This morning I released my third annual update of my hotel loyalty program comparison tables. While I try to keep those unbiased, this post is all about opinion. If you’re aiming for elite status then which program — and which tier in that program — is right for you?
Unlike with airlines there are many more differences between hotel loyalty programs. Some details, such as the number of points required for a free night, aren’t very meaningful unless you also consider how many points you earn when you stay at the property. I’ve included factors like points earned with a co-branded credit card. Promotions matter, too. Fortunately all programs avoid blackout dates and offer a free night when a basic room is still for sale.
One of the more important factors in choosing a hotel loyalty program — perhaps more than for an airline program with its various partners — is the number and distribution of properties. A few people will criticize Hyatt for being the smallest of the bunch in this roundup, but if there’s a Hyatt everywhere you want to go, then it may not matter.
As the major hotel chains begin to consolidate, those that compete on location and abundance are more likely to cut other benefits. Witness Marriott, for example, which excludes various perks at its resorts. Starwood Preferred Guest is a good program now, and one of the biggest drawbacks is that it may get folded into Marriott Rewards before too long.
Rather than compare the tiers within each program, I’ll be basing this commentary on the number of nights you’re likely to stay during the year.
The Best Elite Tier for 0-10 Nights
If you stay at hotels just 10 or fewer nights a year, then only three programs — Hilton, Marriott, and IHG — offer any chance at status. The perks are minimal, too. In this case I would strongly recommend that you apply for a co-branded credit card that will include status automatically. Such cards often have an annual fee, but they may provide a free night each year that makes up for it. Here are some examples:
- Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve: instant Gold status plus a free weekend night each year after spending $10,000.
- Chase Marriott Rewards Premier: instant Silver status (credit for 15 nights toward status) plus a free Category 1-5 night each year.
- Chase IHG Rewards Club Select: instant Platinum status plus a free night at any hotel each year.
Since you’re going the credit card route anyway, also consider the Hyatt and the Club Carlson credit cards. Hyatt will give you Platinum status and Club Carlson will give you Silver or Gold depending on which card you apply for. Ordinarily these tiers would require more than 10 nights to qualify.
Given that these cards are providing you with status and you can benefit from that status even when you book through a third party, I say ditch the conventional loyalty program and book with an online travel agency like Hotels.com, which will give you one free night for every 10.
The Best Elite Tier for 11-24 Nights
You’re in a grey zone where the above strategy might be preferable, but at this point you stand a chance at earning something a little better on your own. Plus, you might actually start earning enough points from your paid stays that I recommend booking directly with the hotel to ensure all of them are qualifying nights. This is normally not the case if you book through a third party.
Still, status will be tough. Hyatt Platinum, SPG Gold, and Club Carlson Silver can all be yours. Of these, only Starwood’s Gold tier is really worth anything. Almost all of the benefits of Hyatt’s Platinum tier are provided automatically if you book through their website (except for some bonus points and a higher floor). Club Carlson has a good credit card that offers higher status. You can get SPG Gold status for free, too, but only if you apply for a high-cost American Express Platinum Card.
The main advantage of SPG Gold is really the bonus points, partly by comparison to SPG’s Platinum tier. Both receive the same 50% bonus on earned points. Do keep in mind that Gold members must waive their free Internet access to earn an extra 250-500 points as their welcome amenity. The only way to keep both is if you book your stay with SPG online, not using an agent on the phone. Many hotel chains have begun providing free Internet to their guests, but this caveat is why I consider Starwood to have the worst policy among its competitors.
The Best Elite Tier for 25-50 Nights
At 25 to 50 nights an interesting thing happens: You could potentially earn top-tier status with Hyatt, Starwood, Hilton, or Club Carlson, but in order to do so you would need to split up those nights into many short stays. This requires checking in and out of different nearby properties. (Doing this at the same property on sequential nights will count as one stay.)
In other worse, your booking patterns matter. Book 25 nights and you’ll get just Hyatt Platinum or Hilton Silver. Book 25 stays and you get Hyatt Diamond or Hilton Gold; 30 stays gets you Hilton Diamond.
You can obtain Hilton, Marriott, IHG, and Club Carlson status fairly easily with a credit card.
- Hilton offers Gold up front if you carry either co-branded card from Citi or Amex that carries an annual fee or if you have the Amex Platinum Card.
- Marriott offers 15 nights’ credit toward elite status with its Premier card and will let you earn one more for every $3,000 you spend.
- IHG offers Platinum status just for carrying its card.
- Club Carlson offers Gold status just for carrying its Premier card, or 15 nights’ credit toward earning or maintaining Concierge status.
My priorities in the past were to obtain Hilton status with a card, and I generally ignored the other programs while trying to focus on earning status the hard way with Hyatt and Starwood. Hyatt Diamond, Starwood Platinum, and Hilton Gold/Diamond will be the most rewarding at this level.
- Each provides a free breakfast (except for Hilton at Waldorf-Astoria properties).
- Hyatt and Starwood offer some kind of advance suite upgrade that you can request at booking or prioritize in advance of other members.
- Starwood and Hilton offer the fifth night free on award stays.
- Hyatt and Hilton provide better value on redeeming points for free nights, although Starwood’s points aren’t shabby either and are valuable when transferred to many airline partners.
- You can consolidate your Hyatt or Starwood points with those earned by a spouse. More points usually means bigger and more valuable rewards.
The Best Elite Tier for 50-75 Nights
Once you consider staying 50 to 75 nights with a single chain, it becomes easier to assure yourself of top tier status. Marriott Platinum and IHG Spire status will be the most difficult to obtain because they only look at qualifying nights without any shortcut for stays. Hyatt Diamond and Starwood Platinum are going to be the easiest at only 50 nights or 25 stays. Hilton Diamond and Club Carlson Concierge are in the middle.
My arguments remain very similar to those I made in favor of Hyatt, Starwood, and Hilton in the previous section. I continue to believe that they offer the best rewards assuming you can reach their top tiers. However, Marriott is a favorite of many people, usually those who value the convenience of numerous locations — something that will only improve after the Starwood acquisition.
Some have also said that Marriott offers more consistent quality and service, though I have not observed it to be any better or worse. It loses a head-to-head with Hilton because (1) Marriott’s Platinum tier is more difficult to obtain and (2) Marriott includes more exceptions to its elite benefits, such as omitting breakfast at resort properties.
IHG and Club Carlson are laggards even with the recent addition of IHG’s Spire tier. Guaranteed benefits of status are few or easily replicated with a credit card, and IHG is losing its fallback position as the world’s biggest chain. Rather, IHG and Club Carlson differentiate themselves by providing more points, with 100% and 75% bonuses, respectively. Spire also provides a lump sum of 25,000 points when you qualify.
The Best Elite Tier for 75+ Nights
The most frequent travelers who stay 75 or more nights per year might be better served by splitting up their loyalty among multiple chains. Few programs offer additional marginal value once you clear the highest hurdle. Starwood is the only exception, with extra benefits (but still Platinum status) when you reach 75 or 100 nights. I’ve read mixed reports on how valuable such perks really are. Personally, I think there is some logic to continue staying with a chain where you already have status and are treated well; additional benefits aren’t always needed to justify it.