Picking a hotel loyalty program is very much a personal decision, as there’s not a “one size fits all” answer as to which program is best. Everyone is looking for different things from a hotel group.
In this post I wanted to compare some of the major hotel loyalty programs. While there won’t be “winners” and “losers” here, I wanted to share pros and cons of the big programs, so that people can hopefully take those points into consideration to decide what makes most sense for them.
What makes a hotel loyalty program good for leisure travelers?
I thought it would be interesting to look at hotel loyalty programs from the perspective of a leisure traveler. Why? Well, business travelers might not have to work hard at all to rack up elite nights, and for that matter their hotel stay decisions may be driven by corporate contracts, where they need to stay for work, etc.
It’s a bit of a different story for leisure travelers. Here are some of the things that I think make a hotel loyalty program good for non-business travelers:
- Easy to earn status — leisure travelers have to earn elite status on their own dime, so it’s worth considering the amount of effort that it takes to earn status
- Free breakfast — while business travelers typically have an expense account, leisure travelers generally appreciate perks like free breakfast, since it can save you significant money
- Guaranteed elite perks — while perks that are “subject to availability” are better than nothing, there’s something really nice about being able to secure the perks that matter most to you in advance of your stay
- A big global footprint — being loyal to a hotel group is hard, so the bigger the hotel group, the easier it is to stay loyal
Pros & cons of major hotel loyalty programs
Let me share what I consider to be the pros & cons of the major hotel loyalty programs. I don’t think there’s a single program that’s best for everyone, but hopefully this is a good starting place for people to decide which program makes the most sense for them.
I’ll be focusing on Hilton Honors, IHG One Rewards, Marriott Bonvoy, and World of Hyatt, which are the biggest hotel loyalty programs in the United States that have co-branded credit cards, lots of aspirational properties, etc.
Hilton Honors is the best program for earning status easily, and in terms of how quickly you can rack up points.
The way I view it, the pros of Hilton Honors include:
- You can receive top-tier Hilton Honors Diamond status just for having the Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express (review); you can also easily earn Hilton Honors Gold status with a variety of credit cards
- Hilton Honors Gold and Diamond members receive complimentary breakfast, executive lounge access, and/or a food & beverage credit at all brands
- Hilton Honors has excellent points earning rates for elite members, especially since the program consistently has global promotions, and paying with a co-branded credit card is a good deal as well
- Hilton has a huge global footprint, with over 6,800 properties worldwide
Meanwhile the cons of Hilton Honors include:
- Hilton Honors isn’t great when it comes to guaranteeing benefits, as late check-out isn’t guaranteed, and suite upgrades are at the discretion of the hotel
- Of these four loyalty programs, Hilton Honors is the only program not to offer any sort of confirmed suite upgrades that can be applied in advance, which isn’t great for planning a special stay
IHG One Rewards
IHG One Rewards is the most improved program in the past couple of years, though I’m still not sure exactly where to place it. The loyalty program was recently relaunched, and it’s much more lucrative than before.
The way I view it, the pros of IHG One Rewards include:
- IHG has a large global footprint, with over 6,000 properties worldwide; in particular, there are lots of limited service and more economical properties, which many leisure travelers may appreciate (conversely, these properties may offer limited perks for elite members)
- IHG One Rewards makes it easy to earn status, especially with the IHG® Rewards Premier Credit Card (review) and IHG® Rewards Premier Business Credit Card (review); you can earn IHG Platinum status just for having the card, and IHG Diamond status for spending $40,000 on the card in a calendar year
- The IHG Milestone Rewards program offers some fantastic perks that members can pick for passing certain elite night thresholds, including confirmed suite upgrades, club lounge access, food & beverage credits, and more
- IHG One Rewards has pretty good points earning rates, between the standard earning rates, the bonuses for elite status, and IHG’s global promotions
Meanwhile the cons of IHG One Rewards include:
- IHG One Rewards is weak when it comes to guaranteeing benefits, as late check-out and suite upgrades are entirely at the discretion of hotels, rather than a guaranteed benefit
- IHG One Rewards is the biggest unknown among these programs when it comes to execution of certain elite benefits, since the current implementation of the program is still new
Marriott Bonvoy is probably the most well-rounded hotel loyalty program, in terms of a combination of a big global footprint, status being easy to earn, and solid elite perks.
The way I view it, the pros of Marriott Bonvoy include:
- Marriott Bonvoy Platinum members and above receive solid benefits, including breakfast at most brands, suite upgrades subject to availability, guaranteed 4PM late check-out at non-resorts, etc.
- Marriott Bonvoy has suite night awards that can be selected as part of the Choice Benefits program; while not as useful as Hyatt’s suite upgrade awards, they’re better than nothing
- Marriott has a huge global footprint, with over 8,000 properties worldwide
- You can earn up to 30 elite nights per year with Marriott’s co-branded credit cards, as I earn this by having the the Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card (review) and Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card (review), and that gets me 60% of the way to Platinum status; you could then earn Platinum status by staying just 20 nights, which shouldn’t be too tough for most
Meanwhile the cons of Marriott Bonvoy include:
- Marriott Bonvoy is notorious for over promising and under delivering, so in practice you might find elite benefits to be similar to what you’d get with Hilton Honors
- Marriott Bonvoy isn’t great about consistent elite benefits across brands; for example, elite members don’t receive free breakfast at brands like Ritz-Carlton and EDITION
World of Hyatt
World of Hyatt is probably the strongest hotel loyalty program, but status is also the hardest to earn, and Hyatt has the smallest global footprint.
The way I view it, the pros of World of Hyatt include:
- World of Hyatt Globalist status is the most valuable hotel status, and is best when it comes to honoring elite benefits, from late check-out, to suite upgrades
- World of Hyatt has the strongest breakfast benefit of any major hotel group, as a hot restaurant breakfast with gratuity is included when a hotel doesn’t have a lounge
- World of Hyatt offers the best confirmed suite upgrades of any hotel program, as Globalist members receive at least four of these as part of the Milestone Rewards program, each of which can be used to confirm a suite for seven nights at the time of booking
- World of Hyatt has Guest of Honor, where Globalist members can share their elite perks with friends & family when redeeming points; this is especially useful when booking multiple rooms
- World of Hyatt waives resort and destination fees for all members when redeeming points, and for Globalist members on all stays
- World of Hyatt points are the only hotel points currency that can efficiently be racked up with transferable points, as transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt is a good deal
The way I view it, the cons of World of Hyatt include:
- Hyatt has the smallest global footprint of these hotel groups; while Hyatt’s footprint is improving, it’s still a distant fourth after Hilton, IHG, and Marriott
- World of Hyatt is pretty weak when it comes to points earning rates, and Globalist members only receive 30% bonus points; furthermore, World of Hyatt has been quiet lately when it comes to global promotions
- World of Hyatt Globalist status is the hardest to earn with credit cards; while the World of Hyatt Credit Card (review) or World of Hyatt Business Credit Card (review) can help you earn elite nights, it’s still going to take a lot more effort than with other hotel groups
Which hotel loyalty program is best is highly subjective, and I don’t think there’s a single right or wrong answer. To consolidate my take and recommendations:
- Hilton Honors is great for the super easy status and generous points earning rates, especially with constant promotions
- IHG One Rewards is getting better, but I also have a hard time recommending IHG as someone’s sole hotel loyalty program
- Marriott Bonvoy makes it easy enough to earn status with credit cards, and offers solid perks, but not to the level of World of Hyatt
- World of Hyatt is the all-around best when it comes to elite status, but it’s also hardest to earn
What’s your take on what the best hotel loyalty program is?