These aren’t all the pluses and minuses of each, but they’re the major drivers of value for a traveler who shares similar perspectives with me — an elite member who wants to use their points at the best and best value properties when vacationing on my own account.

I’ve ordered them from best to worst according to my own subjective scale. Small but important items like 4pm late checkout likely feed into that scale, but don’t warrant bullets on their own.

Hyatt Gold Passport

The Good:

  • Confirmed suite upgrades. This to me is the killer app, the feature that makes the Gold Passport program tops of any major hotel chain. Four times a year, Diamond members can reserve suites (for up to 7 nights at a time) from the lowest rate, confirmed at booking. No hassles or negotiating at check-in. Starwood offers suite upgrades, Hyatt confirms them.

  • Aspirational properties. Not as many as Starwood, but a bunch of top-shelf properties that I actually look forward to staying at, including most Park Hyatt hotels and also Grand Hyatts in Asia.

  • Breakfast. When there’s no club lounge, Diamonds get restaurant (and in some hotels, room service) breakfast. When a club lounge exists but is closed, Diamonds also get bonus points.

The not-so-good:

  • Not enough partners. So with the elimination of property-specific (“G”) bonuses, and without a repeat of long-standing promos like Faster Free Nights, earning in the program can be difficult. They’ve only recently introduced a co-branded credit card. But they have no rental car or shopping partners, and you can’t transfer points in from airlines. The problem is exacerbated because unlike Starwood, Priority Club, and Hilton there are no ‘cash and points’ awards to stretch your points further, though that’s a feature which may be introduced sooner than later.

  • Not enough hotels. They’re rounding the bend towards 500, but that’s only half the hotels of Starwood Preferred Guest, which is itself a much smaller program than Marriott, Hilton, and Priority Club.

  • Portico White Ginger bath amenities. Seriously, I couldn’t detest the stuff more, although in fairness the soap does lather. Fortunately they’re expected to get rid of this stuff.

Starwood Preferred Guest

The Good:

  • Platinums get upgrades to standard suites at check-in, if available

  • Chain has some of the very best aspirational properties, so there are places actually worth staying at.

  • Starwood Preferred Guest American Express is an outstanding credit card. Points transfer to most airlines (not good for United/Continental), and they even give you 5000 bonus miles for each 20,000 miles transferred. That means you effectively earn 1.25 miles per dollar with most airlines, you pick later. (Disclosure: I’ve been recommending this card for years, but since a few weeks ago if you use my link to apply for the card I do receive referral credit.)

The not-so-good:

  • Awards at the best properties are very expensive. “All suite” hotels may be in the top category because their room rates are expensive, but then because the rooms are suites they charge you double points as well.

  • Upgrades vary tremendously by property. There’s no guaranteed breakfast benefit for top elites like at Hyatt and Hilton, so for properties without a club lounge and where you don’t get upgraded there’s going to be no meaningful elite status recognition.

Intercontinental Royal Ambassador

The Good:

  • Not just 4pm late checkout for Royal Ambassador members, but unique among chains they offer top elites 8am check-in. Great for early European arrivals especially.
  • Minibar. Royal Ambassadors get free drinks from the minibar. It’s a ‘wow’ factor. The first few times you may hit it pretty hard, but after awhile it’s just nice to have a bottle or water or a juice..
  • The very best upgrades. Every hotel is different, it’s totally inconsistent, and the best strategy is to communicate in advance with a hotel especially to figure out exactly what they’ll upgrade you to based on the room you book — since many hotels do a ‘two-category’ upgrade from your paid room. I’ve used this to my advantage to secure Ambassador suites, Diplomatic suites, and even Presidential suites — not just the ‘standard’ suites that Starwood Preferred Guest (based on availability) and Hyatt (when confirmed in advance) promise.

The not-so-good:

  • Almost no benefits on award stays. Some hotels honor benefits anyway, many do not, and they aren’t required to. The Intercontinental Hong Kong, the Willard in Washington DC, and the Intercontinental Los Angeles are good examples. On a recent Willard check-in I was told “we follow the terms and conditions of the program” which meant no upgrade and no minibar, not even the complimentary pay per view movie that’s given to regular Ambassador members.
  • Not enough hotels. The program is great at those Intercontinental properties which treat members well, but the Royal Ambassador treatment doesn’t extend to other hotel brands owned by the same company. Instead they offer Priority Club Platinum which is exceptionally weak (see below).

Hilton HHonors

The Good:

  • Great top-end award values. Starwood has great properties and charges an astronomical premium for the very best ones. Hilton has fewer truly great hotels, but the Conrads in the Maldives, Koh Samui and Sanya and their properties in Bora Bora and similar are much more in reach for reward redemption.
  • Can make Diamond status based on credit card spend. Just $40,000 in a year on the Hilton Surpass American Express gets you there.
  • Decent mid-tier elite level. Gold status in HHonors gets you as much as Diamond does at most hotels, you avoid the worst room in the house and you’ll get something for breakfast.

The not-so-good:

  • No suite upgrades. Diamond isn’t much better than Gold. There is no suite upgrade benefit in HHonors. Not confirmed, or at check-in based on availability.
  • For a chain their size, too few aspirational properties. Once you get past the list of top-end award values, they’re surprisingly thin on luxury vacation destinations.

Marriott Rewards

The Good:

  • Lots of hotels. They are everywhere.
  • Consistency. To me that’s less of a selling point, I like variety, but whenever I hear Marriott mentioned it’s almost always with ‘consistency’ in the same sentence.

The not-so-good:

  • No suite upgrades. The terms and conditions used to be silent on this point and then six or so years back they even explicitly wrote an exclusion for suites into their terms and conditions.
  • Lots of devaluations. Travel packages in particular have gotten much less valuable. They recently eliminated all-inclusive rewards with no notice whatsoever.

Priority Club

The Good:

  • Lots of hotels. Seriously, Priority Club is everywhere. You may not want to stay at every Holiday Inn in the world, but the chain is broad-based.
  • Cash and points always available. Hilton and Starwood offer a capacity-controlled option. Priority Club just builds in a discounted points purchase option usable in conjunction with award redemption as their mechanism for offering cash and points. The program isn’t paying the hotel any less on these reward nights, so the cash and points awards are always available. (And since it’s a discounted points purchase, and those points are redeposited in your account when you cancel an award, many members use this to buy points at $0.006 apiece in virtually unlimited quantities.)
  • PointBreaks. Discounted reward nights at just 5000 points, there aren’t as many top-shelf properties participating as when the option was first introduced but it’s a great value. Combined with discounted points purchase, if your stays overlap with a PointBreaks offer you can ‘buy’ reward nights for just $30.

The not-so-good:

  • No meaningful benefits on award stays according to the terms and conditions of the program.
  • Platinum is an almost meaningless elite level, except at some international Crowne Plaza hotels.
  • No premium room redemption option. The other chains on this list will let you spend more points for a better room, but not Priority Club (which is also the points program for Intercontinental hotel properties). That’s especially a problem because the program doesn’t include an upgrade benefit when staying on points. That makes award guests truly bottom of the barrel, even when those guests are top elites.

Agree/disagree with this assessment?

  1. NYBanker said,

    Very comprehensive post.

  2. BP888 said,

    Spot on.

  3. Swag said,

    One facet missing from the above analysis is a discussion of award availability. For example, Marriott may not have blackout dates anymore, but they do have dates with capacity controls on award rooms, which can make it hard to book award rooms during peak periods. Starwood offers true last-standard-room availability. I’d like to see you discuss this for the other chains as well, and how this does (or doesn’t) affect your rankings.

  4. PC supporter said,

    I think a good point in Priority Club’s favor is its Chase credit card remains one of the easiest cards for a points/miles collector to acquire and hold on to for many years, despite the annual fee.
    The fee is something like $49 in year 2, pretty darn low compared to annual fees on similar cards, and you receive a free night stay voucher at the beginning of each year for ANY hotel company-wide, which easily covers the cost of that annual fee.
    Those who pursue and churn cards will often take a credit score hit when closing a card to avoid the annual fee. I think the PC card is a very easy one to acquire and hold. Plus, with the card you get Platinum level membership, which does offer early check in and late check out. Is that benefit offered so easily in these other programs?

  5. mark said,

    Great post. I would just reiterate the disappointing Hyatt’s footprint. I love that program but just can’t commit until they get more properties. Not one property in Amsterdam!?! (I know one is coming, but c’mon already.)

  6. Snoops said,

    A good post Gary and I’d agree with you from a broad basis. With regards to Hilton, I’d argue that upgrades (a bit like Starwood) are dependent upon where you are in the world.

    As a HHonors Diamond I’ve had some great upgrades, including suites. They are not part of the program, but they certainly are available even when lesser rooms for upgrade may be there.

  7. Dan in STL said,

    Good post. My wife and I are mainly active in Priority Club because they have many hotels where we travel on business to earn the points and they have hotels nearly everywhere on the planet to redeem the points for free stays. Also the points needed per room value is very good. If Hyatt had more locations and had many more Hyatt Place locations I would switch to them in a heartbeat simply because I like the hotels better. Worst things about Priority Club and Marriott is the points earned on certain chains like Staybridge and Residence Inn are discounted so it just makes me not want to stay there. We also hate the fact that you can’t chose to burn more points for a upgraded room.

  8. travel656 said,

    Great post. As an RA I find it annoying to have to call the hotel in advance to discuss the upgrade, but I believe my last two stays would have been better if I had done so. I feel like RA status is designed for business travelers, and those are the people least likely to have the time to make those calls. I’m not asking for rose petals on the bed, but how about not checking me into a smoking room. The other downside to IHG is that, if there is no IC property in town, I might as well switch to another chain. CP and HI are a huge step down from the average IC hotel, and PC Platinum is a joke. But the best IC hotels are so fantastic that I keep hanging on. I’ll be adding Starwood stays to my plans in 2012 to cover the cities without IC properties.

  9. marc said,

    How about Wyndham? Definitely not the best hotels, but the biggest program..

  10. gpapadop said,

    Maybe Carlson can crack open this list going forward? Do Radisson Blu hotels meet your high standards at all? :-)

  11. Randall Kahn said,

    Excellent review!

    Thanks

  12. shawn said,

    @marc, gpapadop
    I’m also interested in the reviews of Wyndham and Carlson

  13. theblakefish said,

    I can’t believe that you do not like the Hyatt soap….I buy that stuff on my own and use it at home. Love, love, love it!!!

  14. Lark said,

    Fairmont? I recently joined President’s Club and have enjoyed my first stays. Program is unique in the they do not give you points, rather upgrade certificates, meal vouchers, etc. depending upon the number of stays. Main problem (like Hyatt only much worse): so few Fairmonts and Swisshotels out there…

    I am a Marriott Plat (just earned it again this year for 2012) and I continue to see this being my go to program. They are everywhere, and yes, they are consistent. Customer service from HQ (and at most properties) is very good.

    We rarely stay at chain hotels aspirational properties, so Marriott’s lack here is not a big deal for me. All inclusive devaluation? Not a big deal at all for me, can’t imagine ever using this before or after the devaluation.

    90% of the time, I am travelling alone so do not care about suite upgrades. Comfortable King size bed is all I need.

    I value Marriott points, and have consistently been able to use them for properties when and where I want. Best value so far: 5 nights at Marriott Circular Quay in Sydney over New Years Eve. 120,000 points for 5 nights for what would have been a $3,500.00 stay (plus the obnoxious Australia 1.5% added to credit card spend…)

    I am kicking the tires on Hyatt (too few locations) and Hilton, with Platinum and Gold status respectively. Hyatt’s are very nice in general. Hilton’s so far good as well.

    There is a comfort factor and familarity with Marriott though that will be hard for other brands to overcome…

    Thanks for the insightful post Gary!

    Lark

  15. YourFoodSherpa said,

    Two quick things that I like (one each from Marriott and Hyatt) that don’t come up frequently, but when they do, I am happy.

    For Marriott…I like that they put a dollar value on delivering their elite member benefits. They don’t have your guaranteed bed type? Cash money. Didn’t deliver a welcome amenity? Cash money. Walked you to another property? Cash money. I am not after the cash, but more times than not, the hotels get it right and don’t have to pay out. Maybe that is part of the “consistency” label that they have acquired.

    For Hyatt….they will add 2,500 bonus points per stay if the lounge is closed during your stay during their regularly scheduled operational hours. Now, this does lead to a negative for Hyatt – too many of their Regency and Grand properties don’t even have a lounge, but for the ones that do, if you know which ones are closed on weekends, you can get a little bump on your points earning, and still get breakfast in their restaurant, if you choose.

  16. Steve said,

    I would have added Lifetime memberships at Marriott and Hyatt are a plus. And the lack of Lifetime status a definite negative for Hilton and Starwood.

  17. Erik said,

    I was a Hilton Diamond for many years and due to some changes in the corporate travel policy (and my destinations), I finally fell below the line to Gold last year but coincidentally gained Marriott Gold.

    For the most part, I have to say with Hilton Gold that I’m treated nearly as well as Diamond. Most of the time I get my upgrades (usually to Exec floor which includes the lounge) and the free breakfast. Granted, I don’t get the additional point % and sometimes the room upgrades aren’t as fabulous (but that can happen with Diamond too). I will probably miss the Diamond desk for booking rewards, since I did have good success with them sometimes making things happen (i.e. getting a week on points at a “sold out” Hilton on the beach in Florida during Spring Break season).

    The corporate suits pushed my stays towards Marriott and clearly their Gold is not the same as Hilton’s Gold. You have to spend more nights for less benefits, in my opinion. I don’t agree with “consistent”. The room upgrades don’t happen very often, or maybe their idea of an ‘upgrade’ is not the same as Hilton (i.e. instead of putting you in the basement you get a high floor). You don’t get breakfast benefits on the weekends because the concierge lounge is usually closed (at most hotels). If the hotel doesn’t have a lounge, it’s sometimes hit or miss whether they will give you breakfast. I do like the Megabonus promotions but the awards system, outside of the trip packages, isn’t great (I like those long-term Hilton global rewards).

    Quite frankly, I usually feel a bit “special” when staying at a Hilton property as a Gold and usually don’t have that same reaction at a Marriott.

  18. Gary said,

    @marc how is Wyndham the biggest program, by what standard? Best Western has more hotels, Marriott certainly has more members. I do like their airline mileage transfer partners though, Hainan Airlines is great for upgrades Seattle-Beijing :)

  19. roger mader said,

    I have been crossing the category and continents in search of the best program and concur that Hyatt has the best: terrific high-end with Park and Grand (particularly in Asia) PLUS the added cool factor of the new Andaz brand. Makes W feel so 20th century. Aspirational destinations are worth scheduling destinations around.

  20. Gary Steiger said,

    Priority Club: “Platinum is an almost meaningless elite level, except at some international Crowne Plaza hotels.”

    Platinum status allows you to have the best available room when you arrive at your hotel. The Jr. Suite at one of our hotels in Italy was a very nice upgrade.

  21. Gravy said,

    You are right that a big problem with Priority Club is there is no premium room redemption option. That said, I have often had success making a deal directly with the hotel general manager on an upgrade to a different room for points + dollars. Either to a nice suite for a getaway with the wife, or larger rooms when traveling with all the kids. It’s so easy to collect a ton of points with their bonus offers, and with most of my business travel to smaller cities they are often the only option in town.

  22. UAPhil said,

    Gary, I find the “exchange rate” using Starwood points for hotel stays can be extremely compelling (for some reason, many on this blog don’t seem to like it). For example, I stayed 10 nights at Westin Times Square in Manhattan for 96,000 points – would have cost $4,000 cash. That’s a value greater than 4 cents/point. Combine this with true last-standard-room availability and you have an excellent no-hassle value proposition. (As others have noted, the value proposition varies widely depending on the property and the time of year. I’ve seen posters report getting 5 to 6 cents/point; whereas the value at all suite aspirational properties can be as low as 1 cent per point. YMMV; buyer beware.)

  23. Ric Garrido said,

    Wyndham is the largest hotel loyalty program by number of hotels. Some 7,000 compared to Choice at 6,000 and Best western around 4,200. These are not exact counts but about that.

  24. Ric Garrido said,

    I’ll add some info about Wyndham Rewards and Club Carlson.

    Wyndham Rewards has the highest hotel points-to-miles exchange rate at lower levels of points transfer than any other hotel loyalty program with 10 points = 4 miles.

    Wyndham Rewards program is a fixed rate exchange and only surpassed by Marriott Rewards (125,000 points = 35,000 miles for most international airlines or 50,000 miles for most US carriers) and Club Carlson (100,000 points = 18,000 miles. Marriott and Club Carlson both have variable exchange rates where the rate improves as more points are transferred to miles. At the lowest level of points-to-miles transfers Wyndham Rewards is best rate.

    Club Carlson (Radisson) is the fastest earning program for free nights meaning the program requires the least amount of spend to earn free nights at top category hotels compared to other hotel loyalty programs.

    Club Carlson 50,000 points = $2,500 for category 6 hotel. Even less if you are elite.

    Hyatt = $4,400 for 22,000 points category 6.
    Marriott = $4,000 for 40,000 points category 8.
    HHonors = $3,334 for 50,000 points category 7.
    SPG = $15,000 for category 7 at 30,000 points.
    IHG = $4,000 for top tier InterContinental at 40,000 points.

    Elite status and promotions brings the spend cost down. Club Carlson has highest top tier elite bonus at 75%.
    Wyndham Rewards has no elite program for bonus points.

  25. Wanderer said,

    On Priority Club’s cash-and-points program, would someone please explain to me how does one “buy discounted points at $0.006 a piece in virtually unlimited quantities”? Thanks.

  26. Gary said,

    @Wanderer you book a cash and points award, which is effectively purchasing the needed points at $0.006, and then you cancel the award. You get the full points back. You’ve now purchased points at $0.006. No guarantee it’ll always work into the future that way, of course.

  27. Jonathan said,

    I’m somewhat of a newbie. I have a lot of Hilton points because I like their promotions. Once I spend a month at a property (coincidental timing for work) during their 4x points promotion. I feel to some degree locked in (I carry SPG Amex). I have not been impressed with HHonors redemption prices. It rarely seems like I can find a property somewhere I want to go for under 40k points. SPG on the other hand, I think I spent 7 or 10k in Shanghai, 3k in Orlando. I don’t mind the Four Points, or less expensive properties. I don’t need Grand Hyatt. Where are the bargains like that from other hotels?

  28. xlax said,

    Great post. How ’bout a similar nutshell on airlines. . . kind of a cheat sheet?

  29. Hilton Introducing Suite Upgrades for Diamond Members - View from the Wing said,

    […] A couple of months ago I laid out the strengths and weaknesses of each of the major hotel loyalty programs. […]

  30. JT said,

    Priority Club and IHG customer service is beyond terrible. Avoid them at all cost.

  31. Michele said,

    One of the things I liked about Priority Club (before the points required increase) is that I was able to get a $400 Times Square room for 25,000 points just as I could get a $200 Fort Walton Beach room for 25,000. I was able to figure out where I could get the best bang for my points. With HHonors, the more expensive the hotel, the more points that were required for a stay. I do like the cash and points option they both have now.

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