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A few days ago my friend Josh asked me which hotel loyalty program is best for him given that he only has paid stays for 5-7 nights per year. Lets take a look at the different programs to see which one would be the most beneficial.
Many people find themselves in the same situation. While it can be a easier to choose which brand of hotel to stay in as a business traveler with a lot of nights each year, someone who travels less frequently must find where their needs fit in with the offerings of each brand.
One of the biggest considerations when choosing a hotel or brand for your stays is where they are located. Brands like Hyatt, Club Carlson and to some extent Starwood, are limited in the number and location of their properties. Hyatt for example, only has about 500 locations, while Starwood has a slightly more convenient 1,162 locations worldwide. On the other end of the spectrum there are Hilton, Marriott and IHG which each have several thousand hotels and a variety of brands worldwide.
The second thing we must look at is points earning ability and loyalty programs. This can be a little tricky though since each program has a few key differences. To start, let’s look at which programs award customers with at least some sort of status with stays of 5-7 nights per year. (Note: I have not listed every hotel chain worldwide. I chose only the ones I thought to be most relevant.)
If you plan to use your paid stays mostly in vacation destinations then Hyatt may be a good choice. Their Platinum level can be reached with 5 paid stays or 15 paid nights. Among the benefits of Platinum status are free internet, late check-out and an upgrade to a “preferred room” based on availability. It may also be worth looking into the Chase Hyatt Credit Card which provides Platinum status and two free nights when you sign up.
Starwood, like Hyatt has a wonderful portfolio of luxury properties located in tourist areas. Their base Preferred level doesn’t really offer anything and thus is available to everyone who joins the program. The next level is Gold, which is awarded after 10 eligible stays or 25 eligible nights. Gold status is not the most rewarding, but it does give, “An enhanced room at check-in, when available” and 4 pm late checkout as well.
While it would seem this status is not reachable for my friend, the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express does help out a little bit. It awards 2 stays or 5 nights credit towards status and awards Gold status after $30,000 of annual spend on the card.
Hilton took a lot of flak in the points and miles community for a huge devaluation of their Hhonors program earlier this year. In some cases high-end redemptions almost doubled in cost and nearly their entire portfolio of hotels increased in the number of points required to book a room. With that said, there is no doubt that Hilton has among the most diverse collections of properties around the world.
To reach Hhonors Silver status, you only need to complete either 4 stays or 10 nights. Once again Josh would be just on the edge of that. Silver status allows for a late check-out, complimentary access to fitness centers and two bottles of complimentary water at most properties. The higher “Gold” status adds free breakfast in many properties and free internet.
While it may seem impossible to reach either of those levels, Hilton has the widest range of credit cards of any of the chains. For Silver status, one can’t beat the American Express Hilton Hhonors card and its $0 annual fee. Perhaps the best Hilton card though is the Citi Hilton Reserve Card. When signing up you not only get two free weekend nights, but they also give you the higher level Gold status!
Marriott has also devalued their loyalty program several times over the past few years. In fact, their “Silver” status is unattainable to my friend based on the 10 qualifying nights requirement. Silver status also is pretty weak compared to other programs in that it only allows for a priority late check-out and a gift shop discount. The good news is that the Chase Marriott Rewards Premier Card comes with a 15 night credit, which guarantees Silver status. It also comes with a 50,000 point bonus for signing up and an annual free night at a category 1-5 property each year on account renewal. In the past couple of years they have also frequently run their targeted “Megabonus” promotion, where it is possible to get one free night for every two paid nights.
IHG – Intercontinental Hotels:
IHG is the largest hotel group in the world. Their brands range from Holiday Inn Express on the low end to Intercontinental Hotels on the high-end. Their properties are also located in just about any location that you may travel to. Recently IHG changed their program to include benefits like late check-out for all membership levels. Sometime early next year they also plan to give everyone free internet as well.
IHG’s first tier up from basic is their Gold Elite level. Right now the only benefits it has over the basic Club level is free internet and priority check-in. As I mentioned before, free internet is coming to the Club level next year, so Gold is pretty useless. It also requires staying at least 15 nights which makes it beyond Josh’s reach.
The good news in regards to IHG is they give out Platinum status with the IHG Rewards Club Select Visa. (You may be able to find a better bonus offer by seeing this Flyertalk thread.) Platinum status adds complimentary upgrades and bonus points to the previously mentioned benefits. While not the strongest loyalty program, IHG’s convenience and the ease of getting Platinum status with the credit card are desirable. Also, the credit card gives one free night at ANY IHG property each year upon renewal!
Club Carlson is another smaller company with limited reach. Their brands include Radisson and Park Inn and they have been very aggressive over the past few years with bonuses and specials and thus have become a top loyalty program in my opinion. All members of the program receive free internet which is nice for those without status. To reach the first step up which is the Silver level, you require 15 nights or 10 stays.
Once again that next tier is just out of Josh’s reach, but there is a way to get a better status. Either the Club Carlson Premier Card or the Club Carlson Business Rewards Card from U.S. Bank gives Gold status and 85,000 points on sign up. Additionally, these cards both have a benefit called a “Bonus Award Night” where the last night of a two or more night stay is free when booking with points. This is a wonderful benefit of the card and an easy way to maximize the value of Club Carlson points! Gold status also comes with free upgrades and additional points on paid stays.
Now that we have looked at the various programs, it is time to see what Josh will earn for his spending. To make the math simple, let’s see how many points he would earn based on $1,000 of yearly spend for his 5-7 nights. Then we can look at how he can redeem those points for free nights in the future.
|Brand||Points earned for every $1 spent.||Points Earned for $1k Spend||Bonus Points for Using Credit Card||Points Earned For $1k spend with hotel’s co-branded credit card||Points required for a redemption|
|Hyatt||5||5,000||3 points per $ plus 15% Platinum bonus on base points.||3,000 (CC) + 5,000 + 750 (15% Plat bonus) = 8,750||5,000-22,000 Standard7,000-27,000 Club Room|
|Starwood||2||2,000||2 points per $||2,000 + 2,000 (CC) = 4,000||3,000-35,000 Standard2,000-35,000 Weekend|
|Hilton||10 (5 at Home2 Suites)||10,000 (5,000 at Home2 Suites)||Varies. 10 points per $ with Citi Hilton Reserve Card + 25% gold bonus on base pts.||10,000 (Citi Reserve CC) + 10,000 + 2,500 (25% Gold Bonus) = 22,500 (16,250 Home2 Suites)||5,000 – 95,000 (5th night free for elite members.)|
|Marriott||10 (5 at Residence Inn & Towne Place Suites)||10,000 (5,000 at Residence Inn and Towne Place Suites)||5 points per $ plus 20% Silver bonus on base points.||5,000 (CC) + 10,000 (5,000) + 1,000 (500) (20% Silver Bonus) = 16,000 (10,500 RI or TPS)||7,500 – 45,000|
|IHG – Intercontinental||10 (5 at Staybridge Suites)||10,000 (5,000 at Staybridge & Candlewood Suites)||5 points per $ plus 50% Platinum bonus on base points.||5,000 (CC) + 10,000 (5,000) + 5,000 (2,500) (50% Plat Bonus) = 20,000 (12,500 SB & CW)||10,000-50,000|
|Club Carlson (Radisson)||20||20,000||10 points per $ plus 50% Gold bonus on base points.||10,000 (CC) + 20,000 + 10,000 (50% Gold Bonus) = 40,000||9,000 – 50,000|
As you can see from the chart, each program will award you with at least 1 free night in any of their lowest tier properties for your $1,000 in spending. With that said, it becomes clear that getting the hotel’s co-branded credit card is definitely worth it in every case. Not only do you receive extra points by paying for your charges on the co-branded credit card, but in many cases the elite status gained from the card will entitle you to earn bonus points. (I did not factor in the varying annual fees for each cards. Their benefit must each be weighed individually, but the Hyatt, IHG, Marriott and Club Carlson cards each give you a free night or points each year to offset the annual fee and the Hilton Reserve Card gives Gold status every year and the ability to earn a free weekend night with $10,000 in spending.
Looking at the chart, it is pretty clear to me that Club Carlson is the most rewarding program in terms of points. Not only do they get you pretty close to a top level redemption, but you get an extra free night with every stay of two or more nights with their credit card and Gold status. For example, just 4,000 more points and you could redeem for a Category 5 (44,000) property in Europe. Many of these properties go for several hundred dollars per night. I saw several examples where redemptions gave me a value of over $500 with Club Carlson. This is essentially a 50%+ rebate in the end with the points and “Bonus Award Night” credit card benefit.
If my friend is looking for the most bang for his buck then I would say either Club Carlson or IHG are the best loyalty programs for him based on staying only 5-7 nights each year. The only fault I have found with Club Carlson is that many of their U.S. hotels are a little older and they simply don’t have as many locations as IHG. On the flip side, I have always been recognized as a Gold member and treated very well even at their lower end properties. As a Gold member you also receive 2,000 bonus points for booking online, which adds even more value to their program.
IHG not only has a pretty generous award structure for the infrequent traveler, but they also have dozens of promotions going on at any given time. The great little quirk about their promotions is that they are stackable. Currently I have 17 active promotions on my account for example. Just to give you an idea of how lucrative they can be, I earned almost 20,000 points for a two night stay last month in a Holiday Inn Express! I usually use this FlyerTalk thread to find the latest promotions and add them to my account before booking! On the flip side, IHG Rewards is pretty lackluster as a program and many hotels do not give elite benefits on award stays. With that said, I have had pretty good luck getting upgrades when emailing the property ahead of time!
While IHG and Club Carlson seem to be the best programs in terms of return on investment, no one can argue against the luxury property portfolios of Hyatt and SPG. Unfortunately, those chains do not make it as easy to obtain elite status and you will simply get less in return for staying with them. Hilton can also be a good option if breakfast and a wide range of brands is important. The Citi Hilton Hhonors Reservce card awards Gold status which includes free breakfast, but Hhonors points are not worth much and Hilton has had no problem with severely devaluing them in the past.
In the end, the math and my experience both say the same thing. If Club Carlson works for you in terms of location and brands, then there is no doubt that they provide the best value both overall and also when partnered with the company’s co-branded credit card!
Disclaimer: I do NOT receive any commission or credit for applying through any of the credit card links in this post.
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