Month: August 2015

The definitive ranking of hotel chain rewards programs

It doesn’t take a lot of work to be loyal to Marriott, Hilton or IHG. If you stumble into a town – any 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.

US News offers a ranking of the best hotel rewards programs. It isn’t very good. (In fairness, the attempt is better than their airline frequent flyer program rankings.)

JD Power also tries to rank hotel loyalty programs. (Here’s my strong critique of JD Power’s survey, to which JD Power offers a spirited defense in the comments.)

The key thing to understand is that different programs do different things well – to understand the value proposition of each, and pick the one whose strengths match what you value most.

  • Hyatt Gold Passport has the best elite benefits, and the best value redemptions if you like to spend your points for suites, but has a small footprint. There are only about 500 hotels in the chain.
  • Starwood Preferred Guest offers strong elite recognition and has some of the nicest hotels. The program isn’t nearly as rewarding as others for the spend you do at their properties.
  • Hilton HHonors is everywhere. They have fantastic value awards for low-end hotels, with the best hotels much more expensive. Their mid-tier Gold elite level is the best combination of easy to get and rewarding (although their Diamond level is not comparatively strong, and can be had for just $40,000 in spending each year on their credit card).
  • Club Carlson has the cheapest reward nights. The problem is that the chain is relatively small, and most of the hotels aren’t very nice. Their elite benefits aren’t competitive. Club Carlson is strongest in Europe.
  • Marriott Rewards has hotels everywhere. They’re consistent. The program doesn’t promise very much, but what it does, it delivers.
  • IHG Rewards Club is similarly ubiquitous, and offers average value but frequently runs strong promotions. It’s difficult to deliver on top elite recognition since the chain is skewed towards mid-tier brands like Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express.

Best Elite Recognition

The status recognition benefits that elite members value most are usually upgrades and club lounge access or breakfast. Here are the rankings of how each program does with those.

Suite at the Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur

Upgrades

  1. Only Hyatt lets Diamond members confirm a suite at booking from any Hyatt rate (4 times per year, up to 7 nights each time).
  2. Only Starwood promises to give Platinum members an available standard suite at check-in, if available. Starwood also lets their Platinums who stay 50 nights express priority for suite upgrades up to 10 nights a year, since members care about upgrades most when traveling on vacation with family and least on one night business stays when they’re alone.
  3. While Marriott and Hilton allow hotels to upgrade elites to suites, no hotel is required to do so.
  4. Club Carlson similarly only says that top-tier Concierge members “may be eligible for an upgrade to the next room category or to a standard suite, if available” which is pretty weak sauce.
  5. IHG Rewards Club offers upgrades which are 100% ‘determined by the hotel’ and hotels areexplicitly not required to upgrade members to suites or even ‘specialty rooms.’

“Extreme Wow Suite” at the W San Diego

If you’re not an elite, you can still use your points to get into suites.

Club Lounge or Breakfast

Hotels generally give top elites access to club lounges where breakfast and evening snacks are served.

  1. Hyatt wins as the only chain which guarantees a full (not continental) restaurant breakfast for Diamond members when no club lounge is available and for up to four guests registered to the room.
  2. Hilton gives breakfast to mid-tier members at all of their properties where breakfast is sold.
  3. Starwood lets Platinum members have continental breakfast when there’s no club lounge available.
  4. Marriott doesn’t offer breakfast at Courtyard properties or at resorts.
  5. Club Carlson gives continental breakfast for one person only to Concierge members.
  6. IHG doesn’t offer breakfast at all.

Hotels can be more generous than the loyalty program promises. No hotel breakfast I’ve experienced was more over-the-top than the St. Regis Bali. But overall Hyatt does breakfast best.

Caviar for breakfast at the St. Regis Bali

Here are nice charts showing each chain’s elite benefits in one place.

Late Checkout

Late checkout is one of the most useful benefits of elite status. Both Starwood and Hyatt offer their top elites 4 p.m. late check-out (at non-resort properties, and excluding designated convention properties and dates). Starwood even guarantees it for their mid-tier Gold members and Hyatt offers 2 p.m. checkout for their mid-tier members. Those two programs do late checkout best.

By contrast, Marriott’s late checkout benefit is subject to availability, by request on the day of departure. That’s especially weak considering it takes 75 nights to earn Platinum with Marriott, compared to 25 nights or 50 stays at each of Starwood and Hyatt.. and both Starwood and Hyatt offer guaranteed late checkout even to mid-tier elites.

Overall Elite Ranking

  1. Hyatt Gold Passport
  2. Starwood Preferred Guest
  3. Hilton HHonors
  4. Marriott Rewards
  5. Club Carlson
  6. IHG Rewards Club

Best Value for Earning Free Nights

At its most basic level, here’s what hotel programs offer as their cheapest room redemption and how much you need to spend with the chain to have enough points for it.

(For Hilton I’m assuming that you choose to earn “points and points” rather than “points and miles”.)

Of course, most of us don’t want the ‘category 1’ hotels that are also cheapest to pay for with cash (and of which there also aren’t very many). Once you get into mid-priced hotels, the kind you’ll find plenty of in major cities, you’ll find that Club Carlson gives you the most bang for your buck (plenty of Radissons in Europe are quite nice) and that Hilton, Marriott, IHG and Hyatt all offer pretty similar value.

Starwood is an outlier in that it takes the most spending at their hotels to earn enough points for free nights. Starwood points are also the most valuable, though, and offer the best transfers to airline miles by far.

Find the Chain Which Best Matches Your Needs

What matters most is which chain has the hotels that match your redemption patterns — hotels in the right places (does Hyatt or Starwood have a big enough footprint for you) and at the right quality level (do you want to stay at most Radissons, and do Marriotts offer the local character you may be looking for).

You need to determine whether or not the rest of the features of a hotel chain work for you.

  • Are you going to be an elite member?
  • Does the chain’s benefits make sense for you — Will you get suite upgrades? What about breakfast? Will the chain even honor elite benefits on reward stays (IHG doesn’t require their hotels to for most benefits)?

I like Hyatt and Starwood best. I’m a Hyatt Diamond member and a Starwood Platinum. But their footprints mean that there are plenty of small towns where they just don’t have properties. By contrast, Marriott loyalists most often tell me what they like about the chain is “no matter where I go I can earn my points” and “I get a consistent experience every time.”

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Florida sets new six-month tourism record

Florida governor Rick Scott said the state set a new record for tourism in the first half of this year, with 54.1 million visitors.

It is the highest number for any six month period, state tourism agency Visit Florida said, with a 5.8% increase in visitors from January to June.

It puts the Sunshine State firmly on track to reach 100 million visitors for the calendar year.

“We are excited to mark the first half of 2015 with our biggest second quarter ever, and we look forward to exceeding our goal of 100 million visitors to Florida this year,” said Gov. Scott.

Domestic arrivals were up 6.7% to 21.9 million while overseas tourists increased marginally to 3.9 million during the second quarter.

“Our growing tourism industry employs over 1.2 million Floridians and is helping us meet our goal of becoming the best place in the world for jobs,” Scott added at a media presentation at Miami International Airport.

Job creation in the hospitality industry state wide rose nearly 5% in the second quarter, Scott said.

Google now reads your emails, tells your calendar what your travel plans are

Gmail for business travelPhoto credit: Google

If you’re still wondering whether Google is reading your email, wonder no longer! Google, in its latest attempt to be your stalkerish personal assistant, is synchronizing its Calendar app with your email, so that when you make new plans and appointments, they’ll show up in your calendar automatically.

The stated goal of the feature is to make business travel easier. In order to accomplish this, Google pulls travel data from emails in your Gmail account, including flight itineraries, dinner reservations, movie ticket purchases, appointment confirmations and the like. In a press release, Google writes:

“The Internet has made business travel—booking flights and hotels, reserving restaurant tables, buying event tickets, and more—infinitely easier. Adding that information to a calendar, on the other hand, has remained time-consuming and tedious.”

I guess that’s true, especially if you really hate copying and pasting. If Google wants to do my administrative tasks, it’s welcome to stalk me all it wants. I’ll admit that the feature has some pretty cool functions, like logging flight numbers and check-in times, and automatically updating your calendar if any delays or cancellations occur.

If you’re not into having Google read your emails, you can disable the synchronization in settings. Even with the feature in place, you’ll be able to manually adjust privacy settings and delete any unwanted events — you know, in case you’re really really trying to pretend to forget about that one Tinder date.

The feature will not be available to Google Apps for anyone with a government email address. You know, because there are some people that even Google won’t stalk.

You can now review TSA checkpoints on Yelp

Photo by Dan Paluska

Travelers now have a designated public forum to tell the TSA how they *really* feel, and it comes in the form of Yelp.

In an excited blog post on its official site, Yelp announced a new agreement with the U.S. federal government that releases the kraken, allowing agencies — TSA included — to establish official pages on Yelp that will allow them to “read and respond to reviews, and incorporate that feedback into service improvements.” The important part here isn’t what the federal agencies can do, of course, but what we the people can do. And that’s leave reviews in a place where agencies will, supposedly, read them, rather than having to shout aimlessly into the social media abyss.

The arrangement extends far and wide, including national parks and social security offices, too.

TSA checkpoints haven’t racked up too many reviews yet, but if Yelp airport reviews are any indicator, there will be a lot of unloading happening on the TSA Yelp pages. The LAX TSA checkpoint has more than 70 reviews at the time of writing, with a two-star average. Here’s a taste of the reviews so far:

Bobi S.:

Those A**HOLES. I bought 3 bottles of very expensive wine from NAPA and had them in my suitcase wrapped up perfectly with a bunch of saran wrap and tissue paper. I got home and found my lock missing and a bottle of wine GONE with the wrappings thrown all over as well as my bottle of olive oil. JEEZ!

I DIDN’T KNOW YOU GUYS WERE SUCH POOR MOFOs that would stoop so low to STEAL A BOTTLE OF WINE AND OLIVE FROM MY BAG. AND on top of that they left me a notice saying “TO PROTECT YOU AND YOUR FELLOW PASSENGERS….” we had to check your bag.

Yeah. Protect me from over-imbibing my hundred dollar chardonnay and a bottle of olive oil?

YOU’RE DEFINITELY SAFELY PROTECTING EVERYONE DRINKING MY WINE IN THE BACK ROOM.

Matthew S.:

Throwing this out there-
My plane has never been bombed or hijacked.
I have never died from an aggressive or psychotic or extremist individual with a weapon while flying from LAX.
People rate TSA?  Dumb.  If you have the ability to rate, they probably did their job.
Know the rules, prepare yourself for the line, it’s really up to the flyers to keep the lines moving.

Chris G.:

Yes I got anal probed at TSA and everyone is either like ‘I hope he was cute’ or well I bet they didn’t stick their fingers THAT high. Seriously, I am then so grateful for decency and that my big Mexican drug baggie was high enough to be tucked behind some rectal curves. Asswipes.

Kc J.:

Got therough and to my gate in five min flat. Tip: pants without belt needed and flip flops…no jewelry (i put on my jewelry after and a change of clothes if you have a date waiting for you when you land) and use your phone as your e ticket..also pack carryons. Its jist.easier.amd quicker. Great!

Johnny N.:

The TSA at LAX is an island of mediocrity in a sea of horrendous government bureaucracy designed to trick the public into thinking they’re safe.

I’ve seen policies and basic rules broken left and right.  I’ve seen screeners on power trips over cowering unknowing passengers.  They almost managed to destroy my laptop, then laughed about it.

Turnover is high here, so you have a lot of workers who are bad because they’re not trained nor experienced.  Then you have a whole other population of screeners who are just plain bad at their jobs.

I wish I could give a 1/2 star for the federal security director (FSD) of LAX for actually emaling me and apologizing for the laptop incident.

If I could not fly out of LAX just to avoid the TSA here I would, but unfortunately LAX is one of those gateways to the world.  Best of luck to everyone.

Next week is the cheapest time to book your holiday travel — and could save you almost 20%

Photo: Skyscanner

August expenses are usually of the beach vacation, block party or back-to-school shopping variety. Thoughts of gift-giving, cooking for 20 members of your extended family, and holiday travel booking are supposed to be safely tucked away in the back of your brain. But a new study revealsthat the best time to purchase holiday airfare is much sooner than many of us may think.

The week of August 10, as in next week, is the most opportune time to buy flights during the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve holidays, according to global travel search engine,Skyscanner.

The study claims that booking Christmastime flights – that’s anything between December 20 and 28 – 19 weeks out will save you an impressive 18.7% compared to booking at other times of the year. New Year’s Eve flights booked that same August week – anything between December 27 and January 4 – will shave 14.4% off of your total costs.

While savvy Turkey Day travel won’t net you quite as significant of a savings, Thanksgiving flightsshould be purchased 15 weeks out for an average price cut of 5.4%. That timeframe coincides perfectly with the lucky week of August 10. Winner, winner, turkey dinner!

Those of you hoping to spend the next month replenishing your thirsty bank account after splurging this summer, fear not. While the savings won’t be quite as large, Skyscanner’s research highlights the weeks of August 31 and September 28 as your next best bets for booking Christmas and New Year’s travel, if you haven’t been budgeting just yet for an airfare splurge next week.

Skyscanner is doling out this advice based on analysis of 2014’s airfare pricing peaks and valleys. Data from the same period on how to avoid awkward family dinner smalltalk was unfortunately inconclusive. But when in doubt, retreat to the kids table.

Overbooked flight? Don’t take that voucher, because you could get $1,300 instead

Infographic: AirHelp

You’re sitting at your departure gate, giving the woman with three devices plugged into the charging station your best shame stare, when you hear the loudspeaker above your head crackle to life. “Our flight has been oversold,” the gate agent says, “And we are looking for volunteers to take a later flight.” You cock your head to the side, considering it. You don’t have anything but Netflix waiting for you at home and you wouldn’t mind picking up a voucher for a future flight. But if you’re thinking of peeling your thighs from that vinyl seat and walking to the counter – DON’T.AirHelp, a startup that helps inconvenienced passengers receive compensation from the airlines, says you could do so much better.

The airlines do sell more tickets (typically just about 1% more)  than they have actual seats, because they assume that a certain percentage of passengers will not show up for the flight. But, as a number of frustrated EasyJet passengers have discovered this summer, those calculations aren’t always accurate. According to AirHelp, the airlines’ load factors – the number of seats that are filled – have been steadily increasing by a percentage point or two every year, which adds up to an increase in the number of passengers who get bumped from their booked flights. In the first three months of this year, 143,000 passengers on U.S. airlines were denied boarding due to oversold flights, an increase of 6.3% over the same period last year.

Infographic: AirHelp

AirHelp reminds us that becoming a frequent flier or holding elite status on an airline makes you less likely to be booted from a flight, but what do you do if you’re just a low-level schlub with a window seat? You don’t volunteer for a later flight and you ignore that offer for a flight voucher and hold out for real cash instead. That voucher might be worth between $200 – $400, on average, to put toward a future flight. But if you are involuntarily denied boarding on flights within the U.S., Airhelp will help you collect up to $1,300 for your trouble (for a cut of the money, of course), as well as a full refund for the cost of your confirmed flight.

Before you start planning how to arrange all that cash for an Instagram picture, realize that there are a few exceptions to that rule. If the flight you’re placed on lands within an hour of your original flight, if you “fail to comply with ticketing, check-in or reconfirmation procedures,” if your aircraft was swapped for one with a smaller capacity or if you’ve been bumped due to weight restrictions on a plane with fewer than 60 seats, then you’re not entitled to that cash payout.

Infographic: AirHelp

At least that’ll give you another reason to snarl at the woman hogging the charging station. Meanwhile, here are a few other ways to get paid if your flight is delayed or canceled.

Saudi king cuts short holiday after beach closure upset

Saudi King Salman has cut short a holiday on the French Riviera where the closure of a beach for his security caused widespread upset.

After only eight days of what was planned as a three-week stay, the king flew on to Morocco, officials said.

With him were at least half of his 1,000-strong entourage, regional official Philippe Castanet added.

He told AFP news agency that the beach would reopen to the public this morning.

More than 100,000 people signed a petition against the closure of the public Mirandole beach at Vallauris which French officials had agreed to seal off for the monarch’s security.

A Saudi source quoted by Reuters said the king’s departure was part of his holiday programme and not connected to the media coverage the visit had attracted.