What Hotel Program is the Most Rewarding for Your Nights? The Answer May Shock You.

It’s been a year and a half since I looked at which hotel programs give you the most bang for your buck.

Since that analysis some programs have increased the number of points required for room nights (adjusted their award categories), and others have moved hotels around in a significant way (category creep).

And hotel price increases haven’t been uniform, so the results of which programs are most rewarding for your in-hotel spend have changed.

For this post, I ran some numbers for the base programs. I wanted to see what kind of return per dollar spent you get in the form of free nights from each of the chains using the earning tables for a general member.

  • What hotel program offers a free night after the least amount of spending?
  • What hotel program will let you redeem a free night in a big city after the smallest investment?
  • What hotel program will let you access its most expensive, most aspirational hotels for the least amount of spending?

Keep reading to see which hotel programs turn out to be the most — and least — rewarding for your travel dollar.

For this purpose I ignore factors that are very important for some travelers — elite bonuses, elite check-in amenity points, and other promotions. I’m looking at the most common base-level earning (ignoring that some hotel chains award fewer points for their limited-service brands, say 5 points instead of 10 points per dollar).

And for Hilton HHonors I assume a choice of ‘points and points’ earning style (so you earn the most points possible for your in-hotel spending, rather than “double dipping” and earning some airline miles and some points for stays).

I also ignore ‘point saver’ and ‘cash and points’ awards — I’m just looking at the basic reward chart.

These various assumptions do matter, for instance with IHG Rewards Club there are often bonuses that members who are paying close attention can sign up for and even stack on top of each other that makes the program much more rewarding (when the chain doesn’t shut down your account). The median member is generally not aware of these.

Here’s the chart I put together, though if spreadsheets scare you then don’t feel the need to expand the graphic and dive into the numbers. I will explain what I found.



(Click to enlarge)

Notes:

    * Assumes Points + Points earning style
    ** Assumes high season where applicable
    *** Assumes base-level room; excludes premium room awards; for Marriott excludes Ritz-Carlton reward nights; does not account for SPG hotels that charge 70,000 points

Here’s what I learned…

Most hotel chains offer a free night after about $1000 in spending, ignoring bonuses and special redemption discounts.

Hilton is actually the cheapest for the lowest redemption category; a free night can come as quickly as spending $333. You may not want this free night, it may not match your travel patterns or goals. But it’s true that Hilton offers a free night that exists for less spending than any other chain.

Hilton is also generous at for an average hotel. They used to be super-generous, and their devaluation hit hard. But others devaluation, too. And Hilton is expensive at the top end. It’s a reasonable earning and redemption program, still, even if it no longer inspires me.

Most programs offer free night redemptions at a median big city hotel, a redemption in a place like Chicago or Boston, after ~ $3500 in spending. Starwood is more expensive — their ‘category 5′ (high season), my proxy for a big city hotel, takes $8000 worth of hotel spend to earn a free night.

Starwood has always been the least generous about rewarding in-hotel spend. Their elite program is one of the best and their credit card has been one of the most lucrative for both free hotel stays and for transferring points to airline miles for at least a decade. And they also offer a very strong elite earning bonus. But base-level earn in the program is rough.

Hyatt has been about the most generous program before their award chart devaluation. They take a big hit in the analysis here. Overall they only devalued 4%, but the devaluation was focused entirely at the top end, their most expensive redemptions and those big city hotels that I’m looking at. So they don’t fare well.

Marriott Rewards, despite continued category creep, remains a valuable earn-and-burn program for base members. There aren’t a lot of hotels I actually want to stay at for my vacations, though.

IHG Rewards comes out a fairly average program.

Club Carlson is super generous. They’ve even tweaked their program some and they remain, in the immortal words of Hilton’s Jeff Diskin, over-indexed.

There aren’t a ton of Club Carlson properties I want to stay at. In the U.S. the quality of the brand isn’t strong. They’re better in Europe, though wherever there’s a Club Carlson hotel I might choose there’s usually some place I want to stay more.

Still, the Club Carlson Visa lets U.S. members double the value of their points on two night award stays since second night is free for co-brand credit card holders. And that value isn’t even captured in this analysis.

Conclusion

Several factors go into choosing a hotel program — whether the chain has hotels in the places you travel, whether those hotels match your price point, how lucrative the loyalty program is in return for your spending, and how well the chain treats you during your stays (which is partly a function of elite programs).

Here I’m looking only at the value of the points earned for your spending, and only at the base earning level (so excluding elite bonuses). I’ll look in an upcoming post at how elite bonuses change the equation.

Overall, considering the quality of properties and the value of points plus elite benefits, I consider Hyatt Gold Passport the best progam all-around followed by Starwood Preferred Guest. Their hotels aren’t everywhere, and so I choose Hilton as a ‘backup’ program.

But if the key value proposition for you is rebates for your spend, then Club Carlson is really tough to beat.


About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Find out what Rhianna did on her vacation with Coldplay’s Chris Martin! Her outfit will shock you.

  2. Helpful, but one small point. Couldn’t top tier in Marriott actually be the Ritz Carlton properties?

  3. For travelling to Scandinavia, Club Carlson + their VISA is AMAZING. The Radisson Blu is the high end property in most Scandinavian cities and they are everywhere. With the free night bonus you can save a ton compared to cash price, which is always ridiculous in Scandinavia.

  4. Thanks for the updated analysis. However, I think the analysis for Marriott is somewhat flawed as your analysis tops out for Marriott at the 45k point per night category and does not include any of the Ritz Carlton property awards for which you can use the Marriott points. Those awards can be as high as 70k points per night. If you included that in the analysis, Marriott would look a lot less generous in the group and more comparable to Hilton for high end redemptions.

  5. I guess I agree with the readers above, I consider Ritz equivalent to St Regis and Conrad etc, Marriott may make a distinction and claim its a separate chain, but I’m guessing your average reader is not looking to book the Marriott Des Moines on points. Also cash and points can offer some real value for the chains that offer it, like Hilton, Starwood and Hyatt. I don’t consider what Marriott offers to be of any comparable value so that’s another demerit for them.

  6. Hi Gary,

    Thanks for a post that doesn’t focus purely on high-end aspirational awards. (I’m not say you focus on that, but your competition certainly does.)

    I’ve got an upcoming trip to OZ (outbound in SQ suites, return on QF F on the A380!) and while the flights are certainly going to be nice, I’m traveling to parts of Australia that aren’t flooded with chain hotels.

    So for me, the hotel stays are about the practicality (yes, I may find myself at the Holiday Inn Cairns) of it, and less about the aspiration. That sometimes means mid to low tiers.

    I’m staying at the Radisson in Syndey. I get your point on how I might *want* to stay at better properties, but this one certainly isn’t bad, and I happen to be flush with CC points at the moment.

  7. This over analytical articles just beg programs that you deem over generous to make negative changes. And this has happened time and time again as to the airline programs. No one ever changes their programs pursuant to your suggested weaknesses. Maybe except the silly I want respect and advance notice of devaluations. These analytical pieces are a real disservice as result in negative changes. You like Hyatt the best but don’t make suggestions that they are too generous. Yet that is your true feelings as you use them as a preference. This article just seems bad as to neg results we might see from Club Carlson now and do not match how you personally value these programs…so analysis is so flawed. I think you should rank Hyatt most generous and tell everyone how they are too generous and what they need to devalue to be in line with the other hotels.

  8. @Dan I’ll be at the Sheraton in Port Douglas and it’s hardly aspirational or even that conveniently located but I can redeem points and not spend cash..

  9. Re Ritz-Carlton there’s a lot that goes into this and for today’s post thought I would abstract away from some of the outliers, watch what happens with Starwood category 7 properties that are all suite hotels for instance..

  10. Gary,

    Could you do an analysis of reward night generosity based on spending for each chain’s credit card? When I stay at a hotel I generally don’t spend anything there because I’m on points, but I also own a credit card for each chain and often wonder which one is best for cashing in based on my everyday spending

  11. @Nick – Funny you mention the Marriott DSM, I actually did redeem for a points night there just last week.

  12. Agree with JLSocks. I mostly agree with Gary too when you consider elite perks + points except that Marriott easily ranks ahead of Hilton if you plan to use your points at high end properties (which from what I can tell are the places Gary uses his points). I never use points at low/mid range – happy to pay $100/nt and get stay credit. Marriott is 40-50k at top properties plus 25% disc on 5 night stays. After great deval Hilton is 95k if you can even find a normal room. YMMV but IMO Marriott has much nicer city properties and resorts than Hilton. Game over.

  13. Thank you for your thorough analysis. The Hyatt program has been a huge benefit to us. There always seems to be one where we want (with the exception of Carmel Valley, not a fan of the Highlands Inn). I’m really looking forward to staying in Hyatts when we visit Asia next summer.

  14. Another reason hilton is better, you can use points and cash. A $150 a night hotel can be booked for $50 and 12,000 points or sometimes 8,000 instead of 30k a night.

  15. I second Bo’s request. This analysis is helpful, but for those of us who travel only recreationally, and amass most of our points by cc spend (and bonuses), which card should we be using? Thanks!

  16. Any guesses for what the winner of the credit card analysis will be? I think you’d have to ignore spending at the hotel properties for an everyday spending fair analysis since those rates can vary widely. I’m going with Starwood for everyday spending. I’ve been a long time Hilton loyalist but recently switched over to the Starwood AMEX and couldn’t be happier with the value I just got booking my first SPG vacation at the Westin in St. John!

  17. A few chains are missing… I’d love to see the same analysis but include Choice Hotels, Best Western, LaQuinta. I realized that these aren’t higher-end chains, but… those of us that often need safe modern lodging at an affordable price are also interested in where the easiest free nights can be obtained.

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