Chain Choice: Choosing the Hotel Loyalty Program That’s Right for You

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Most travelers I meet don’t spend a lot of time choosing a hotel chain, and they’re not fond of changing once they’ve made a commitment. But, just like collecting miles and points, choosing a hotel chain requires some thought process about long-term goals.

It’s also good to give your “chain choice” a checkup once in a while to make sure it meets your needs. Let’s take a little time to discuss some key points to consider when making your decision. It’s not difficult, but it’s more complicated than simply choosing the chain with the most hotels.

How Do I Qualify for Elite Status?
There are two principal paths to elite status, hotel stays and loyalty credit cards. Hotel programs have various avenues for elite status qualification, generally via stays or nights. A stay is defined as consecutive nights stayed at one hotel, even if they span different reservations. Nights are just what they sound like–you’ll generally earn credit for one night for each night you stay in a hotel.

By way of example, if you checked in at the House of Miles Inn on Monday and checked out on Thursday, you’d receive credit for one stay and three nights (Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night). You’d also likely receive a mint on your pillow from Randy and free breakfast.

Requirements and Benefits
We’ll take a brief look at six hotel programs: Club Carlson, Hilton HHonors, Hyatt Gold Passport, IHG Rewards Club, Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest. As a side note, there’s been a recent push by the major chains to make WiFi/internet free to virtually all guests. You should assume your chain offers free WiFi now unless noted otherwise below.

Club Carlson
The Carlson hotel chain features brands such as Radisson, Radisson Blu, Radisson Red, Park Plaza, Park Inn by Radisson, Quorvus Collection and Country Inn & Suites by Carlson.

Club Carlson has three elite levels: Silver (10 stays/15 nights) Gold (20 stays/35 nights) Concierge 30 stays/75 nights)

All elite members receive free bottled water in their room and late checkout (based on availability). Silver members earn 20 points per dollar spent at hotels and a 25 percent bonus on that spend. Silver members also receive a 2,000-point online booking bonus per stay.

Gold members earn all the benefits of Silver, but also receive a 50 percent bonus on spending at Club Carlson properties and an in-room welcome amenity.

Concierge members receive a 3,000-point online booking bonus and a 75 percent bonus on their spend. They also receive free continental breakfast.

Key Credit Card Benefits:
The Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card automatically awards Gold status. If you’ve already achieved Gold status they’ll award you 15 nights towards achieving or maintaining Concierge status. The credit card also gives you one free award night on every award reservation of two nights or more.

Special Features:
While the Club Carlson Rewards Visa Signature Card (not the Premier card) won’t give you a leg up on elite status, it will give you a free night at the end of every award stay. This can even be used on a two-night stay where you pay for the first night and get the second night free.

Program Pluses:
A free night on every award stay is a great plus for credit card holders. The Carlson chain has a number of great properties in Europe.

Program Minuses:
Lack of properties in the U.S. can make it hard for U.S. residents to qualify for top-tier status. The chain does not have many upscale properties in the U.S. and is poorly represented in some key markets.

Hilton HHonors:
Hilton offers 11 hotel brands including Hilton Hotels & Resorts, DoubleTree by Hilton, Embassy Suites Hotels, Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton Inn, Homewood Suites by Hilton, Home2 Suites by Hilton, Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts, Conrad Hotels & Resorts, Canopy by Hilton, Curio – A Collection by Hilton and Hilton Grand Vacations.

Hilton HHonors has three elite levels: (Hilton is a bit unique in that you can earn elite status with spending at properties alone, in the form of base points earned.) Silver (4 stays/10 nights) Gold (20 stays/40 nights/75,000 points) Diamond (30 stays/60 nights/120,000 points)

All elite members earn 10 points per dollar, although redemptions can be pricey with top properties ranging from 50,000 to 95,000 points per night. All elites also get the fifth night free on all award redemptions.

Silver members get 15 percent bonus points on all hotel spending, late checkout based on availability and free bottled water in their room.

Gold members get all the benefits of Silver but get a 25 percent bonus on spending. They also get to choose from a list of “My Way” benefits that differ by brand.

Diamond members get all the benefits of Gold but get a 50 percent bonus on spending. They also get to choose from an expanded list of “My Way” benefits that differ by brand.

Key Credit Card Benefits:
Hilton has two paths to elite status through credit cards. If you’re willing to pay an annual fee, you can choose between the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card and the Hilton HHonors Surpass Card from American Express, both of which give you Gold status. The Citi card comes with two free weekend nights while the American Express comes with 60,000 bonus points. If you want to avoid an annual fee, there are two options that will give you Silver status, the Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature Card and the Hilton HHonors Card from American Express. Both currently offer a 40,000 point sign-up bonus.

Special Features:
Hilton HHonors pioneered a new way of earning points that used to be called “Double Dip” meaning you could earn hotel points and airline miles for the same stay, but “Double Dip” has been rebranded “My Way Earning”, where members can choose to earn either bonus HHonors points or bonus airline miles with each stay. This preference can be changed for each stay to maximize your earnings.

Program Pluses:
Hilton has lots of properties worldwide (over 4,000). They generally have multiple offerings in every major market and most second-tier markets in the United States. They offer quite a bit of flexibility in earning methods.

Program Minuses:
Free hotel award nights are very expensive. The quality of properties in secondary markets is hit or miss.

Hyatt Gold Passport:
Hyatt Gold Passport features brands such as Hyatt, Grand Hyatt, Hyatt Regency, Park Hyatt, Andaz, Hyatt Place, Hyatt House, Hyatt Zilara, Hyatt Ziva, Hyatt Residences and Hyatt Residence Club.

Hyatt Gold Passport has two elite levels: Platinum (5 stays/15 nights) Diamond (25 stays/50 nights)

Platinum members earn five points per dollar on all spending as well as a 15 percent points bonus. They also receive a guaranteed 2pm late checkout.

Diamond members earn the same five points per dollar on all spending along with a 30 percent bonus. They receive a guaranteed 4pm late checkout and choice of an amenity or additional bonus points (the late checkout guarantee is subject to availability at Hyatt resorts and casinos and is not available at Hyatt Residence Club resorts). They also receive complimentary access to the club lounge in all full-service properties (properties without a lounge provide breakfast in the hotel restaurant). Additionally, Diamond members receive four confirmed suite upgrades per year, valid at time of booking.

Key Credit Card Benefits:
Hyatt Visa cardholders enjoy Platinum status for as long as they hold the card. The card offers two free nights at any Hyatt property, in any award category, as a sign-up bonus and one free night on the card’s anniversary at Category 1 through 4 properties. Special Features: Hyatt offers a number of surprise and delight items for their members and introduced Points + Cash redemptions in 2014.

Program Pluses:
The program offers a true guaranteed late checkout benefit for elite members. Diamond suite upgrades have great availability. There are exceptional high-end properties and the Diamond breakfast benefit at high-end properties is unprecedented. Most of these properties either have no dollar limit on how much you can spend on breakfast in the regular restaurant, or the limit is high enough ($50-75 per person) that you can afford anything on the menu. And, a good number of these properties allow you to order room service breakfast for free as well. Hyatt has a large pipeline of great properties in Europe, Asia and developing countries.

Program Minuses:
There are a small number of properties (roughly 550) worldwide and Hyatt is missing properties in some key markets. Platinum status is not overly compelling.

IHG Rewards Club:
InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) consists of brands such as Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, Candlewood Suites, Hotel Indigo, Even Hotels, and Springbridge Suites, Holiday Inn Resorts, HUALUXE Hotels & Resorts (in China) and the hotel group is in the process of purchasing Kimpton Hotels.

IHG has two elite levels you can obtain and a third status level you can purchase: (IHG does not have a way to qualify for elite status via stays, only with nights or total spend/points.)

Gold (15 nights/20,000 points) Platinum (50 nights/60,000 points) Both Gold and Platinum members earn 10 base points per dollar spent like all other members (five points per dollar for Candlewood Suites and Staybridge Suites stays). Gold members earn a 10 percent bonus on all spending.

Platinum members earn a 50 percent bonus and can get complimentary room upgrades, although not to suites and can rollover elite nights to the following year.

IHG also has a status level for purchase called InterContinental Ambassador. It comes with a host of benefits the other chains include in their status levels, like late checkout and free bottled water in your guest room. In addition, the $200 sign-up fee includes a complimentary free weekend night (with a paid weekend night) and 5,000 IHG Rewards Club points. Realistically, if you plan to spend any appreciable time at IHG properties, it’s pretty easy to earn back the $200 fee for Ambassador status.

Key Credit Card Benefits:
Those who own an IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card automatically receive Platinum status as long as you remain a cardmember. The current sign-up bonus is 60,000 points and you get a free night at any award category on your card anniversary.

Special Features:
IHG has a Fast Track program for both status levels. Gold can be achieved with 10 nights in a calendar year across three different brands (for example, Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza and InterContinental). The Platinum Fast Track is 40 nights at four different brands.

Program Pluses:
IHG has a large global footprint with over 4,700 properties. Rejuvenation of the Holiday Inn brand has been positive for loyal members. There are properties in all major markets and secondary markets as well as good coverage in Europe.

Program Minuses:
Unless you plan to redeem for free hotel nights, there aren’t a lot of other valuable redemptions in the program. There are not a lot of benefits for Gold and Platinum members and not as many exceptional high-end properties as other hotel brands.

Marriott Rewards:
The Marriott chain includes a large number of brands including Marriott, JW Marriott, Autograph Collection, Courtyard by Marriott, Marriott Vacation Club, Renaissance, Edition, AC Hotels, Springhill Suites, Fairfield Inn & Suites, Residence Inn, TownePlace Suites, Gaylord Hotels, Moxy Hotels and luxury partner The Ritz-Carlton.

Marriott Rewards has three elite levels: (The only path to elite status is through the number of nights per year — no defined path for stays or spending.) Silver (10 nights) Gold (50 nights) Platinum (75 nights)

All elite members receive basic internet service as long as they book directly with Marriott. The number of points earned per dollar varies based on the hotel brand, up to a maximum of 10 points per dollar.

Silver members earn 20 percent bonus on spending and can get a late checkout subject to availability.

Gold members get a 25 percent bonus on spending and get lounge access for themselves and one guest at most properties. They also get free premium internet and complimentary room upgrades, where available.

Platinum members get a 50 percent bonus on spending, Silver status in United MileagePlus and a Platinum welcome gift along with all the benefits of Gold status.

Key Credit Card Benefits:
The Marriott Rewards Premier Visa provides 15 nights credit towards elite status each year you’re a cardmember, essentially guaranteeing Silver elite status. Sign-up offers vary, but the offers generally come with a free night certificate and bonus points. Special Features: Members are allowed to rollover any extra nights they have from year-to-year. For example, a Silver member who stays 15 nights in a calendar year would have five nights “rolled over” to the following year as a head start on qualifying for status.

Program Pluses:
Marriott has over 4,000 properties–plenty of worldwide coverage. Points can be redeemed for free nights at a wide variety of brands, from Fairfield Inn to Ritz-Carlton.

Program Minuses:
There’s no way to qualify for elite status on stays. At 75 nights, the threshold is high for the benefits received at the Platinum level. Room upgrades are hard to come by.

Starwood Preferred Guest:
Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) features nine brands including Sheraton, Westin, St. Regis, The Luxury Collection, Aloft, Le Meridien, element, W Hotels and Four Points.

SPG has two elite levels: Gold (10 stays/25 nights/$30,000 in spending on SPG American Express) Platinum (25 stays/50 nights)

All elite members earn three points per dollar spent (compared to one point for non-elite members) and receive free internet as long as they book directly with SPG. Gold members have access to a 4pm late checkout, subject to availability. They also receive a choice of welcome amenities, such as bonus Starpoints or a free drink.

Platinum members receive a welcome gift upon arrival. They can choose from bonus Starpoints, continental breakfast or a local amenity. They are also eligible for upgrades to suites, when available. They receive complimentary club access and health club access as well. SPG awards extra benefits for Platinum members who reach specific thresholds: Platinum members who stay at least 50 nights earn 10 Suite Night Awards that can be redeemed for upgrades to suites. These are still subject to availability and there have been widespread complaints about their availability. Reach 75 nights and you’ll earn four Starpoints per dollar spent instead of three. You’ll also enjoy the Your24 benefit, which offers the ability to check-in and checkout when you want. At 100 nights, SPG will assign you an Ambassador to help with various aspects of your travel.

Key Credit Card Benefits:
Holders of the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express receive two key benefits. After spending $30,000 in any calendar year, the cardholder will be award Gold status. Additionally, at the beginning of each year, cardholders will receive two stay and five night credits towards elite status. It’s possible to double these credits by holding both the personal and business version of the card.

Special Features:
Crossover Rewards program with Delta allows you to earn Starpoints on Delta flights as well as get a free checked bag, priority check-in and complimentary upgrades if available. SPG also just introduced a similar program with Emirates. These benefits are in addition to any benefits you receive from the airlines. SPG is also the standard bearer for best transfer to airlines. With only a few exceptions, Starpoints transfer to all major airlines at a ratio of 1:1, much better than any other chain. And, if you transfer in 20,000 point batches, SPG gives you a 25 percent bonus. Additionally, SPG offers “Nights & Flights” where you can redeem either 60,000 or 70,000 Starpoints (depending on the category property) and receive five5 free nights and 50,000 airline miles.

Program Pluses:
SPG has some excellent properties worldwide. They have exceptional, one-of-a-kind properties in 100 different countries. Increased benefits at different Platinum levels give road warriors something to shoot for. The ability to earn elite status just from credit card spending is a nice perk.

Program Minuses:
Although SPG has grown to around 1,200 properties, they’re still smaller than the big boys (Hilton, Marriott, IHG). Where they lack coverage is in secondary markets in the United States. This can make it difficult to achieve higher status levels. With no bonus categories on the SPG American Express, it can be hard to earn large amounts of Starpoints without a lot of travel.

Which Program Should I Choose?
While some folks believe a hotel room is just another place to sleep, there really are differences between the major chains. How you travel for both business and leisure will guide your decision.

hotel choiceDoes Size Matter?
If you’re a road warrior in the U.S. and are looking to commit all of your stays to one brand, Hilton, IHG and Marriott have the most properties domestically. Each of those chains have a few thousand more properties in the U.S. followed by Club Carlson, Hyatt and Starwood with the most properties in the U.S.

More of a World Traveler? 

Even though chains like Hyatt and Starwood are vastly outnumbered in the U.S., once you get abroad it’s a much more level playing field. Starwood is actually in more countries than Marriott or Hilton and just about the same as IHG. When you break it down by total properties outside the U.S., IHG and Hilton still lead the way with about 1,000 each while Marriott and Starwood are only a few hundred hotels behind. Hyatt has just over 200, so still trails the pack. However, Hyatt has one of the largest pipelines for international development. Both Hyatt and SPG continue to make up ground internationally.

While the likes of IHG Rewards and Hilton may have more properties in an international city, SPG and Hyatt are going to more often have the best properties. If your goal is to redeem your points for international travel, it may make sense to go out of your way a bit to stay at a Starwood or Hyatt property. The same can be said to a lesser degree for Club Carlson, but there are many markets in the U.S. where the quality difference between SPG/Hyatt and Club Carlson is considerable, even in limited service properties.

What Type of Stays Do You Tend To Have?
If you travel for business and have frequent one- or two-night stays, you may want to focus on one of the chains that has an easy path to qualify for status via stays. Hyatt and SPG would be my first choices here, with Hilton getting an honorable mention if you travel to secondary markets frequently. If you have longer stays of three or more nights, then there’s not much difference between the major chains in terms of how you qualify, as your total nights will be the driving factor, where entry-level status will be achieved in most chains for 10-15 nights and top-tier status for about 50 nights. Marriott loses out here in that it takes 75 nights to achieve their top-tier status, and one that’s not as rewarding as the others.

Is Lifetime Status Your Thing?
If you’re like me, you spend a lot of time away from your family. I don’t get to travel with family frequently, so I’m hoping to be able to enjoy some of these benefits I’ve earned once the merry-go-round of work travel slows or stops. To that end, there are a few chains that offer lifetime status.

Some are definitely easier to get than others, and more rewarding. Starwood Preferred Guest offers lifetime Gold and Platinum status, and from my point of view, they’re the easiest to achieve. Lifetime Gold requires 250 nights (paid or award nights) and five years as an elite member to qualify. Platinum is tougher but still achievable at 500 nights and 10 years as a Platinum member.

Hyatt Gold Passport offers lifetime Diamond membership once you’ve earned one1 million base points and been a member of the program for at least 10 years. This is a toughie, as one million base points works out to $200,000. That’s a lot of spending. There aren’t a whole lot of reports from Lifetime Diamond members, but the few I’ve heard rate the service as pretty darn special.

Marriott Rewards offers lifetime status for all three of their elite tiers. However, it’s the hardest to achieve and, based on what they offer those elite levels, the least rewarding. Lifetime Silver elite requires 250 nights and 1.2 million points earned. Lifetime Gold requires 500 nights and 1.6 million points. Finally, Lifetime Platinum requires 750 nights and 2 million points. Two years of my life in Marriott hotels to earn top-tier status is not something I aspire to.

Hilton HHonors recently announced that they will be introducing lifetime Diamond status in 2015. The details have not been released as I write this.

Have a Mixture of Paid and Award Stays?
If you’re trying to achieve elite status and have both paid and award stays, Starwood Preferred Guest offers the best path to top-tier elite status. SPG gives you credit for all award nights you book for your own stays just like a paid night and allows you to credit up to three rooms per night to your account. That means if you book more than one room for family vacations or for business travel under your account, you can fast track your way to elite status by doubling or tripling up on credit each night.

Looking for Free Air Travel?
Just because a hotel chain gives you the option to transfer your hotel points to an airline doesn’t mean you should take advantage of it. In fact, some of them are horrible deals, with Hilton HHonors leading the way offering conversions as bad as 10 hotel points for one airline mile (to United Airlines, Aeroplan and Alaska Airlines for example).

Marriott Rewards isn’t much better, offering a spread between 5:1 and 2.5:1. Hyatt is a little better, offering a 2:1 ratio if you transfer in batches of 50,000 points. But, as mentioned above, Starwood Preferred Guest wins out by offering one airline mile for one Starpoint in a few dozen popular airline programs, plus a 25 percent bonus on 20,000 point transfers. In short, if your goal is to transfer hotel points to airlines, SPG is the way to go. It’s just not worth it with the other chains.

Presidential Suite?
If you want the best upgrades and nicest rooms, Hyatt and SPG stand head and shoulders above the rest. Hyatt Gold Passport Diamond members enjoy four confirmed suite upgrades per year on paid stays. All Hyatt members enjoy reasonable award redemption rates for suites at all properties. SPG offers Suite Night Awards, which increase the ability to earn upgrades at top-notch properties. They also offer reasonable redemption rates for suites, including attractive cash and points options.

What Does the Future Hold?
While there have been gradual shifts in the hotel industry, I don’t think it’s likely we’ll see monumental changes in the near future. The hotel programs are already “ahead” of airlines in rewarding customers based on revenue. And, categories for award redemptions are at least loosely tied to average daily rates at most hotels. That means unless your travel patterns change you should expect the benefits your hotel chain offers to stay relatively the same into the future. It’s unlikely you’ll have the rug pulled out from under you eliminating your favorite redemption option or making it drastically more expensive (unless the property you’re saving up for leaves the chain). You’ll also need to keep an eye out for award chart changes (devaluations) to see if there’s a large shift in the price of an award across your chosen hotel chain. We don’t see this very often but Hilton has changed their redemption rates drastically over the last couple of years. Through the creation of new categories and the increase of properties in those top categories, the chains can make it more expensive to redeem for free nights. If you think you could see value out of two different programs, consider how their co-branded credit cards can help you achieve your goal. It may be worth paying the $49 annual fee (free the first year) on the IHG credit card to get Platinum status for a smaller number of stays if it allows you to commit enough nights or stays in another program like Hyatt or SPG to earn top-tier status there.

A Good Fit
It’s important to spend just a little bit of time figuring out which hotel chain works for you. You’ll have a bit of homework along the way, signing up for promotions and planning your vacations. Whether it’s the family road trip or an exceptional suite in Europe, there’s generally a chain that will fit your preferences. Don’t just assume a chain is the right fit for you because it’s where you’ve always stayed. If you have some control over your travel decisions, invest the time to reap the greatest rewards possible.


  1. Wanderlust says

    For club carlson non premier cardholders, could you point me to the resource that describes the “free 2nd night” stay on PAID first night deal? I can’t locate it. Thanks!

  2. Lynda says

    Hello Wanderlust,

    The 2nd night free deal is for award stays only when you own a Club Carlson credit card, either Premier or Signature:

    Is this what you’re referring to? Or are you asking about a limited-time offer?

    Here are the current offers:

    • Wanderlust says

      That’s what I thought. But this article says that this 2nd free night is also applicable for a first paid night…..

  3. NYCUA1K says

    The author of this piece claims that one of the Hilton HHonors program minuses is that “Free hotel award nights are very expensive. ”

    I bet that this same author also believes that 32 degrees Fahrenheit is a hotter temperature than 0 degree Celsius because, well, 32 is much bigger than 0!

    For those who are in the know because they have bothered crunching the numbers, the reality is that top-tier Hilton awards cost practically the same as Hyatt’s or Marriott’s, while IHG’s and Club Carlson’s are cheaper. The hotel loyalty program that has, by far, the highest-priced top-tier awards in the business, sometimes prohibitively, is SPG. REALLY.

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