These aren’t all the pluses and minuses of each, but they’re the major drivers of value for a traveler who shares similar perspectives with me — an elite member who wants to use their points at the best and best value properties when vacationing on my own account.
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
- 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 Grand Hyatts in Asia.
- Breakfast. When there’s no club lounge, Diamonds get restaurant (and in some hotels, room service) breakfast. When a club lounge exists but is closed, Diamonds also get bonus points.
- 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. They’ve only recently introduced a co-branded credit card. But they have no rental car or shopping partners, and you can’t transfer points in from airlines. The problem is exacerbated because unlike Starwood, Priority Club, and Hilton there are no ‘cash and points’ awards to stretch your points further, though that’s a feature which may be introduced sooner than later.
- Not enough hotels. They’re rounding the bend towards 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.
- Portico White Ginger bath amenities. Seriously, I couldn’t detest the stuff more, although in fairness the soap does lather. Fortunately they’re expected to get rid of this stuff.
Starwood Preferred Guest
- Platinums get upgrades to standard suites at check-in, if available
- Chain has some of the very best aspirational properties, so there are places actually worth staying at.
- Starwood Preferred Guest American Express is an outstanding credit card. Points transfer to most airlines (not good for United/Continental), and they even give you 5000 bonus miles for each 20,000 miles transferred. That means you effectively earn 1.25 miles per dollar with most airlines, you pick later. (Disclosure: I’ve been recommending this card for years, but since a few weeks ago if you use my link to apply for the card I do receive referral credit.)
- 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. There’s no guaranteed breakfast benefit for top elites like at Hyatt and Hilton, so for properties without a club lounge and where you don’t get upgraded there’s going to be no meaningful elite status recognition.
Intercontinental Royal Ambassador
- 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 (based on availability) and Hyatt (when confirmed in advance) promise.
- Almost no benefits on award stays. Some hotels honor benefits anyway, many do not, and they aren’t required to. The Intercontinental Hong Kong, the Willard in Washington DC, and the Intercontinental Los Angeles are good examples. On a recent Willard check-in I was told “we follow the terms and conditions of the program” which meant no upgrade and no minibar, not even the complimentary pay per view movie that’s given to regular Ambassador members.
- 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).
- Great top-end award values. Starwood has great properties and charges an astronomical premium for the very best ones. Hilton has fewer truly great hotels, but the Conrads in the Maldives, Koh Samui and Sanya and their properties in Bora Bora and similar are much more in reach for reward redemption.
- Can make Diamond status based on credit card spend. Just $40,000 in a year on the Hilton Surpass American Express 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.
- No suite upgrades. Diamond isn’t much better than Gold. There is no suite upgrade benefit in HHonors. Not confirmed, or at check-in based on availability.
- For a chain their size, too few aspirational properties. Once you get past the list of top-end award values, they’re surprisingly thin on luxury vacation destinations.
- Lots of hotels. They are everywhere.
- Consistency. To me that’s less of a selling point, I like variety, but whenever I hear Marriott mentioned it’s almost always with ‘consistency’ in the same sentence.
- No suite upgrades. The terms and conditions used to be silent on this point and then six or so years back they even explicitly wrote an exclusion for suites into their terms and conditions.
- Lots of devaluations. Travel packages in particular have gotten much less valuable. They recently eliminated all-inclusive rewards with no notice whatsoever.
- 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 and Starwood offer a capacity-controlled option. Priority Club 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 $0.006 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 $30.
- No meaningful benefits on award stays according to the terms and conditions of the program.
- Platinum is an almost meaningless elite level, except at some international Crowne Plaza hotels.
- No premium room redemption option. The other chains on this list will let you spend more points for a better room, but not Priority Club (which is also the points program for Intercontinental hotel properties). 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.
Agree/disagree with this assessment?