Ranking Hotel Programs For Miles & Points Hobbyists
Over the holidays a hotel program debate was kicked off by Gary at View From the Wing. He essentially stated that road warriors would be crazy to jump ship to Hilton from Marriott. Then Lucky at One Mile at a Time responded with his reasons why Hilton is a viable option and Nick from Frequent Miler also chimed in. Now I often don’t agree with Gary, especially on Delta Airlines, but I don’t have a dog in this race. That is because I don’t pay cash for travel unless I have to and I don’t have a company paying for my stays.
I have already kicked Marriott to the curb along with most other hotel programs. Hilton is one of the two programs, along with Hyatt, that I maintain has value for people like me, the ones who refuse to pay cash. So I guess you could say I disagree with Gary but we are not really having the same conversation. The reason I say Hyatt and Hilton are the only options is because they are the only programs that allow valuable point accrual outside of paid stays.
What Do I Mean
This game is constantly changing, usually for the worse, and there have been some substantial changes this year. Chase has installed 5/24 across all cards, Marriott and SPG finally merged, and Amex basically followed Chase’s rules with their Marriott cards. This has closed the door to many programs, outside of paid stays.
I don’t know about you but I got into this hobby to travel for pennies on the dollar so I don’t care about paid stays. If I wanted to pay for my hotel stays I would get a 2% cashback card, pay cash for my hotel, and call it a day.
Let’s take a look how ranking hotel programs for hobbyists turned out:
With Chase introducing 5/24 across all cards most people in the hobby can no longer get the Chase IHG credit card. That makes it impossible to get an infusion of points every 24 months. And since the credit card earning rates are below pedestrian, $0.006 per dollar on non bonus spend, there is no way to meaningfully rack up points outside of paid stays. The annual free night on the card was recently devalued as well.
Transfers are not an option since Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer at a 1 to 1 ratio. You would be better off turning the UR points into cash and paying for the room. One potential way to rack up points is via their Accelerate promos but good offers have become few and far between. Even Points Breaks have become harder to use over the years.
It’s Best Western – enough said!
Marriott is slightly better than IHG since most of the Marriott cards, and there are a lot of them, earn 2 points per dollar on everyday spend. That equates to around 1.6% back (valuing their points at around $0.008 each). There are no meaningful bonus spend categories outside of paid hotel stays. You would be better off using a 2% back card for everyday spend. If the American Express cards would have continued earning 3 points per dollar this program would still be an option.
Marriott caps the free nights at lower tiers than most do and it eliminates using the certificates in most big cities. They offer a ton of credit cards but they all fall under Chase level rules, even the Amex cards. Transfers are out as well since Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer at a 1 to 1 ratio. You would once again be better off turning those points into cash and paying for the stay. Marriott died when the SPG card’s earning rates where cut by a third.
Wyndham is a viable choice for some because their awards are flat rated at 15,000 points, although there have been rumblings of change. There are not a ton of great Wyndham properties but there are a few out there. Some grandfathered Wyndham credit card holders can earn 2 points per dollar making an award stay only $7,500 in spend away. They run decent promos as well, when they actually honor them. Their lack of quality hotels and their dishonest nature leave them as nothing more than an occasional option for very specific locations.
Radisson Rewards (old Club Carlson) died for me, and many others, when they eliminated the BOGO award nights. That was the best value in the biz at the time. The shock of that loss probably made us jump ship from the program quicker than we should have. The credit card earns 5 points per dollar on everyday spend which is pretty great. My problem with the program is the lack of good domestic hotels. Once you start talking about Europe and other international destinations that becomes less of a problem though. Club Carlson is probably the best option not on the best list. Especially if you travel internationally often.
The World of Hyatt credit card also got the Chase 5/24 hammer dropped on it. That cut out a way to get an influx of Hyatt points every 24 months. Many people were able to pick up the new card before the rules were added, or can upgrade their old card to the new version. The World of Hyatt version offers 1 point per dollar netting you 1.8% back on all spend. Even though that falls just shy of a 2% cashback card you can also earn elite night credits and a free night via spend (after $15,000). Those perks increase the rate of return on everyday spend to above 2%. There are also a few decent bonus categories outside of paid stays like restaurants and gym memberships.
Transfer partners are a viable option as well even though Chase transfers at 1 to 1 ratio, like IHG and Marriott. Since World of Hyatt points are so valuable you still get a return of 1.8%. That greatly dwarfs the value Marriott and IHG offers via transfers. Throw in the fact that many people are able to easily earn 5X Ultimate Rewards points and you have a way to rack up massive amounts of Hyatt points.
Last, but far from least, you have Hilton. Hilton, much like Marriott, has a ton of credit cards that American Express can offer you. Two of them, the Aspire and Hilton Business version, are brand new cards available to everyone this year. These cards have a once per lifetime language but with these new additions there are options still left on the table for most people. American Express also loves to send out upgrade and spending offers for these cards. It is a good reason to always keep at least one Amex Hilton card in your lineup, even if it is the fee free one. Between spending offers and upgrade offers I have been able to amass around 400,000 Hilton points in the past 3 years. That doesn’t include any welcome offers.
Spending on the Hilton cards is also superior to other programs. You only earn 3 points per dollar on non bonus spend worth around 1.5% back. But that doesn’t include the free night you can earn with the Ascend card after $15,000 in spend which pushes you over 2% on everyday purchases. These free nights, via spend or on your cardmember anniversary, also do not have category caps. They are restricted to weekends but that is when most people travel for pleasure. On top of all of this the Hilton cards actually have meaningful bonus categories. You can earn up to 6X on gas and groceries (3%), and up to 7X on restaurants, flights, and car rentals (3.5%). Those check off a lot of the major boxes.
Transfer options are not great but they are occasionally possible with American Express Membership Rewards. The normal transfer rate is 2 Hilton Honors points for 1 MR point. That offers a return of 1 cent per MR point which is not transfer worthy. Amex has been running increased targeted offers where you get 3 to 1 transfers and a return of 1.5%. That makes it a viable transfer option when promotions are running.
I believe that there are only 2 or 3 viable hotel programs for people who like to avoid cash stays. Hilton may be the best all around hotel program out there when you take everything into account. When you look at their footprint, the ease to acquire meaningful status, the ability to easily obtain points etc. they rank at or near the top.
Hyatt is usually my first choice because of their great low tier properties and affordable award nights via UR transfers. Their small footprint doesn’t allow me to make them my only option though.
Marriott is a nonstarter for me, they died with the death of SPG points. Unless you have paid work stays I don’t understand why you would consider them going forward.