…Then it probably won’t last long.
It’s no secret that I have never liked Club Carlson. People give me heat for liking United Airlines, but at least they fly where I want to go and earn me miles that I can (and frequently) use for valuable awards. My choices in hotel loyalty programs fit the same criteria. Club Carlson, however, has spent the last two years basically bribing people to say good things about it. Two summers ago it handed out huge piles of bonus points even for just a couple of cheap stays. The terms tightened slightly last summer, but they were still awfully generous.
And then the Club Carlson credit card appeared, offering perks that seemed entirely too generous. If things weren’t crazy before, the inmates were running the asylum.
With free Gold status you could earn 40 points per dollar on hotel stays using this card, meaning you’d only have to spend $1,250 to get a free award night at a top-tier hotel. With a free night at the end of any award stay (and many leisure travelers make two-night weekend trips) you could effectively bring the cost of award nights to only 25,000 points at most and cut that spend per free night to $675. Recent flash sales on bonus points just fed the frenzy, encouraging people to buy because they didn’t have time to debate the offer.
When I compared hotel loyalty programs a couple weeks ago, Club Carlson was by far the cheapest program in which to earn free nights. And people love it for that. I think that love is poorly placed because the only reason they love it is that it’s cheap, and cost is not the only indicator of a good value. If you weren’t getting these points at such low cost, you would probably ignore most of their hotels. Few if any of their hotels — even the “fancy” Radisson Blu properties — are truly aspirational and geographic concerns are still an issue.
There are, for example, only two (out of 272) Radisson Blu properties are in the U.S.: in downtown Chicago and at the Mall of America. Just over 44% of Club Carlson’s portfolio (not just in the U.S., but globally) is operated under the budget-friendly Country Inn & Suites brand. The upper-scale Radisson Blu brand may be rare in the U.S., but outside it is so common I think it loses its exclusivity. They are scattered at airports and throughout major cities much like a nicer version of Holiday Inn. Yet when you redeem 22,000 points for a top-tier Hyatt, you can actually get a unique hotel that people rave about, like the Park Hyatt Vendome (Paris), Park Hyatt Maldives, or Park Hyatt Tokyo. Hilton has Conrad. Starwood has St. Regis. Marriott has Ritz-Carlton.
Yesterday Club Carlson secretly devalued its points when redeemed for frequent flyer miles by 44%. (Theres that number again!) I believe this is only the beginning. After two years of luring in customers with generous offers, it has essentially bought a word-of-mouth advertising campaign rather than pay for time on the air. That campaign is ending. Next we’ll see increases in the award chart, just like Hilton Hhonors. I wouldn’t be surprised by 75,000 points or more on the high end. Then the credit card will get hacked.
I never got involved in Club Carlson in any big way because I knew it couldn’t end well. I earned points, when convenient, only to immediately transfer them to miles. And using the “spend per free night” metric I introduced, I predict Hyatt is the next to be devalued. But Hyatt doesn’t have as far to fall to bring it into line with other major players, and it can tolerate some criticism after such a devaluation due to its reputation for good elite recognition at quality hotels. I would still pay 25,000 or even 28,000 Gold Passport points for some properties in a new “Category 7.”
If all you want is free nights, keep playing the Club Carlson game. I’m sure there’s some time left. The credit card will remain a good deal in the churn-and-burn category. Just realize it’s a short-term strategy prone to bumps in the road. There were many signs that something like this was coming, that more will be coming, and I want you to realize that before you over-invest yourself like many did with Club Carlson and Hilton.