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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