What Hotel Loyalty Program Is Actually The Best?

The Points Guy site ran a serious of posts dubbed “Battle of the Hotels” where I expected them to compare programs to each other and declare what’s best or rank order them. Instead they made a case of what’s good about each program (with some limitations noted): Hyatt, Marriott, IHG, and Hilton. What they didn’t do was actually do much comparison between programs. There wasn’t really a battle.

I have no such fear. Against my own interests, and without concern for angering the people I know at the programs, I’m willing to call out the good, bad and ugly to come up with a conclusion of what’s actually best.

Comparing Earning Points Across Hotel Programs

Since I publish what I believe each program’s points are worth including an explanation of my methodology, it’s easy to take the points earned in the program, value them, and make comparisons across chains.

Two years ago I went through that exercise, along with evaluating the elite benefits of each program, to develop a simple model for ranking the best hotel loyalty programs.

Let’s start with comparing the value of points earned for spend at their hotels. Since hotel currencies are more or less on different ‘scales’ and not standard – you earn a different number of points per dollar, but redeeming hotels costs different numbers of poitns, too – we need to normalize.

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%

The Best And Worst Things About Each Hotel Program

There are two basic components to any loyalty program, recognition and reward, or put another way elite benefits and earn and burn. There’s no (almost) no program that’s all bad, or all good. And so there’s no program that is perfect for every traveler. The relative importance of having hotels everywhere you need to go, earning free nights versus elite benefits, and which elite benefits you value most will determine the program that’s best for you.

Here are the major pluses and minuses of each of the major hotel programs:

Hilton

    Good:
    • Strong footprint, there are Hilton properties everywhere

    • Easy to earn status via credit card, albeit that may not be worth a lot beyond breakfast

    • Decent earning and redemption, once you factor their promotions making up for weak standard earning

    Bad:
    • Weak elite benefits, there’s no promise of suite upgrades or even late check-out

    • Without promotions their basic earning structure is the least rewarding of the major chains

    • No award chart makes devaluations easy to hide


Conrad Koh Samui

Hyatt

    Good:
    • Clearly the best elite program, with suite upgrades confirmable at booking and full – not continental breakfast offered as well as consistent delivery of late check-out benefit not to mention the ability for top elites to gift their status for a stay when using points for someone else.

    • The most rewarding hotel credit card for ongoing spend beyond just using it at the chain’s own properties.

  • The only strong hotel transfer partner of a credit card earning program. You can move Chase points to Hyatt and get good value, not something that’s the case when you transfer American Express Membership Rewards to Marriott or Hilton for instance.

    Bad:
    • Smallest footprint of the major hotel chains, you may have to inconvenience yourself to stay loyal to Hyatt

    • Lowest points bonus for top elites make an otherwise-rewarding program weaker for earn and burn.


Park Hyatt Sydney

IHG

    Good:
    • Large footprint

    • Lucrative earn and burn, factoring in promotions

    • Good credit card benefits, like 4th night free on award stays

    Bad:
    • Weak elite benefits, suite upgrades aren’t promised, there’s no guarantee of late check-out and don’t bet on breakfast at full service properties.

    • Elite benefits aren’t even promised on award stays, and there’s no option to even redeem more points for a better room (meaning you may not even want to use your points on a resort vacation)

    • No award chart makes devaluations easy to mask.


Intercontinental Singapore

Marriott

    Good:
    • Large footprint, they’ve got plenty of hotels most of the places you’ll go

    • On paper the best elite program of the largest chains, promising suites when available and at the highest levels 24 hour check-in and a dedicated concierge.

    Bad:
    • Weak promotions make a strong basic earn and burn proposition fail to outshine competitors

    • Changes to the program without notice undermine trust, it’s hard to bank the currency and to trust that promised benefits will be there. (See for instance here, here, here, here and here just since they launched the new program a year and a half ago.)

    • Inconsistent program execution at the hotel level. Properties game the chain left and right, find loopholes to deny benefits, and simply ignore things like upgrades.

    • Poor problem resolution, in my experience I can’t even count on getting a response if I email for help.


St. Regis Abu Dhabi

Which Program Is Best?

Hyatt has a lucrative earn and burn program, hampered by a limited number of hotels relative to competitors – about 1000 places to use your points versus 6000 or more elsewhere – and by modest elite bonuses.

If Hyatt’s footprint works for you, I find their program best. My own take is that it’s worth focusing on Hyatt if you can. However you probably need a “backup program.”

My backup program is Marriott. It’s only worth focusing on Marriott if you earn Ambassador status, which requires both 100 nights and $20,000 spend. Even there member experience is mixed. I’m no longer an Ambassador (I lost my Ambassador in 2018) but I still have Platinum status. Oddly I do not have lifetime Platinum. When Marriott merged its program with Starwood’s much of my past activity was lost. At one point they showed I had only 3 years of status at the Platinum level. Eventually that jumped up to 13 years, then down to 10 years and up to 11. However I’m still missing nights. I also have Hilton Gold my from Amex Platinum.

My ranking of programs:

  1. Hyatt
  2. Marriott
  3. Hilton
  4. IHG

It pains me to rank Marriott so highly because there’s no program with a bigger gap between expectations (promises) and delivery at this point. However – even with new limitations on being able to use your points, and significant devaluation of those points – they sill offer more nice hotels, better earn and burn value, and better benefits than Hilton does.

Until Hilton turns its suite upgrade test into a permanent elite benefit and offers guaranteed late check-out, its status won’t have significant value in my opinion. And it will still have a weaker earn and burn proposition than Marriott.

Meanwhile IHG doesn’t have rich elite benefits, doesn’t offer what little it has on award stays, and doesn’t offer a path for members to get a better than base room when redeeming points. The lack of transparency in the program is another strike.

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »

Comments

  1. I was wondering when Hilton Troll #1 would show up…there it is. Of course his point has nothing to do with the article at hand. Just another unsuccessful pro-Hilton re-direct.

    He should just be happy with Marriott’s ongoing CF making Hilton look decent by comparison.

  2. Fortunately, there are thinking readers who can figure things out for themselves and can see that just the raised objections kill this blogpost’s claims, even without seeing the more objective analysis at the awaited link.

    It takes a real troll to see one where there is none…

  3. DCS, you need to figure out some search engine optimization, searching “travel reality check” gives you not a damn thing close to your blog on Google.

    Anyways… it’s nice that if you work the promo/co-brand card angles you can get better numbers. Of course there are angles on Hotels.com too… and they don’t require status or a co-brand card.

  4. @eponymous — If you search for TravelRealityCheck, Google will look for “Travel Reality Check” and report:

    Showing results for Travel Reality Check
    Search instead for TravelRealityCheck

    If you then select “Search instead for TravelRealityCheck”, you’ll get plenty of hits. However, this should not be necessary since I posted the direct link here, which has yet to be released from “moderation”…

  5. Aha! Searching for “Quantitative Travel Blogging” (with quotation marks too) takes you there, then scroll to the very first post at the bottom for the goods…

  6. @UA-NYC: I know right? He was slow this time.

    I’ve wondered if his posts are willful ignorance or not. Can anyone really be that unable to follow simple logic? I guess it’s possible – especially these days. But, you’re probably right: just a shill.

  7. I belong to (and have elite status in) several more programs besides these four and agree with FNT Delta Diamond that Radisson and Accor should be included. My family enjoys Fairmont (Accor) and Radisson Blu (Radisson) when the location fits.

  8. @OtherDave sez: “I’ve wondered if his posts are willful ignorance or not. Can anyone really be that unable to follow simple logic? I guess it’s possible – especially these days. But, you’re probably right: just a shill.”

    Yet another troll chimes in. Either point to what you are objecting to in my arguments or stay out of a discussion you clearly to not have the gray matter to enter into. I should note that I do not wonder about someone who would make a mindless statement like you did: I know it is willful ignorance, for sure.

    Want to expose me as one who is “unable to follow simple logic”? Then dispense with the ad hominem and challenge anything or something specific in what I wrote, instead of attacking me personally. Search for “Quantitative Travel Blogging” (with quotation marks too) and follow the link comes up and see whether you can measure up.

    Go on and let’s duke it out, or just stay out of it.

    G’day.

  9. Yet again, DCS (regrettably) opens his mouth, proclaims that no one’s opinion matters other than his own, and insults anyone who dare proclaim otherwise.

    Get help for your NPD, DCS.

  10. “Let’s duke it out,” he says. Last time he declined to participate in such a debate with me – but he chooses to “forget” that, I’m sure.

    Go away, D. You’ve become boring.

  11. OtherDave sez: “Last time he declined to participate in such a debate with me…”

    LOL. Dude, I do not know you from atom. That you remember challenging me to a duel and I declined says it all. You were a troll then, just as you are now.

    So, thank you for reminding me that I’d declined to “debate” you before. I clearly must’ve thought then that it’d be a waste of time; now I am convinced of it.

    The trolls are coming out of the woodwork to seek “validation.” Well, you ain’t gonna get it here.

    BTW, the link to the goods that you should consider before challenging me just got released from moderation on the previous comments page. Check it out and try to debunk any of it…I dare ya.

    G’day.

  12. @DCS: “The trolls are coming out of the woodwork to seek “validation.” Well, you ain’t gonna get it here.”

    The only one here seeking validation is you, DCS. Quit projecting your neuroses onto others.

  13. @OtherDave: “What it says, D, is you post so much cr*p, you can’t remember a tenth of it.”

    The part where he twisted everything around to try (pathetically) and make you look bad/make himself look good is a nice touch, too.

  14. Meanwhile, lacking are any attempts to debunk or challenge a single one of my assertions.

    Open and shut case, until the debunked claims are resurrected, as they are sure to be…

    Soapbox is yours. Knock yourselves out.

  15. @DCS: “Meanwhile, lacking are any attempts to debunk or challenge a single one of my assertions.”

    Among these assertions:

    @DCS: “So, thank you for reminding me that I’d declined to “debate” you before. I clearly must’ve thought then that it’d be a waste of time; now I am convinced of it.”

    Actually, it was you, according to @OtherDave, who refused to engage in the debate, not him:

    @OtherDave: ““Let’s duke it out,” he says. Last time he declined to participate in such a debate with me – but he chooses to “forget” that, I’m sure.”

    @DCS: “Want to expose me as one who is “unable to follow simple logic”? Then dispense with the ad hominem and challenge anything or something specific in what I wrote, instead of attacking me personally.”

    You are, without a doubt, the last person who should be complaining about other people engaging in ad hominem.

    Those assertions aside, DCS, your blog post, despite your protestations of objectivity, is no less subjective than Gary’s post, in that you have made assumptions to get the results that you have – specifically, the decision to model your “analysis” only at the highest award level. A truly objective analysis would look at all hotels at all levels, coming up with a weighted average redemption level for each chain and the costs/benefits for each based on that weighted average.

    That isn’t to say that the results would be different, but to claim that your opinion is somehow better (all the while devoting the energy you do to attacking Gary’s and other opinions as inferior to yours) only reinforces your narcissism.

    They are opinions. You’re not the only one allowed to have them, so get over yourself.

  16. I like hyatt, they are really the only chain other then four seasons that went out of there way even before status to make my stays better. The others were not bad but they did nothing special.

  17. Holy shit, some people take criticism of their preferred hotel as if it was a direct attack on their ego. Is your life so devoid of meaning?

    Gary is a well known Hyatt lover, but the “best” program depends on what kind of traveler you are. If you are a road warrior like Gary that travels to locations where there is usually a Hyatt, and you’re going to maintain Globalist year after year, then sure, they’re great.

    The vast majority of people do not fit that description. In that case, I find Hilton to be the best. Free breakfast even at mid tier status which is super easy to get makes Hilton the best mid tier status bar none. Also, easily get top tier status with one credit card, which gets you lounge access…and depending on location, does indeed often result in upgrades to suites…it’s just not guaranteed, and sometimes you have to push back at check-in, but in Asia over the past couple years I’m batting around 0.500 in terms of suite upgrades as a Diamond.

    Marriott of course is garbage. IHG? Come on.

  18. @Gary, it says 68 comments, but I only see 20. Where are all the comments from the first day? Does Boardingarea wipe out the older comments if there are too many?

    BTW, I am a top level elite in all 4 programs, and IMHO I rank Marriott _easily_ last of the 4. In the 18 months since Bonvoy started I have given Marriott 20 nights, after giving Marriott 200 nights in the previous 18 months. Really. That is how fast Marriott Bonvoy has gone to Hell.

    Sure, the best Westin I ever stayed in was better than the best Hilton, but the worst Hampton Inn I ever stayed at was way, way better than the worst Fairfield Inn or Holiday Inn I stayed at.

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