What is the best hotel loyalty scheme? – an introduction

Starting tomorrow and continuing over Easter, I am running updated versions of our overviews of the major hotel loyalty schemes. Each programme will be covered in two posts on consecutive days:

The first will look at ‘the facts’, such as the number of nights required to earn status.

The second post will be a discussion of the best and worst aspects of that programme.

At the end, I will take another look at Hotels.com and its Hotels.com Rewards programme which may be an alternative answer for some people.

If you are looking for a simple answer to the question of which scheme to join, you will be disappointed. Sorry!

Hotel logo

Different people want different things from a hotel loyalty scheme:

If your employer pays the bills, you are unlikely to bothered about free internet or free breakfast. (In fact, by lowering your nightly bill, such perks would be a hindrance as they would lower your points earning!)

If you want to redeem in luxury properties, you are going to struggle with schemes like Club Carlson which do not have much top-end coverage.

If you want global coverage, you will struggle with Hyatt Gold Passport and its modest coverage in much of the world, including second-tier European cities.

If guaranteed upgrades and status benefits are what you want, you are unlikely to go wild about IHG Rewards Club.

If you have an American Express Platinum card, you will already have permanent Gold status in Starwood Preferred Guest and Club Carlson and Platinum status in Le Club Accorhotels, so you may be focussed more on the best redemption options.

…. and so on.

The other issue when comparing hotel schemes is that the points you earn are heavily skewed by bonus promotions which change every quarter. I could have done a complex mathematical table to show how much you need to spend in each hotel to get a free night. However, realistically, a large percentage of your points will come from the bonus point promotions I list on the Head for Points ‘Hotel Promos’ page.

The list of current bonus promotions may also encourage you to ‘hotel hop’, either between hotels in the same chain or different ones. For promos based on stays, you could swap between hotel A and B every night to maximise your stay count. This may be worthwhile based on the current promotions, but consider the inconvenience first.

There is one other issue which rarely comes up in these comparisons. Life is short, and it isn’t worth massively inconveniencing yourself purely for the points. If you have the choice of spending two weeks in a brand new Holiday Inn or a 20-year old unrefurbished Marriott, you should take the Holiday Inn! Unless you were getting back late and leaving early every day, of course.

(Despite having large amounts of hotel points, I tend to pay cash when travelling with my family.  I don’t like to compromise on location, room size or hotel facilities when we travel together.  On the other hand, I very rarely pay cash when travelling on my own.)

My PERSONAL view

To set the stage for the discussion that will follow, here is my personal take on the major hotel programmes. It is hugely unlikely that you will agree with me! I will be exploring these points in more detail in the coming days.

Club Carlson – the scheme is four years old now and has matured – they even felt confident enough to cut their ‘points to airline miles’ conversion rate overnight 18 months ago!  It has the most generous earning rate from ‘normal’ spending and, in the last 12 months, has run some aggressive promotions as well. Gold status is free to Amex Platinum holders. Surprisingly good selection of solid 4- and 5-star London hotels, although massive gaps in their high-end portfolio elsewhere in the world. Very generous Amex transfer ratio of 1:3 with the odd transfer bonus as well – it is one of the best uses of Amex Membership Rewards points. I use them mainly for booking hotel rooms for visiting friends and family in London.

Hilton HHonors – it has got trickier to get free or easy Hilton Gold status in the last 18 months.  I ended up putting £10,000 through the Hilton Visa in order to get a Gold card again.  Free internet is no longer a Gold perk (everyone gets it now) but you still get free breakfast and an upgrade.  I value the ability to transfer in Amex points and Virgin miles, which means I can redeem without having to earn points from stays. However, the devaluation in 2013 took away a lot of value from their luxury hotels.  Why pay 95,000 points for the Waldorf-Astoria in Amsterdam when the InterContinental Amstel is 40,000?

Hyatt Gold Passport – this is generally seen as the best programme for upgrades (top tier members get guaranteed suite upgrades four times a year) and Park Hyatt is easily the best luxury hotel chain that is part of a bigger group. Hyatt has a small footprint, though. The programme has been devalued for non-US members by the introduction of a US credit card and a transfer deal with Chase – European members are suffering from ‘points inflation’ whilst not being able to join in, as there are no non-US credit card options.

IHG Rewards Club – this is my favourite redemption option due to the number of very good InterContinental hotels in places I tend to visit, and costing no more than 50,000 points per night.  I also value my Ambassador membership because of the guaranteed benefits. The group has fantastic coverage almost everywhere and runs regular bonus point promotions. However, you will receive almost zero status recognition with an IHG Rewards Club Platinum card except at Crowne Plaza hotels. Since they withdrew from Amex Membership Rewards I tend to guard my IHG points more carefully.

Le Club Accorhotels – this scheme has no interest to me from a points perspective, despite getting Platinum status via Amex Platinum. It has few big promotions and their points scheme only rewards you in money off vouchers or a modest amount of miles. This allows no ‘arbitrage’ – on an expensive night or in an expensive city, there is no benefit is using points as you only get a fixed Euro value for them.  I must applaud their ‘Happy Mondays’ promotion, though, which sells rooms on a Monday for the coming weekend at £25-£60.  £25 for a hotel in London (the Ibis in Excel is usually available) is astonishing.

Marriott Rewards – on the face of it, this is a decent scheme. They have lots of hotels, a solid points earning structure and regular promotions offering a free night (in a low to medium quality property) for just two stays. Somehow, though, Marriott Rewards has never stirred my heart nor that of the wider frequent flyer community. Is it the lacklustre UK credit card? The lack of free status via Amex Platinum? The lack of points transfer opportunities from Amex? The lacklustre hotel portfolio? Only the ‘flight and hotel’ reward packages seem to generate any excitement and these require a huge number of points.

Starwood Preferred GuestAmex Platinum gives me permanent Gold. The ability to transfer SPG points 1:1 to airline programmes is fantastic. They have some super luxury hotels but the redemption rates are excessive – although some of the SPG properties which refused to allow ANY redemptions now do so. It is possible to generate SPG points via the SPG Amex card and Amex Membership Rewards transfers, so no need for you to stay with them to earn points. Suites are available on points but only 5 days prior to arrival!

Tomorrow we start our analysis, alphabetically, with a look at Club Carlson.

(Want to earn more hotel points?  To see our complete list of promotions from the major chains, click here to visit our ‘Hotel Promos’ page or use the link in the menu bar at the top of the page.)

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Comments

  1. Richard says:

    Yeah – I really can’t agree with the “few big promotions” line. They’ve run their faintly-bonkers “8,000 points for 3 stays” offer twice within the last 9 months or so, which got me a free 4-night trip to Budapest this June for virtually no effort at all.

    But it’s chaotically-run, as you say.

  2. Dave Williams says:

    Also – the £50 off £250 with amex has made me a decent bit of pocket money as I’m expensing my bill anyway….

  3. I’ve actually found that tweeting the accor page is the best course of action. Complained about a dirty sheet, and the same day got a call from the hotel manager offering a refund of the stay!

  4. Assuming you have an SPG Gold via Amex, to qualify for Platinum SPG Status do you need to full 25 stays/50 nights, or do they subtract the required stays/nights for Gold and you make up the difference?

  5. Andrew says:

    I couldn’t agree more about Le Club customer disservice. On a recent promotion they refused three times to honour additional points, each time citing a different term or condition that I had proof I had met.

    Thankfully the hotel (Sofitel LHR) care more about their customers and credited the points manually at their end, reinforcing my very positive impression of that particular property.

  6. I think a lot of this depends on whether you’re paying yourself, or your employer/client is paying. To add my two penn’th – I always end up using hotels.com, except recently when I tok advantage of the kaligo bonuses, I paid a little more than usual for a few nights and got the full 20k.

    I spend a lot of time in hotels as I am a contractor and have a house in the North which I rarely work near. I’ve rented places, but I mostly use hotels. I am liable for the cost of this myself – as I am self employed – and all I need is somewhere to crash, generally chains cost more than smaller hotels, and chain hotels seem cheaper via booking partners than direct.

    There are often deals for booking 3 or more nights, or last minute reductions. The best of these was back in 2013 when I started working in Edinburgh at a quiet time of year – I was booking apartment hotels last minute for £25 a night. Even at these rates on a gold card you’re getting 150 avios per night with travel bonus.

    So far, this is all about money saving, and I realise not everybody will be as “thrifty” as I am, so for those more interested in rewards the 10% (NET) off you get by accumulating “free” nights seems better than the occasional orange in your room, or whatever you get for tiered statuses elsewhere. I use if for the occasional leisure visit – granted if you’re spending £75 a night average it won’t make up to much, but £75 off a £250 room is nothing to be sniffed at!