Earlier this week I published a guide to the InterContinental Ambassador program. Unlike elite status at most other hotels where status is earned, Ambassador status is bought. Pay either $200 or 40K IHG points for 12 months of status. A couple of months ago, IHG changed the Ambassador program in various ways, some good and some bad. I had an opportunity last week to try out the new program at the InterContinental Stephen F. Austin. My goal was to determine the following: is the new program worth the cost of enrollment?
The primary benefit I wanted to test is the free weekend night certificate that you get upon enrollment. It basically gives you the ability to buy two weekend nights at an InterContinental hotel for the price of one. In the old Ambassador program, you had to wait up to 8 weeks for the certificate to arrive by mail. In the new program, a digital certificate is loaded to your account instantly. I also hoped to benefit from the guaranteed room upgrade and $20 stay credit.
Checking prices and availability
Before signing up for Ambassador status, I used this link to check for free weekend night prices and availability (h/t Loyalty Lobby). I also decided to pick a room rate that included club lounge access since I knew from the program’s terms that upgrades to the club lounge are not an included benefit.
For the weekend I planned to visit, the best flexible rate with Club Lounge access was with the Member Discount at $303.05 per night before taxes and fees. The rate available for a free night was $319. It’s not bad to have only a $15.95 premium to get a room eligible for a free night. Unfortunately I don’t have records showing what they were charging at the time for a regular room without club access, but I think it may have been around $280 or so. The points rate for a room without lounge access was 50K points per night.
I then checked suite prices and found that they weren’t that much higher than regular room prices. The prices shown below are the best non-refundable rates so can’t be compared directly the to refundable rates shown above. I can tell you that the lowest price suite that included club lounge access listed at $350 per night under the Club InterContinental rate. In other words, It was possible to reserve a suite with lounge access for only $31 more than the cost of a regular room with lounge access.
Armed with the above information, I decided that I would sign up for Ambassador status and book a suite with lounge access using the free weekend night certificate.
Cash or Points?
Ambassador status costs either $200 or 40K IHG points for 12 months. That means that if you choose points, you get half a cent value for your points. Since it is often possible to buy IHG points at .5 cents each, I consider this a wash. If you want to use your points for higher value award stays, then pay cash. If you’re looking for opportunities to use your IHG points, then pay points.
I paid points. And, since I have the no-longer-available IHG Rewards Select credit card, I got a 10% points rebate. This brought the per point value up to $200 / 36000 = 0.55 cents per point. That’s still not nearly brag-worthy, but it’s at least slightly better than 0.5.
Booking the free night
Booking the free night simply required logging into my IHG account, viewing my account, and clicking on the “Book” button under the title “Ambassador Complimentary Weekend Night”. I booked a suite that included club lounge access for $349 per night (about $400 after taxes).
It’s important to note that the room rate shows up initially at full price. You only get credited with the free night once you check into the hotel. So my email confirmation showed a total after taxes of $802.70 even though it also clearly listed “Rate Type: Ambassador Complimentary Weekend Night.”
I was curious to see if the Ambassador benefits would be extended automatically or if I would have to push for them. Unfortunately, I had to push, but just a little bit. I arrived quite early, before 11 am, to try to check in. The desk agent I first spoke with was clearly brand new and unsure of himself. He told me that my “junior suite” was not yet ready. I was thrown by the term “junior suite” since the reservation screen didn’t show any suites described that way and my confirmation email said that I had booked an Executive Suite. I asked about this and he had to bring over his colleague to explain. Apparently they consider the room I booked to be a junior suite even if it is not listed in the IHG system that way. Anyway, the colleague readily bumped me up to the next level suite when he saw my Ambassador status. I asked about getting upgraded to the exclusive Yellow Rose Suite, but he said that they would only move me up one level and that suite was two levels up. Bummer. Note to self: always book the room that is exactly one level below the one you really want.
My room wasn’t ready yet, so I asked about getting club lounge access while I waited. I had work to do and wanted to work in the lounge. It turns out that in the morning the lounge is wide open for anyone to go in to buy breakfast or get free the buffet breakfast if you have club access. In other words, each morning the club is really a restaurant. The desk agent handed me a free buffet voucher. That was great because I was able to make use of the breakfast buffet as an early lunch.
I was told that I would get a call when the room was ready, but that never happened. After working a while, I went out with friends and returned at around 4pm to pick up my keys.
Our suite was nice. It wasn’t a show stopper, but it was elegant enough and large enough for our needs. The suite included a living room with a wet bar area and french doors to the bedroom.
I was surprised that the bathroom was normal sized rather than one of the very large bathrooms that often accompany suites.
Our suite included robes and slippers. Evening turn-down service brought pillow mints and small bottles of water. As promised with Ambassador status, we also received a bottle of mineral water each day. On the second day we were very happy to find a cheese plate and bottle of wine. I’m not sure if we received these due to my status or if it is a standard gift for those in suites.
The Club Lounge
The club lounge is configured more like a restaurant than a lounge. There were plenty of tables, but no sofas or large chairs to lounge in. Breakfast was served 6:30 to 11 daily. A small selection of snacks were served from noon to 4pm. Champagne appeared at 3pm. A small food buffet and self-serve bar appeared from 5:30 to 8pm.
I thought that breakfast was good, but not spectacular. They offered a better than average buffet, but not by a wide margin. On the other hand, the coffee was fantastic. For that alone I was very happy to get breakfast in the lounge! Note that you can get made to order eggs as part of the buffet.
The afternoon snacks were meager, but I think that’s common in most lounges. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the tea and cookies.
The appearance of champagne at 3pm was a nice touch.
The evening social hour from 5:30 to 8pm was my favorite. The evening buffet includes a self-serve bar and both hot and cold food. While we didn’t intend it to be our dinner, the reality was that we were quite full afterwards so it was our dinner one night.
$20 Food & Beverage Credit
One of the Ambassador benefits is $20 in food & beverage credit per stay (not per night). Thanks to the club lounge and the cheese plate brought to our room, it wasn’t easy to find a use for this credit! We could have simply raided the hotel mini-bar for $20 worth of stuff, but we decided to try out the hotel’s outdoor Terrace bar. Unfortunately, plenty of people were smoking on the outdoor terrace, so we sat down inside. Cocktail prices ranged from about $11 to $15. A big bowl of gourmet popcorn set us back another $9. It was all very nice. We charged everything to our room so that we’d get a $20 discount from that bill.
If you consider the fact that I bought Ambassador status specifically for this 2 for 1 weekend, it’s fair to say that I paid $400 (the room rate) plus 36,000 IHG points (the cost for Ambassador status) for the weekend. When you consider that we stayed in a nice suite, had weekend access to the club lounge, and received gifts, I’d say this was a good deal. You can think of it like paying $200 per night after taxes plus 18K points per night to get a suite plus lounge access and gifts. Who wouldn’t want that? Plus, it will make my future InterContinental stays slightly more valuable (thanks to the room upgrade & $20 credit) if they happen before my Ambassador status expires.
I’m hesitant to say that this was a great deal only because I didn’t try very hard to look at other options for the same weekend. It’s possible that other hotels had fantastic deals available for the weekend. Still, I was very happy with how it turned out and I would do it again if the opportunity presented itself.
My general advice regarding Ambassador status is this: don’t sign up until you have a specific high value use for it. If you’re planning a weekend stay at an InterContinental hotel, then check for 2 for 1 availability and compare prices vs. other options. Add together the cost of joining the Ambassador program with the cost of the one night in order to determine your full cost for the two-night weekend. Is it still a good deal? If so, go for it.