Each hotel chain, and associated loyalty program, has its strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to know which one fits you best.
I’ve provided a rundown of the key elements of each one below, pluses and minuses, and must point out – the smaller hotel programs tend to be the most rewarding. Not all small programs provide above average value, but the programs that do provide outsized value tend to be small.
My working theory is that it’s easy to be loyal to Marriott. Marriotts are everywhere. There are 4,000 of them. When I hear people talk about how much they like Marriott the argument is usually that there are Marriotts everywhere “so I can always earn my points” and also that they can have the same consistent hotel experience everywhere they go (some people don’t consider that a positive, but Marriott loyalists tend to).
On the other hand, Hyatt Gold Passport needs to be more rewarding, because at only about 500 properties, staying loyal to Hyatt is a choice, not something that happens by accident. You have to go out of your way to choose Hyatt, and to get you to do so they need to offer more than the largest programs do. And they do.
These aren’t all the pluses and minuses of each program, but they’re the major drivers of value for a traveler who shares similar perspectives with me – a frequent guest with enough stays to earn status, wants to use their points for the best rooms and best value properties when vacationing.
I’ve ordered them from best to worst according to my own subjective scale. Small but important items like 4pm late checkout likely feed into that scale, but don’t warrant bullets on their own.
Hyatt Gold Passport
- Confirmed suite upgrades. This to me is the killer app, the feature that makes the Gold Passport program tops of any major hotel chain. Four times a year, Diamond members can reserve suites (for up to seven nights at a time) from the lowest rate, confirmed at booking. No hassles or negotiating at check-in. Starwood offers suite upgrades, Hyatt confirms them.
- Aspirational properties. Not as many as Starwood, but a bunch of top-shelf properties that I actually look forward to staying at, including most Park Hyatt hotels and also some Andaz properties and some Grand Hyatts in Asia.
- Breakfast. When there’s no club lounge, Diamonds get restaurant (and in some hotels, room service) breakfast. And a full breakfast (not continental) for up to four registered guests in the room. It’s the most generous breakfast benefit in the industry. When a club lounge exists but is closed, Diamonds also get bonus points.
- Not enough partners. So with the elimination of property-specific (“G”) bonuses, and without a repeat of long-standing promotions like Faster Free Nights, earning in the program can be difficult. They have no rental car or shopping partners, and they have only one points transfer partner (Chase).
- Not enough hotels. They are at 500, but that’s only half the hotels of Starwood Preferred Guest, which is itself a much smaller program than Marriott, Hilton and IHG.
Starwood Preferred Guest
- Platinums get upgrades to standard suites at check-in, if available and 50-night Platinums can request “priority” for upgrades 10 nights per year. These “suite night awards” can be confirmed up to five days in advance of arrival.
- Chain has some of the very best aspirational properties, so there are places actually worth staying.
- 75-night Platinums get 24-hour check-in, subject to availability (check-in any time, and checkout time is time of check-in on last day of stay, but if you check-in 9am or later you still get 4pm late checkout).
- Starwood Preferred Guest American Express is an outstanding credit card, the best hotel co-brand card in my opinion. Points transfer to most airlines, and they even give you 5,000 bonus miles for each 20,000 miles transferred. That means you effectively earn 1.25 miles per dollar.
- Awards at the best properties are very expensive. “All suite” hotels may be in the top category because their room rates are expensive, and because the rooms are suites they charge you double points as well.
- Upgrades vary tremendously by property. And many find their suite night upgrades don’t confirm often as a result.
- Platinum breakfast benefit is continental-only, not all properties allow buy-up to full breakfast. And in order to access it you have to give up check-in amenity points.
InterContinental Royal Ambassador
- Not just 4pm late checkout for Royal Ambassador members, but unique among chains they offer top elites 8am check-in. Great for early European arrivals especially.
- Minibar. Royal Ambassadors get free drinks from the minibar. It’s a “wow” factor. The first few times you may hit it pretty hard, but after awhile it’s just nice to have a bottle of water or juice.
- The very best upgrades. Every hotel is different, it’s totally inconsistent, and the best strategy is to communicate in advance with a hotel – especially to figure out exactly what they’ll upgrade you to based on the room you book since many hotels do a “two-category” upgrade from your paid room. I’ve used this to my advantage to secure Ambassador suites, Diplomatic suites and even Presidential suites – not just the “standard” suites that Starwood Preferred Guest and Hyatt promise.
- Almost no benefits on award stays. Some hotels honor benefits, many do not, and they aren’t required to.
- Not enough hotels. The program is great at those InterContinental properties that treat members well, but the Royal Ambassador treatment doesn’t extend to other hotel brands owned by the same company. Instead they offer IHG Rewards Platinum which is exceptionally weak (see below).
- No breakfast benefit when there isn’t a club lounge.
- No published, transparent criteria for how to reach this status.
- Can make Diamond status based on credit card spend. Just $40,000 in a year on the Hilton Surpass American Express or Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card gets you there.
- Decent mid-tier elite level. Gold status in HHonors gets you as much as Diamond does at most hotels, you avoid the worst room in the house and you’ll get something for breakfast and free Internet. And you get this status just for having one of the two aforementioned co-brand credit cards.
- Widespread properties, this can be your “backup” for when Starwood and Hyatt don’t have hotels.
- No promise of suite upgrades. Diamond isn’t much better than Gold.
- Awards that cost a ton more than they used to. HHonors used to offer some of the best value and now it takes more spend than most other chains to access their top properties.
- Lots of hotels. They are everywhere.
- Consistency. To me that’s less of a selling point, I like variety, but whenever I hear Marriott mentioned it’s almost always with “consistency” in the same sentence.
- Earn status via credit card alone or through United Gold elite status or higher.
- No promise of suite upgrades.
- No breakfast benefit at Courtyard properties or resorts.
- Very little is guaranteed. Even late checkout isn’t a guaranteed benefit for 75-night-a-year Platinums.
IHG Rewards Club
- Lots of hotels. Seriously, IHG is everywhere. You may not want to stay at every Holiday Inn in the world, but the chain is broad-based.
- Cash and points always available. Hilton, Hyatt and Starwood offer a capacity-controlled option. IHG just builds in a discounted points purchase option usable in conjunction with award redemption as their mechanism for offering cash and points. The program isn’t paying the hotel any less on these award nights, so the cash and points awards are always available. (And since it’s a discounted points purchase, and those points are redeposited in your account when you cancel an award, many members use this to buy points at $0.007 apiece in virtually unlimited quantities.)
- PointBreaks. Discounted award nights at just 5,000 points. There aren’t as many top-shelf properties participating as when the option was first introduced but it’s a great value. Combined with discounted points purchase, if your stays overlap with a PointBreaks offer you can “buy” award nights for just $35.
- No meaningful benefits on award stays according to the terms and conditions of the program. (Although some hotels go above and beyond what’s required.)
- No premium room redemption option. The other chains on this list will let you spend more points for a better room, but not IHG. That’s especially a problem because the program doesn’t include an upgrade benefit when staying on points. That makes award guests truly bottom of the barrel, even when those guests are top elites.
- Platinum is an almost meaningless elite level, except at some international Crowne Plaza hotels. Some hotels may give you breakfast but they aren’t required to. There’s not even guaranteed club lounge access for top elites at those hotels with a club.
I didn’t include the lower-end chains like Wyndham, Best Western (though some properties are surprisingly nice) or La Quinta. Or the quality but small chains like Kimpton.
Looking at the mainstream offerings by hotel programs with a U.S.-centric eye, I do view Hyatt and Starwood at the top, and the larger chains clumped together. My own strategy is to pick one of the good, smaller ones and then obtain status (such as via credit card) at a large chain for times when my preferred hotel program doesn’t have a hotel where I’m staying.