On the surface it appears they have a reasonable approach:
- How much do you have to spend to get a free room?
- What else can you do with your points and how well do they treat frequent guests?
- Is the program offering you rooms everywhere you want to be, and at your desired price point?
Unfortunately they don’t put this together in a useful way. Their results are almost self-refuting. It’s interesting to see where they went wrong.
First the results.
Beyond the top five:
- 6. Leaders Club
7. La Quinta Returns
8. Starwood Preferred Guest
9. Hilton HHonors
10. Hyatt Gold Passport
11. Choice Privileges
12. Stash Hotel Rewards
13. OMNI Select Guest
14. Kimpton Karma Rewards
15. Le Club Accorhotels
16. Fairmont Presidents Club
18. Loew’s YouFirst
They Appear to Do a Decent Job Ranking Programs on Spend for Free Nights
The single biggest factor is simple — the return you get in free nights for money spent with the chain.
They take a simple and somewhat reasonable approach, although it’s a limited one that misses a lot of nuance in value that the programs offers.
Each program is awarded a score of 1 through 5 based on the average number of paid nights members must accumulate to earn a free night in each of the 20 destinations referenced in the Geographic Coverage score. Because hotel rates change frequently and vary by travel date, all research for this scoring category is conducted on the same day for the same travel dates — arriving Saturday and departing Sunday four weeks from the research date. We calculate the average number of paid nights required to earn a free night in each destination based on the average price in points of a one-night stay. (Programs that do not allow members to earn free nights receive a score of 0.)
They look at 20 markets only, and hotel chains that happen to have hotels which are pricing expensively on the given day searched (potentially because of a special event unique to the hotel or chain) and thus appear to be a strong value on the redemption side when rooms are available as awards are going to skew well under this rubric.
The survey also ignores that different chains offer different levels of value at the cheapest hotels versus at the higher end and also that this value will change based on the length of stay (for instance because of multi-night stay discounts).
Starwood is generally weak for earning based on money spent at their hotel properties, although this begins to correct itself for elites and especially for those saying the most during a year because of generous elite bonuses.
Hilton and Club Carlson are super for low-end redemptions, requiring less in-hotel spend for the lowest redemption categories than anyone else. Hilton starts to get downright stingy when it comes to redeeming at their best properties… but not nearly as bad as Starwood which will charge double the points for their best hotels where all rooms are suites, even though the hotels are as expensive as they are in the first place because of the unique character of the rooms (double-penalizing members).
On the other hand Starwood probably has the most really nice properties that are truly worth staying at when you’re not paying.
I’ve actually done a deep dive looking at the value different programs offer based on how you want to redeem your points, and I’ve also run the numbers for those with elite status and I think that approach works better.
They Begin to Muck Things Up When They Dig Deeper Into the Programs
25% of the ranking is based on “additional benefits” — the ability to use points for things other than hotel stays (which tend not to offer much value, but we’ll get to that in a moment), point expiration policies, and elite benefits.
They also look at “whether points can be earned for flights and credit card purchases and used to cover room upgrades and additional amenities and services.”
In other words they look at whether these features, like Starwood’s “Crossover Rewards” (earn Starpoints for buying Delta tickets) exist not the value these features offer. They ask whether it’s possible to use points for a better room, they don’t compare the value each program offers when you spend points to do so. Hyatt is by far the best for confirmed upgrades with points with Starwood a distant second.
Similarly, when you can burn points for in-hotel activities that’s a plus even though that’s rarely offered as a reasonable value (you’d almost always be better off burning points for a stay you would’ve paid for and pocketing that money instead of using your points for spa or dining where offered).
US News Gets it Backwards: Smaller Programs are Usually More Generous
It doesn’t take a lot of work to be loyal to Marriott, Hilton, or IHG. If you stumble into a 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.
That’s why it’s so strange that 30% of a hotel loyalty program’s rankings are based on the size and scale of the size.
Size does matter at a certain level, of course. You want to be able to earn and burn wherever you travel. The most frequent reason I hear Marriott Rewards members say that they prefer the chain is, more or less, “wherever I go I can earn my points.”
But if that’s the metric, then they might as well be just listing programs by size.
- Geographic Coverage (15 percent weight) This is about density in 20 key markets, not even just whether the chain has a presence.
- Number of Hotels in Network (10 percent weight) It’s not the size of the chain, it’s what you do with the rooms… or something like that, but “a program that features more than 1,000 participating hotels receives a score of 5, while a program with only 100 or fewer participating hotels earns a score of 1”
- Property Diversity (5 percent weight) Having lots of brands at different price points scores well.
Much of the ranking boils down to “big programs good” and “small chains bad” with an opportunity for smaller programs to crawl up to the middle rankings when they provide superior value.
Making Sense of the Results Under This Scoring
Marriott, Wyndham, Best Western, and IHG Rewards Club are everywhere. They all offer reasonable redemption value, though Wyndham’s new flat rate redemptions mean most of their hotels require way too much spend for the value received (it’s only useful for their best properties).
It’s very strange that Hilton doesn’t perform as well as Marriott and IHG here, they’re ubiquitous and actually offer better value for redemptions at the low end. (Their elite options are far better than IHG’s.)
Club Carlson no doubt does well on the spend for redemption metric, in the cities they’re pinpointing — well enough to make up for a more limited scope overall.
Starwood and Hyatt are great programs, great enough to make up for their limited size handicap in this survey, although US News isn’t sufficiently weighting the value of their elite treatment (versus stating such treatment exists).
On the other hand, Le Club Accorhotels is a large program.. which likely suffers based on poor rebate value in the survey.
And small programs like Fairmont, Loews, and OMNI? Haven’t a chance under this scoring.