A couple of months ago, The Deal Mommy posted an interesting article. She discussed the “Status Trap“, where we make decisions solely based on chasing (or maintaining) elite hotel status. In other words, you might make an otherwise poor decision just to get that one elite stay.
I’d just finished planning our family outing to Gulf Shores, so the post was timely. Historically, I’ve maintained loyalty to Hilton. Today, I travel infrequently enough that anything beyond Honors Silver is out of reach. Unless, of course, I spring for the AMEX Hilton Surpass card. Since people seem to peddle it daily, I’ve thought about whether it makes since to get it. After all, I did travel enough in the past to earn Gold status, and I enjoyed having it at the time. Which got me thinking about why – the free breakfast benefit. As I’ll discuss below, though you’ll hear it talked up ad nauseum, it’s also the most overrated loyalty benefit.
DISCLAIMER: this post specifically targets “mid-tier” status, which you can often “buy” through a credit card. If you travel enough for top tier status, that’s a different ballgame. The other perks should make the value of breakfast the least of your concerns.
You Don’t Like Free Breakfast? Are You Crazy?!?!
I’ll start off by acknowledging that this is a controversial post. I probably lost some of you with the title alone. After all, how can you call “free” overrated? Plus, doesn’t status confer other benefits? Yes, but consider it from a traveler profile like mine. I might spend 10-20 nights in hotels on average, maybe a little more in a heavy year. In other words, I’m locked in to the lowest level. Unless, of course, I get creative by switching to a different hotel each night on vacation. Or fork over $75 a year for a credit card. Simply put, I realized the math doesn’t work. For an accountant by trade like me, that’s fatal.
Also, if it seems like I’m picking on Hilton, I don’t mean to. I pick on the chain in this post because Honors is the program I know best, and the credit card is in the news.
Full disclosure: yes, I used “free breakfast” as justification for spending more for a Hilton during my Gold days. Losing status made me re-assess the wisdom of doing so.
A Simple, Real-Life Example
Suppose you’re planning a trip to New Orleans in July. If you’re partial to Hilton, the Hilton New Orleans Riverside is a perfectly fine hotel. Though not in the French Quarter, it’s a short walk away, and convenient to much of the CBD. A standard, non-prepaid rate runs $127 a night mid-week (I used July 18-20 for this example).
But New Orleans, perhaps more than any other American city, is home to fantastic independent hotels. Take a stroll through the French Quarter or down St. Charles Avenue. You’ll find many a boutique hotel or bed and breakfast beckoning you. And guess what? They’re often cheap. For example, take the Hotel St. Marie, where we stayed during our short visit. A standard room runs only $89.
Moreover, you can upgrade to a fancy courtyard view room, like the one we stayed in, for only $18 more.
Over a two night stay, brand loyalty costs $44 more in base costs. Yes, I’m cheap – but $44 gets you a good part of the way to a nice dinner in NOLA. (Also, yes, this is a cherry picked example. YMMV depending on seasonality, specials, etc. The point is that blind loyalty doesn’t ALWAYS lead you to the best economic deal.)
But Wait – Now You Have to Pay For Your Own Breakfast!
Fair enough. If you don’t have status, or stay at an independent, you’re on your own for breakfast. Neither the Hilton nor the St. Marie list prices online. The last midrange hotel I stayed at, though, the Westin San Francisco Airport, charged $13 for their buffet. In general, I find that a common price point, so I’ll use that for this exercise. NOTE: technically, Honors Gold entitles you to only a “continental” buffet. Practically speaking, the hotels usually provide a couple of basic hot options. Something like this, in other words.
So if you’re a party of two, that’s $26 per day. Not only is that less than the price difference between the hotels, but goes a long way towards working off your annual fee or mattress run. Right?
Well, not quite. You don’t HAVE to eat at the hotel and pay the inflated rate for the buffet, after all. In New Orleans, either hotel is easy walking distance to “beignet central”, as I call it. That’s Cafe du Monde, and the various knock-offs all around Jackson Square. A less than 10-minute walk gets you this.
A bag of 3 beignets and 2 cafe au laits at Cafe Beignet sets you back less than $10 – total. Neither my wife nor I are big breakfast eaters, so this makes a satisfactory meal for us. Which is the point here, really – think about your normal habits first. If, like me, you’re content with a bagel, some fruit or yogurt, and a cup of coffee, you’re not getting $13 of value out of your free breakfast. You’ll come out ahead going off-campus. (Ultimately, if my room comes with free breakfast, I inevitably end up trying to stuff myself silly. I want $13 worth of food, dangit! That usually doesn’t end well.)
Now, if you ARE a big eater, adding an omelette at $8 a pop makes this close to break even. But, I’d suggest you’ll enjoy the fresh omelet and beignets over the warmed over eggs and stale coffee at the buffet.
But What About Overseas Hotels? Have you Seen the European Spreads?
Good point, though not always a differentiator. Yes, mid-level status at a chain might fetch an impressive breakfast spread. But a fair number of independent hotels throw in free breakfast, anyway. Take a look at this spread at the Hotel Scala, a bed and breakfast in Bucharest.
Not bad. But the breakfast also came with this gorgeous room. For 95 euros a night.
The Hilton down the road would have cost us roughly 130 euros a night. If I were blindly chasing loyalty, I’d have ignored the Hotel Scala. And probably regretted it, especially after spending an extra 100 euros over 3 nights.
You’re Being Obtuse. There’s More to Status Than Breakfast!
Once again, fair enough. Using Honors Gold as the example again, you also receive things like bonus points, upgrades, and late checkout. But here’s the thing – except for the bonus points and breakfast, none of the other perks are actually guaranteed. Hotels provide these on a “space available” basis, and pretty much have sole discretion to say what’s available. Hilton considers an “upgrade” a room on a higher floor, or with a better view. In four years with Gold status, I can’t ever recall receiving a meaningful room upgrade. Certainly never a suite, or an executive floor room.
The Hilton New Orleans Riverside sells “City View” rooms for $19 more than standard rooms. So if you’re upgraded to a City View, that’s a $19 value per night, right? Well, technically yes, but think about it this way. If you weren’t willing to pay the going rate for a City View room at booking, you didn’t think it was worth the premium over a regular room. Therefore, I’d place the value of that upgrade at something less than face value.
So What’s Your Point?
Simply this – the next time someone tries to talk you into a credit card or a mattress run using “free breakfast” as a motivation, look for the forest through the trees. Does it really make sense to pay the annual fee, or a couple hundred bucks on a mattress run, just for that? Chances are, the value of that free meal isn’t what it appears to be. Make sure you can get value from the other perks instead.