Be Our Guest: A comparison of the Top 10 Hotel Programs by traveler type and award payout. How rich is yours?

Be Our Guest: A comparison of the Top 10 Hotel Programs by traveler type and award payout.  How rich is yours?

Be Our Guest:
A comparison of the Top 10 Hotel Programs by traveler type and award payout.
How rich is yours?

No doubt you’ve seen the ads by now.
Marriott Rewards claims their members can earn awards 30-percent faster than Starwood, Hilton, InterContinental, and Hyatt hotels. Cendant TripRewards sends satisfied members leaping happily out of your TV screen. Starwood touts its program with beautiful people in beautiful places.

The leading hotel programs of the world have launched an all-out blitz for your loyalty.

We got to thinking: Ads are fine, but anyone with a calculator and a marketing degree can throw numbers around. Beneath the hype, what’s the truth? Which hotel programs offer up what riches at what levels?

Just like frequent flyer programs, hotel programs differ in their strengths. Some have better awards to the Caribbean, others to Hawaii. Still others offer the best value for free nights here in the good old continental U.S. We also know that the differences can be greatly exaggerated when linking the earn-and-burn levels with average room rates in various cities – New York is not Des Moines. And not everyone stays exclusively at one level of hotel. Our readers are a diverse group, and it’s rare to find one that stays only in full-service hotels. Any given 30 nights at Marriott will undoubtedly include a few spent at Courtyard by Marriott.

There are plenty of other potentially specious comparisons. But we thought we’d try to do a real service to the frequent traveler who wants to make an informed, objective decision about which program offers the most value for stays. We concluded that perhaps the best and fairest method would be to come up with a few representative “frequent traveler profiles” and compare the yield each could expect from each of the major programs.

We began with a total spend figure based on Average Daily Rate (ADR) figures for major business and leisure-travel destinations in the U.S. We calculated the yield in both points and miles where applicable, and instead of speculating about potential redemption options for members, we focused on earning ratios, to determine which program offered the best value in each category.

It’s probably impossible to come to an ironclad conclusion. Is a Hilton HHonors point worth more than a Marriott Rewards point? One may as well ask why sheep don’t shrink in a rainstorm. There are some mysteries we were never meant to know.

But we can come to a conclusion about which program permits you to accrue points or miles faster according to the level of hotel spend, and which programs generate the most free stays at a given level.

We did find that programs such as Marriott Rewards – programs that offer a wide variety of properties – can be tough to beat, since points earned at higher-end or standard Marriott properties can go a long way when redeemed at low end properties, such as Fairfield Inn.
On to our three traveler profiles: one is a high-spend traveler, another a moderate spender, and the third a low spender. In order to reflect the complexity of frequent travel programs, we’ve included elite-level benefits into our calculations commensurate with each profile’s hotel spend.
The reason we used “spend” as the comparison is quite simple. All programs’ award values are determined in program spend. The confusing part is that unlike airline programs, there is no standard currency value. Some earn one point per dollar spent, some two, some three; some even reward 10 points per dollar spent. But even with these differences, it’s the total number of dollars you spend that ultimately determines your award options.

No comparison of the kind presented here can therefore be perfectly accurate. Nor will our travel profiles be identical to the actual behavior of any real frequent travelers, of course. We acknowledge these limitations at the outset. Yet we hope that our comparison has harnessed enough relevant information, and that we have constructed profiles that are representative enough to provide a strong basis for an “apples-to-apples” comparison for the majority of frequent travelers.

Before we get into the comparison, let us say a word about our usage of the term “Average Daily Rate.” For the purposes of this comparison, the term ADR represents an aggregation of the average room rate in a particular city, plus a fixed quantity for additional charges (phone, laundry, etc.). Based on information from Smith Travel Research, Inc. a leading lodging industry research firm, a typical traveler spends an additional 30 percent on top of the average room rate on amenities. Therefore, for this comparison, the ADR represents total spend in one day, 70 percent of which is room rate and 30 percent of which reflects extras charged to the room. For example, if the average room rate for Chicago were $131, then the ADR would be $170.

The Profile
The low-spend traveler
The “low-spend” traveler profile is based on a total hotel-stay spend of $2,790, which represents the ADR of three large and mid-sized cities (Washington, Portland and Pittsburgh) multiplied by nineteen nights per year. We determined that this member would not annually qualify for elite status and thus have not included any elite earning bonuses.

Program $ Spent Elite Point Yield The Rewards
Best Western Gold Crown Club $2,790 None 2,790 Not enough points were earned for a top category award (Level 8).
Cendant TripRewards $2,790 None 27,900 One free night in the top category award (Tier 4) @ 16,000 points
Choice Privileges $2,790 None 27,900 One free night in the top category award (Purple) @ 25,000 points.
Hilton HHonors $2,790 None 27,900 Not enough points were earned for a top category award (Category 6). However, a single Category 6 award night was available in Point Stretcher promotional awards @ 24,000 points.
Hyatt Gold Passport $2,790 None 13,950 Not enough points were earned for a top category award (Category 4).
InterContinental Priority Club $2,790 None 27,900 Not enough points were earned for a top category award (InterContinental Hotels).
La Quinta Returns $2,790 None 27,900 Two free nights in the top category award (Tier C) @ 11,000 points per night.
Marriott Rewards $2,790 None 27,900 Not enough points were earned for a top category award (Category 7). Even with PointSaver awards, no top category awards are available.
Radisson Gold Rewards $2,790 None 19,000 Not enough points were earned for a top category award (Tier 3). In fact, not enough points were earned for a free night in any Tier category.
Starwood Preferred Guest $2,790 None 5,580 Not enough points were earned for a top category award (Category 6).

What we see
First of all, there is a slight bias in these results. Using the ADR is a good way to average the spend in certain cities; however, it tends to reward those hotel chains that may be on the lower end of the ADR, such as La Quinta, Choice Hotels, etc. With only nineteen nights at hotels in a year, chances are members can’t expect too much-and they are right. We wanted to compare if any free nights would be available to these members in the programs highest award category. As we thought, not enough points were earned in seven of the ten programs to earn a top category award. For those members in this spend profile, La Qunita at least offers up the awards, two free nights in fact. TripRewards and Choice Hotels were also in the money for a top category award offering one free night. Among the majors, Hilton HHonors stands out by offering a top category award available in their Point Stretcher promotional awards.

The Profile
The moderate-spend traveler
The “moderate-spend” traveler profile is based on an annual spend of $5,095, which reflects the ADR of Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Raleigh/Durham, multiplied by 48 nights per year. The profile assumes this member annually earns enough hotel stays to be qualified at the mid-level elite level, and appropriate bonuses were included in the comparison.

Program $ Spent Elite Point Yield The Rewards
Best Western Gold Crown Club $5,095 Diamond 5,859 Four free nights @ a Level 2 hotel (i.e., Best Western Plaza International Drive, Orlando) @ 1,200 points per night.
Cendant TripRewards $5,095 None 50,950 Five free nights @ a Tier 2 hotel (i.e., Ramada Inn International Drive, Orlando) @ 10,000 points per night.
Choice Privileges $5,095 None 50,950 Eight free nights @ a Blue level hotel (i.e., Clarion Hotel Universal International Drive, Orlando) @ 6,000 points per night.
Hilton HHonors $5,095 Gold 63,688 Two free nights @ a Category 3 hotel (i.e., Embassy Suites Hotel or Hampton Inn International Drive, Orlando) @ 25,000 points per night.
Hyatt Gold Passport $5,095 Platinum 29,296 Seven free nights @ a partner hotel (i.e., Hawthorn Suites Universal Studios, Orlando) @ 4,000 points per night or two free nights @ a Category 4 resort (i.e., Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress Resort, Orlando) at 15,000 points per night.
InterContinental Priority Club $5,095 Gold 56,045 Two free nights @ a Special Destination hotel (i.e., Holiday Inn Express International Drive, Orlando) @ 20,000 points per night or two free nights @ a Special Destinations resort (i.e., Holiday Inn Reosrt International Drive, Orlando) @ 25,000 points per night.
La Quinta Returns $5,095 Elite 66,235 Seven free nights @ a resort-style hotel (i.e., La Quinta Inn Orlando International Drive, Orlando) @ 8,000 points per night.
Marriott Rewards $5,095 Silver 33,480 One free nights @ a Category 4 hotel (i.e., Courtyard International Drive, Orlando) @ 20,000 points per night or two free nights at a Category 3 hotel (i.e., Fairfield Inn Lake Buena Vista/SpringHill Suites International Drive, Orlando) @ 28,000 points for two nights.
Radisson Gold Rewards $5,095 None 48,000 Two free nights @ a Tier 1 hotel (i.e., Radisson Barcelo Hotel International Drive, Orlando) @ 35,000 points for two weekend nights or 40,000 points for two nights during the week.
Starwood Preferred Guest $5,095 Gold 15,285 Five free nights @ a Category 2 hotel (i.e., Sheraton Studio City International Drive, Orlando) @ 2,000 points per night.

What we see
First of all, there is a slight bias in these results. Using the ADR is a good way to average the spend in certain cities; however, it tends to reward those hotel chains that may be on the lower end of the ADR, such as La Quinta, Choice Hotels, etc. However, we’ve tried to balance that by presenting awards from the other major chains in their lower ADR-type hotels, such as Courtyard, Hawthorne Suites and Holiday Inn Express. These results may surprise you: Choice Hotels Privileges has the highest value for awards, earning eight free nights. The Hyatt and La Quinta programs were right behind, and in the case of the Hyatt Gold Passport program, we clearly see just how valuable the alliance with Hawthorne Suites is. In the strictly mid-tier hotel group, Best Western and Cendant TripRewards can fight it out for bragging rights, and among the major chains, it looks like Starwood finds its niche.

The Profile
The high-spend traveler
The “high-spend” traveler profile is based on an annual spend of $15,557, which reflects the aggregate ADR of cites that are also major hubs for large airlines (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, London, Dallas, Las Vegas, Seattle, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Austin and Jacksonville), rounded to the nearest dollar, and multiplied by 100 nights per year. In this profile, we’ve excluded hotel programs that are less likely to cater to the high-flying-major metro-full-service type of traveler (no slight intended). This profile assumes the member annually earns enough hotel stays to qualify for the highest elite level, and appropriate bonuses were included in the comparison.

Program $ Spent Elite Point Yield The Rewards
Hilton HHonors $15,557 Diamond 233,355 Six free nights at a Category 5 hotel (i.e., Hilton Fisherman’s Wharf) @ 35,000 points per night.
Hyatt Gold Passport $15,557 Diamond 101,121 Seven free nights @ a Category 3 property AND enough points left over for two additional nights at another time (i.e., Hyatt at Fisherman’s Wharf – San Francisco).
InterContinental Priority Club $15,557 Platinum 233,355 Seven free nights @ a San Francisco property AND enough points left over for two additional nights at another time (i.e., Holiday Inn Fisherman’s Wharf/Crowne Plaza Union Square).
Marriott Rewards $15,557 Platinum 202,241 Seven free nights @ a Category 6 property AND enough points left over for two additional nights at another time (i.e., San Francisco Marriott Fisherman’s Wharf).
Radisson Gold Rewards $15,557 None 100,000 Three free nights @ a Tier 1 property ; or two free weekend nights plus one additional night @ a Tier 2 property (i.e., Radisson Hotel Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco).
Starwood Preferred Guest $15,557 Platinum 46,671 Six free nights at a Category 3 hotel (i.e., Sheraton Fisherman’s Wharf) @ 7,000 points per night.

What we see
Remember that with varying earning levels, the point total you earn is not relevant – the awards are. In this particular traveler profile, three programs tie for award payout: Hyatt, Priority Club and Marriott. All have hotels in the Fisherman’s Wharf area that allow us to compare redemption values. Hilton and Starwood trail by three additional nights for the same spend, and Radisson lags significantly behind, no doubt hampered by a lack of elite-level bonuses or a cohesive network of properties. Surprised?

What we’ve learned is that there is no ‘best’ program for every member. More so than airlines, there is a greater variance in the awards value of these programs based on similar hotel spend. The most important question: Do you belong to the right program?

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