Joe Brancatelli has a good summary piece explaining where we are now after most of the major chains have taken a chainsaw to their award charts.
While I’ve done deep dives like spreadsheets to tease out which hotel programs remain most rewarding for free nights, Joe’s approach is far more accessible to the casual reader.
After Marriott, Priority Club and especially Wyndham and Hilton has devalued (and to a lesser extent Starwood, as part of their usual annual adjustments), Joe explains
“There’s a certain feeling that the power has shifted” from frequent travelers to the lodging industry, one high-level hotel executive told me earlier this month. “Nightly rates are up, demand is up and we also offer more hotels in more segments in more places around the world than ever before.”
Translation: hotels think they have the hammer and needn’t be as generous in rewarding loyalty in 2013 as they were during the Great Recession. And while competition between the chains for our loyalty remains keen, hoteliers believe they can safely trim their frequent guest perks without too much blowback.
Brancatelli concludes similarly to my thinking — that right now Hyatt is the most rewarding program (in addition to being almost alone in not gutting its program this year), both for free nights and for elite benefits. But Hyatt has just 500 properties — half of Starwood even. So the geography doesn’t work for everyone.
Starwood didn’t devalue nearly as much as Marriott, Hilton, Priority Club or Wyndham. But they start off far less rewarding for in-hotel spend. The value from the chain comes from elite benefits that are in my view second only to Hyatt, and from offering by far the most valuable points earned from a hotel credit card. The Starwood Preferred Guest American Express has been one of the very most rewarding rewards cards for years, and remains so (I’ve had it for over a decade).
But as Gary Leff of the invaluable View from The Wing Blog notes, the $65-a-year Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Card is “the gold standard for earning valuable points through credit card spend.” SPG is also quite free with suite upgrades for elite guests, although the perk cannot be confirmed in advance. And SPG super-elites get to choose their check-in and check-out times in 24-hour windows.
The other chains? Several orders of magnitude less rewarding. But they’re big enough that folks need to pay attention to them still.
My advice – similar to Joe’s it would seem – is to focus on one of the most rewarding programs for your loyalty to the extent you can, and then just get the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve card which gives you Gold status just for having the card (free internet, some upgrades, free breakfast) to ensure you aren’t a nobody on those occasions you can’t stay with your preferred program.
If a wide range of lodging options almost anywhere in the world is what you need from your hotel family, then you’ve got to look first at Hilton HHonors, Marriott Rewards and Priority Club Rewards. Given the decline of HHonors, I’d suggest spending $95 for the Hilton Reserve Visa from Citibank. That will get you HHonors Gold elite status (on-premise perks like free WiFi, continental breakfast and snacks) without working for it.
Joe finally notes that Club Carlson has been pretty generous on the points earning side of things, and with their new US Bank-issued credit card. The downsides to the program are weak elite benefits and that many of their US hotel properties are subpar at best.
What we’ve seen overall is that the best hotel programs have stayed pretty good while the programs that were already less rewarding have gotten even less valuable in 2013. So the advice for approaching hotels actually remains the same as it was before — pick Hyatt (if you can) or Starwood, and supplement it with free Hilton status to fill in the coverage gaps those programs leave behind.
(Do note that links to the Starwood and Hilton credit cards in this post are my referral links, so if you are approved when applying through those I will receive a referral credit which I greatly appreciate.)