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.
- * 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.
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.
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