Has Hilton HHonors Quietly Gotten Better Than We Think?

One of the programs that was shut out at the Freddie Awards was Hilton HHonors. I don’t think they should have won Program of the Year, but I do feel that HHonors has been getting a bit of a bad wrap in the frequent flyer community. For a long time they deserved it. The features of their program were limited —

  • On the redemption side, no ability to use points for a better room than standard, no ability to stretch your points through cash and points awards like Starwood and then Priority Club offered.

  • On the elite benefits side, no suite upgrades. To me, that’s the kiss of death for a program.

  • And a couple of years ago they went through a big devaluation of their points.

But Hilton has made major changes in these areas, I just think they’ve under-communicated with their members. They haven’t made the changes in ways I’d have ideally liked, but the program is better now in my opinion than it was 18 months ago.

A couple of years ago the head of the HHonors program said effectively that he doesn’t believe in offering more value than competitors, since his customers won’t realize it, he’ll just wind up spending more money and won’t get their loyalty in return. So why offer better value? (He didn’t say it exactly that way, but it’s the best I’ve been able to make of statements calling the program ‘over-indexed’ and ‘not getting credit for that’ since customers only pay attention to the value proposition when it comes time to redeem the points). So I don’t ever expect HHonors to be the leader in this space. But they’ve actually gotten better, I think.

They don’t get credit for it, just like I think US Airways doesn’t get enough credit for some of the things they’ve done like being the first to introduce the current best business class seat in the market, or roll out first class cabins in their regional aircraft quickly.

With Hilton, I have to think it’s their own fault, they’ve made changes to their program but it’s not really been clear that they’ve done much to communicate those changes.

  • Hilton made the big move that other chains have also made with their points, making reward nights available whenever standard rooms are on sale. Starwood pioneered this but pretty much everyone has matched.
  • Suite upgrades are important, Hilton isn’t the best at it, but at least they’re not explicitly out of the game (like Marriott is). Hilton removed the exclusion of suites from the upgrade terms and conditions.
  • Free internet is now standard for Gold and Diamond elites, and Diamonds get points as a check-in amenity now and don’t have to give up their upgrade or club access to get the 1000 points. It’s small, but significant.
  • They added premium room awards, where you can spend additional points and reserve a higher category room. It’s not a fixed number of points for a better room like at Starwood or Hyatt, the number of points is based on published room rates for the nights of the stay and only values the points at about half a cent apiece. So not great. But it’s better than not having the option. Some don’t like it because now that upgraded rooms are almost always available, the program won’t go out and buy Diamond members free reward nights when standard rooms are sold out (as the Diamond could simply redeem more points for a higher level room). Tradeoffs.
  • They added cash and points, following Starwood and later Priority Club, I actually expect Hyatt will eventually adopt this. It’s a great way to stretch your points further.
  • And they’ve gotten much more active in the promotions space, encouraging more stays with additional points. I haven’t found Hilton to generally offer the most lucrative promotions of any chains, but some have been pretty good, and they do promos much more frequently than they used to.
  • I even find the website to be less glitch than in the past, it used to be tough to search for award nights and every third page I used to have to log back in, things are much improved in the past six months.

They haven’t gotten credit for what seem to me to be improvements, but then they also haven’t really communicated those improvements. And if it’s at least arguable that they’ve made strides, you’d think they’d be shouting that from the rooftops.

I don’t think HHonors is the best hotel loyalty program out there, but I think it’s better than their members and other observers give them credit for.

For a long time I’ve expected them to roll out a new elite tier as a way of adding on additional benefits for their most loyal guests. That seemed like it would be a no brainer considering how easily they give away their Diamond tier now, I ‘earn’ my HHonors Diamond status by putting $40,000 of credit card spend on the American Express Surpass card each year ($75 annual fee). And when I’m able to do it by dropping a Hilton conference on the card, the spend earns 9 Hilton points per dollar.

Hilton is pretty darned ubiquitous. So it’s nice to have a big program status in my wallet, to complement the smaller but more lucrative Starwood and Hyatt programs.

And while Hiltons aren’t usually top of the line in most locations, they’ve done a great job adding aspirational properties, I can think of few better redemptions than what I had at the Conrad Koh Samui over this last Thanksgiving, there’s a new Conrad in Sanya, China that looks great and is at some point on my list, and if nothing else the Conrad Bali offers free unlimited laundry in their club section. There’s even two high-end properties in the Maldives! Unlike Starwood they don’t charge double points for hotels that are ‘all suite’ (though they may limit the number of rooms considered standard as a way of extracting more points for redemption, another pet peeve). On the whole, there are some good values to be had in the HHonors system.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Hhonors is really one of the best programs for a business traveler who goes everywhere. SPG and Hyatt might be better programs for rewards, but they are extremely limited in properties. Priority Club while great for earning is weak for those that value benefits on their many week long stays.

  2. I was Diamond for many years and generally love their program. However, since Blackstone acquired them my low corporate rates became much more difficult to book so I was not able to stay at Hilton as much due to policy. This resulted in getting dropped to Gold for the last 2 years, but honestly Gold hasn’t been all that bad. I still get frequently upgraded to the Executive floors which is the big value for me. Suite upgrades are nice, but when I was Diamond for all those years it was an extremely rare occurrence.

  3. I still book all my stays using the mvp rate. Even a year later most properties still use it. 🙂

  4. My limited experience with them is that standard rates aren’t available almost at all on aspirational properties, like those in French Polynesia. I give them 0 points as a result.

  5. I’m not sure that this statement is correct, “Free internet is now standard for all elites.” I’ve dropped back to Silver, and the HHonors website does not show free internet as being a Silver privilege.

  6. @Miles Hilton Gold seems like such a giveaway that I forgot for a moment that Silver even exists. You are of course correct, and I’ll fix the post 🙂

  7. Gary–what do you think is the best double dip airline with Hilton right now, especially with the double point/mile promo? I don’t use Hilton very much, but they have the best property for where I need to stay for three nights in a couple of weeks.

  8. I appreciate this post Gary, since it shows nuance and that’s a rare thing when we’re talking about loyalty programs. It’s normally “X is the greatest and Y is the worst.” Like you I prefer Hyatt, but Hilton is quietly a strong number 2. People have always told me that they lack aspirational properties, but I had a blast at the Hilton Barbados a month ago AND then got 1/3 of my points back due to a promo. So I’m a solid Hilton supporter currently

  9. I keep intending to give Hilton up and then it has a promo such as last year’s stay 4 get 1 free night and back in I come. I had an epiphany just in the last few weeks. I’m going to commit to requalifying for Hilton this year. It has coverage from low to high end almost anywhere I go. It has choices in a town. Look at London. Look at Istanbul. I have found a lot of sweet spots in award redemption. For example, I need to be in Colombo, Sri Lanka, this year. Both the Hiltons are 25K/night for a standard room. I spotted the penthouse at the Hilton Residence for 12.5K/night. In Istanbul, the Doubletree in the Old Town was just 125K for 5 nights for a premium room. A standard room is 40K/night. Cash and points offers great value at the Conrad Hong Kong. Often, these awards are limited to diamonds. I’m concerned that should I fail to requalify, I’ll no longer have access to that inventory. Also, the free night certs have been good for six months any night of the week at any Hilton property including the Wailea that is otherwise 80K/night.

    I like keeping status in a couple hotel chains because it gives me options. If Hilton isn’t a good redemption value I can go to Starwood or Hyatt.

  10. My main program has always been Marriott because Courtyards usually fit nicely in my business travel budget. I have been trying to decide between Hilton or Hyatt for my secondary program while I LOVE Hyatt it is probably going to be Hilton due to the number of properties. You can find a Hampton Inn almost anywhere and Hyatt Places are not as consistent.

  11. Carol/Gary,
    Am a diamond, but not clear where Carol is seeing better deal oppotunities for diamonds.

  12. Why I choose Hilton

    1-AMEX card 6 points per $ on select categories plus 500 per stay credit.
    2-AXON/VIP rewards
    3-Points do add up on stays with double dip, 2X offers, elite bonus, diamond benefit.
    4-Hitons everywhere.
    5-As gold get free breakfast, internet, executive lounge almost all the time, gym/spa fees waived when hotel charges them and occasional suite upgrade.

  13. The devaluation and the elimination of point stretchers were the last straws for me. I converted all my Hhonors points to AA miles and haven’t darkened Hilton’s door since.

  14. Hard to fathom I’m the first to say this but while standard rooms are available on points, the higher level rooms are available at such incredibly and ridiculous high point totals as to be worthless. How many people will really spend 100,000 to 250,000 points per night???!!! I guess it means they get to brag that upgraded rooms are available on points but I have to imagine they are almost never redeemed. And when Starwood charges twice the rate for a suite and Hyatt 50% over base, there is simply no comparison.

    To me, the best Hilton benefit is top properties for Hilton credit card holders – the AXON award, that gets you four nights for 140,000 points. THAT is a good deal.

  15. Just came back from 3 free nights at the Conrad Tokyo. As a diamond ,
    We were upgraded to a one bedroom bay view suite on the 26th floor. Can’t beat that. I personally love Hilton and for me get more value than Platinum. Starwood

  16. Just came back from 3 free nights at the Conrad Tokyo. As a diamond we were upgraded to a one bedroom bay view suite on the 36th floor. Can’t beat that. I personally love Hilton and for me get more value than Platinum. Starwood

  17. Phil, I often see premium rooms for less than standard rooms. There is a notation by the rate that it is for diamonds only. For example, I’ve seen it in Hanoi, Cabo, Colombo, and Istanbul. I also got a suite at the Hanoi Hilton for fewer points than a standard room. If I dropped back to gold, I would be afraid that I would never see these offers.

  18. Hilton had so many locations and often better and more competitive rates relative to Hyatt & SPG. The Premium rewards redemptions have the potential to create inflated and overpriced award redemptions even for elites. I really disliake the loss of the Diamond Force and wish it would return. Who would have though that Hilton has had more free night offers than Hyatt?

    @Carol, is it best to login to your account then to search for awrads as a Diamond? I tend to search without being logged in and look at the daily points rate to see if the standard award level is available, and then I usually book a GLON as my award.

  19. Hilton has a reasonable program with strengths and weaknesses to the other players.

    I break hotel programs into 2 groups – those you pick for the perks and those you pick for the coverage. HH falls nicely in between these two groups, with many of the perks of programs like Hyatt or SPG and coverage similar to IHG and Marriott. It offers legitimate in-hotel perks at non-insane qualification requirements unlike other programs with similarly broad distribution (see Priority Club and Marriott).

    For someone traveling a significant amount to smaller, non major-metro areas, a lot of the time you’ll end up somewhere without eg a SPG or Hyatt hotel, but almost always a Hilton, Marriott, or IHG option. Of those three, Hilton offers by far the best benefits, and easy routes to status to boot.

    My personal strategy is to focus on SPG (hyatt is just a bit too sparse) as my main program, and fill in with Hilton, which unlike Marriott doesn’t demand all of your nights and give nothing, and unlike Priority Club actually gives in-hotel benefits without resorting to a esoteric paid + invite-only level only useful at select properties worldwide.

    The latest improvement in adding suites to the pool was almost a non-event, given the wiggle room properties are allowed. The premium room awards are more useful for hotels to lock-out diamonds from redeeming at peak periods than anything else. The award chart is really only good at the very highest end hotels. The program definitely has its weaknesses, but has strengths as well.

  20. Gary,

    Thanks for the post. As a Hilton advocate, I just figured out last week at the FTU why it gets ignored in favor of SPG and Hyatt. The fault line, I think is aspirational travel vs. head in bed travel.

    As a regular business travler, I value Hilton highly because of consistency of experience melded with benefits. I used to do Marriott and they were fine, but benefits not as nice and properties are aging.

    Thanks for bringing some balance in the mainstream blog-o-sphere.


  21. I drifted back due to the Q4 free night promo and the free night added to the UK credit card, plus the opening of Syon Park near London which is good for a weekend with the kids – and the cash and money deal there is good. Free brekky and internet for Golds has been welcome and the Hampton in Berlin, one ofte first in Europe, was fantastic for the money.

  22. “@Carol, is it best to login to your account then to search for awrads as a Diamond?”


  23. I love HHonors for the points AND miles option. I like not having to choose between one or the other.

  24. One item that makes me more loyal to Marriott than Hilton (even though I am top tier in both) is the ability to earn lifetime status. I find myself doing just enough to earn diamond (60-63 nights) and the rest of the year at Marriott (100, give or take a dozen).

    If Hilton offered lifetime status, it would be a major incentive for me to stay there more. (or maybe not, I probably already have over 1000 nights with them)

  25. I agree. Hilton needs lifetime status. I have over 1,000 nights with them, but there is no difference in how I am treated then someone with the minimum number of nights for diamond status. My job might dictate 200 nights one year and 30 the next. If I get lifetime status at another hotel, I will probably stick with them – no counting nights and scrambling at the end.

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