How to Choose a Hotel Loyalty Program

As with the post on choosing a frequent flyer program, a large part of choosing a hotel loyalty program might be decided for you based on the price of hotels in the city where you usually stay and how much your employer (or you) is willing to pay.  But you will often have a choice and making the correct one can mean the difference between a great vacation and a mediocre one.  The world of hotel loyalty programs is vast and covering all of it would take days, but hopefully this will get you headed in the right direction.

In this post I’ll be helping you decide between Hilton, Marriott, IHG (owners of Holiday Inn), Starwood, Hyatt, and Club Carlson.  I won’t be discussing Choice Hotels or Best Western since I’d usually prefer to stay elsewhere and I won’t be discussing Kimpton (great program!) or Fairmont since they don’t really have enough coverage to make them a viable choice for most people.

The first thing to consider is the footprint of each hotel. IHG, Hilton, and Marriott are very large hotel chains that have hotels almost everywhere.  This is good because it means that there is almost always going to be a hotel where you need one.  Hyatt and Starwood are more limited and you’ll only find them in larger cities.  Club Carlson has an interesting footprint that is kind of harder to describe.  They have about the same number of hotels in the US as Hyatt and Starwood but some of them are in smaller cities.  Still not good coverage but it’s worth checking.  The number of hotels is also important when it comes time to redeem your hard earned points for an award night.  If there aren’t hotels where you want to go, your points aren’t worth anything to you.  Below are the total number of hotels worldwide and the number located in the United States.

                                 # Hotels              # in USA
IHG                           4600                     3555
Hilton                      3900                     3382
Marriott                  3800                     3110
Club Carlson          1300                     549
Starwood                1100                     495
Hyatt                        500                       354

The other big thing that you want to consider is elite status.  Having elite status can make hotels stays much more comfortable so start by determining if you can make elite status.  Below is a chart showing the number of nights/stays required.  You need to understand that there are usually two or three levels of status which are called different names for each program.  I’ll refer to them as low, mid-level, and high status.  You can get status based on the number of nights spent, or the number of stays.  Low status is almost always worthless and you’ll simply get a small points bonus, nothing else.  The worst is by far Marriott which takes 75 nights for high status and 50 for mid status.  Hilton has the best mid level status since you get free breakfast and free internet as well as some upgrades.  Hyatt has very easy to obtain mid level status since you get it with their credit card or after 5 stays which gives free internet and some upgrades.  Hyatt has a very good high level status since they give 4 confirmed suite upgrades on paid stays and a full hot breakfast guarantee.  Starwood has the best high level status with nice suite upgrades including an additional super level at 75 nights.  Scott at Hack my Trip has a great analysis of elite levels with very nice charts which you can find here and here.

Nights Stays Credit Card
IHG -/15/50   – High for 1st year
Hilton 10/40/60 4/20/30 Mid with card,              High with $40,000
Marriott 10/50/75   – 10 nights credit
Club Carlson 15/35/75 10/20/30 Mid with card
Starwood -/25/50/75 -/10/25 5 nights credit
Hyatt -/15/50 -/5/25 Mid with card

The other important thing to consider is what type of hotel you want.  Are you the type of traveller who doesn’t care about the room as long as it has a clean bed?  Or does a great hotel experience really make the vacation for you.  While IHG might have the most hotels worldwide and in the US, only 4% of those hotels are at the luxury or upper upscale level.  Marriott and Hilton have 25% at that level.  I couldn’t find data on the other three but looking at the websites it’s clear that about half of Hyatt and Starwood’s hotels are in this upper upscale to luxury category.  I’d guess that worldwide, club Carlson is near the 20% mark for hotels at this level but in the US it is 2 hotels.  So if you’re looking for just a clean bed, any program will do and I’d probably go with the one with the most hotels.  But if you’re looking at a nice place, I’d cross IHG and Club Carlson off your list for USA travel.  At the highest level redemptions, I would give the edge to Starwood, Hyatt, and Marriott.

In keeping with the theme of what type of hotels you want, it’s important to consider the amount of money that needs to be spent to earn a free night.   Below is a chart detailing the number of points required for a redemption, the base earn rate without status bonus, and the amount of money that must be spent to earn a free night.  The cheapest hotel to get a top free night at is Club Carlson at $2500, but almost all of these are in Europe.  Starwood by far stands out as being ridiculously high; those top tier hotels are really nice, but I’m not sure they’re that nice.  My favorite here is Hyatt.  The top Hyatts like the Park Hyatt Paris Vendome, Park Hyatt Sydney, and Park Hyatt Tokyo are truly amazing and a great deal at a free night for only $4400 in hotel spend.

Points Required Earn Rate Dollars Required
IHG 5,000 – 50,000 10 500 – 5000
Hilton 5,000 – 95,000 15 333 – 6333
Marriott 6,000 – 70,000 10 600 – 7000
Club Carlson 9,000 – 50,000 20 450 – 2500
Starwood 2,000 – 35,000 2 1,000 – 15,000
Hyatt 5,000 – 22,000 5 1,000 – 4400

Several years ago Starwood was the first loyalty program to eliminate blackout dates meaning you can use your points anytime there is a regular room available.  Since then, almost every other hotel program has followed suit.  The notable (and very annoying for me) exception is Club Carlson.  I’ve tried for a year to get a room at the Radisson Blu in Chicago but none of the times I want are available even when booking months in advance.  Hilton, and sometimes Club Carlson are nice because it allows you to use extra points to get upgraded rooms.  But with Hilton, you often have to pay 3-4x more points for slight upgrades in rooms so it is rarely worth it.  Hyatt and Starwood let you use points to upgrade to suites; hyatt at a good price and starwood at a bad one.  With Hyatt you can book a suite using 1.5x the number of points required for a normal room.  This is fantastic, it really is.  A suite at any of the Park Hyatts for 33,000 points is just great.  Another great and often overlooked value is using 6,000 points to upgrade a paid stay to a suite for up to 4 nights.

The final consideration is transferring points from credit cards.  Sometimes the points you get from stays aren’t enough and you need to rely on transfers in from credit cards.  Although all of these programs offer credit cards, I wouldn’t put any spend on them since there are better cards to earn points.  Chase Ultimate Rewards can transfer to Marriott, IHG, and Hyatt.  American Express Membership Rewards can transfer to Hilton and Starwood.  Since most of these programs require tens of thousands of points for award nights, the transfers aren’t the best deals and should only be used when you are close to an award night and just need a few points to put you over the edge.  The big exception is Hyatt since those points transfer at a 1:1 ratio and they require so few points for award nights.

Some other notes:
–  Only Hilton, Starwood, and IHG give you night and stay credit for using award nights which can be helpful when trying to renew status.
–  IHG doesn’t give any status benefits when using award nights.  Really bad policy in my opinion.
–  Both Starwood and Marriott offer the option to use points and cash for award nights which really extends award stays.

My Strategy:
Since I don’t have enough hotel stays to get status at any brand, I hold the Citi Hilton Card and and the Chase Hyatt card which both give me mid level status.  This means when I do stay, I get treated well.  Since I’m not getting lots of points from stays, I mainly transfer points into Hyatt from Ultimate Rewards.  If I was actually traveling for work, here’s what I’d do.  I’d pick Hyatt to be my main program and focus as many of my stays there as possible to get status.  Hyatt has some of the best hotels in the world at extremely reasonable prices and they treat their members well.  More than any other company, I trust Hyatt based on everything they’ve done and from talks the CEO has given.  Then, when I travelled somewhere without a Hyatt, I’d use either IHG, Hilton, or Marriott based on where I’m staying.  Probably Hilton since you get mid level status with a credit card and it is the best mid level status available.

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