Hotel loyalty programs

A friend sent me an email yesterday asking about hotel loyalty programs, and I figured it was a broad enough topic so that others could benefit, so I’ll respond here. Part of the email read:

Since we spend 60-70 days a year in hotels, spread over all programs so there’s no real benefit, I’m trying to decide where to focus.
PS Last year we spent our 60-70 nights divided between Hyatt, Hilton, Starwood, Four Seasons and Shangri-La. And Novotel (HongKong – maybe our favorite).

I’ll try to keep this a bit more brief than my usual responses to questions, but I don’t think there’s any short answer, it all comes down to what you value the most, much like the airline programs. With 60-70 nights you should be able to make top tier in at least one program easily, with the possible exception of Marriott. Benefits for top tier range anywhere from free breakfast/executive  lounge access, to suite upgrades, to both. 

Hotel status can be almost as valuable as airline status, if planned properly, and based on what I know about my friend as well as the hotels she lists, it looks like she’s not looking for loyalty to Holiday Inn Express or Hampton Inn hotels, as much as I like them.

Let me give a very quick overview of the published benefits of top tier of the five major programs, Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, Priority Club, and Starwood, as well as the obvious pros & cons of each.

Hilton: Hilton Diamond takes 28 stays/60 nights. The biggest benefit of being a Diamond with Hilton is executive lounge access or free breakfast. If you ask nicely you’ll often get a suite upgrade as well, especially abroad based on what I’ve heard, and sometimes even without asking. While points don’t accrue all that quickly with Hilton, they have some great award options, including the AXON, which I posted about here. You can also transfer AA miles to HH points at a 1:2 ratio, which simply can’t be beat.

The other nice thing when starting from “scratch” for status with Hilton is that you can do a “challenge” to either Gold or Diamond. You can generally get a challenge to Gold for four stays in 90 days or to Diamond for 10 stays in 90 days, which is a nice way to basically get the status upfront. In terms of raw published benefits Gold and Diamond are very similar, but Diamond status usually nets better additional perks, as stated above.

Something which you might like about Hilton is the fact that they’re basically everywhere in the world, and provide a relatively consistent product.

Hyatt: Hyatt Diamond status takes 25 stays/50 nights, so is just a bit easier than Hilton Diamond. The published benefits are similar– you get an upgrade to the executive level or free breakfast, as well as a points bonus.

Hyatt hotels, as I’m sure you know, are generally pretty good. My only concern with Hyatt for you would be that they aren’t exactly everywhere in the world like Hilton is. That being said, I think they’d be in most places you travel to, so it’s not a huge issue.

Another HUGE plus of Hyatt is their promotions, which are abundant. They sometimes have double stay credit promotions, and the best promo they’ve run consistently over the past few years is Faster Free Nights, where you earn a free night at any Hyatt in the world whenever you spend two nights at a Hyatt. So if you stay twice at the local $100/night Hyatt you could then stay at the Hyatt Sydney for free, assuming it has award space available.

Marriott: Marriott Platinum requires 75 nights, which is awfully steep considering the benefits. Once again you get upgraded to the executive level or get free breakfast, and technically also get the best non-suite available. They have some decent promos once in a while and good point earning opportunities, but since Marriott’s aren’t everywhere in the world and you usually spend 60-70 nights in a hotel, I wouldn’t go with them.

PriorityClub/Intercontinental: PriorityClub is pretty worthless in your case, but Intercontinental would be great. They have “Royal Ambassador” status, which requires about 50 nights a year, and you get free drinks from the minibar, two level room upgrade, early check-in and late check-out guaranteed, as well as a bunch of other stuff. The status is great, but my fear in your case would be that there’s not enough IC properties, and I doubt you want to stay in their partner hotels, Crowne Plazas and Holiday Inns. If you would actually spend about 50 nights a year at IC’s despite the fact that they’re not exactly everywhere, I would definitely go for it.

SPG: SPG requires 25 stays/50 nights for Platinum status. SPG is one of those programs you either love or couldn’t care less about. SPG, as I’m sure you know, has a wide variety of hotels, from Westins, to Sheratons, to W hotels, etc., and as a result can offer varying benefits.

As a Platinum you get executive lounge access, although many SPG properties don’t have lounges, and also technically get the best available room, including suites, but not specialty suites. The problem is that some hotels pretend like they don’t have suites available, so you can either get very little, or a good chunk of the time do very well on upgrades. They also often have double stay credit promos, which makes earning status easier.

If you play your cards right with SPG, they would be good for you, in my opinion. Research which hotels offer good upgrades via, and book those, and I doubt you’ll be disappointed. They also have great redemption options, including the ability to do an award using some cash and some points, which is often the best deal.

Conclusion: In your case I would evaluate which cities you stay in most, and research the various hotels that each chain offers in those cities. In your case I would say your best bet is between Hilton, Hyatt, and SPG, leaning towards Hilton or SPG. They’re both chains which are almost everywhere in the world, or at least where you would most likely travel, and both offer good benefits for the amount of loyalty required.

If anyone has any other advice, feel free to add on, or if anyone has questions, go for it. Sorry, I guess that wasn’t really as brief as I had hoped.

Filed Under: Hotels
  1. Hey, if it was brief, then we wouldn’t get as much valuable information as we did!! 🙂

  2. I’ve been Hilton Diamond for years…I don’t really find the status helps me very much. The rooms I get are almost never any nicer than when I wasn’t diamond.

    There are a few positives: They do give free bottled water now. You earn points at all the Hilton family hotels (Doubletree, Embassy Suites, etc.). They let you choose a “benefit” at each brand – I chose free internet access for all brands where it was offered.

  3. Lucky, Can you comment a bit more on the ease in redemption at each brand? I read on FlyerTalk that Marriott has great promotions but their points are really only worth a third of what points at other chains are – is that true? However, Marriott has those 7 night discounted stay deals which are supposed to be a good redemption value.

    I recentIy redeemed points at a Hilton and was treated like a second class citizen – I got the smallest room in the property – they said it was because I was staying for “free” which I found pretty offensive because it certainly didn’t feel free when I spent all those nights at various hitlon properties to earn the points (guess FlyerTalk research would have told me not to book that particular property). In any case, the Hiltons seem wide open for redemption and you can book award stays last minute with ease. I’ve heard at some programs you have to lock in award reservations well in advance. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  4. Sure, while I’m no expert on this, here are my thoughts, and if anyone else feels differently I hope they’ll chime in:

    Hilton- No blackout dates, which is a very nice benefit. I’m surprised to hear that you were treated as a second class citizen, but it seems like that was because of the specific property. The cool thing about redeeming points with Hilton is that you get full elite benefits on award stays, in contrast to some other chains. So if you can pay for a room, you can book an award…. it’s awesome!

    Hyatt- Has restrictions as well, and it can be somewhat tough to find awards during peak times at peak properties, so more traditional in that sense. To be honest I don’t have all that much experience with them, so that’s all I can say.

    Marriott- While they have blackouts, I’ve found their availability to be generally good. I find Marriott point redemption to not be that good of a deal for a short stay, but it can be a real day on a seven night stay, like you say, since their “price” goes down substantially. Personally I like to spend less than seven nights in a certain place, but I can see it being a great deal for certain people that like being in one place for longer.

    Priority Club- Has restrictions and by policy doesn’t honor elite benefits on award stays. This is where you can really be treated as a second class citizen, especially as a Royal Ambassador. For example, at the IC Thalasso (Bora Bora), instead of putting you in a bungalow you get what used to be the staff room, not to mention no other recognition. Very poor performance on their part.

    Starwood- Same thing as Hilton, no blackout dates, which is great. Their cash and points option is restricted, but still, it’s a good deal. Generally speaking without an SPG credit card it takes quite a bit of staying at SPG properties to actually earn a substantial number of points, so that’s a bit of a negative in that sense.

    Sorry I don’t have more detailed info, but I’m hoping someone else will chime in.

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