A free room isn't the only thing your points buy -- InterContinental has iPod Nanos and Nintendo Wiis for sale at its online mall, Marriott dangles rounds of golf at its links in Jamaica and Hawaii, and Hilton hawks tickets to Saturday Night Live tapings.

Not to be outdone, Starwood last fall became the first chain to allow rewards members to directly exchange hotel points for airfare. For example, a round-trip ticket worth about $350 on any airline costs 25,000 points -- and there are no dreaded blackout dates or extra fees.

Another plus for loyalty members is the current bonanza of point bonuses. Starwood recently showered guests at its Aloft hotels with quadruple the points they'd normally earn for a night, while Hyatt is bestowing between 2,000 and 20,000 extra points for stays of two to eight nights through the end of April.

A great resource for finding these bonuses is the delightfully nerdy new Web site PointMaven.com, which has a database of thousands of offers across the country, color-coded to show the best deals.

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