What Part of Suite Upgrade Don’t You Understand?

I’m need to buy Lucky who writes the One Mile at a Time blog, this t-shirt.

He shared his experience checking into the St. Regis Abu Dhabi, a Starwood hotel.

  • First he was (incorrectly) told that his American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts booking wasn’t entitled to a Platinum upgrade.
  • Then he was told that even though the hotel was selling more than 9 St. Regis suites, that none were available.
  • He tweeted the hotel and Starwood Preferred Guest, and he was given one of those suites.

Here’s how to ask for – and get – a hotel upgrade.

What interests me in Lucky’s situation is this: the difference between what is promised by a loyalty program, and what hotels deliver.

The absolute toughest and most frustrating thing for a hotel loyalty program executive is that no matter what planning they do, training they put into place, and investments they make, the absolute final delivery point for benefits falls upon individual hotels, and even individual front desk employees at those hotels.

Most hotel programs are part of hotel management companies that may own some but usually not most of the properties under their brand. Some hotel owners like the business driven by loyalty programs (some do not even value that), but don’t like to deliver the benefits of those programs. Sometimes the attitude belongs to a given general manager. And sometimes the individual employee just doesn’t follow through.

Of the five major hotel chain loyalty programs, here’s the promise and the reality.

Hyatt Gold Passport

They offer their top tier Diamond members (4) confirmed at booking suite upgrades per year. These are valid from any paid rate that can be booked through a Hyatt channel, and in some cases I’ve even had luck using them on non-Hyatt rates. Each can be used for up to 7 nights.

These suite upgrades cannot be used on award (free) nights but can be used on cash and points award nights.

These are the gold standard of hotel upgrades, since they are truly confirmed at booking not subject to availability later.

Availability cannot be searched online, you must call, and Gold Passport then must interface with the hotel to alter the booking.

However there is no elite suite upgrade benefit if not using one of these confirmed upgrades. (Even general members can use points to upgrade eligible room rates, but that’s a different issue.)

Hyatt Diamonds are eligible for upgrades on check-in subject to availability, but suites are excluded from those upgrades. Some hotels will do it anyway out of their own generosity, but they are not required to. I consider it a gap in the program that Diamonds can check into an empty hotel and their upgrade benefit won’t include empty suites.

Starwood Preferred Guest

Starwood initially was the most generous major program for suite upgrades. They actually promised suites to their top tier Platinum members if a standard suite was available, at check-in.

When a hotel has unbooked suites, the only reason not to give the room away to a top tier elite is if that elite might otherwise buy it (the chance to get it for free could undermine the likelihood of buying it in advance). But only offering the upgrade at check-in undermines that likelihood.

Hyatt trumped Starwood with their confirmed at booking suite upgrades. But Starwood remained a solid number two.

And they attempted to meaningfully improve the upgrade benefit two years ago with the introduction of Suite Night Awards.

50 night Platinum members get 10 nights a year where they can request upgrade priority — ‘confirmed in advance’ upgrades that can be secured up to 5 days in advance of check-in, subject to availability, this benefit does two things:

  1. It lets members say when the upgrade matters most to them, and go towards the front of the line on those nights.
  2. It centralizes upgrade processing, based on published room inventory, rather than leaving it to the vagaries of individual hotels.

These aren’t confirmed suites the way that Hyatt offers them (at booking, you know if you can have a suite when booking the room). But it enhances choice. The problem seems to be that some hotels have learned to game their inventory, and some members find these suite night awards difficult to use.

Marriott Rewards

Elite members are not entitled to suites.

Sometime around 2005 Marriott Rewards actually wrote into their terms and conditions that suites were specifically excluded from the upgrade benefit.

Two years ago Marriott removed the exclusion, but that doesn’t ever entitle an elite member to a suite even if a suite is available.

The program doesn’t say hotels aren’t supposed to upgrade a member to a suite any longer, but that isn’t a benefit with teeth. If a Platinum walks into a hotel where every single suite is empty, and the hotel doesn’t offer a suite to the member that’s spent 75 nights in a year with Marriott, the hotel isn’t doing anything wrong.

At least they’ve started offering breakfast on the weekend, though still not at Marriott Courtyard properties or at resorts…

Hilton HHonors

While Hilton has loosened up a bit on upgrades, as with Marriott there is absolutely no top tier elite member entitlement to a suite at any time.

A hotel may choose to offer one, through their own beneficence, but their failure to do so doesn’t in any way violate the terms and conditions of the program.

IHG Rewards Club

The program’s terms and conditions are as weak on upgrades as you could possibly get.

Platinum level members will be offered a complimentary upgrade, as determined by the hotel, which might include rooms on higher floors, corner rooms, newly renovated rooms, or rooms with preferred views.

There are no specific guarantees, suites are not mentioned, and upgrades are determined entirely by the hotel and not the loyalty program.

Of course there are plenty of hotels at the low and mid-tier end in this chain (Holiday Inn and below) without meaningful upgrades to offer, but where they do exist they are not offered.

Additionally, the Platinum top tier of the IHG Rewards Club program does not confer upgrade benefits at Intercontinental hotels, the top line of the chain.

Instead, Intercontinental properties have their own recognition program — Ambassador — which entails paid members, and a top tier with unpublished qualification criteria (sadly, top tier referral certificates seem to be a thing of the past).

Intercontinental Royal Ambassador upgrades have been some of the best I’ve ever received — a Terrace Suite at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins, a Jimbaran Bay Suite in Bali, the Presidential Suite more than once in Manila.

But they’re also quite variable. Some hotels interpret the upgrade benefit to a suite or an executive room quite minimally — years ago the previous General Manager of the Mark Hopkins put a fax machine in a base level room, called it a ‘business room’ and claimed it met the requirements for an Executive room.

Nonetheless, the Royal Ambassador upgrade benefit is supposed to be ‘guaranteed’. And, contra the terms and conditions, the way several hotels intepreted it was a 2 category upgrade… and some hotels didn’t cap how high they would upgrade you… meaning that booking the right room level could give you a suite much better than a ‘standard’ suite that other chains promise.

But how each hotel interpreted upgrades varied, and the terms and conditions of the Royal Ambassador program do not require upgrades on award nights which was one of my great frustrations. An award guest was not an honored guest at all, and to me made to feel like an unwelcome mooch.

Entirely apart from the hotel chain, several factors influence the room you get…

  • Regions matter. Upgrades in Asia tend to be more generous than in Europe. Programs that don’t require upgrades, like Marriott, will tend to offer them frequently in Asia. Meanwhile, and there are hotels that are exceptions, I’ve found that European properties tend to be more difficult with upgrades. I’ve attributed it to cultural biases against giving things away for free.
  • Types of suites vary. Some hotels have better upgrades to offer. You might find a suite is just two rooms opened up, or it may be substantially larger and with upgraded furnishings and design elements. In general I’ve found more impressive suites given as upgrades in Asia, and more ornate suites in Europe. Most programs only upgrade to ‘standard’ suites but you can luck into higher-level suites, which some (but not all) of the photos above represent.
  • Does a suite even mean two rooms with a wall? I’ve always believed that a suite has walls. There is more than one room, and they’re separated. If there are just separate ‘areas’ without a wall, that’s a junior suite. Not every hotel agrees, and what a hotel ‘considers’ a suite will influence what kind of suite upgrade you get. The Intercontinental Times Square and Andaz Wall Street keep using the word ‘suite’ but I do not think it means what they think it means.

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. Gary,
    As someone who stayed 80 nights at a Marriott last year as a Plat and 55 as a SPG Plat (as well as 35 each this year), I can say that my experience is similar to Lucky’s with SPG.

    I’ve NEVER been proactively offered an upgraded to a suite. If I push them for it, I still don’t get it. What usually happens is I complain on twitter then they upgrade me on the next trip as “payback”. As far as I’m concerned, upgrades are a non benefit at SPG. My 10 SNA’s will confirm without issue but if I’m looking for comp upgrades, they are not happening.

    Conversely, I don’t need to ask at a Marriott as they proactively offer me upgrades all the time. I’ve had over a dozen in the last 2 years.

    What makes my “stays” different is I typically do M-F 4 night stays. I don’t do the 1 night thing. With that being said, this is an apples to apples comparison for me.

    I prioritized SPG this year thinking it’ll get better but it hasn’t. It’s still a $*$($* to get upgrades at SPG.

    It’s no longer worth the trouble.

  2. Not promising suite upgrades, like Marriott, is fine.

    BUT, promising them under certain terms, and then failing to deliver quite reasonably raises expectations among the most loyal customers. Raising but failing to meet those expectations should be viewed as a significant error.

  3. “But Starwood remained a solid number two.”

    Much preferable to a liquid number two:)

  4. I generally think Lucky is a buffoon…but, I did like his post on this issue.

  5. Ive been upgraded about 80% off the time as an spg plat. I never expect an upgrade, but I ask for it and am always polite. If it doesn’t happen then it doesn’t. If I really want a suite then I used my SNAs. I think the important thing for me is to not sweat the small stuff and especially not let it ruin your trip. I have a lot of respect for all the bloggers. But if you are on a trip by yourself why does it matter? I travel 100% leisure. I’m Esther with my wife or my wife and 5yr old. When it’s the three of a a suite is super nice for the extra space and maybe for the wow factor but that’s it. I dunno maybe it’s just me but if you find yourself complaining about room upgrades maybe look at the bigger picture and enjoy your vacation.

  6. I’ve spent several hundred nights at Marriott and I have had less than 5 upgrades to suites. I would put my suite upgrade rate at just over 1% as a Platinum. All of those came on 1 night stays. I’m not really complaining about this just providing a data point.

  7. I have a problem with Hyatt room upgrade. They promise the best room available at check in and at so many properties that does not happen. Of course i’ll get club access, but rarely a deluxe room. With the changes regarding the 6000 upgrade from being valid from 4 nights to 1 night I won’t be able to upgrade all my stays longer than 1 night anymore and therefore from now on this will matter. I will be carrying a printout of the T&C with me from now on and will stand my ground.

  8. Here’s my issue with SPG’s SNA and this might just be poorly managed expectations/greed on my part. Most hotels I have seen only allow you to apply them towards Jr Suites which in most cases I would get anyway for being a Plat since it’s usually only 1 room category up. What I have been told by multiple people, though don’t have enough data points to confirm is that if you apply a SNA, you are locked into that room. Even if the hotel wants to double/triple upgrade you, the system will not let them.

    First world problems I know, but I always have an internal debate when deciding to use SNA’s or not: Do I roll the dice and hope for an awesome room, or do I play it safe and lock myself into a Jr suite even though I may get a better room.

  9. Hyatt is the Gold standard for up to 4 PAID stays for Diamonds per year. On the rest of your stays, they’re the lead standard IMHO. Out of my last 30 stays, I’ve received one, true suite upgrade due to a sold out situation

  10. I can confirm @shane’s sentiment that over the last couple of years, SPG has gone from being absolutely awesome to just “so-so”. I’ve even had reservation agents comment to me things like “Well at least you get something for your points”. I still like the program but comments from people saying off handed commentary at every level really tend to drag away from it. Travel dollars can be spent anywhere nowadays. As a segment gets more competitive, you’d expect a player who thought they were no.1 to up their game, not play nonsense .

  11. I think SPG needs to be more transparent about the upgrade process itself. Anytime I have tried to fight with them over the failed upgrade, I show them screens saying “suites available” then they always retort with “that screen is lying!” We don’t have the rooms.

    I wish I could use Hyatt but they don’t exist where I end up traveling to. Their footprint is useless to me.

  12. I have a great suite upgrade percentage at STarwood. I think a key is to be a frequent stayer – I always choose the same starwood at major cities.

    I fail to we the value in consistency when that means no upgrades on awards at hyatt. The recent cash and points option may make me reconsider. When people demand consistency, that means less flexibility, and in those cases, policies become more narrow, not more generous.

  13. IC Ambassador has been all over the map for me. I have gotten no upgrades on some stays (both paid and award in Koh Samui), I have turned down upgrades (at the IC Bali, an upgrade from a Singaraja Duplex goes to the Classic suite, which is not as nice as the Singaraja Duplex), I have gotten minor upgrades (at the Mark Hopkins in SF and ORD Airport in Rosemont) and I have gotten massive upgrades (Bukit Suite at IC Bali).

    What I have taken away from this is to always book a room I can be happy with even if I get no upgrade. If I do get one, that much the better.

    But at the end of the day, I have gotten major upgrades on rooms often in hotels where I hold zero status and have missed upgrades in many hotels where I do. In the end, it sounds like it’s just a crapshoot.

  14. A little disclaimer:

    Starting off with the Burj al Arab is a little misleading. The hotel offers suites, and suites only.

    Marriott members… even Gold receive elite upgrades too, as I experienced in Boston:

    And to those who discredit this as getting lucky, I received a junior suite on my next stay as well, because that was the only thing available.

    So Gary, can you please correct your post to say Marriott WILL give elites suite upgrades, even mid-tier elites?

    (And fyi, I earned Gold status for a mere 6 stays via their Gold challenge…)

  15. I disagree with the point that you can not check upgrade availability online for Hyatt. The Diamond Suite Upgrades book into Regency Suite, Grand Suite, Park Suite respectively and as long as you see that these are for sale you can expect to get them. Of course for the redemption itself you have to call them. I wish Hyatt would finally get their act together with their IT but something tells me this is wishful thinking.

  16. Gary, what does breakfast have to do with suites?

    Shall I quote also from Hyatt’s policy for their top-tier elites?
    “Benefit not valid when staying at Hyatt Place properties, Hyatt House properties, or Hyatt Residence Club resorts.”

    Why not mention that as well?

  17. @Bryce I didn’t say Marriott will not give suites to elites, I said that the program does not entitle elites to suites. And that’s true. Hotels may do it out of their own generosity but they are not required to.

  18. My SPG experience has been consistent with Lucky’s. Upgrades were often not offered despite availability showing up online. I would bring that to the attention of the front desk and, one time, the clerk replied that we were staying too long (5 days) and that the hotel “had a right to keep the suite and try to sell it.”

    When I complain to the managers, the response is inconsistent. At the finer establishments, the managers are more likely to own up to the problem and try to fix it immediately. At the lower end hotels, the managers have tried to deny that what I alleged actually happened.

    I ultimately decided that SPG was too much trouble and moved my business over to Hyatt. Am happier with both the hotels and the customer service (WRT complaint resolution).

  19. As SPG Plat, I think becoming a regular at a hotel is a good way to get preferential treatment (although at my “home” Sheraton, I prefer a regular club floor room over a suite with a weird layout). FWIW, I did manage to get a very nice upgrade at an SPG hotel in Vienna but I was there at the end of October.

  20. ” An award guest was not an honored guest at all, and to me made to feel like an unwelcome mooch.”

    I completely agree. I’m new to IHG after leaving Hilton for there devaluation. After a few award stays with IC I completely agree your treated as a second class citizen. Like in Frankfurt where I was given the office half of an adjoining room with a roll-away bed thrown in it.

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