IHG Rewards is now IHG One Rewards with a whole new set of elite benefits to go with the introduction of a rebranded top elite tier, Diamond. I spoke with IHG’s Senior Vice President of Global Loyalty and Partnerships, Heather Balsley, both about the vision for the changes and the to get into the weeds about how new benefits will work.
IHG is a huge chain with 17 brands and nearly 6000 hotels in more than 100 countries. Marriott saw their 30 brands, after acquiring Starwood, as only making sense with a loyalty program that ties them all together. Members go to the Marriott website to see their options, and their hotels come up. They can’t differentiate that many brands.
A similar course seems to have taken place with IHG, and it really is making the program better. Ms. Balsley emphasized the chain’s hotels, brands, and company mission to provide ‘True Hospitality for Good.’ But she acknowledged that it’s the loyalty program that connects the brands and how members experience them all together.
The program has long been viewed as strong earning points for free nights but weak in elite benefits (and indeed redemption options as members cannot redeem for better than a base room).
They’ve really taken on the challenge and introduced a new set of elite benefits. In theory these are better than Hilton’s, and some guests will prefer them over Marriott’s, but how valuable they are depends on the properties members stay at and how well those hotels deliver on promises. And excluding some of the best benefits from redemption stays limits how good the program can be for points travelers, such as those who earn primarily with their credit card.
Elite Status Level And Bonus Point Changes
In January IHG announced new elite levels and qualification requirements, and new bonus point earning for these levels.
They added a new elite tier below Platinum, made top tier a little easier to earn on nights while making the top two levels harder to earn on points alone, and gave out a few more points at the Silver and Platinum levels. However top elites lose their annual 25,000 point bonus – but see that replaced with richer rewards.
Members are already beginning to see the new elite tiers reflected in their accounts. This process should be complete by April 17.
New Elite Status Benefits
There are new elite benefits, both tied to status level and to the number of nights a member stays with the chain. Here are key changes to the benefits tied to elite status level:
- They’ve been running promotions recently discounting award redemptions, with elites seeing these discounts first, and this being formalized as ‘exclusive access’ – they intend to offer discounts like the recently ended 20% off promotion frequently for Platinum and Diamond members.
- One of the real hidden weaknesses in the IHG program has been customer service in my experience. When something goes wrong getting an agent to understand the issue can be challenging. However Diamond members now get dedicated phone support that Heather Balsley tells me entails an “exclusive line routed to a subset of agents who have enhanced training” and they are monitoring hold times and other service metrics as well.
- They’re finally introducing free hot breakfast as a welcome amenity choice for Diamond members, similar to how Marriott handles breakfast as a choice benefit at some brands. That means members can choose breakfast in lieu of check-in bonus points or the drink/snack option.
- Upgrades should be better too, although technically upgrades at check-in aren’t changing. Ms. Balsley tells me that the chain wasn’t “communicating on existing policy” with hotels well, and that’s what’s changing. In fact “access to suites is part of the guidelines for top tier members if available” and there has been training on this. She tells me that properties have been “doing a good job of upgrades” such as to premium rooms with better views but “not suites” and they’re working to change that.
Unfortunately space available upgrades remain “at the hotel’s discretion” and may include suites, but a hotel isn’t violating program terms (and therefore no compensation would be due to a member) when they fail to deliver on this. Here they’re similar to Hilton and behind Marriott (at least Marriott hotels are breaking the rules when they fail to upgrade to available standard suites). Fortunately they’re also offering a confirmed suite upgrade benefit as part of their Milestone Rewards.
- Early check-in is supposed to be available for Platinums and Diamonds, subject to availability and time early check-in is permitted is “at the hotel’s discretion” so this isn’t something members can really count on versus lucking into.
Most of the new benefits in the program, though, won’t be tied to elite tier but to nights stayed. In this way they’re taking a similar approach to Hyatt which offers reasons to continue to stay which are fairly granular, unlocking additional benefits after each 10 nights. Like Hyatt, IHG even calls this “Milestone Rewards.”
Milestone Reward Benefits Added Every 10 Nights Stayed
Here’s where the real meat of the program changes can be found for elite members. Starting at 20 nights, every 10 nights up to 100 will allow members to select an additional reward.
Once a milestone is reached, members have 90 days to select a benefit (on the IHG website or app):
IHG offers confirmed suite upgrades at the lowest number of room nights of any chain. These are bookable starting 14 days prior to arrival by phone and valid for up to 5 nights on a stay. This is available farther out than Marriott’s Suite Night Awards, and all inventory for eligible rooms is supposed to be available for this benefit. Only Hyatt beats IHG here.
An ‘annual lounge membership’ means club lounge access for the year in which the benefit is selected and the entirety of the next year. Club lounge access is finally a benefit of IHG elite status, but like most of the best new benefits is something a member can choose.
In general food and beverage credits, if maximized, are worth more than points and club lounge access for a year is more valuable still – provided that you stay in hotels with lounges. The majority of IHG’s portfolio won’t have a lounge, so your travel patterns matter, and the notion of choice benefits matters.
Ideally you’ll earn your elite nights at inexpensive properties and splurge for a vacation at a premium brand, where you’ll book two weeks out so you’ll know that a suite is available at the time of reservation. Being able to confirm a 5 night suite at a top tier Intercontinental, after 20 Holiday Inn Express nights, is a really great perk.
I’m disappointed by the choices at the 80, 90, and 100 night levels. Members can choose just 10,000 points (worth perhaps $50) or (5) 20 food and beverage vouchers. I’d much prefer to see another confirmed suite upgrade as a choice at each of these tiers the way Hyatt offers.
Confirmed Suite Upgrade Details
Elite choice benefits allow you to select suite upgrades valid for up to 5 nights each that can be confirmed 14 days prior to check-in. What’s great is that “any room that is classified as an entry level suite is available as long as that suite is being sold for a paid night” according to IHG’s Senior VP.
These can be used for “an entry-level suite” although some properties “with limited number of suites” have special dispensation to offer a “premium room” for this benefit instead.
These upgrades are valid 12 months from date of selection. Since you have 90 days from achieving a milestone night level, you may want to wait and set a calendar reminder to make your choice right before the deadline in order to maximize validity if you don’t have an immediate use.
Unfortunately these upgrades can only be used on paid rates (“e.g., Best Flexible, Member Discount, Government, and select Corporate and package rates”) and not on advance purchase rates, third party-paid stays or award stays. To redeem you need to phone IHG reservations. They cannot be transferred to upgrade someone else.
If you cancel a stay where a suite upgrade is applied and meet the reservation’s cancellation deadline you will have the suite upgrade redeposited. That will not, however, extend the suite upgrade (the original expiration applies, not 12 months from redeposit).
Hotels do have an ‘out’ to declare extraordinary demand special events that exempt them from the inventory requirement for confirmed suite upgrades. And they can’t be used at avid hotels, Atwell Suites, IHG Army Hotels, Holiday Inn Club Vacations, InterContinental Alliance Resorts (Las Vegas and Macau) and Six Senses Hotels Resort Spas.
Only Hyatt has a better upgrade benefit for elites than IHG, and IHG starts to offer this benefit at just 20 nights.
Elite Breakfast Details
Hot breakfast for Diamond members is available as a Check-in amenity choice benefit at full service brands, but excludes partner brands like Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Venetian/Palazzo, and timeshares. But it isn’t a continental breakfast, it’s either full breakfast buffet or a hot entree selection.
It’s available at Six Senses, REGENT, InterContinental, Hualuxe, Hotel Indigo, voco, Crowne Plaza, Even, Holiday Inn,
and “select” Kimpton properties (Update: this exclusion has been removed from the program terms), per the program terms “includes one main menu item with unlimited non-alcoholic beverages or full buffet with unlimited non-alcoholic beverages per person.”
Bear in mind that you can’t use digital check-in if you want breakfast, because digital check-in defaults to points as welcome amenity.
You can redeem a choice benefit for club lounge ‘membership’ and this provides club access for the elite member and one guest during a stay for the calendar year they choose it in and for the following year. The member’s ‘+1’ guest does not need to be staying at the hotel.
Some club levels provide benefits like pressing or airport transfers. Club membership does not provide these services – just food and amenities offered inside the lounge itself.
Unfortunately lounge access is only available on ‘qualifying stays’ and that excludes award nights. IHG guidance has always been that “A qualifying room rate is a rate that is eligible for IHG® Rewards Club points or airline miles. A non–qualifying room rate is not eligible for either.” And reward nights have been non-qualifying.
The IHG program has, for years, had a real problem excluding elite benefits on award nights, and this appears to be a vestige of that. (I surmise they ran into an issue where the program wasn’t willing to compensate hotels more on award nights to cover this benefit.)
Update: IHG One Rewards tells me, “Confirming that if a member selects Club Lounge access, they can use lounge access on any stay, assuming they book directly through IHG. This is true, even on an reward night.” IHG will be updating its terms to make this clear.
That is – not – what the terms suggest, though, and I’ve let them know the benefit terms need to be updated. Terms matter when you’re looking for hotels to comply with benefits, or complaining afterwards that they haven’t done so.
How Elite Food & Beverage Credits Work
Food and Beverage milestone awards are each valid for up to $20 off during a stay. Choosing (5) food and beverage awards at the 40 night level and beyond provides up to $100 in on-property value. In general this will be worth more than points if you can maximize it (a $20 voucher used against a $15 charge doesn’t provide change, and each voucher expires if unused after 12 months). These are awarded in the member’s local currency as:
- USD $20
- GBP £15
- EUR €15
- CNY ¥125
- JPY ¥2000
- SAR 70
Everyone else receives a US Dollar voucher. Regardless of currency, the voucher gets converted to the hotel’s local currency at time of redemption.
There is no limit to the number of Food & Beverage vouchers that can be used at once, except that these cannot be used at Holiday Inn Club Vacations or partner brands like Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Venetian/Palazzo. They also cannot be used in marketplaces. Points are only earned on remaining balances after vouchers are applied.
IHG is promoting late check-out as a benefit for all program members, regardless of status, though Ms. Balsley tells me availability is supposed to be prioritized based on tier status. However late check-out is,
- Only until 2 p.m., while Hyatt and Marriott offer 4 p.m.
- Based on availability, not guaranteed, while it’s guaranteed at Hyatt and Marriott
I view 2 p.m. late checkout if available for general members as a nice perk. But this is simply not competitive for elites, and a gap because it’s not something that can be relied upon.
Finally Serious Benefits At Intercontinental And Kimpton Hotels
IHG maintains a separate Ambassador program for Intercontinental hotels, a legacy decision to keep that paid program because it offered real perks for guests who stayed at what was then IHG’s premium chain. However now that IHG’s main program offers the possibility of upgrades, including suite upgrades and club lounge access at Intercontinental hotels, the usefulness of the Ambassador program is far more limited – although it does still have unique and differentiated benefits like guaranteed late check-out and free minibar for Royal Ambassador (top elite) members.
Similarly Kimpton maintains its top elite level to offer better treatment despite merging the rest of the Inner Circle program into IHG’s main program. But that too seems less necessary now that there are better treatment elements in the main program.
Notably the benefits of these separate programs don’t stack, confirmed suite upgrades can’t be applied on top of guaranteed upgrades from the Ambassador and Inner Circle programs.
The major upside here is that someone can now stay across IHG brands, accumulate elite nights and earn points, and receive elite treatment at Intercontinentals and Kimptons as well.
What This Means For The IHG Credit Cards
The IHG® Rewards Premier Credit Card is much improved, and is offering 140,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. (Offer expired)
It comes not just with a Reward Night after each account anniversary year at eligible IHG hotels worldwide valid on nights that cost up to 40,000 points but also now a top off option so you aren’t so restricted where you spend the night. (There’s no top-off cap, in contrast to Marriott.) And it offers a fourth night free on redemption stays, better than Marriott and Hilton 5th night free on redemptions.
It’s also got improved earn: 10 points per dollar, plus you earn 10 points as a base member of the program and 6 bonus points as a Platinum (status comes with the card) so that means you can earn 26 points per dollar on IHG hotel spend. You also earn 5 points per $1 spent on purchases on travel, gas stations, and restaurants.
The card comes with Platinum status, and you can earn IHG’s new top tier Diamond status after $40,000 spend on the card in a calendar year. However spend on the card doesn’t come with elite nights so doesn’t help you earn club lounge or confirmed suites.
Also new are $25 United Travel Bank funds twice a year to spend; Global Entry, TSA PreCheck® or NEXUS Statement Credit of up to $100 every 4 years as reimbursement for the application fee charged to your card as well; and 10,000 bonus points and a $100 statement credit after $20,000 spend on the card in a calendar year
The new IHG® Rewards Premier Business Credit Card offers similar perks as well. With new elite benefits comes benefit cards as part of this program refresh. Nonetheless I’d like to see the cards offer the ability to earn elite nights for spend, not just status.
How This All Cashes Out
Overall, I’m impressed. IHG went from offering very few elite benefits to potentially offering a highly competitive elite program whose published offerings likely trump Hilton’s. Whether you’ll benefit from them depends on where you stay (whether those hotels have suites worth redeeming for and club lounges) and the extent to which individual hotels deliver on the program’s promises in practice.
The lack of guaranteed late check-out is disappointing (Hilton doesn’t offer it either) but offering Diamonds hot breakfast is great, something only Hyatt promises.
Excluding club lounge access on award stays is a huge disadvantage from a member perspective – their reward for loyalty is a free stay where they receive worse treatment. (Update: IHG is updating its terms so that lounge access is clearly available on reward nights.) Confirmed suites aren’t available on award stays, either. A program needs to decide who is a valuable customer and treat them well every time they walk through the door not based on how they’re paying for a given stay. (Update: the program tells me their intention is to offer club lounge access on redemption stays, despite this not being backed up by the benefit terms.)
There’s no 24 hour check-in or Ambassador program with IHG One, like Marriott promises at the top end (though Marriott has gutted Ambassador service). There’s no Hyatt concierge and they don’t offer as many confirmed suites, or at time of booking, like World of Hyatt does.
And my general impression remains that Hilton (and Marriott and Hyatt) still offer more hotels I’m likely to stay at and want to stay at, despite IHG’s growth in the premium sector in recent years (it’s true they’re not just Holiday Inns anymore).
The open questions, then, seem to me whether the chain’s hotels work for you as a traveler and whether the promises the new program is making get delivered in practice.
But what we’re seeing so far gives IHG a competitive top tier elite program with Hilton and Marriott, that individual members will worth through for what best matches their needs. IHG certainly puts itself in contention for best elite program for the 20 night a year traveler, too. After two decades of watching them wrestle with what to do with member benefits isn’t something I ever thought I’d be in a position to say.
It’s still not as good a program for someone that just gets a credit card as Hilton’s is, and isn’t as good a program for pairing the credit card with nights in hotels for earning status as Hyatt’s or even Marriott’s is.
But for that 20 night a year traveler who can earn a 5 night confirmed suite and for the road warrior who travels to smaller towns and stays at more midscale chains IHG One Rewards looks really attractive.