How to Pick the Hotel Program That’s Best For You

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A lot of members are frustrated with Marriott — for botching the Starwood integration, for failing to deliver on the benefits they promised, and for generally unhelpful customer service. I argued that doesn’t make Hilton better, that Marriott disappoints but they are the largest chain and still offer better elite benefits than Hilton. Why would you expect Marriott to be better — they don’t need to be.

There are readers who won’t give Marriott their business, believing Marriott doesn’t deserve it, even if it means taking less from Hilton (no promise of suite upgrades, no guaranteed late check-out).

On the other hand, while Marriott may beat Hilton for 50+ night guests Hilton is good for those with 20-30 nights. For a lot of people it’s the rewards and benefits from a program’s credit card that is most important. It doesn’t matter who is the best for 50+ night guests for people who don’t stay 50+ nights, for many it’s what’s the best you can do if you don’t stay 50 nights and that means what can you do by signing up for or spending on a credit card?

Hyatt Really is the Best, If Their Footprint Works For You

Hyatt is a smaller chain. Even after the Two Roads Hospitality acquisition gives them several new brands, they’re still in the 700 property range. The partnership with Small Luxury Hotels of the World helps a little bit, and so does the partnership with MGM M life Rewards. In contrast Marriott has over 6700 properties and Hilton and IHG each about 5500.

However Hyatt offers the best top tier elite status of the group, and Hyatt lets you spend on its credit card to earn that status.

The World Of Hyatt Credit Card gives you 5 nights towards status every year and an additional 2 elite qualifying nights for every $5,000 spent on the card with no cap. As a result you could earn Globalist (top tier elite) with nothing but credit card spend. Free nights count towards status including free nights earned with the card, and free nights redeemed with points transferred to Hyatt from a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.

And Hyatt’s Globalist status at 60 elite nights, gets you:

  • Best available room at check-in, including standard suites
  • Club lounge access at properties with lounges
  • 4 suite upgrades (for up to 7 nights each) confirmed at booking [with the option to earn more at 70, 80, 90, and 100 nights]
  • Full breakfast at properties without club lounges (not just continental breakfast like other chains offer)
  • Guaranteed 4pm late checkout (subject to availability at resorts and casino hotels)
  • A dedicated reservations representative to handle all of your Hyatt needs (‘My Hyatt Concierge’)


Park Hyatt Sydney

Along the way you earn a free category 1-4 night after $15,000 spend on the card, a category 1-4 free night at card renewal, another free category 1-4 night upon reaching 30 elite qualifying nights and still another free night (this time up to category 7) at 60 elite nights.

Hilton Gives You Meaningful Status With a Credit Card

I get my Gold status from The Platinum Card® from American Express. If I’m going to stay at a Hilton it means I get club lounge or breakfast, and hopefully avoid the worst rooms in the house. Maybe I’ll get a better view.

Hilton’s sweet spot in my opinion is Gold, since the program doesn’t promise suites to top tier Diamond members and Diamonds aren’t guaranteed late check out either. Some individual properties do treat Diamonds very well, and the $450 annual fee Hilton Aspire surcard comes with Diamond status, no spend required.

I think the fact you can get top tier status just from getting a credit card (and not even spending on the card) tells you something about the status. However if you aren’t going to spend enough nights in hotels to earn 50+ night status somewhere else then this play makes a good deal of sense. It’s better to be a Hilton Diamond than a Marriott Gold or Hyatt Explorist.


Conrad Koh Samui

IHG Offers a Good Rebate, Little Benefits

The IHG Rewards Club program gives you a lot of points for your spend, in my view they have the strongest basic ‘earn and burn’ proposition, they rebate more of your spend towards free nights than other programs whether you have no status at all or top status.

However there are several weaknesses to the program,

  • Limited number of top notch properties. There are Intercontinentals and Kimptons but a whole lot of Holiday Inns and Holiday Inn Express hotels making up their portfolio. That may be great for earning via cheap stays, but less desirable for many people when it comes time to spend points.

  • There’s no option to spend points for a better room, they only have standard room redemptions on offer.

  • The program doesn’t promise suite upgrades, club access, or guarantee late check-out

  • Most elite benefits don’t have to be honored on redemption stays


Intercontinental Singapore

Marriott is the Best Large Chain But Has Serious Flaws

The Marriott Bonvoy BoundlessTM Credit Card and other Marriott co-brands each earn 15 elite nights per calendar year. You can only earn 15 elite nights this way even if you have more than one Marriott co-brand card.

Now the $450 Bonvoy Brilliant card lets you spend $75,000 for Platinum status — but that’s 50 night status and essentially only mid-tier. You aren’t eligible for suite upgrades at Ritz-Carltons, for 24 hour check-in, and you don’t get an Ambassador.

By the way you can also earn 10 elite qualifying nights per year by booking a meeting. You don’t necessarily need to need a meeting and it doesn’t need to be expensive. Find a hotel in a qualifying brand – like a Fairfield or Courtyard – in an expensive location and tell them you need a meeting room for a couple of people for an hour, with no a/v or catering. Tell them you can be flexible on the meeting time, whatever time the space if available (and cheapest). See details here as well as what meetings earn more qualifying nights.

These are some ways to goose yourself towards elite status. Bear in mind that suites are going to be what’s available based on the vagaries of hotels, and different properties have different rooms defined as upgrade-eligible. This isn’t like Hyatt where you can pre-reserve a suite a set number of times per year and leave it to chance the rest of the time.

Marriott’s breakfast benefit only requires continental offerings, not full breakfast like Hyatt. They do not offer club lounge access at resorts (other than at Westin, Sheraton, and Le Meridien properties – basically legacy Starwood properties that used to offer this still do). And unless you have an Ambassador — earned with 100 nights and $20,000 spend — expect customer service to take time and be of varying quality.


Club lounge at the W Doha

Nonetheless for someone spending 50 nights or more per year the elite benefits are better than Hilton and better than IHG. And if you’re choosing from the three because Hyatt’s footprint isn’t broad enough for you then you’re likely to settle on Marriott. Moreover a Marriott Bonvoy BoundlessTM Credit Card and a meeting gets you half way to Platinum, so you can do it with just 25 ‘real’ nights a year.

Notably the no annual fee Marriott card also comes with 15 elite nights per year.

Comparing Points-Earning Across Chains

Hotel programs reward you based on how much money you spend on property. The value of each currency is different for each program and the number of points earned is as well. But we can compare the rebate percentage you earn from each.

General Top Elite Value General Top Elite
  Member Earn Member Earn Per Point Member Rebate Member Rebate
Hilton 10 20 $0.004 4% 8%
Marriott 10 17.5 $0.007 7% 12%
Hyatt 5 6.5 $0.014 7% 9%
IHG 10 20 $0.005 5% 10%

Comparing Elite Benefits Across Chains

It’s harder to compare the value of various elite benefits, since those are more subjective. What is a suite upgrade worth? At different hotels, and for different stays and lengths of stay, and to different people it will vary widely. But let’s just compare some of the key benefits:

Suite    Late Dedicated
  Upgrades Breakfast Checkout Concierge
Hilton No Promises Yes If Available No
Marriott At Check-in Yes / Most brands Guaranteed Yes
Hyatt Confirmed Yes / Full breakfast Guaranteed Yes
IHG No Promises No If Available No


Breakfast at the Sheraton Mirage, Port Douglas

How to Choose the Brand That’s Right For You

There are three things that factor into which chain you should focus on (if you should focus on a chain at all).

  1. How often you stay
  2. Where you stay
  3. What rewards and benefits matter most to you

If you do not book directly with a hotel chain (or through an eligible third party) you will not earn credit towards elite status, points in the hotel’s program, or elite benefits.

However if you aren’t staying enough to earn 50+ night elite status with a major chain, and aren’t interested in in-hotel benefits, consider an online travel agency program such as Hotels.com which is going to get you a free night every 10 nights even when staying those nights across different chains.

Personally I choose Hyatt as my primary program because they offer nice hotels and the best elite benefits by far. It’s also far easier to attain top tier status with Hyatt than Marriott, especially now that 100 night ‘Ambassador’ status with Marriott requires $20,000 spend per year — not just stays.

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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Comments

  1. I don’t travel for business, but I average ~12-20 nights a year in a hotel. I’ve found that the value of Hilton Aspire is just way too good compared to anything else. That and Garden Inn’s provide so much value for the price that Marriott and Hyatt don’t really have anything to compete with. I agree with Gary though, if you can hit Globalist or Platinum consistently, go Hyatt or Marriott. But Hilton is so much better for non-business people like myself.

  2. For people who stay a ton, there’s also a portfolio diversification argument to be made – if your experience is that the properties that you stay at offer diminishing returns to scale beyond the mid-top tier (50/60) level (e.g. the lessening value of Ambassador these days), then go for multiple. With 110 nights and a credit card you can have good status at all three. I’ve personally had good experiences with the diversity play – it’s enabled me to have flexibility to pick and choose better (or better priced) properties in a given city, and has also been helpful in cities where only 1 chain has a presence. I’ve probably received less in benefits from a single chain than if I had fully indexed on that chain, but I think I’ve maximized my net benefit by spreading the stays around.

  3. I’d be really interested to see how Accor measures up once they release the full details for their updated program later this fall.

  4. I’ve traveled heavily on business for 35 years until I retired this year. I’m lifetime Titanium on Marriott, currently Diamond Hilton (have enough years Diamond for lifetime but need a good many more points or nights to qualify) and have stayed in practically every other chain out there. First of all I haven’t had any problems with the Marriott acquistion of Starwood or the changes to Bonvoy (probably since was lifetime Marriott Platinum years ago so my changes were minimal). I understand Marriott has the most uneven offering among the larger programs (mainly due to so many different levels of hotel and legacy Marriott and Starwood issues) but typically I have a good experience. Likewise I enjoy Hiltons and am really looking forward to 5 nights at the Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik in a couple of weeks. Basically at this point, since I’m retired, I pick what is convenient and then decide if points or paying for it is best. I’m always on the lookout for great deals and have no problem at all staying somewhere I have zero status or perks for the right price and location.

    IMHO, if you travel all the time on business you should focus on 1 chain (or 2 if you have enough nights) so get elite status but, as you pointed out, much of that can be obtained with the right credit card. Unlike airlines I really don’t understand having much loyalty to any hotel chain in 2019 or getting so worked up because of some slight you feel they did to you – just pick somewhere else!

  5. @TKD – Starwood’s Gold status didn’t get you lounge access with Starwood. A quirk of the merger – and generosity on Marriott’s part – was that they matched Starwood Platinum (25 stay / 50 night level) to Marriott’s 75 night level, and matched Starwood Gold to Marriott’s 50 night level.

    For a brief period of time Starwood Golds were treated super well at Marriott properties. That went away. I don’t think it’s really that fair to have a beef over it.

  6. My style of travel doesn’t really get me worked up over late checkout (do you really spend the workday or vacation in your room from 12p-4p?), lounge access, or suite upgrades. You’re not going to get a suite upgrade at a highly in demand vacation destination anyways, right? I don’t need a suite at some downtown Chicago hotel. A room is a place to sleep. Others see it differently I know.

    Also I know you have your reasons for the 0.4 cent valuation vs. everyone else’s 0.6 cents. When checking point value vs. cash I’m routinely getting 0.5-0.55 cpp (factoring in taxes and not earning points on award stays). Also Hilton always has some kind of “double points” promotion which means I’m earning 30 points per dollar which is 12% even at your valuation (15% for me).

  7. Too bad there isn’t a loyalty program at the Trump properties for all the new posters on this site.

  8. @ Gary — IHG points are no longer worth 0.5 cpp. Maybe 0.35-0.45 cpp. They will never be worth more than they cost and that is the current going price.

  9. Wife just got platinum status at Marriott. Tried to get suite upgrades and found we were jerked around with no upgrade just a slightly larger room. Marriott has not dealt fairly with us. At least as Gold Hilton we got a good breakfast and not the crappy breakfast Marriott offered us.

  10. Hyatt sounds like the way to go, I am burned out on IHG. Still gutted though, that we can’t get a Shangri-La credit card in the US.

  11. I think it’s sad that we’re having to look at other programs bc Marriott screwed up big time. As an SPG Lifetime Platinum, I had enough points to return to Greece and see a bit more. But now with Bon Voy, it’s bon voyage to fair deals.

    I gave Marriott a few chances. 7 since January. Not one of them offered an upgrade. I was at Renaissance Times Square in June and got a DOWNGRADE because the room I booked didn’t EXIST! The lady who checked me in assured me that their manager would contact me about this. Over the weekend I heard nothing. At checkout, the same lady asked me if all had been fixed. Nope. And there was no business card offered so I could contact them.

    I’m a member of Hilton but not fond of their hotels. STARWOOD spoiled me. Sadly, I’m going to be staying at another Renaissance for 2 nights next week for a meeting. It’s so sad that my love of travel can be affected by the messed up loyalty program. I know upgrades and sweet gifts are now pretty much off the table, and Lifetime Plat Status is nothing. So, maybe I’ll try Hilton or Hyatt. After all, I’m not getting rewarded much for my loyalty.

  12. Hyatt’s properties lean toward the formulaic, although their new acquisitions show promise for competing with some of Marriott’s & Hilton’s brands. SPG’s former properties were/are my overall favorites, so my Marriott Plat status is what I most depend on & work to maintain.

    In that regard, thank you for the great meeting tips/extra elite credit nights,, Gary.

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