A few months ago at the #WestCoastDO (which I wrote about here) I got to spend some time chatting with Grant Thomas, founder, owner, and non-executive chairman of the blog Travel With Grant. I’m a fan of Grant’s blog and I especially enjoyed meeting Grant himself. He is what people my age refer to as “a good kid.” Note that I mean this as a total compliment, not in the way my former boss would tell me “ehhhh, you’re good, you’re not great, I guess you can work with me.” I always felt he said it lovingly, but I wouldn’t swear to that under oath.
In any case, Grant had several suggestions for Devil’s Advocate topics, which of course I highly appreciate because it saves me the trouble of having to think them up myself. In retrospect I wish I had a few more gin and tonics in me at the time so I could have asked Grant to just write the actual Devil’s Advocate posts as well. Then all I’d have to do is find funny pictures and add vaguely-but-not-actually-related captions to them.
Grant noted that the points and miles community spends a lot of time obsessing about hotel loyalty programs such as Hilton HHonors, Marriott Rewards, Hyatt Gold Passport and the like, along with putting a heavy emphasis on premium rooms at luxury hotels such as the Park Hyatt Maldives. He challenged me to play Devil’s Advocate and ask if it’s wise to pay extra for a chain hotel room and its associated loyalty program benefits, as opposed to a cheaper local hotel room.
Since I just finished up a trip where my girlfriend and I spent 5 nights at various Hyatts in Anaheim and San Francisco, I think it’s a good opportunity to take a look at this one. Also, Grant is busy writing his own blog, which leaves me stuck doing the actual work. Thanks a lot, Grant. And I thought you were a good kid.
So let’s ask ourselves… is it actually worth paying more for a chain hotel room and loyalty program?
I am a Diamond Guest!
As I’ve mentioned before, I like starting with disclaimers because I believe they absolve me of all responsibility for anything I write thereafter. Scott continues to tell me that this is utterly incorrect, both factually and legally, but I think he means only in Seattle or something.
Today my upfront disclaimer is that I currently have Diamond status with Hyatt. I’ve previously written about how I became a Hyatt Diamond through the old Hyatt Diamond Trial. At the time I suggested that even though the Diamond Trial was extremely generous in its benefits, perhaps Hyatt was actually getting the better of the deal in the long run (see “Did Hyatt Outwit the Devil’s Advocate?“)
Given that Hyatt has since discontinued the Hyatt Diamond Trial program for the public at large, it might be fair to assume I was wrong and enough people were in fact getting the better of Hyatt after all. But just because folks were taking advantage of the overgenerous nature of that particular trial program doesn’t mean that hotel loyalty programs themselves are overly generous. In fact, I maintain that my Hyatt Diamond status has caused me to gravitate towards Hyatts much more than I otherwise would and likely cost me extra cash in the process.
How much more are we paying?
Let’s look at my recent stays as an example. Last week in San Francisco we spent two nights at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco and one night at the Airport Hyatt. The Hyatt Regency San Francisco cost $159 per night, a decent price for downtown San Francisco. I used Points + Cash for the Airport Hyatt, which as a Category 2 hotel cost only $55 and 4,000 Hyatt points, and I’ll get 800 of those points back thanks to the current 20% rebate promotion.
So all in, it was $373 and 3,200 points for 3 nights in San Francisco at relatively high-end hotels. As a Diamond member we had lounge access which we took advantage of roughly once a day either for free breakfast or the cocktail hour. That saved us some food costs, though obviously it wasn’t as interesting as visiting a local San Francisco restaurant. But for one meal a day, it was a fair tradeoff.
In this case, did we pay more to stay at a Hyatt? Probably not. San Francisco is not exactly a town full of cheap hotels, so averaging $124 a night seems pretty good.
But now let’s look at Anaheim, land of the Mouse (and Duck). There’s often plenty of inexpensive rooms in this area, and while the Hyatt Regency Orange County was pleasant, it cost $150 and 12,000 Hyatt points using a Points + Cash redemption (9,600 after rebate). There was also no lounge, and while we could have had breakfast for free in the hotel restaurant, we went to Disneyland early on both days instead.
If we value Hyatt points at 1.5 cents each, then we spent $294 for two days in Anaheim. That’s likely a lot more than we needed to spend on a hotel in that area. So in that case, the cost of staying at a chain and sticking with my loyalty program cost more money. We got a nicer room for it, but we weren’t in the room much anyway.
These are just anecdotal examples, but clearly there’s a cost to being exclusive to chain hotels. While that cost might vary from city to city, booking blindly with your chain of choice is certainly going to mean paying more in the end.
Earning a premium room for an aspirational stay.
Of course, the Conventional Wisdom for participating in a hotel loyalty program is the ability to use those accumulated points at an ultra-high end property. The endless discussion of aspirational hotels like the Park Hyatt Sydney and others has even resulted in The Deal Mommy coining the phrase “Vendoming” to refer to the endless blogger reviews of the Park Hyatt Vendome.
Now, while I will be the first to say that the Park Hyatt Vendome gets way too much coverage in trip reports, I think it’s also important to note many folks are in this game for exactly that reason — to fly in premium airplane seats and stay in premium hotel rooms that they couldn’t possibly afford otherwise. If that’s your goal (and I’ll admit it’s often mine), then hotel loyalty programs and the chains that go with them are going to be an important part of your travel plans. Even if you’re accumulating most of your points through credit card spend (and you should be), you’ll likely find yourself staying at your chain of choice more often than you might otherwise.
That said, there’s plenty of others in this community who couldn’t care less about the Andaz Maui, who just want to be able to get home to see their family a few times a year without breaking the bank. For them, pushing chain hotels, premium rooms, and loyalty programs is a waste of time and money. Skip the Hilton and book the cheap hotel instead.
For those of us who are into aspirational stays, keep in mind the slowly building costs in the background as you pay for nights at your preferred chain. Getting that $849 room with points instead of cash might sound like a great deal, but if you’ve spent an extra $1,000 over the year without even noticing it, then that free room isn’t so free after all.
What about consistency?
Many Conventional Wisdomers (and frequent travelers for that matter) argue that another major advantage of chain hotels is not just the loyalty program, but a consistent experience. When you step into a Marriott, you’ll generally get the same level of service and the same type of lodging whether you’re spending the night in Detroit or Paris. You don’t have to worry about arriving in a strange city and not knowing what kind of hotel room you’ll be facing.
Is consistency worth spending a few extra bucks? It depends on what kind of traveler you are.
If you’re traveling for business and after a long day’s work you don’t want to think twice about whether your hotel room will have a hair dryer in it, then it’s absolutely worth relying on chain hotels and their somewhat higher prices. Often your employer is paying for the room anyway, so the higher cost doesn’t really matter to you.
But when it comes to personal travel, I’ve said many times that the journey itself is part of the experience. Arriving in a new place and staying at a local hotel sometimes gives you the chance to feel the flavor of the city you’re visiting. Choosing a chain hotel might be “safer” but can also be “colder” in a way. You’ll definitely have that hair dryer, but you might not meet that local couple in the bar next door who know all the sweet spots in town.
Yes, you have to be willing to take a little risk with a local hotel, and on occasion you might get unlucky and end up with a less-than-desirable room. But while online hotel ratings services such as TripAdvisor are notoriously inconsistent, you can usually at least determine which places will be clean and safe and free of freight trains loudly rumbling by at 2 AM. In the end that’s really all that matters, because you should be spending more time outside of the hotel room than in it.
Consider your travel goals before committing to a hotel loyalty program.
We often talk about defining your travel goals before collecting points or miles in a loyalty program. This is true for hotels as much as it is for airlines.
There’s nothing wrong with planning for a vacation where the hotel experience is part of the vacation itself. But if that’s not your cup of tea, then skip the chain hotels and their loyalty programs. Pick a mid-range choice or a local hotel and you’ll likely have just as fantastic a trip.
And for those folks who do want that aspirational vacation or that Diamond status, just keep in mind that free is never truly free. Be aware of the tradeoffs before chaining yourself to a chain.Devil’s Advocate is a weekly series that deliberately argues a contrarian view on travel and loyalty programs. Sometimes the Devil’s Advocate truly believes in the counterargument. Other times he takes the opposing position just to see if the original argument holds water. But his main objective is to engage in friendly debate with the miles and points community to determine if today’s conventional wisdom is valid. You can suggest future topics by following him @dvlsadvcate on Twitter or sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recent Posts by the Devil’s Advocate:
- A $100 Airline Credit on the Amex PRG? Is It Time for an Intervention?
- My #30kToNowhere Mileage Run Cost Only 3.99 CPM… Or Did It?
- Why You Shouldn’t Get a Hyatt Visa for the 20% Rebate
Find the entire collection of Devil’s Advocate posts here.