Arvind Bhasin has perfected the art of points.
As the co-owner of a company that arranges locums for hospitals, this gastroenterologist from the US finds himself spending several months of the year in hotels. Travelling across North America, Europe and the Middle East, Dr Bhasin's next location is often uncertain. But, if he can help it, the place he sleeps is not.
Wherever he is in the world, Dr Bhasin spends the night with the InterContinental Hotels Group - even if it means paying more. He has racked up millions of points through its Priority Club Rewards loyalty card and saved thousands of dollars in the process.
As a frequent guest, the 55-year-old doctor takes advantage of free hotel stays, flights, car rentals and a variety of other rewards available to the group's "platinum" members. "You get free upgrades and a lot of the time in the US you get complimentary breakfasts and evening receptions," Dr Bhasin says. "It can't be bad."
Dr Bhasin's quest for points is considerably aided by the fact that the InterContinental Hotels Group comprises seven hotel brands with more than 4,500 establishments around the world, including well-known names such as the Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn and the InterContinental.
His approach is textbook. In September, during his most recent holiday to Abu Dhabi, Dr Bhasin says both his flight from New York and the first night at the Holiday Inn were free. However, he decided to only use points for one free night and then pay for the rest of the week in cash. The idea is that he can collect points at the Abu Dhabi hotel and receive added value by using them at a more expensive hotel in another city.
"The prices at Holiday Inn in Istanbul are higher than what I'm paying in Abu Dhabi, so it makes more sense for me to use the points when I go to Istanbul," he says, adding that he's planning to spend a few days there before returning to the US.
Few of us approach reward cards with this kind of efficiency. With such an array of schemes, consumers often end up with a collection of cards in their wallets or purses. Points are often scattered across different companies, making it difficult to reap any meaningful rewards.
To exploit the programmes and take full advantage of the freebies, consumers have to be smart about how they travel and use the cards. And in the midst of the financial downturn, as banks, hotels and airlines compete for your business, there has never been a better time to get the most for your loyalty.
The Etihad Guest Above Infinite Card, for example, offers a bonus 50,000 Etihad air miles in the first year. You also receive a 50 per cent upgrade voucher, complimentary airport chauffeur service and a fast track to Etihad Guest Gold tier, among other benefits.
First Gulf Bank recently announced the launch of its new Platinum credit cards, featuring a host of rewards such as free valet parking at many UAE malls, free worldwide money transfers, dining discounts and a cash-back offer on petrol. This card also allows users to collect points at several well-known retailers - including LuLu, Paris Gallery and CNE Royal - which can be redeemed for steep discounts.
Even the most luxurious of brands are now starting to adopt loyalty schemes - something they had avoided in the past.
In September, The Ritz-Carlton announced its luxury frequent guest loyalty programme, Ritz-Carlton Rewards, which, rather than just offering guests free stays and flights, allows points to be redeemed against exclusive luxury tours, National Geographic photography workshops and designer clothes.
But being smart with rewards doesn't mean you have to stick with only one card.
It can be worth having a variety of cards - even if you know that you'll rarely use that company and will never collect enough points to get a free flight or hotel stay - because of the peripheral benefits some schemes offer. The trick is just being aware of them.
"For airlines, many customers never use the points but do appreciate the lounge privileges and priority when it comes to reserving seats, upgrades and boarding," says Rohit Talwar, the chief executive of Fast Future, a London-based consultancy specialising in the travel and tourism sector.
The Fairmont Hotel's loyalty programme, for example, is free to join and immediately gives guests benefits such as free internet access, local calls and access to its health clubs.
Nagy Moustafa, who owns and runs a technology investment company in Canada, travels frequently to Dubai for business. He prefers to stay at the Fairmont Dubai and is a member of the brand's loyalty programme, the Fairmont's President Club. He has stayed with Fairmont for a total of 173 nights over the past two years, mostly in Dubai, but also at Fairmont hotels in Canada and in Egypt.
"The best thing you find is the service," says Mr Moustafa.
"You don't have to stand in line to wait to check-in. With the Fairmont programme, there are a lot of value-added services for loyalty customers. If you stay a number of days you get a day free and stuff like that. You get free upgrades."
Mr Moustafa adds that it's not just about having a loyalty card and getting free nights. Visiting the same establishments means that the staff often recognise him, have all his details, know his preferences and he feels comfortable at the hotel.
"If you're travelling so much, you want to come to a place that feels like a second home," he says.
He is also a Gold member of Hilton Hotels, but says he finds that the Fairmont loyalty programme is easier and the benefits more direct, rather than working on a point-based system. "I think Fairmont has an integrated system, so this hotel knows how many nights I have for free."
Signing up to Hilton Worldwide's free loyalty programme, Hilton HHonors, gives guests the option of a late check-out. Another major advantage of this scheme is that it gives guests the option to transfer their points to someone else, or even use them to make a donation to charity.
Also, consumers who might not accrue enough points for a free stay, for example, could instead use their small number of points to purchase a pay-per-view film. Hilton's programme also enables guests to collect airline miles at the same time as racking up hotel points.
Meanwhile, some hotel loyalty schemes, including Hilton HHonors, allow customers to transfer points to a particular airline programme. With Marriott Rewards, points can be automatically transferred to your frequent-flyer account with a number of airlines to choose from, including Virgin Atlantic, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, British Airways and Emirates Airline.
"Many hotels now just add the points to your preferred airline scheme, which makes a lot of sense," says Mr Talwar.
When it comes to air miles, Mr Moustafa prefers the Emirates Airline's Skywards programme and the Star Alliance loyalty scheme, which covers a number of airlines.
Star Alliance is the largest global network of airlines, with 28 participating carriers, including Air Canada and Singapore Airlines. This allows travellers to accumulate points from all these airlines on just one card. There is no Star Alliance loyalty card as such. Instead, the customer joins the frequent-flyer programme for one of the participating airlines and then uses this card to collect points when travelling with other member airlines.
"For the consumer, I think it's getting too confusing," says Mr Moustafa.
"There are too many loyalty programmes. As a consumer, I might have 10 different loyalty cards - for shopping, for airlines, hotels.
"I find that loyalty should be just embedded in the service. I don't need to carry a loyalty card. I should just say I come here often, give me whatever extra I should have for coming to the hotel."
Bansrelal Goshichand, a 28-year-old marketing executive at a property consultancy in Dubai, is equally sceptical when it comes to loyalty cards. He says he has several cards for various hotel chains and airlines.
But because he goes on holiday just a couple of times a year, he has seen scant reward in most cases. He also tends to stay with a different hotel brand on each trip.
"It's a marketing gimmick and it's only beneficial to people who are really travelling a lot, especially business travellers," Mr Goshichand says.
Michael Scully, the managing director of Seven Tides, which is developing four Mövenpick Hotels in Dubai, says the consumer doesn't always emerge as the winner when it comes to their loyalty. The issuer of the card and the manager can earn a huge amount of revenue through non-use points.
"People are looking at where they can actually get practical value, as opposed to cards they may never use," Mr Scully says.
"Some hotel cards do have good value and others have very little by the nature of where they can redeem the points. The secret to the cards is the redemption and the airline is just the best one there is because the redemption is so easy to use - upgrading yourself or getting free flights, which people need all the time."