Which Hotel Chain Should You Give Your Business To?

Each hotel chain, and associated loyalty program, has its strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to know which one fits you best. So I’ve provided a rundown of the key elements of each one, pluses and minuses, and

The smaller hotel programs tend to be the most rewarding.

Not all small programs provide above average value, but the progams that do provide outsized value tend to be small.

My working theory is that it’s easy to be loyal to Marriott. Marriotts are everywhere. There are 4000 of them. When I hear people talk about how much they like Marriott the argument is usually that there are Marriotts everywhere “so I can always earn my points” and also that they can have the same consistent hotel experience everywhere they go (some people don’t consider that a positive, but Marriott loyalists tend to).

On the other hand, Hyatt Gold Passport needs to be more rewarding – because at only about 500 properties, staying loyal to Hyatt is a choice not something that happens by accident. You have to go out of your way to choose Hyatt, and to get you to do so they need to offer more than the largest programs do. And they do.

These aren’t all the pluses and minuses of each program, but they’re the major drivers of value for a traveler who shares similar perspectives with me — a frequent guest with enough stays to earn status, wants to use their points for the best and best value properties when vacationing.

I’ve ordered them from best to worst according to my own subjective scale. Small but important items like 4pm late checkout likely feed into that scale, but don’t warrant bullets on their own.

Hyatt Gold Passport

The Good:

  • Confirmed suite upgrades. This to me is the killer app, the feature that makes the Gold Passport program tops of any major hotel chain. Four times a year, Diamond members can reserve suites (for up to 7 nights at a time) from the lowest rate, confirmed at booking. No hassles or negotiating at check-in. Starwood offers suite upgrades, Hyatt confirms them.

  • Aspirational properties. Not as many as Starwood, but a bunch of top-shelf properties that I actually look forward to staying at, including most Park Hyatt hotels and also some Andaz properties and some Grand Hyatts in Asia.

  • Breakfast. When there’s no club lounge, Diamonds get restaurant (and in some hotels, room service) breakfast. And at full breakfast (not continental) for up to 4 registered guests in the room, it’s the most generous breakfast benefit in the industry. When a club lounge exists but is closed, Diamonds also get bonus points.

The not-so-good:

  • Not enough partners. So with the elimination of property-specific (“G”) bonuses, and without a repeat of long-standing promos like Faster Free Nights, earning in the program can be difficult. But they have no rental car or shopping partners, and they have only one points transfer partner (Chase).

  • Not enough hotels. They are at ~ 500, but that’s only half the hotels of Starwood Preferred Guest, which is itself a much smaller program than Marriott, Hilton, and Priority Club.

Starwood Preferred Guest

The Good:

  • Platinums get upgrades to standard suites at check-in, if available and 50-night Platinums can request ‘priority’ for upgrades 10 nights per year. These ‘suite night awards’ confirm up to 5 days in advance of arrival.

  • Chain has some of the very best aspirational properties, so there are places actually worth staying at.

  • 75-night Platinums get 24-hour checkin subject to availability (check-in any time, and check-out time is time of check-in on last day of stay, but if you check-in 9am or later you still get 4pm late checkout).

  • Starwood Preferred Guest American Express is an outstanding credit card, the best hotel co-brand card in my opinion. Points transfer to most airlines, and they even give you 5000 bonus miles for each 20,000 miles transferred. That means you effectively earn 1.25 miles per dollar.

The not-so-good:

  • Awards at the best properties are very expensive. “All suite” hotels may be in the top category because their room rates are expensive, but then because the rooms are suites they charge you double points as well.

  • Upgrades vary tremendously by property. And many find their suite night upgrades don’t confirm often as a result.

  • Platinum breakfast benefit is continental-only, not all properties allow buy-up to full breakfast. And in order to access it you have to give up check-in amenity points.

Intercontinental Royal Ambassador

The Good:

  • Not just 4pm late checkout for Royal Ambassador members, but unique among chains they offer top elites 8am check-in. Great for early European arrivals especially.
  • Minibar. Royal Ambassadors get free drinks from the minibar. It’s a ‘wow’ factor. The first few times you may hit it pretty hard, but after awhile it’s just nice to have a bottle or water or a juice..
  • The very best upgrades. Every hotel is different, it’s totally inconsistent, and the best strategy is to communicate in advance with a hotel especially to figure out exactly what they’ll upgrade you to based on the room you book — since many hotels do a ‘two-category’ upgrade from your paid room. I’ve used this to my advantage to secure Ambassador suites, Diplomatic suites, and even Presidential suites — not just the ‘standard’ suites that Starwood Preferred Guest and Hyatt promise.

The not-so-good:

  • Almost no benefits on award stays. Some hotels honor benefits anyway, many do not, and they aren’t required to.
  • Not enough hotels. The program is great at those Intercontinental properties which treat members well, but the Royal Ambassador treatment doesn’t extend to other hotel brands owned by the same company. Instead they offer Priority Club Platinum which is exceptionally weak (see below).
  • No breakfast benefit when there isn’t a club lounge.
  • No published, transparent criteria for how to reach this status.

Hilton HHonors

The Good:

  • Can make Diamond status based on credit card spend. Just $40,000 in a year on the Hilton Surpass American Express or Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card gets you there.
  • Decent mid-tier elite level. Gold status in HHonors gets you as much as Diamond does at most hotels, you avoid the worst room in the house and you’ll get something for breakfast and free internet. And you get this status just for having one of the two aforementioned co-brand credit cards.
  • Widespread properties, this can be your ‘backup’ for when Starwood and Hyatt don’t have hotels.

The not-so-good:

  • No promise of suite upgrades. Diamond isn’t much better than Gold.
  • Awards that cost a ton more than they used to, HHonors used to offer some of the best value and now it takes more spend than most other chins to access their top properties.

Marriott Rewards

The Good:

The not-so-good:

  • No promise of suite upgrades.
  • No breakfast benefit at Courtyard properties or resorts.
  • Very little is guaranteed. Even late check-out isn’t a guaranteed benefit for 75 night a year Platinums.

IHG Rewards Club

The Good:

  • Lots of hotels. Seriously, Priority Club is everywhere. You may not want to stay at every Holiday Inn in the world, but the chain is broad-based.
  • Cash and points always available. Hilton, Hyatt and Starwood offer a capacity-controlled option. IHG just builds in a discounted points purchase option usable in conjunction with award redemption as their mechanism for offering cash and points. The program isn’t paying the hotel any less on these reward nights, so the cash and points awards are always available. (And since it’s a discounted points purchase, and those points are redeposited in your account when you cancel an award, many members use this to buy points at $0.007 apiece in virtually unlimited quantities.)
  • PointBreaks. Discounted reward nights at just 5000 points, there aren’t as many top-shelf properties participating as when the option was first introduced but it’s a great value. Combined with discounted points purchase, if your stays overlap with a PointBreaks offer you can ‘buy’ reward nights for just $35.

The not-so-good:

  • No meaningful benefits on award stays according to the terms and conditions of the program. (Although some hotels go above and beyond what’s required.)
  • No premium room redemption option. The other chains on this list will let you spend more points for a better room, but not IHG That’s especially a problem because the program doesn’t include an upgrade benefit when staying on points. That makes award guests truly bottom of the barrel, even when those guests are top elites.
  • Platinum is an almost meaningless elite level, except at some international Crowne Plaza hotels. Some hotels may give you breakfast but they aren’t required to. There’s not even guaranteed club lounge access for top elites at those hotels with a club.

I don’t include the lower-end chains like Wyndham, Best Western (though some properties are surprisingly nice), or La Quinta. Or the quality but small chains like Kimpton.

Looking at the mainstream offerings by hotel programs with a US-centric eye, I do view Hyatt and Starwood at the top, and the larger chains clumped together. My own strategy is to pick one of the good, smaller ones and then obtain status (such as via credit card) at a large chain for times when my preferred hotel program doesn’t have a hotel where I’m staying.

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. I think Fairmont is worth mentioning, because of the fact that the hotels are high-end, they are growing in size, the benefits are really good, and top tier elite status is relatively easy to achieve (if you can find a hotel).

    It is my hotel of choice.

  2. Yeha I personally love ClubCarlson

    – They are not everywhere, but I go to Scandinavia a ton and there are all over the place in Scandinavia.

    – Very good promos. Every year they have one or two lucrative promos that awards a large bonus for a few stays are low end property.

    – Good credit card. Comes with status, and all my trips are short weekend trips, so the book two, get one free night deal is amazing.

    So far my paid stays are all at lower end Country Inn and Park Inn in the US, and I redeem them all at expensive higher end Radisson BLU in Scandinavia. This is my equivalent of “earn domestic, redeem international”. Works great.

  3. Of great import to me is happiness, treatment and moral of employees and how well chain incentivizes them to provide authentically welcoming and guest oriented service. Major franchise chains do OK in this area.

  4. With a European eye, Club Carlson is the obvious ommission – some really good value redemptions and an Amex MR partner (although sadly as ever none of the uber-generous own-brand hotel credit card that they have Stateside!). I think I’ve stayed at a Marriott once in I don’t know how many hundred hotel stays – they have some pretty boring properties and only seem to have the odd hotel in major cities here so their footprint is much smaller than the likes of Hilton or IHG.

  5. Understand that this post was geared to business travelers who can gain status, but once you travel outside the US it really depends on the location. No matter how great the program, if they don’t have any properties where you want to go you might have to stay *gasp* at a non-chain hotel. This is especially true once you leave the major cities. The US chains are fine if you want to visit Paris (although Accor has many more properties on their home turf), but what if you want to visit the Loire Valley or Mont St. Michel? There might be smaller chains like Best Western in mid-size cities, but you could miss staying in a real castle run by locals. Don’t limit yourselves to only visiting locations that have a chain hotel, because you might end up in Nusa Dua or Kuta on Bali instead of much quieter areas of the island like Amed or renting a villa near Ubud. A program like hotels.com that gives you a 10% return + any cashback from portals can be much more rewarding for leisure travelers.

  6. I would say flat out late checkout just isn’t a benefit at Hilton or Marriott, you can ask but you get no discernible priority over anyone else. I have top tier status in both programs.
    Marriott also has a lack of true aspirational properties compared to say Starwood.

  7. @ Gary — As I always say, the reporting of “no RA benefits on IC award stays” is overblown. I have been denied benefits ONCE. My understanding is that even IC Paris Le Grand is again giving free club access and room upgrades to RAs on award stays, but perhaps no free minibar. That’s a deal I’ll happily take, especially since I can buy some nice champagne at reasonable prices in Paris if I really want some.

  8. Hilton for me. I think the Diamond downgrade to Silver is a raw deal, of course. LOL


  9. Club Carlson for me. With a trip to Europe and South Africa, I’ve booked some great rooms with the last night free. Gotta love my Club Carlson points and VISA

  10. Club Carlson. The B1G1 free nights really make the points valuable. I haven’t had a chance to use them internationally yet but even just domestically, they’ve saved me hundreds of dollars & I plan to keep the card for international use in the future. I hope they don’t devalue the points anytime in the next few years! 🙁

  11. I just want to chime in and say Club Carlson for me as well. Two years ago this chain wan not on my RADAR at all but it has become my default choice for accommodations. I have bought in to them 100% with their credit card and reasonable redemptions. I ave used them in Amsterdam, Paris, Capetown (2 hotels)and Budapest (2 hotels) this year.

  12. Marriott – you always knock the consistency Marriott argument. I don’t understand why you do not get this. The point is that Marriotts are consistently “high quality”. The other chains are not. Even as to basics like bedding. The rest of the chains …no. Even SPG has problems with their heavenly beds not being used in outside of US hotels. Who wants to go to a hotel and not like the bedding. You are basing you opinion too much on the award aspect and not the comfort aspect. Comfort consistently and availability is why most business travelers pick hotels.

  13. Problem with Club Carlson horrible award availability at their better properties
    The buy two get on free award is unusable for me in cities like London and Chicago
    I cancelled the credit card done!
    They are fooling nobody and the overnight program changes without notice is a serious breach of trust

  14. I think something posts like this fail to account for is the PRICE of various brands. These folks focus only on the best loyalty program, and I agree that Hyatt and SPG can offer better value for points. However, I nearly always stay at Marriott, and secondly Hilton, because I find them to usually be significantly cheaper than SPG and Hyatt. I don’t work for company or get any corporate or other discounts other than AAA. So, when I travel for leisure, I usually stay at a Courtyard on a weekend for less than other options. And, I’m often finding that Marriott’s BRG is better than most other programs, so I’m starting to get good rates on the Marriotts and Renaissance and Autograph Collections of the world.

  15. Thanks partly to your advice I have become a huge Hyatt fan. Since starting this hobby we’ve enjoyed the suite at the Andaz Wall Street, skiing at the Escala Lodge and my family and I are right now at the suite at the Park Hyatt Aviara where we are having a great time. I’ve found the service excellent and the value of our redemptions to be outstanding. There are a few times here isn’t a Hyatt where I’d like one but it’s not too often. Got the Hyatt card and hoping to try Incline Village and some Asia properties next year. Thanks for the post!

  16. I can’t support Marriott as the family has long gone off the deep end politically no matter how many there are. Giving them my money is cutting my nose to spite my face.

  17. Great analysis, as always.

    My travel is almost 100% in major cities, both domestic and international. I have Kimpton Inner Circle from many stays in NYC, LA, Chicago, etc. I’ve found them to offer the best suite upgrades and welcome amenity in the biz. I’ve also had Hyatt Diamond and mid tier with SPG and Hilton.

    I think the best approach (and you mentioned it) is to get Hilton Gold with the credit card and then focus on either Hyatt or SPG. Personally, I think Hyatt is far superior at the top end, but I am admittedly not a big fan of their hotels outside of the Park and Andaz portfolios. I find SPG much better on that front. Given the fact that their good US big city properties overlap geographically with Kimpton, I switched my loyalty over. Big negative is that while Kimptons are nice, there aren’t any international properties or aspirational stays to be had. But I don’t think I’m unique in generating 50-75% of my points from CC spend, so this doesn’t bother me greatly.

  18. Agree with your analysis, but your post would be more useful to the masses if you compared mid-level elite benefits. The vast majority do not stay 50-75 nights (or 25 stays) at one chain, but it’s relatively easy to get midlevel status via CC spend, airline match, etc.

    Of course, that’s not as exciting for you, because there are no suites or early checkins to write up (the 2 most useful benefits).

  19. Under the “not-so-good” for Starwood, you omitted the fact that the chain has only about 1,200 properties worldwide. (This is contrasted with Hilton at almost 4,000, Marriott at a bit more than 4,000, and IHG/Priority Club at 4,600.)

  20. m – I would not consider Marriott to be consistently high quality.

    I’ve been a Hyatt guy for the past two years, since reading Gary (and my travel habits) convinced me it was the right thing to do.

    I made the mistake of staying at at Marriott recently, since with the United status match I would get free club access and internet. Also I was in Bristol, England, which had no Hyatt.

    It was certainly pleasant, but I was struck by how utterly uninspired the hotel was. It was exactly as I remembered every Marriott I’ve been in – spacious, sparsely-decorated room that was overwhelmingly BEIGE. There were some maroon accents, I suppose.

    I could have been anywhere in the world. I guess this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Gary calls out, but I like to have a little variety and excitement in my hotel, since I’m going to spend quite a few hours there and my business travel isn’t going to be particularly exciting.

    Every Grand, Regency, or Park Hyatt I’ve stayed at has been different, but almost all of them have been exceptional in some way or another. The welcome F&B amenity options at the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara are great, as are their restaurants. The rooms could use some updating, but they’re still stylish. The Grand Hyatt Taipei had an amazing club and spa, although their Diamond amenity was a bit disappointing (bottled water? Really?). Marriott does have some upscale properties, but they’re much more rare.

    It’s also a big deal for me that I can achieve Hyatt’s top-tier status with my relatively limited business travel. If I was a 175-nighter like some of the other commenters — I can’t even imagine doing that — then I might have different opinions.

    I think it really comes down to a matter of taste. If you wear the same suit in rotation every day and see your hotel as only a place to sleep, you’ll love Marriott. I like having my hotel as a mini-vacation from my travel day.

    If I traveled more, I’d probably be a Starwood guy since they’re a larger network and I’ve stayed at some really exceptional SPG properties. But, as it is, Hyatt is definitely the best fit for me, for the reasons Gary describes in his post.

  21. To add to my comment above (hotel chains’ number of hotels worlwide), Hyatt has only between 500 and 600 worldwide. Contrast this with close to 4,000 (or more) for Hilton, Marriott, IHG chains, and 1,200 for Starwood. Carlson has 1,300+. This is one reason to use more than one hotel loyalty program!

  22. Gary –

    A question on HGP. I’ve found that even as a Diamond, I never get upgraded on a points-only award booking. I do get upgraded on points+cash bookings. Is this how things are supposed to be?

  23. You forgot to mention SPG/Delta Crossover Rewards as part of SPG. There are some tangible perks if you are SPG elite but not with Delta or vice versa.

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