-the-minute location-based data on social media. You don't want the world knowing that your home is unattended and that you're on vacation. Use your Foursquare privacy settings wisely.
Starwood's SPG program
Starwood's loyalty program SPG offers Starpoints for enrolled travelers who link Facebook or Foursquare pages with their Starwood accounts then post check-ins to Starwood properties. You can redeem your Starpoints for hotel stays, flights, merchandise and other stuff. There are a lot of strings attached, though. To get the points, your property must be offering a special check-in promotion during your stay. You can't book through a third-party booking engine such as Expedia or Orbitz; those bookings don't count as "eligible stays." And sometimes you might need a confirmed reservation to get the points -- it all depends on the specific promotion. Check Starwood's Facebook or Foursquare pages to see what kinds of check-in promotions are available.
Marriott Rewards Plus Points
The social media angle of Marriott's rewards program is very similar to that of SPG. Connect your rewards account to your social pages, perform a "qualifying social action" (known to humans as a tweet or a Facebook or Instagram post), and earn points. Marriott Rewards points can be redeemed for stays at Marriott properties worldwide. Marriott has a handy little chart that tells just how many points a person will get for each post. A social check-in on Facebook, for example, is worth 25 points. Guests can even earn points for retweets, likely destroying any illusion of authenticity in the realm of personal social media accounts. If your Facebook friend begins obsessively posting about Marriott using the appropriate corporate-approved hashtags, you'll know why.
Through Kimpton's new rewards program Karma, hotel guests can earn points for room upgrades, free stays and other perks by spending money at Kimpton properties -- and also by Facebooking or tweeting about Kimpton. It's a free program, and members get complimentary Wi-Fi and a $10 minibar credit during each stay, so it's worth joining whether you're a social media user or not. Unfortunately, though, Kimpton rewards for social media activity are not exactly guaranteed. Though Kimpton says you "might earn some additional Kimpton Karma love" through social media shout-outs, no real promises are made. And no language in the loyalty program's terms and conditions states a quid pro quo of points for posts. I get the feeling that having large numbers of followers will up the likelihood of Kimpton taking notice of your posts.
Here's the premise behind just-launched booking site Hotelied: "Taste makers" -- folks with heavy social media followings -- receive customized discounts on hotel stays. Hotelied does the dirty work by negotiating cheaper rates for online influencers. You link your social media accounts to the site, and Hotelied asks hotels to give you reduced rates based on your popularity. The company's website puts it plainly, if tactlessly: "Hotelied recognizes the fact that not all travelers present the same value to hotels and provides hotels with a platform to specifically target and customize their offerings to their most desirable traveler segments." The notion of straight-up linking customer value with social media clout is disturbing; apart from that, Hotelied might make some sense for travelers who spend a lot of time on sites like Twitter or Facebook. The largest discount available is 50%, yet Hotelied doesn't specify how many followers a person must accumulate before getting half off a stay.
The 'Instagram Hotel'
The 1888 Hotel in downtown Sydney is known as the "Instagram Hotel" thanks to the property's willful spotlight on the culture of snapping and sharing, in addition to the tangible rewards it offers social media connoisseurs. Its well-designed guest rooms are clean, graphic, and picture-perfect—ideal for Insta. Guests with more than 10,000 Instagram followers are eligible to receive a complimentary overnight stay, and Instagrammers who share property pictures tagged #1888hotel are entered to win a free night. If you like being the center of attention, this really is your place. 1888 has a "Selfie Space" with a special backdrop in the lobby. Give your selfie the hotel's signature tag and your image will appear on a screen near the reception desk. Smile and say "me"!
Tweets as tips when the bellhop is a robot
You might run into a waist-high, screen-faced robot gliding around the halls of Silicon Valley's Aloft Cupertino Hotel. This robotic bellhop is called Botlr. Botlr accepts tweets as "tips" when performing menial tasks like bringing snacks or a toothbrush from the front desk to a guest room. Although Botlr doesn't care how many followers you have (for now, at least), the robot embodies the newfangled social-posts-as-currency model. You'll even save a few bucks by tweeting via Botlr's touch-screen face instead of having to hand actual money to an actual working person.
Contributed by Caroline Costello, SmarterTravel.com
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