My biased view of hotel loyalty programs

best-hotel-rewards-program3

Which hotel loyalty program is best?  I get asked this a lot, but the answer depends upon your personal needs, your goals, and your travel preferences.  Travel is Free recently presented a fantastic infographic showing the pros and cons of each major hotel loyalty program. The graphic is shown in miniature here, so please click over to the original post to see it in full glory. 

Rather than try to come up with a single best program recommendation, I’ve listed below my favorites for different purposes.  Here is my biased view of which hotel is best for each listed purpose:

Best earnings from hotel stays

In exchange for paid hotel stays, most hotel loyalty programs reward their members with points that can be used for future stays.  In most cases, members earn a certain number of points per dollar spent.  The best chains offer a combination of high numbers of points per dollar spent and low numbers of points required for a free night.

Winner: Club Carlson

Club Carlson automatically offers all members an industry leading 20 points per dollar for their stays.  Even better, they give a bonus for booking online and for elite status.  And, they frequently run promotions offering even more points per dollar.  Club Carlson is not very competitive with regards to points needed for free nights (9,000 to 70,000), but their extremely generous point-earning policies more than make up for that.  And, if you have the Club Carlson credit card, your points can be worth up to twice as much towards free nights (more on that in the “Best hotel branded credit card” section”)

On the other hand: Club Carlson hotels are hard to find or nonexistent in some parts of the world; and they have very few aspirational properties.

Runner up: Marriott

Marriott is in the middle of the pack in terms of points earned per dollar, and is not terribly competitive with regards to points needed for a free night (7,500 to 70,000).  However, Marriott does regularly run “Mega Bonus” promotions in which most members can earn a free night for every two paid stays.  Since those free nights are in addition to points earned, Marriott often does offer the best earnings for paid stays.

On the other hand: It can be tricky to find a good use for those free night certificates.  The certificates are usually good for just one year and are limited to category 1-4 or 1-5 hotels.  Since Marriott increases the category levels of their hotels every time I sneeze, it can be a challenge to use those certificates for good value.

Best top tier elite status benefits

Most hotel loyalty programs offer multiple tiers of elite status.  Typically, bottom tier is called Silver, then mid tier is Gold, then top tier is Platinum or Diamond.  Hyatt confuses things a bit by making Gold the entry level status everyone gets for joining the free program.  Then, mid tier Hyatt status is Platinum, and top tier is Diamond.

Winner: Hyatt

Hyatt Diamond members automatically get free full breakfast either through complimentary lounge access or at the hotel restaurant when a lounge is not available.  Best of all (in my opinion), Diamond members receive 4 suite upgrade certificates each year that can be applied to paid stays (including points & cash stays) in which standard suites are available.  In my experience, it is fantastic that these certificates can be used at the time of booking to ensure a suite upgrade when it is most important to you.

On the other hand: Hyatt has far fewer properties than other chains, so finding opportunities to earn and enjoy these elite benefits can be a challenge.

Runner up: Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG)

SPG Platinum members receive free lounge access and free upgrades to the best available room, including standard suites when availablePlatinum members can also choose a welcome gift of bonus points, continental breakfast, or other local amenities.  Platinum members who stay at SPG properties for 50 nights or more in a calendar year receive 10 Suite Night Awards that can be used to confirm suite upgrades up to 5 days prior to arrival.  SPG has a few major advantages over Hyatt: 1) Many more properties; 2) SPG members earn elite stay credits during award stays; and 3) Award nights are eligible for suite upgrades.

On the other hand: Unlike Hyatt, SPG suite upgrades cannot be confirmed until 5 days prior to arrival.  And, with regards to the breakfast welcome gift, some properties are extremely stingy:

SPGstingybreakfast_fromOMAT

Best mid tier elite status benefits

With many hotel chains, mid tier status is easy to get and keep (see “Maintaining mid-tier hotel status”).  There’s a huge difference, though, in mid-tier status perks across the chains.

Winner: Hilton

Hilton Gold members are entitled to free internet and free breakfast at most Hilton brand hotels.  While the breakfast benefit is technically a continental breakfast, I find that most hotels offer Gold guests complimentary full breakfast in the hotel restaurant.

Best hotel branded credit card

Hotel credit cards usually offer some form of elite status, increased earnings at hotel properties, and (sometimes) free nights.

Winner: Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa (and its twin: Business Rewards Visa)

The Club Carlson Premier card and its business twin have a lot going for them: 85,000 point signup bonus; 10X points per dollar earned at Club Carlson properties and 5X everywhere else; automatic Gold status; Bonus Award Nights that can double to value of Club Carlson points; and 40,000 bonus points each year that you renew.  The business card has the edge over the personal card in that its annual fee is slightly cheaper ($60 vs $75).  See full details here: Club Carlson rocks our world… Again.

On the other hand: This card does charge a foreign transaction fee when used outside of the United States (so, don’t use it when travelling out of country).  Also, as mentioned above, Club Carlson hotels are rare in some parts of the world, and they have very few aspirational properties.

Runner up: IHG Rewards Club Select MasterCard

This card offers automatic top tier IHG Platinum status; a 10% rebate on all point redemptions; up to 80K signup bonus; and a free night certificate every year upon renewal.  The free night certificate is the key that makes this card so valuable.  For only $49 per year, the cardholder gets a free night at any IHG property in the world.  If you travel often with a significant other, I recommend that both of you sign up for this card at the same time so that the certificates will become valid at the same time (a year after signup).  That way, the two of you can get a two night stay every year for the price of two credit card renewals ($98 total per year).

On the other hand: Top tier Platinum status with IHG is not particularly meaningful.  And, this card earns only 1 point per dollar for most purchases, so I do not recommend it for day to day use.  This card is good to get and keep in a drawer, not in your wallet.

Reader input

What do you think?  Which do you think is the best hotel program for your needs?  Please comment below.


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Comments

  1. Agree with all except Marriott as runner-up for best Hotel earnings. I guess I’d choose Hilton, especially when combined with a Hilton credit card. Marriott just doesn’t seem to do anything other than their Mega bonuses to incite your stays. And as you mentioned Mega bonuses usually only reward you at Lower-tier hotels. Wow, a free night at the Fairfield Inn. That’s a reward?

  2. I agree with Larry – earning a free night at a category 1-4 is very meh, it’s like earning a free flight on any route less than 200 miles one way.

    Club Carlson’s redemption only goes to 70,000 by the way, and other than the handful of hotels there (for now), the top reward is 50,000.

    Either Hilton or IHG should take second best, IHG if you are weighting promotions as much as you are with Marriott.

  3. I’d pick the Citi Hilton Reserve as the runner up for best hotel credit card. You get gold status, which is very meaningful compared to IHG Plat. The signup bonus of two free Hilton nights is generally more valuable than the 80k IHG points. You do have to spend $10k on the card to get the annual free night, but spending $10k is very easy for us.

  4. Oops, thanks for catching the mistake. I’ve updated the post to show that Club Carlson tops out at 70K not 75K.
    .
    Regarding Marriott, for me they do offer the best rebate for paid stays. Even though the free nights can’t be used at luxury hotels (with a some exceptions internationally), I regularly save about $150 per night by using these when I need a near-airport hotel or on a road trip. Keep in mind too that you do earn Marriott points for those paid stays as well.
    .
    I would agree that IHG, at times, offers better earnings, but their bonus offers aren’t nearly as predictable as Marriott’s. And, with IHG cracking down on people signing up for offers they weren’t targeted for, opportunities there have gone way down.
    .
    Hilton often offers double points or other incentives, but their points have devalued so much that I don’t see that as a big incentive to have paid Hilton stays.

  5. I am biased towards SPG and I have a contrarian view on this: because SPG points are the hardest to get (no online malls, no significant bonuses)their program is the best because there are not many people with big amounts of points competing for rooms. I have never come across an SPG property that does not have rooms available (if there is an open room it can be booked with points). Also the fact that bookings in their middle tier are basically half or even a third of other programs (example: Le Meridien Nice is only 12000 points)and that the fifth night is free when you book 4 with points, makes this program an amazing value.
    As a platinum member I have been treated like royalty, specially outside the USA. Amazing suites upgrades without requesting, full breakfasts, club access, etc.
    It is true that the \breakfast benefit\ can be spotty, but usually is enough (specially in the clubs outside US) or they credit you certain amount towards a full brekfast if you want to (the W Chicago lakeshore will give you a credit of $10 or continental breakfast.)
    Then you add the annual gift of 35% of a redemtion for platinums and this is truly amazing: lets say you want to go to Monaco. Le Meridien there, is 25000 points a night. 4 nights and the fifth free for 65000 points (100000 minus the 35%) and this becomes an incredible value for an hotel that is 500 euros a night for a regular room.

  6. I did a series of post on hotel loyalty earlier this year as well. My posts posed a hypothetical of 100 nights per year for the frequent traveler. I included analysis of credit card spend and elite status.

    With that said, I agree with the conclusion above in that Club Carlson was hands down the most rewarding!

  7. I thought the regular Club Carlson on-line booking bonus was now gone for the most part. I’ve been more in the burn mode since they made thier changes. No paid stays since change.

    Luckily when times were good (3K bonus for Concierge, and lot’s of cheap 5K point add-ons, and other promotions) I racked up over a millions points.

    With thier credit card’s last-night-free on reward trips the redemption side is still pretty good.

  8. I love it that BA bloggers pretty much totally ignore IC Royal Ambassador, which is hands down the best top tier status.

  9. Thanks for the research and for the thoughtful post.

    Here’s an additional data point, re your comment that: \…this [IHG] card earns only 1 point per dollar for most purchases…\

    I recently received my IHG MasterCard replacing the earlier Visa card. The accompanying materials state that I will receive two points per dollar at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants. Still not superior to other cards as a daily earner, but better than one point per dollar.

    The MC is a \Select World Master Card, so maybe MMMV compared to other MCs?

    I’ll keep the card for the \free\ night for $49, but it won’t see much use, even at two points per dollar…..

  10. If you time it right you and your spouse can have 2 nights each available from IHG, you let your first year award wait until your second year award arrives (ours each overlap in April) I prefer the Palazzo in Vegas for the award, though you have to fight to have them comp the resort fees.

    Marriott cards are good for aspirational awards…got Ritz Carlton card first (fee waived), then personal and business MR cards. this gives a good chunk of points and the 2 certs are an easy $140 a night bonus….save the points for a Marriott travel award (hotel/air) for 7 nights with a 120,000 airline points…if you trade them in for southwest, it will give you the companion pass.

    • If you can get 5X with your Chase Ink card, that would probably be best (and transfer points to Hyatt). Otherwise, Club Carlson’s card offers 5X everywhere plus Bonus Award Nights, so it takes very little spend to get two free nights.

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