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 shouldn’t surprise — they are the largest and still offer better elite benefits, why would you think they’d be better?

I learned several things making the argument and listening to reader comments and commentary from One Mile at a Time, from Frequent Miler, and from Live and Let’s Fly.

  • A lot of members see this as a moral issue they 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).

  • Everyone’s situation is different I argue that a disappointing Marriott is still better for 50+ night guests than Hilton but people react with their own situation, making the point that Hilton is good for them with 20-30 nights.

  • Credit card matters most For a lot of people it’s the rewards and benefits from a program’s credit card that is most important. I argue it shouldn’t matter what the earning is from the hotel co-branded cards, since you want to compare that to the best you’ll do with non-hotel cards (and you’ll often do better). However loyalty to a chain means factoring the total value proposition the chain offers. For those guests that includes earning from credit card. The hit the Starwood co-brand has taken in the new program is huge.

  • Credit card matters most… for status 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

Matthew Klint says forget Hilton vs. Marriott, he’ll just stick with Hyatt. 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, earned with 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 card 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

That said many hotels do go above and beyond, and the IHG® Rewards Club Premier Credit Card provides some real value to those in the program. You can earn 80,000 bonus points after spending $2,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening. You’ll receive a free night after each account anniversary year at eligible IHG hotels worldwide. (Offer expired)

And perhaps most importantly one of the best features is that cardholders receive a free reward night each time they redeem points for any stay of 4 or more nights. So that’s better than the ‘5th night free’ from Starwood and from Hilton, and amounts to a 25% discount on four night award stays.

Cardmembers receive platinum status for as long as they remain a cardmember. There’s a Global Entry or TSA Precheck fee credit (up to $100 every 4 years) as well.

The is one of the cards I want that I do not have — I don’t currently have status with the chain (while I have status with Hyatt, Marriott, and Hilton), and would love to have the option for fourth night free redemptions.

Marriott is the Best Large Chain But Has Serious Flaws

The Marriott card and the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express (no longer available) earn 15 elite nights each calendar year (starting 2019). You can only earn 15 elite nights total from having a Marriott or Starwood credit card.

Now the $450 Starwood Luxury 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.

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.

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, 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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Editorial note: any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer. Comments made in response to this post are not provided or commissioned nor have they been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any bank. It is not the responsibility of advertisers Citibank, Chase, American Express, Barclays, Capital One or any other advertiser to ensure that questions are answered, either. Terms and limitations apply to all offers.


  1. A big consideration ignored here is whether or not benefits and status are recognized and elite nights earned on 3rd party bookings through Priceline, Hotwire and similar.

    As I can often beat a hotel’s own prices by, say, Hyatt, by doing a Priceline Express Deal, but lose tier benefits, it dramatically lowers the value of Hyatt status. I could be paying hundreds a night more for a “free” breakfast? Who wants that?

  2. For people who’s company pays for their travel, the company oftentimes dictate where they stay. Generally there are 2 preferred chains. Many times it isn’t a choice. There is only one chain represented at the destination.Your posts are getting closer to covering the needs. But just saying Hyatt’s program is the best, doesn’t cut it.

    IHG is a program that I came to late. Mostly because I avoided IHG properties because of so many negative experiences. We signed up for Chase IHG card, and have had some nice free stays. We carefully pick the IHG properties. We have an upcoming trip to Japan. IHG is very good in Japan. Out of 15 nights, we are only paying for 12 nights. The rest are free courtesy of IHG. I do chase status/points based upon future needs. Which again you don’t address that people stay where their needs are met.

  3. I am going to try and make Hyatt work this year – as a (soon to be) Marriott LTPP, I have zero incentive to spend money with them going forward (will do 100 nights but not $20K spend). They don’t seem to actively be offering status matches but going to try that route. And get the Visa.

    IMO Marriott has crossed the line from incompetence to unethical.

  4. Hey Gary

    How about when I have an AX Platinum card? That automatically catapults me to a little status with a couple of chains. In that situation – is Hyatt still a great option?

    I tend to like the feel of the Hyatt properties better than Marriott (Fairfield and Courtyard aren’t my favorites.) But I know that Marriott / Starwood now has a lot more to offer


  5. Maybe I’m unique in that I’ve been traveling around 35 years and am lifetime Platinum Elite on Marriott, Gold on Hilton (was Diamond for 15 years) and have priority on 2 or 3 other chains. I prefer Marriott but I was always a Marriott traveler. While I had a Starwood account I rarely stayed there. Most of the complaints I’ve seen are people that came over from Starwood or problems transferring the Starwood points. I can tell you the consolidation of programs has been great from my perspective in that everything moved quickly, my status was upgraded from Platinum lifetime to Platinum Elite lifetime and I got additional benefits I didn’t have under Marriott. Also, I am grateful for the programs and tend to look at the benefits I receive instead of bitching (like many on here seem to want to do) about anything they don’t like. Just my opinion but this blog is spending WAY too much time bashing Marriott and American (often with the same arguments repeatedly). Gary – I don’t know what they did to tick you off but the value of the blog is seriously harmed by the constant whining.

  6. @Gene IHG Rewards Club provides little benefit. I’m not talking about Royal Ambassador, I’m talking about status with at least mid-sized chains.

  7. @AlanN – it’s precisely because you were accustomed to Marriott mediocrity for so long that you don’t see an issue. Must be nice.

    Thank Starwood for all your new benefits you have now.

  8. And then you end the section with this:
    “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.’

    Which is what you said originally so nothing really changed.
    (No thanks on Capital One.)
    Hilton more consistent than Marriot, better credit card earn & MS opportunities (at supermarkets, from Amex HH or Gold cards ), points transfer from membership rewards, etc. Treated better as a Diamond than I was as a Gold. Prefer Hyatt and Hilton.

  9. Plus Hyatt Globalist offers free parking which can be a big deal in a large city where you are road tripping………and no resort fees like Ritz Carlton on award stays!

  10. I have been a Hilton Diamond for over a decade and top Starwoods for longer than that with the last three years going over 100 nights and loving the personal Ambassador benefit, where the people are great and help with everything, really everything. This year I stayed 125 nights and still did not make the 20k minimum, makes me wonder what you need to do, The math is easy 100 nights at a base rate of $200 and you get $20,000. The issue is that the vast bulk of room rates are far below $200 a night unless you are booking the Ritz everywhere you go. On top of that, Starwood’s would allow me to make reservations for my staff who travels often with me and give me credit for the Stays, nights and dollars which would help to meet the new excessive 20k minimum and Marriott has reduced that. Now instead of taking staff to the Marriott brands with me, I only take the two they give me and send the rest to another hotel where I do get credit for their stays. My plan for 2019 is to stay 75 nights exactly with Marriott as stays mean nothing to them and likely to hard with the new 20k minimum to get to the top for a fourth year in a row, get my Hilton Diamond again which is easy to do and then get top Hyatt (which in the past had top level but too few hotels) and top IHG status. Marriott has put together a great spread the wealth policy for their competition, hard to understand why they would prefer leakage over keepage???

  11. Random thoughts…just my 2¢…worth far less I’m sure, so feel free to keep the change. Here’s how things work for me:

    1) Yes, as always no one size fits all, and so YMMV *is* the rule of the day. Clearly, for example, a road warrior in their 30s or 40s is in a completely different category of hotel guest than a semi-retired worked in their 60s for whom most hotel stays occur during either short vacations or a spouse’s conferences.

    2) Hyatt may indeed be the best chain for top-tier elites, but the small footprint makes them a non-starter for many. Who cares if you have top-tier status when the only accessible hotels near your destination is all-too-frequently a Hyatt House, rather than a Park Hyatt. This all but eliminates Hyatt for me, and as I’m over 5/24, the Chase Hyatt card is not an option. Fortunately, as their points don’t expire… That said, *IF* Hyatt worked for me, I’d leave Marriott in a heartbeat!

    3) Since a Hilton Aspire Amex comes with automatic top-tier (Diamond) elite status, there’s no need to “chase” status w/Hilton. That leaves me free to choose between Hilton and Marriott. Since I get 15 elite night credits for having my legacy SPG Amex, I don’t need much to maintain Gold status, but a quick comparison of location, price, points required or earned, makes the Hilton/Marriott question a fairly easy decision to make.

    4) It’s absolutely true that there is now NO reason to put *any* spend on either a Chase Marriott or Amex SPG co-branded card; the value that made my SPG card the “go to” card for non-bonused spend is long gone. Both cards have earned a place in my sock drawer, which is exactly where they now reside. CSP/R and Citi Prestige are much better options.

  12. Here is what makes financial and otherwise sense to our family:

    – Get Hilton complimentary Diamond status through the Hilton Honors AMEX Aspire Card. Annual cost $450
    – Get IHG complimentary Platinum status through Chase IHG card. Buy up to Ambassador status with ICH. Total annual cost $289.

    Total annual cost $739 and no longer need to do mattress runs with Hyatt or Marriott which could cost as high as $2000 each.

  13. @Gene can you tell me the requirements for becoming a Royal Ambassador?

    That’s what I thought.

    If someone is just getting started in choosing a loyalty program, which I believe is the intended audience for this article, how can you justify that they first lay out $200 to become an Ambassador, stay untold dozens of times with limited benefits, then hope that that was good enough to become a full-fledged Royal Ambassador the following year?

  14. Hyatt’s Globalist benefits are misleading at best. You mention the best room at checkin including standard suites, but in reality that is not what’s going on. We experienced that at at least 3 properties just in the past 12 months. They consistently play games with room upgrades at check in. Adding insult to injury, the low-level staff at the FD are ignorant of the status’ written benefits. So nothing happens automatically and you still have to haggle, tweet, and email instead of enjoying your stay. And even then you seldom (if ever) get the best available room at check in. I like, however, their waived parking and resort fees benefit on award stays.

  15. A couple of points

    1) With Hilton offering status with a credit card and Marriott offering Platinum with 35 nights (assuming you hold a credit card), it is pretty easy for a frequent traveler to have useful status in both programs. If I were to have 75 hotel nights in a year, I would probably try 35 Marriott nights, 25 Hilton nights and 15 “Other” (Hyatt, Four Seasons, Intercontintal, independent, etc)

    2) You are undervaluing the Hilton credit cards. As you have seen from comments, many of your readers are using Hilton cards for restaurant, grocery and hotel spend. You can argue that it may make sense to put that spend on other cards, but a lot of us (including me) use multiple cards for these categories. Also, this year, Hilton has run extra promotions for credit card holders, including triple points for hotel bookings in July and a 20,000 points for $2K in spend over the holiday season. Finally the Ascend card offers a free weekend night for $15,000 in spend.

  16. Why are you saying some legacy Starwood brands still offer lounge at resorts
    “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” when this is NOT true. Sheraton (and other) resorts that used to offer lounge now explicitly DO NOT and say Marriott does not “allow” them to!
    This change alone has made me decide no to visit a hotel where I have over 100’s nights and too many stays to count 🙁

  17. One thing not discussed was the now gone ability to use rollover nights. Marriott discontinued this practice for 2018. Thus after reaching 50 and realizing I would not get to 75 by year’s end, I went elsewhere. This change sent the message to me that Marriott did not care about my loyalty to their brand. In prior years I have stayed with Marriott to year’s end. And yes I have now picked up the Hilton Aspire card.

  18. Traveled 75+ nights a year for work for over 30 years. Stayed in every major chain and have affinity cards for each and elite status. One thing you left out is where you travel and which chain has the highest concentration of properties in that area. After several horrible experiences with Hilton chain (they acted more like Paris than Conrad), I finally dropped them.
    You are correct that IHG has fewer high-end properties but has come a long way upgrading existing properties and building new business friendly properties with full breakfast (i.e. Staybridge Suites). Intercontinentals are very nice (excellent overseas options – Madrid, Kathmandu, Rome, Cozumel, etc.). With a wide range of hotel options/levels and the most generous point system, I would argue that IHG Rewards Club (Spire/Ambassador level) with a Chase IHG Premier Card is the best combination for a Rewards Program.

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