Which Hotel Program is Really Best: Would You Agree With These Rankings?

In addition to their ranking of best airline frequent flyer programs, US News has taken a stab at coming up with a ranking for the best hotel loyalty programs.

On the surface it appears they have a reasonable approach:

  • How much do you have to spend to get a free room?
  • What else can you do with your points and how well do they treat frequent guests?
  • Is the program offering you rooms everywhere you want to be, and at your desired price point?

Unfortunately they don’t put this together in a useful way. Their results are almost self-refuting. It’s interesting to see where they went wrong.

First the results.

Beyond the top five:

    6. Leaders Club
    7. La Quinta Returns
    8. Starwood Preferred Guest
    9. Hilton HHonors
    10. Hyatt Gold Passport
    11. Choice Privileges
    12. Stash Hotel Rewards
    13. OMNI Select Guest
    14. Kimpton Karma Rewards
    15. Le Club Accorhotels
    16. Fairmont Presidents Club
    17. iPrefer
    18. Loew’s YouFirst

They Appear to Do a Decent Job Ranking Programs on Spend for Free Nights

The single biggest factor is simple — the return you get in free nights for money spent with the chain.

They take a simple and somewhat reasonable approach, although it’s a limited one that misses a lot of nuance in value that the programs offers.

Each program is awarded a score of 1 through 5 based on the average number of paid nights members must accumulate to earn a free night in each of the 20 destinations referenced in the Geographic Coverage score. Because hotel rates change frequently and vary by travel date, all research for this scoring category is conducted on the same day for the same travel dates — arriving Saturday and departing Sunday four weeks from the research date. We calculate the average number of paid nights required to earn a free night in each destination based on the average price in points of a one-night stay. (Programs that do not allow members to earn free nights receive a score of 0.)

They look at 20 markets only, and hotel chains that happen to have hotels which are pricing expensively on the given day searched (potentially because of a special event unique to the hotel or chain) and thus appear to be a strong value on the redemption side when rooms are available as awards are going to skew well under this rubric.

The survey also ignores that different chains offer different levels of value at the cheapest hotels versus at the higher end and also that this value will change based on the length of stay (for instance because of multi-night stay discounts).

Starwood is generally weak for earning based on money spent at their hotel properties, although this begins to correct itself for elites and especially for those saying the most during a year because of generous elite bonuses.

Hilton and Club Carlson are super for low-end redemptions, requiring less in-hotel spend for the lowest redemption categories than anyone else. Hilton starts to get downright stingy when it comes to redeeming at their best properties… but not nearly as bad as Starwood which will charge double the points for their best hotels where all rooms are suites, even though the hotels are as expensive as they are in the first place because of the unique character of the rooms (double-penalizing members).

On the other hand Starwood probably has the most really nice properties that are truly worth staying at when you’re not paying.

I’ve actually done a deep dive looking at the value different programs offer based on how you want to redeem your points, and I’ve also run the numbers for those with elite status and I think that approach works better.

They Begin to Muck Things Up When They Dig Deeper Into the Programs

25% of the ranking is based on “additional benefits” — the ability to use points for things other than hotel stays (which tend not to offer much value, but we’ll get to that in a moment), point expiration policies, and elite benefits.

They also look at “whether points can be earned for flights and credit card purchases and used to cover room upgrades and additional amenities and services.”

In other words they look at whether these features, like Starwood’s “Crossover Rewards” (earn Starpoints for buying Delta tickets) exist not the value these features offer. They ask whether it’s possible to use points for a better room, they don’t compare the value each program offers when you spend points to do so. Hyatt is by far the best for confirmed upgrades with points with Starwood a distant second.

Similarly, when you can burn points for in-hotel activities that’s a plus even though that’s rarely offered as a reasonable value (you’d almost always be better off burning points for a stay you would’ve paid for and pocketing that money instead of using your points for spa or dining where offered).

US News Gets it Backwards: Smaller Programs are Usually More Generous

It doesn’t take a lot of work to be loyal to Marriott, Hilton, or IHG. If you stumble into a town you’re reasonably likely to wind up at one of their hotels. On the other hand, it takes work to be loyal to programs that are smaller like Starwood Preferred Guest and Hyatt Gold Passport. That’s why smaller programs have to try harder. They need to give you a reason to be loyal.

That’s why it’s so strange that 30% of a hotel loyalty program’s rankings are based on the size and scale of the size.

Size does matter at a certain level, of course. You want to be able to earn and burn wherever you travel. The most frequent reason I hear Marriott Rewards members say that they prefer the chain is, more or less, “wherever I go I can earn my points.”

But if that’s the metric, then they might as well be just listing programs by size.

  • Geographic Coverage (15 percent weight) This is about density in 20 key markets, not even just whether the chain has a presence.
  • Number of Hotels in Network (10 percent weight) It’s not the size of the chain, it’s what you do with the rooms… or something like that, but “a program that features more than 1,000 participating hotels receives a score of 5, while a program with only 100 or fewer participating hotels earns a score of 1”
  • Property Diversity (5 percent weight) Having lots of brands at different price points scores well.

Much of the ranking boils down to “big programs good” and “small chains bad” with an opportunity for smaller programs to crawl up to the middle rankings when they provide superior value.

Making Sense of the Results Under This Scoring

Marriott, Wyndham, Best Western, and IHG Rewards Club are everywhere. They all offer reasonable redemption value, though Wyndham’s new flat rate redemptions mean most of their hotels require way too much spend for the value received (it’s only useful for their best properties).

It’s very strange that Hilton doesn’t perform as well as Marriott and IHG here, they’re ubiquitous and actually offer better value for redemptions at the low end. (Their elite options are far better than IHG’s.)

Club Carlson no doubt does well on the spend for redemption metric, in the cities they’re pinpointing — well enough to make up for a more limited scope overall.

Starwood and Hyatt are great programs, great enough to make up for their limited size handicap in this survey, although US News isn’t sufficiently weighting the value of their elite treatment (versus stating such treatment exists).

On the other hand, Le Club Accorhotels is a large program.. which likely suffers based on poor rebate value in the survey.

And small programs like Fairmont, Loews, and OMNI? Haven’t a chance under this scoring.

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. It’s a tough task to rank hotels like this. For example if Wyndham gave you a free night after each night stay it still would be weak because the properties are weak overall.

  2. Ask any international business traveler and they’re much more likely to choose Hyatt or SPG as best. Ask the America-based road warrior and they may choose Marriott. Perspective really does matter.

  3. View for Down Under:
    I rank SPG as the top program as Hyatt has such a pitiful footprint outside of the US that it almost does not register. However, whenever I’m in the US I choose Kimpton (and you get 3 nights for 10 stays at different hotels). IHG is my fall-back position.

  4. HH for me, I live in hotels 365/52 and Hilton just stacks up for me. I only use points in the 5k-10k bracket otherwise I go for Points & Pay option. After that I pay normal rates applying the various codes when I can ( thank you euflyer ) Each and every time I get the hi-speed wi-fi, I get upgraded every time ( you should see the room I have right now at Doubletree Wanzhou, China!! It’s incredible ) and I get the breakfast option worldwide, the Exec Lounge access and the evening cocktails. I just think those benefits are better than what I can get anywhere else. I just stayed at an IHG in Chengdu and it just didn’t cut it. On top of all the benefits with HH I get, just being familiar with the brand makes me feel very comfortable. When there isn’t a Hilton where I go, I aim for Best Western. Yes, it’s a totally different concept, but even as a Diamond with them, I don’t see the benefits. A few extra points, free water ( which 9 times out of 10 they forget anyway and is usually followed by a blank look when I ask for it ). But they are an honest, low-cost brand and are particularly good in rural towns and the big cities when Hilton is completely priced out of this world ( whether paying or using points ) eg; Paris ( bloody madness!!!! )

  5. @Gary sez: “Starwood and Hyatt are great programs, great enough to make up for their limited size handicap in this survey, although US News isn’t sufficiently weighting the value of their elite treatment.”

    I agree with US News’ approach of not giving too much weight to “elite treatment” because of the high subjectivity of what that means. You feel Hyatt and SPG are tops in that department but I FEEL that they are weak compared to Marriott and Hilton treatment of their “elites”, and by “elite” I am including all tiers and not just the very top. There is absolutely no proof to the claim that smaller program are more generous. In fact, the opposite may be true… 😉

    I do agree, however, that their ranking of Hilton Honors much lower is a puzzle because it is not consistent with their own criteria.

  6. As with colleges, US News rankings are mostly useless for people who know the subject.

    Hyatt and SPG have the best top tier elite programs and best redemption options (if they have a property where you want to go). Marriott has the best combination of worldwide earn and redemption options for both city and resort areas. Hilton program is so devalued as to be generally worthless except for those who earn and burn in small towns where Hampton and HGI are the only options. The others are not even worth mentioning.

  7. @Boraxo sez: “Hilton program is so devalued as to be generally worthless except for those who earn and burn in small towns where Hampton and HGI are the only options. ”

    Can you prove that claim, objectively, or did you just base it on what you’ve heard in the travel blogosphere echo chamber? Here is the reality: Marriott Rewards, Hyatt GP and HHonors awards are similarly priced. Club Carlson and IHG awards are the lowest priced in the business. SPG has by far the highest priced top-tier awards. Based on your claim, I am sure that comes as a shock to you, which is why you need to do the math before making claims that can be easily shown to be bogus.


  8. As a consultant who traveled a ton the path was pretty clear. Qualify for SPG Plat first, then Hyatt Diamond. Check in and out of properties every single day to maximize elite bonus and promos. Marriott and Hilton points have been difficult and frankly pretty boring to spend, whereas I treat Hyatt and especially SPG points like a cash account.

  9. @DCS – let it go…the Hilton Haters are going to use that line about devaluation until the cows come home; I will keep getting a 20% average return on my hotel spend through judicious use of hhonors points. Yes, the cost-no-object set loves their free room service and pampering at Park Hyatts but on a cost/benefit basis I’ve not yet found a program that can replace good old Hilton for people who put all their spend with one chain.

  10. (Post just focuses on earning/burning, not acquiring elite status)

    Marriott’s pretty middle of the road. They’re reasonable to acquire, and reasonable to burn, but nothing to get excited about. I find SPG very frustrating because while there is no doubt they have a ton of great properties, they are very hard to accrue. Even with elite status, you just don’t earn that much. Hyatt’s very solid, especially since they can be transferred in from Chase UR and, in my opinion, still have a wealth of good properties at the lower level.

    IHG is surprisingly crappy from an acquisition standpoint, though in recent years their incredibly lucrative (if annoyingly buggy) promotions have helped offset that. And then that brings us to Hilton. People lost faith after the devaluation but there is *so much value* there because of how easy the points are to accrue. You get 15x per dollar even as a general member, there are four credit cards you can sign up for, two of which have no fee, they have properties everywhere, they often run double points promos, etc. So don’t overlook them, points world!

  11. My favorite program is that of IHG. Huge availability world wide, often at Holiday Inn Express with free breakfast. Easy to get status, which usually gets me nice upgrades.

    I do not travel for the privilege of staying in hotels. My home is more comfortable that any of them. If they give me a bed, a clean bathroom, and temperature control, I am happy. Breakfast is a nice bonus.

  12. I am a Hilton Diamond and Marriott Platinum road warrior who does most of the traveling in the USA. Look at the price per point to get and Hilton and Marriott come up about the same. When you look at the points needed per room at mid to higher end properties Hilton is usually half of what Marriott costs. I looked at Costa Rica, Paris, New York, San Francisco, and Bangkok as examples and looked at similar properties Hilton vs a Marriott, Conrad VS JW and so on. Hilton was a steal in every city. If you get into the Courtyards VS a Garden Inn they were about even. Currently I am getting 2x points from Hilton so I have shifted my stays. Am I crazy? FT and other forums all have Marriott ahead. I can get a suite upgrade at either place.

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