http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/travel/123093653.html Travelers who prefer boutique hotels to big cookie-cutter brands have long faced a tradeoff. While often more charming and memorable than your typical chain hotel, most independent hotels don't offer loyalty programs. Not anymore. In an effort to compete with chains, small hotel brands and individual boutiques have begun joining together to create loyalty programs with perks that reflect personalized service and local flair. In March, Global Hotel Alliance, a collection of 12 luxury brands with more than 300 hotels, rolled out a loyalty program, GHA Discovery, that rewards frequent guests with insider experiences instead of points. (Examples include wine tastings at a local vineyard with the hotel's sommelier and a hot air balloon ride over Egyptian ruins.) At the same time, some major chains are tweaking their loyalty programs. Hilton has been de-emphasizing points and focusing on vacation experiences in an effort to rebrand its loyalty program, HHonors. Last year, InterContinental Hotels & Resorts, which includes Indigo and Holiday Inn brands, began allowing members of its loyalty program, Priority Club, to use points in combination with cash to pay for any hotel -- even those of competitors. If it's only free nights that you're after, you don't need a hotel loyalty program. Check out programs at Expedia.com and Hotels.com. Still, the new independent hotel loyalty programs are worth considering. Here are four alternatives: GHA DISCOVERY REWARDS Member hotels: Nearly 300 hotels in 48 countries; some properties are represented by smaller brands like Omni Hotels & Resorts in the United States, Anantara Hotels, Resorts and Spas in Asia and Kempinski Hotels in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. What you get: Instead of points, members of this program receive perks and insider experiences designed by individual hotels. After one stay at any hotel in the group, guests are automatically enrolled as Gold members and are entitled to free Internet access, bottled water and other special activities upon their next stay, like a personalized brewery tour in Boston or olive picking in Turkey. Those who stay more than 10 nights in member hotels over the course of a year qualify for Platinum status, which includes a delayed checkout time, automatic room upgrades and additional activities. Those who stay more than 30 nights earn Black status, which comes with earlier check-in times, a 6 p.m. checkout time, and perks like laundry service, access to the executive lounge and experiences like a private tour of the stables and stud farm of the Sheikh of Ajman. LEADERS CLUB Member hotels: More than 430 luxury hotels and resorts that make up the Leading Hotels of the World consortium, including the Setai in Miami, One Aldwych in London and Alvear Palace Hotel in Buenos Aires. What you get: For $100 a year, members are enrolled in Access Level, which comes with a range of perks, including free Internet access, daily continental breakfast for two, and a free night after five stays in a given year. For $1,200 a year, members also receive guaranteed room upgrades; a Priority Pass card, which provides access to over 600 airport lounges in more than 100 countries; and concierge service to arrange anything members need before, during or after their stay. STASH HOTEL REWARDS Member hotels: Nearly 150 hotels in the United States, including the Palms Hotel & Spa in Miami, Hotel Valley Ho in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Grande Bay Resort on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. What you get: Members earn 5 points per dollar spent on their room. Unlike traditional loyalty programs that require a fixed number of points for free nights based on the level of luxury of the hotel, Stash Rewards allows hotels to set award rates dynamically, based on the going rate for that room on a given night. For example, a night at the Mountain Lodge at Telluride in Colorado in May -- one of the ski resort's slowest months -- was priced at $139 in a recent online search, or 11,680 Stash Rewards points. The same room during the peak Christmas period was $319 or 30,950 points. Because hoteliers can manage the price of the rooms in points, they don't restrict availability during high season. VOILA HOTEL REWARDS Member hotels: About 235 upscale hotels in 22 countries, with a heavy concentration in Spain. The collection includes a number of small luxury chains like Amari in Thailand Continental Hotels in Romania and Husa Hotels in Spain. What you get: a traditional tiered points program for independent hotels. Like most mass hotel chain loyalty programs, Voila has three membership levels: Phoenix, Orion and Centaurus, with perks linked to status. At the base level (Phoenix), guests earn 10 points for every dollar spent and get priority check-in and free newspapers. After 10 nights in a consecutive 12-month period, guests receive Orion status, which comes with free upgrades, early check-in or late checkout and a 25 percent earning bonus. Points can be redeemed for free nights or miles on several airlines, including Delta.