The No. 1 rule of investing in a rewards program is making sure that every dollar spent maximizes your trip or helps get you closer to earning perks for future travel. Many loyalty programs often advertise in a way that makes travelers feel like they're earning free nights (and privileges) just by signing up. That's not entirely false, as you can often get basic perks just by enrolling, but for the vast majority of travelers, the most lucrative benefits are only attainable if you travel often and are consistently loyal to a single brand; otherwise, collecting enough points to redeem for free nights and elite status benefits takes time. That doesn't mean a program isn't worth signing up, but it's important to evaluate your lifestyle, personal objectives and the value of your points before you start collecting them. It's also important to understand that not all programs are not created equal. That's true when it comes to earning points, redeeming points and basic membership benefits offered through each program.\r\n\r\nTo help infrequent travelers and road warriors maximize awards, experts that have made a living out of sharing their secrets for mastering the rewards game. Here are six smart tips that will help even loyalty program newbies feel like seasoned pros.\r\n\r\nCompare Basic and Elite Status Benefits\r\n\r\nMost programs offer basic benefits for their lowest-tier members, including amenities like Wi-Fi access and members-only promotions. But for elevated perks, like priority check-in times and free room upgrades, you need to reach higher elite status tiers. For example, the Starwood Preferred Guest program gives its basic Preferred Guest members complimentary in-room bottled water, but after staying 10 times or 25 nights within a calendar year, members are upgraded to Gold Preferred status and are eligible to receive a complimentary gift and upgrade to a better room on a higher floor or with a better view.\r\n\r\nIt's also important to keep in mind that there are some caveats for taking advantage of membership perks, even at basic membership levels. For instance, Hilton HHonors members are only granted free Wi-Fi access for booking direct through Hilton's reservations system instead of using online travel agencies like Expedia. And Marriott recently announced that beginning on April 11, they will offer the lowest prices available to Marriott Rewards members who book their stays with a direct Marriott booking channel. Plus, if a prospective guest finds a better rate after booking, Marriott will not only match that rate but also offer an added 25 percent discount. Another key factor to consider is how often you're traveling. Generally, the more you stay, the more points and perks you'll earn with a loyalty program.\r\n\r\nKnow the Value of Your Points and How Much You'll Earn Per Stay or Dollar Spent\r\n\r\nMost programs offer members rewards points for every night stayed or dollar spent at their hotels. For example, the Hilton HHonors program gives members 10 base points for every dollar spent at Hilton properties and the Marriott Rewards offers 10 points for every dollar spent, but what that earnings ratio grants members fluctuates between chains. The Hilton HHonors program used to offer one of the best point values in the business, but after a major devaluation in 2013, the value of each point became sharply less on average, making it easy to collect points, but difficult to gain top-tier elite status benefits and free nights compared to other loyalty programs.\r\n\r\nStill, it's also important to keep in mind that programs offer varied earning and redemption opportunities, so to optimize your rewards potential, consider whether you prioritize earning elite membership status benefits, quickly racking up enough points to redeem free stays or traveling with partners. For example, if collecting enough points for a free stay is your end goal, Wyndham Rewards has made understanding the value of your points very simple. Every hotel in the chain's portfolio – more than 7,500 properties – require 15,000 points per night. That's great if you want to stay at the newly improved New Yorker in Manhattan, but not such a great trade if you use it for a Days Inn in Maine. Conversely, if you're a frequent, business traveler who wants VIP perks and the chance to earn and redeem points for flights, Starwood is often touted among experts as a great option for road warriors, because it features many program partners and allows members the opportunity to easily transfer their points.\r\n\r\nMore Properties and Partners Equals More Leverage\r\n\r\nWhile SPG members are nervous that an impending merger will sour what they feel to be the best program out there, the reality is having a greater portfolio of properties can only translate to more options for the consumer. And vigilant shoppers can find great redemption opportunities by investing in programs that offer transferable points that can be applied to other programs. After all, the more properties at different price points included in a program, the better the opportunity to earn points quickly to redeem stays at higher category properties.\r\n\r\nLook for Bonuses\r\n\r\nMost programs offer members an additional points bonus for staying frequently at their properties. For instance, Marriott Rewards offers Gold Elite members a 25 percent rewards bonus on base points and Platinum Elite members a 50 percent points bonus in addition to base points. And then there are program promotions. Program members often get exclusive promotions and opportunities to score bonus points. Currently, Hilton HHonors is offering double points or miles with partner airlines for any Hilton booking through April 30.\r\n\r\nConsider Sign-Up Bonuses\r\n\r\nSome credit card companies partner with hotel loyalty programs and offer lucrative sign up bonuses for signing up with the program's affiliated card. For example, enrolling in the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card from Chase offers an 80,000 points bonus for spending $3,000 in the first three months after opening an account and 7,500 bonus points for adding another card user within the same time period.\r\n\r\nFamiliarize Yourself With the Fine Print\r\n\r\nOne last thing to consider when selecting a loyalty program is the fine print and any restrictions that can apply when it comes to pooling points. Let's say you want to plan a vacation with your friend or family member. Instead of booking separately, pool your points and you'll often get better deals. Each hotel chain has unique rules, so make sure to compare individual rules as you weigh your options. Programs like Marriott Rewards allow you to transfer points without restrictions, while SPG lets you pool or transfer points to anyone that shares your home address. Pooling SPG points especially comes in handy when booking longer trips, because if you pool enough points to book four nights, you get the fifth night free at Starwood properties. Meanwhile, Club Carlson and the Hyatt Gold Passport program allows elite members to transfer points to any other member. Also, you should always check to see if your desired program's points expire, as program rules change frequently.