Several weeks ago, I began exploring the question, “Which hotel loyalty program is the most rewarding?” I found that question wasn’t easy to answer, and it only developed more layers as I delved into it. I started by comparing Hilton, Hyatt, and Marriott (See: Which hotel program is the most rewarding? Hyatt vs Hilton vs Marriott). In that post, I promised to follow up with a few other programs. In the end, I think beauty is in the eye of the beholder — but here’s a look at some comparisons that might help you judge for yourself. In this post, I will be focusing on a comparison between IHG, Radisson Rewards, Wyndham, and Choice.
Earnings: Base, “
Free breakfast” Mid-tier, and Top Tier
For starters, let’s look at the basic earning structure at three key status levels for each of these three hotel programs. In the chart below, “base” refers to the base level where all members begin at Stay #1. I previously used “Free breakfast” as a mid-tier comparison point, using a status level that gets complimentary breakfast in each chain. However, nobody gets free breakfast at IHG, Wyndham, or Choice as a benefit of loyalty. Radisson Rewards only gives free breakfast to top-tier Platinum members, so that didn’t seem like a fair point of comparison. Instead, I used a mid-tier comparison point. For IHG, I used Platinum status (which you get automatically with the IHG Rewards Club Premier card). For Radisson, I used Gold status (which you get automatically with the Radisson Rewards Premier card). Wyndham earnings are unrelated to status. For Choice, I used Platinum status (though you only get Gold status with the Choice Privileges Visa card). Here are the earning rates in points per dollar:
|Base||10*||20||10 / 1K**||10|
|15*||25||10 / 1K**||12.5|
|Top tier||20*||35||10 / 1K**||15|
*Note that IHG members only earn 5x at Saybridge Suites and Candlewood Suites and therefore also earn fewer points at mid- and top-tier status at those properties
**Wyndham Rewards members earn either 10x or 1,000 points per stay, whichever is greater. For the purposes of today’s post, I assumed an average nightly rate where you would earn more points at 10x, so that is the point of comparison used.
Average cost of a hotel room: $131.56
According to Statista.com, the average daily rate of hotels in the US as of March 2018 was $131.56. I have no idea how reliable Statista is, but for the purposes of comparison, we really just need a number, and this one will work as well as any.
Nightly earnings based on an average night
Next, we look at how many points you would earn per paid night based on the average nightly cost of rooms in the US noted above. Your cost could of course increase or decrease and so too will your points with the price you’re paying per night. For the purposes of comparison, let’s assume no promotions. Your earnings on an average night based on the $131.56 figure from Statista would be as follows:
Points earned en route to status
Let’s next look at how many points you would earn on your way to status. This chart shows the number of points you would earn based on the minimum number of nights needed to achieve each of the three status levels being used for comparison assuming the average nightly US hotel rate numbers above.
These numbers get a little complex and some of the more intricate math is left out of the chart. For example, in the IHG Rewards Club program, you would achieve Gold status after either 10 nights or 10,000 base points. Since we’re assuming an average of 1,315.6 base points per night, you would actually achieve Gold status after just 8 nights. You would then earn a 10% bonus on each of the next 23 nights necessary to get to Platinum status. That 31 total nights to reach Platinum status is based on the fact that Platinum status requires either 40 nights or 40,000 base points (you would reach the base points requirement in fewer nights based on our average nightly rate figure). Thereafter, you would be earning a 50% bonus on base points until you reach the nights (or in this case base points) required for Spire Elite status.
The numbers below consider the total points earned en route to the minimum qualification standards at each level including those premiums for status. Note that Radisson Rewards allows members to qualify on nights or stays. For the purposes of a bare-bones comparison, I assumed you would meet the stay requirement with 1-night stays.
Based on that chart, you’ll feel richest when looking at your IHG or Radisson Rewards point balances. However, IHG pulls away at the top end: once you reach Spire Elite status, you get a “choice benefit”. The best of the options is 25,000 points — meaning that you would actually have a total of more than 120,000 IHG points upon reaching Spire Elite status if you take the points as your choice benefit.
But point balances aren’t the best point of comparison — let’s see how many paid nights are required to earn free rooms.
Number of average paid nights necessary to earn a Level 1 free room
Next let’s consider the number of paid nights that would be required based on the $131.56 average US hotel room cost in order to earn a free Level 1 night in each program. As a reminder, standard Category 1 awards are priced as follows:
- IHG = 5,000 points (point breaks)
- Radisson = 9,000 points
- Wyndham = 15,000 points
- Choice = 6,000 points
I used the cheapest IHG point breaks as the Category 1 point of comparison since the opportunity to book at least a handful of properties for 5K per night comes around every few months. Officially, the IHG award chart starts at 10,000 points per night, so you’ll need to double the numbers below if you’d prefer to base free nights on that number. Referring back to the nightly earnings based on the cost of an average night in the US, you would need to stay the following number of nights in each program to earn a free “level 1” hotel night (rounded up to the next full night):
- IHG: 4
- Radisson: 4
- Wyndham: 12
- Choice: 5
Not surprisingly, if you’re after low category free nights, you will earn those free nights faster with these programs than with Marriott, Hyatt, and Hilton. Keep in mind that this comparison ignores the fact that these chains also frequently run rewarding promotions (See: Which Hotel Program Has The Most Rewarding Promotions?). For example, Choice often runs a promotion where you can stay twice and earn 8,000 points (enough points for a free Category 1 stay after two one-night paid stays). Wyndham charges the same 15,000 points per night at all of the properties in their portfolio and they have run a few promotions this year where you could stay two or three nights and earn the 15K necessary for a free night anywhere. It is certainly possible to earn free nights faster by leveraging promotions. The numbers above give you a comparison assuming no promotions — you’ll have to run your own math comparing the currently-available promos at any given time.
Number of nights needed per top-tier free room
On the other end of the spectrum, if you are a road warrior spending many of your nights away from home in hotels, you might be most interested in using the points you have earned to stay in paradise or in a major city at a property where you wouldn’t otherwise consider paying the cash rate. A free night in a standard room at a top-tier property will set you back the following quantities of points:
- IHG: 70,000 points
- Radisson: 70,000 points
- Wyndham: 15,000 points
- Choice: 35,000 points
Based on the average nightly US hotel rate of $131.56 and the base earning structures above (i.e. with no status), you would have to spend the following number of “average” $131 nights to earn the points required for a night at each chain’s top-tier properties:
- IHG: 54
- Radisson: 27
- Wyndham: 12
- Choice: 27
However, those numbers aren’t really accurate. In each of the programs above, you would achieve some level of status en route to those quanities of nights and with that status comes more points-per-night.
Based on status multipliers, it would take the following number of average ($131.56) nights to earn a top-tier free night in each chain:
- IHG: 45 nights (8 at base, 23 at Gold with 10% bonus, 14 at Platinum with 50% bonus)
- Radisson: 25 nights (6 at base, 14 at Silver, 5 at Gold)
- Wyndham: 12 nights
- Choice: 25 nights (10 at base, 10 at Gold with 10% bonus, 5 at Platinum with 25% bonus)
As expected, Wyndham catches up very quickly thanks to its flat award structure, with all hotels costing 15,000 points per night. Further, whereas top-tier free nights at Hyatt, Hilton, and Marriott all required about 42 paid nights based on our average rate, top-tier free nights at Radisson, Wyndham, and Choice require significantly fewer paid nights to achieve. Of course, you need to balance that out against the fact that these chains (with the exception of IHG) likely have fewer top-tier properties and the fact that your average nightly paid rate is more likely to be less than the average when staying at many of their properties. If you’re paying an average nightly rate of $80 or $100 in these chains, you will need to stay more nights to earn free stays.
On the flip side, if you are near the national average for your paid nights, these chains are pretty rewarding. Furthermore, if your goal is to stay for free at mid-tier properties rather than top-end, it’s hard to ignore how quickly you could rack up free nights with these programs.
Using the credit card to pay for nights
Assuming you are paying for your stays with each chain’s credit card, you can earn free nights even faster. Here are the earning rates for paid stays with each chain’s credit cards:
- IHG Rewards Club Traveler Credit Card: 5x
- IHG Rewards Club Premier: 10x
- Radisson Rewards Visa Signature: 6x
- Radisson Rewards Premier: 10x
- Radisson Rewards Business Visa Card: 10x
- Wyndham Rewards No Annual Fee: 3x
- Wyndham Rewards $75 fee: 5x
- Choice Privileges Visa Signature: 5x
As you can see, paying with the co-branded credit card can help rack up free nights faster if you are investing in a particular chain. For example, the IHG Rewards Club Premier credit card doubles your earnings at the entry level. Between base IHG Rewards Club earnings (10x) and the credit card (10x), you could earn a free 5K point break night after two paid nights at the national average of $131.56 per night.
So which program is the most rewarding?
As you can see above from the math above, this is a hard question to answer. If Wyndham Rewards has top-tier hotels you want and has properties that fit your needs for paid nights, it’s hard to beat the flat award structure. Further, while I doube we’ll ever see a promotion like this again, the fact is that the partnership with Cottages.com means you can book a 2- or 3-bedroom apartment / home in Europe for 30K or 45K Wyndham Rewards points. Since Wyndham gives a minimum of 1K points per paid stay, you could earn the points for some pretty nice properties with a relatively small number of paid nights (if they were all one-night stays, anyway).
On the other hand, if your goal is to earn free nights for family travel, I think it would be hard to ignore Choice privileges. The value of free breakfast at most properties (and even free dinner at some Nordic Choice brands) can be huge for families. Pair that with an award chart that doesn’t require boatloads of points and a decent earning structure and you have a good mix for free mid-tier nights (which weren’t explored for the purposes of this post, but certainly might be an important consideration for you).
Ultimately, in this battle, I think it really comes down to which property has the footprint that fits your needs — whether for your paid nights or award stays. IHG obviously has the others beat in terms of sheer size of footprint, but you may find Radisson’s top European properties more interesting or Choice’s savings more compelling if you’ll be staying at those Nordic Choice properties with free evening meals. If you’re looking to earn a free week in New York City, Wyndham should probably be your go-to chain, but do their locations also fit your paid night needs?
And then there is another factor to consider. The last time I wrote a post like this, Greg responded with a different take and then readers asked about manufacturing free nights. If you plan to augment the free nights earned from your paid stays with free nights earned from creative spending techniques, the answer may be different yet. More on that to come…
What do you think? Which of these hotel loyalty programs is the most rewarding?