"Frequent traveler" programs, similar to those offered by airlines, have recently been launched by major hotel chains around the country to encourage their guests to stay longer and come back more often. Vacationers sometimes can take advantage of the savings offered, even though the programs are aimed primarily at business travelers.

The plans -- which have different names, rules and options, depending on the chain -- share the same basic outline: Each paid night's lodging earns points that can be redeemed by a registered guest for accommodations, cash, premiums or extended vacations, including air fare. There may be other benefits, such as automatic room upgrades when available, check-cashing privileges and a free daily newspaper delivered to the room.

The programs have increased the occupancy rates at some hotels, and some hoteliers are satisfied with the results. But in certain cases the cost of operating the program is so great that it does not pay for itself, and may even have a negative effect on corporate earnings as well.

The programs are "very expensive," says Roger Dow, vice president for marketing services and development for Marriott Hotels, which is making its "Honored Guest Awards" -- previously advertised by direct mail only to its best business customers -- available to the general public.

But Dow considers travel an exciting prize, saying he can't see Marriott offering toasters: "Our business travelers are pretty well-heeled people." And he believes the frequent-traveler programs are worth the effort, that while a business guest may not be lured to a less-convenient hotel location, still there are places where rewarding loyalty pays off. He cites as an example the Crystal City area in Arlington, where the traveler who has business at the Pentagon can choose between the Marriott and other first-class hotels like the Sheraton or Hyatt with similar rates. Dow says the program will continue "as long as it appears viable."

A few executives deplore the emphasis on merchandise and other giveaways. They would prefer to spend the money for more cost-effective, hospitality-oriented purposes that stress improved hotel services and facilities to bring in new guests rather than pull the same travelers back and forth between competitors.

"I'd love to get out of it tomorrow," admits Tedd Schorman, Howard Johnson's vice president for marketing, referring to his successful "Superpoints" program. Schorman is convinced that it would be a smarter business decision to give the consumer better service, and thinks hotel frequent-traveler programs could end by next summer. The chains will be watching each other to see who makes the first move, he says.

This is how some of the frequent-traveler programs work. For further details, inquire when making reservations or checking in. Applications and membership cards usually can be picked up at any participating hotel.

*Marriott Hotels -- Honored Guest Awards: Ten points are given for every dollar charged to rooms (including meals, drinks, phone, incidental personal charges and taxes). For 17,500 points, a guest can get one free weekend night at any of Marriott's 135 properties worldwide, excluding resorts; 150,000 points earns the top prize -- a 12-day vacation for two at any of the chain's hotels or resorts, plus two round-trip coach tickets anywhere on Eastern, Western or TWA, and one-week rental of a full-size Hertz car. Travelers can accumulate additional bonus points by using those three airlines and that auto rental firm in connection with a stay at a Marriott.

*Ramada Hotel Group -- Business Card Program: Guests at more than 500 Ramadas in this country and Canada earn free or lower-priced travel according to the total dollar amount shown on the bill at checkout, including banquets and meetings. One point is awarded for each $100 of the bill (to a maximum of 30 points per stay). Prizes range from a 50-percent discount on the weekend rate worldwide plus an upgrade on a Hertz car rental (for 10 points), to a six-night vacation for four (two rooms) at any of Ramada's 585 worldwide locations, including round-trip air fare and free luxury car rental (for 200 points). Merchandise awards (for 70 points) are to be announced soon. Points can be earned until May 31, 1985, and redeemed until Dec. 31, 1985. Ramada released figures showing that more than 100,000 persons have applied for membership since the program's introduction in May.

*Howard Johnson's -- Superpoints II: Cash or travel prizes are based on the number of paid room nights, with each night earning one Superpoint certificate. Certificates are redeemable in groups of five. Awards range from small merchandise items (like a stainless-steel cutlery set for five points) to 50 percent off on a two-night weekend stay at any of the chain's nearly 500 properties in this country and Canada, and upgrading on a Hertz car rental (for 10 points), to a variety of top-level prizes. For 325 points, winners can choose from merchandise -- a "G.E. dream kitchen" or a walnut dining-room set -- or vacations for two -- a seven-day Caribbean cruise, an eight-day Hawaiian trip, including air fare and hotel, or a 10-day escape to Paris and Rome, including air fare, first-class hotels and a sightseeing trip in each capital.

*Holiday Inn -- Priority Club: Guaranteed reservations entitle guests to free accommodations or reduced rates at any of the participating Holiday Inns. Each stay of one or two nights at one inn equals one point; three or more consecutive nights earn two points. Awards range from a half-price weekend (double occupancy) at more than 1,100 inns in the United States (for 10 points) to a free one-week vacation for two at more than 1,700 inns worldwide (for 100 points), plus a 50 percent discount on the best available fare on Eastern Air Lines to U.S., Mexican and Caribbean destinations.

*Stouffer Hotels -- Certificate of Appreciation: Only American Express cardholders are eligible to participate in Stouffer's program. One certificate is earned for each night's stay; they may be redeemed for American Express gift certificates and U.S. Savings Bonds. Premiums range from a $25 gift certificate (five certificates of appreciation) to a $500 U.S. Savings Bond, a free weekend (Friday-Saturday) at any of Stouffer's 22 U.S. properties, plus a $100 gift certificate for American Express merchandise (50 certificates).

*Quality Hotels and Resorts Inc. -- Super Seven Saver: One free night is given for each six paid nights in any one or more of the chain's 38 U.S. and Canadian properties. Nights can be used separately or accumulated for a vacation.