A Simple Model Ranking Hotel Programs

Loyalty has two primary components: recognition and reward. That’s your elite program and your earn and burn proposition.

Hotel programs are tough to compare because you earn a different number of points per dollar spent, and redemptions vary wildly as well — the most expensive Hyatt redemption is 30,000 points while the most expensive Hilton redemption costs 95,000.

Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman

We can normalize that by looking at the number of points earned, and the value of each point. I’m not including any seasonal promotions in this analysis.

My valuation methodology is well-established, and I don’t think the values I use are especially controversial. Hilton’s new redemption program makes most redemptions worth about 4/10ths of a cent per point, and Marriott has even told us that a Starwood point is worth three times as much as one Marriott point.

Let’s compare the ‘rebate value’ you get out of each of the major hotel chains, that is how much you earn for your spending with each chain both as a general member and as a top elite with each one.

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:

Here’s what we can say about each program:

  • Hyatt: average rebate, best benefits
  • Starwood: weak rebate, good benefits
  • Marriott: good rebate, improving benefits
  • Hilton: weak rebate, weak benefits
  • IHG: good rebate, weak benefits

Breakfast at the Sheraton Mirage, Port Douglas

That doesn’t tell you what chain you should frequent. Hyatt has about 600 hotels, they may not have hotels where you travel. And they require 60 nights at those hotels to make top tier.

If you can earn benefits with Marriott or Hilton — which you can do on credit card spend alone — those could make more sense for you.

And if your travels take you to towns that have Holiday Inns, you don’t care much about being promised suites (you may still get nice upgrades at the direction of individual hotels), you’re going to get strong payback from IHG.

But this does tell us which programs offer the most value on the redemption side, and the best benefits (for those who can qualify) on the elite side.

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. The value per point is great and seems accurate but the earning rate is what balances this out. Obviously some points are much easier to earn.

  2. Confirming what we all know: Honors is the worst program out there while actual stays earn more at Marriott. Hyatt’s guaranteed suites carts at booking make it the best top tier program but SPG is not far behind. Hilton also has many fewer top notch properties than SPG/Marriott & Hyatt.

  3. SPG points are not worth 2.2cpp. Seth has run his real-world analysis of rates and shows average value for SPG is closer to 1.9cpp, Hilton 0.45, IHG 0.58, Marriott 0.79, Hyatt 1.85, Carlson 0.41 Choice 0.72, Wyndham 0.68. https://wandr.me/hotel-tools/hotel-hustle/Visualize

    Marriott is not saying SPG points are worth 3x. They are being very generous with that transfer value (as you well know) to keep SPG members happy since they are soon-to-be submerged into an inferior award program.

    As for Hilton, I find it funny (and disingenuous) that you keep saying they have weak benefits. FWIW, I have been treated far better with Hilton Diamond than I have as a Hyatt Diamond (with nearly 100% upgrades to suites in my APAC stays booking Standard awards – about 17 of 20 nights in the last few years – the only 3 nights I didn’t get upgraded to a suite was when the suites were fully booked – so really, it’s 100% success based on their upgrade rules). Yes, my stays are mostly international APAC, but I wasn’t treated anywhere as nicely as a Hyatt Diamond in similar markets. I’ve been frustrated with Hyatt’s inconsistencies and lack of member recognition in their supposed top-tier properties like Sydney and Paris.

    And no, I’m not DCS…

  4. If you think you get a weak rebate from Hilton, you’re not crunching the numbers right. A top tier Hilton costs 95,000. At my $74 stay last week I earned:

    2000: 2K EVERY DAY
    1000: Mobile app offer
    1000: Diamond
    740: Base points
    500: Amex booking bonus
    370: 50% for points and points.
    370:50% Diamond bonus

    That’s 5980 points for $74, not counting CC spend. All repeatable for the rest of the year. That got me 6.2% of the way to the Conrad Maldives, Hilton Seychelles, etc. If you think that’s weak, by all means, take your poor SPG rate and leave me Hilton.

  5. That’s called bending numbers to comform to one’s bias. The “Thought Leader” just cherry-picked his assumptions and numbers to make them sing the same old tired and broken tune 🙂

    The only problem? The demise of HGP and SPG, which were supposed to be ‘la creme de la creme’ of hotel loyalty programs based on the same made up standards stubbornly continues to stand in the way like determined to keep pointing out the delusion and the irony… 🙂

    Up is not down and down is not up!!!

  6. I 100% agree with James K. Your model is waaaaaay off by ignoring typical promos. James’ example stay is a 32.3% return using your CPM numbers of $0.004. Hilton has one of the best, if not the best, rebate out there. I was shocked to see you conclude weak rebate.

    I’m still loyal to Hyatt/SPG, but that’s because I try to not spend much money on hotels, I use points earned from credit cards and everyday Hilton CC earning is weak. But if I was actually spending cash on hotels, then I would definitely be a Hilton loyalist.

    Actually, I take back my earlier comment about agreeing with James K. 100%. He actually underestimated the points he earned by forgetting one key element: 888 Hilton points earned from Hilton Honors Surpass at 12x/$ spent at Hilton hotels. After you add in the 888 extra points earned from the CC, you’re at 6868 points, which is $27.47 rebate on $74 stay, which is actually a 37.1% rebate!

  7. @James K — That’s what my post just above summed up broadly.

    It must be really gnawing at the “Thought Leader” that Hilton is doing so well while SPG is kaput and HGP just went, rather appropriately…WOOOOOOH! He is on a tear, but keeps failing to inflict any damage because the reality and the facts are just too stubborn!!!

    How bogus this “simple” ranking model? We are supposed to ignore CC earnings and the fact, e.g., that HGP has had only two promos in almost as any years, while HH has had a lucrative promo every Q, as well as targeted ones like every other day…

    That’s the lifeblood that makes a program rewarding; not the made up standards or bogus claims.

  8. You’ve not calculated the Hilton rebate correctly. Assuming they choose to earn points and points, Hilton Diamonds get a minimum of 32 points per dollar, plus 1000 per stay. That’s already top of the chart. With the frequent promos, the rebate is often above 20%.

  9. LOL — And @Hans Mast too! Looks like I won’t have to do a post debunking this joke quantitatively!!!

    G’day from my suite upgrade at Hilton Alexandria Old Town!

  10. i have been warming up to hilton, ever since discovering embassy suite manager’s reception.
    it beats most hyatts and spg properties in north america that offer evening horderves/beverage service but as honor bar.

  11. DCS – I’m on your side (nominally) that Hilton is undervalued, but Jesus, give it a rest

  12. Gary’s model could be tweaked and made more complex to accommodate the criticisms. I don’t think he rigged it. You just have to split hairs like: what’s an average stay length? If it’s 2.2 nights, then the Diamond bonus is worth 450 points per night. For the promos you’d have to look retrospectively at 2016, calculate how much of the year had those bonuses and model out the bonus as a percentage of the year.

    @DCS… staying in a Doubletree in Lisbon in a few months. I’m a Hilton diamond. I’ve never successfully gotten a suite with Hilton HHonors even though I email each property and ask explicitly. What do you recommend I do? Bring a gun?

  13. Also. The 12 points per dollar with Amex Surpass is a red herring. CSR and Citi Prestige both earn 3 points per dollar with hotels. Those returns are basically the same. I don’t need to stay at a Hilton to get a high return from hotel spend.

  14. [inappropriate language deleted] Why then did you even jumping in. You are barking up the wrong tree. The self-anointed travel gurus must give it a rest before I do. That is my “crusade.” Don’t like the heat? Then get out of the kitchen!

    The whole structure is now wobbly. It it won’t be long before the “coup de grace” brings it down crashing…

    Good bye

  15. Gary,
    if i may add one important dimension to your analysis, it is cost/benefit factor.
    one must spend 60 nights with hyatt to achieve top tier where as you can get spg top tier with as little as 25 nights. not only that, you get a free marriott top tier as spg elite.
    most people will see that spg offers much better value.

  16. Two things:

    First, you have to be pretty confident in your assumptions to read what Gary has read into this analysis. For example, if you are even a tenth of a cent off in the value of Hilton points, then they go from borderline weak to the best for general members and better than average for top tier members.
    Second, valuing Starpoints at 2.2 cents for use in hotels is wildly high. They are only worth 2.2 cents when traded for airline miles (and even that might be a stretch). For use in hotels, you will get this value or better perhaps a quarter of the time, whereas, you would get 0.4 cents or better for a hilton point about 80% of the time.

  17. @Stvr — So what is your point. I’ve to failed to clear only 4 or so suite upgrades out of more than 35 the last 3 years. One of us either has no clue how to take advantage of his status or is making stuff up and it ain’t me.

    The bigger puzzle is why so many HGP Diamonds used to end up with unused DSUs when there were just 4 of them per year and they were supposed to be “confirmed”? (BTW, the puzzle is rhetorical…)

  18. Sorry, Steven K, but I haven’t paid for a single night in a Hilton hotel in the last two years (39 free nights, but no paid nights) and have been diamond both years, so introducing how easy or difficult it is to earn top tier status necessarily tilts the playing field in favor of Marriott and, especially, Hilton, where you need not spend any money in hotels to get top tier status.

  19. @farnorthtrader – it is not hard to get well above 2 CPM with SPG virtually all of the time, save some of the cat 7 all suite properties.

    If you only get 2.2 CPM a quarter of the time, you aren’t doing it right!

  20. Also @farnorthtrader, your example is case in point why Hilton keeps diamond benefits so bad

  21. I wasn’t challenging you. I was asking you for what the strategy should be. Should I ask to have a phone conversation with the GM? Should I fake a disability?

    By the way I’ve had no issue using Hyatt DSUs. I have had killer suites at:

    Andaz West Hollywood
    Andaz Fifth Avenue
    Andaz Savannah
    Hyatt Regency Guam
    Hyatt Regency Tamaya
    Hyatt Regency Cambridge
    Hyatt Regency Nice
    Hyatt Regency Orlando
    Hyatt Centric New Orleans
    Park Hyatt Washington DC
    Park Hyatt Vienna
    Park Hyatt Paris
    Park Hyatt Tokyo
    Grand Hyatt Kauai

  22. In case it was not clear, here is the math for getting Hilton Diamond. Pay $40,000 in taxes with your Hilton Reserve card. Fees are $748. Adding $95 annual fee makes the cost $843. For that, you get $480 worth of Hilton points (at Gary’s valuation), a free weekend night at any Hilton (my average nightly rate on free nights has been $762.60, but say it is only worth $200), and diamond status. Cost of your diamond status? $843-$480-$200=$163 (at most), so unless you are getting your 25 SPG nights for less than $7/night, SPG does not offer good value.

  23. Having used only SPG 1 and 2 redemptions, I’m very happy with the cpp I’ve gotten. Usually 3 cents a point or more. Sure the 4P PHL airport isn’t the Ritz, though…

  24. As someone that travels less for business the past few years, I continue to be taken aback by the points escalation of the Hilton program. I know this is true for all programs, but Hilton has priced itself out of the market IMHO.

    Marriott follows Hilton, then Starwood, leaving Hyatt with the best opportunities. Now if only they could increase their footprint.

  25. @UA-NYC, I used Hotelhustle’s (Wandering Aramean) median, and 75th percentile objectively derived values and 2.2 cents is approximately the 75th percentile value. For Hilton, I used the recent analysis that Gary had in his blog post, that showed 80% of redemptions at 0.4 cents or above.

  26. Gary’s generic method is a good starting point. “Seasonal promotions” are totally random, so you cannot take that into account (also, the value extracted sometimes depends on frequency on stay, so how an occasional traveler values it is drastically different from how a consultant who flies every week)

    another part about the value proposition is the geographical footprint. If I’m constantly traveling to places where Hyatt has zero footprint (and there are lots of these), their “best benefits” doesn’t do me jack.

  27. Just so you don’t think I have drank DCS’ koolaid, I happen to think that if there happens to be a Hyatt where you are going, then they will most often offer the best use of points, but it is damn near impossible for most people to get to the holy grail of free breakfast with Hyatt, whereas, just about anyone can get free breakfast at Hilton.

  28. The model explicitly excludes promos, as I explained in the post you can add those in when they apply using the same methodology.

    And it’s silly to include Hilton Surpass earning for the Hilton program. Earn 3 Chase points per dollar on any hotel spend, that’s worth ~ 5.7 cents. 12 Hilton points are worth ~ 3.6 cents. If you’ve got a Sapphire Reserve you’re doing 2/3rds better with that card at Hilton than spending with a Hilton Surpass card. Rinse, repeat with any other chain.

    The analysis including a hotel’s credit card co-brand spend is wrong because it fails to incorporate the opportunity cost.

  29. I would add that I’ve gotten spectacular suite upgrades as a Hilton Gold or Diamond (I’ve always had one or the other over past 5 years or so, even though I stay 1-5x/yr and don’t have the CCs) just by asking at the front desk. The Hilton Beijing Airport has been especially consistent and generous, giving this gorgeous, enormous suite that reminiscent of asian Park Hyatt suites, every single time I’ve stayed with them the last few years.

    Good grief, DCS, I don’t know (or remember) who you are (should I? seems vaguely familiar, but then there are so many three letter usernames out there), I may disagree with Gary’s math and think he’s coming to an objectively incorrect conclusion in this case, but I have no crusade against any infidels.

    The problem with modeling this question is there’s a nearly infinite level of complexity you can put into the model. You need to choose some stopping point, making some compromises. However, given the promos from the chains have been roughly consistent over past few years, it wouldn’t be too hard to add in estimation of the promos. In this case, it makes such a dramatic difference to the conclusions that I find it nearly mandatory to include some estimation of promos. (FWIW, I earned 75k from Hyatt’s fall 2016 promo.)

    “The bigger puzzle is why so many HGP Diamonds used to end up with unused DSUs when there were just 4 of them per year and they were supposed to be “confirmed”? (BTW, the puzzle is rhetorical…)”

    Haha, if only you knew. *grin*

  30. Gary, obviously we need to include opportunity costs in our CC calculations. I failed to do so, which was incorrect. Nonetheless, I find 12 HH > 3 UR. 12 HH = 4.8 cents and 3 UR is anywhere from 3 cents to 4.5 cents max.

    Points valuations are going to vary a lot between people, because of supply and demand. For people with a good MS game (like many of my friends) or with big business expenses (like me), we value UR/Hyatt at 1 cpm to 1.5 cpm max because we have way more than we know what to do with. The idea of UR being worth 1.9 in real life doesn’t jibe with my experience.

    Because I have plenty of UR (and value them fairly low) and because SPG is so lucrative at the low-end, I’m still loyal to Hyatt and SPG, like I said, but if I was utilizing the scenario of actually spending money on hotels, which you’re trying to model, Hilton would get me a far better rebate and benefit package.

  31. Interesting. I have been looking to move somewhere else from IHG where I am Spire elite + (paid) IC Ambassador. Upgrades spotty and I often book suites anyway. What I really HATE about the program is that I have yet to find an IHG hotel where I can book anything other than the most basic room with points and that is true of all the hotels I’ve checked in the US, UK, SE Asia and Australia. If there’s a way to book a suite on points, it’s lost on me. Thinking of looking for status match at Hyatt or Starwood/Marriott. I get Hilton Gold with my Amex card.

  32. There have been so many Hilton promotions over the years for which I have earned over 50 points per dollar spent that on almost any stay I get back 20 to 25 percent of my spending in points toward future stays. No other program is a generous with points earning possibilities (even including items from the gift shop). That, and the fact that Hilton Gold earns you free breakfast, makes it still a very appealing program.

  33. People are picking on only select things Gary didn’t cover.

    Sure, add in bonuses. And add in credit card spend too. The 40k of spend on HHonors gets you 0.42 night at a top tier place, at SPG it gets you 1.14 or close to triple.

    My total credit card spend is a multiple of my hotel stays. Doesn’t matter how many bonuses there are on HHonors, just not worth it.

  34. DCS:

    The purpose of this discourse should be to hopefully show people that they’re undervaluing Hilton a bit and maybe make them realize there’s more opportunity there than they realized.

    This isn’t religion. We’re not arguing over the secrets of the universe. And none of us are “right,” we just have different values. And though you deleted your comment towards me, it was characteristic of your scorched earth battles over one of the most trivial subjects I can imagine. So yes, give it a rest. Argue pleasantly and hopefully convince a few people that Hilton Honors offers some value. But if not, who cares? As long as we all get to travel and enjoy ourselves, man.

  35. Saved thousands of dollars for the family with free breakfasts at Hiltons over the last few years. Huge benefit. Saved hundreds eating dinner in executive lounges, too.

    Also, the 5x and 6x bonus spending categories of the Reserve and Surpass cards make spending more lucrative than other branded cards under Gary’s math.

  36. @beachfan, your math is messed up. $40,000 on Hilton card gets you 120,000 points (without using bonus categories) plus a free night, so 2.26 nights at a top tier Hilton (plus diamond status). $40,000 on spg card gets you 40,000 spg points or 1.14 nights at a top tier “normal” spg hotel or 0.57 at one of their “special” hotels. So Hilton is at least twice as good, as much as 4 times as good.

  37. My bottom line is: use all the chains. They all have their niche uses where we can get outsized value. That’s the very definition of the travel hacking game: use the weird little niche program that in specific situation ABCHIJK yields insane, outsized value. That’s what I’m trying to do right now. I have points with everyone. At the moment I don’t have more than about 10 paid revenue stays per year, have a ton of CC spend, and yet I manage to maintain Hyatt Diamond, SPG Plat, and Hilton Gold/Diamond. Because of that, I’m not doing many stays with Hilton. In the near future, however, I think I need to switch from AA ExP and Hyatt Globalist to Delta Diamond and HH, which I think will make more sense for me given my CC spend. I need to ramp up HH CC spending first to make sure I’m not mistaken on the redemption side, however. Thanks for the push to take a look at CC earnings again.

  38. This is the absolute truth of the matter. If you make sure that you have enough points in 5 (or 6 or 7) different programs for your stay, you can always get better value for your points than if you only have a choice of 1 or 2, no matter how amazing the program is that you have concentrated on. In economics, this is comparative advantage. Even if a program is worse in every redemption, using the points when they are less of a bad deal can allow you to Use the better points to their best advantage.

  39. Valuation comparison varies depending on whether you will use the points on low-mid level properties or high end. I keep a spreadsheet with both across programs.

  40. The problem with such analysis is it ignores situational costs. I cherry pick for the better value.

    I won’t redeem WoH points at less than 2.5¢ value and have generally been able to get over 3¢ each from them.

    Similarly with Hilton, 0.5¢ is my bottom.


    The Narita hilton cheapest I have found on the date I need next month is ¥19000 prepaid whereas I have a booking for 20000 Hilton points.

    A Hyatt place I am staying 2 nights this week I have booked cash&points for $63 & 4000 WoH all up per night. Cheapest revenue I have seen has been in the last few days at $172 pn.

  41. I appreciate the analysis. It is helpful in a general sense. Unfortunately, in reality there are many other variables that the formula omits. At least you state that it is a simple model. It is quite difficult to convert real life to an equation.

  42. Well, if you are staying at Holiday Inn Express (IHG) on Reward Nights you can surely have breakfast. Other than that you are completely right regarding the weak benefits on IHG Reward Nights.

  43. @serfty even if you can get 0.5+ compared to paid rates from Hilton that doesn’t mean a Hilton point is worth 0.5 cents, in other words that you’d pay that much in cash for the hilton point. you’ve got devaluation risk. you might not choose to stay at the hilton or pay the hilton price if you were coming out of pocket in cash.

  44. Gary do you say Hilton is weak because you don’t hawk their cards? You have many RC and SPG pump posts but haven’t seen any for Hilton.

  45. Wouldn’t reversing the cause and effect make more logical sense, Josh G? If he thinks the program is weak and he has the best interest of his readers at heart, it wouldn’t make much sense for him to push the cards, would it?
    I think that he and the other bloggers have genuinely believed that AA and SPG had the best loyalty programs. They based this on their own experiences with the programs, experiences that most of their readers do not share, so they could not and can not understand why Hilton and, especially, Marriott are so popular.

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