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Is IHG Rewards Club the best hotel loyalty scheme? (Part 2)

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In my previous article, I outlined ‘the facts’ of the IHG Rewards Club loyalty scheme. This article is my personal opinion, highlighting areas where I think you might want to focus.

The 10-second summary:

Strong points – excellent global coverage at all price points, InterContinental hotels in key gateway cities usually solid, bonus point promotions make it easy to earn free nights, PointBreaks discounted redemptions, free Platinum Elite status with the £99 fee credit card, Regent and Six Senses acquisitions boost luxury footprint

Weak points – status benefits are a joke except at some Crowne Plaza hotels, benefits rarely apply to InterContinental hotels which have their own Ambassador programme, points pricing getting toppy in some places

InterContinental Cannes

The longer version:

IHG Rewards Club was my dominant hotel loyalty programme for many years and my wife and I still have over 750,000 points between us, although I am currently having a phase away from them. This is despite the fact that – by a huge margin – it has the worst elite benefits of any hotel scheme. How do you resolve this contradiction?

The fairest thing to say is probably this – if you are reliant on elite benefits (late check-out, free breakfast, suite upgrades, club access) to make the most of your stay, IHG Rewards Club is not the best option for you.

Your elite card won’t get you much at an InterContinental anyway. You need to pay for their Ambassador membership scheme.

Crowne Plaza hotels are better, and you may (note ‘may’) get an upgrade and lounge access if you are top-tier Spire Elite.  A Holiday Inn or HI Express cannot offer you much more than a room on a higher floor or occasionally a larger one than booked.  No free breakfast (except for Crowne Plaza guests upgraded to a club room), no suite upgrades and generally no room upgrades.

You will get a few hundred bonus points or a free drink and snack on each stay if you have status.  This is a terrible deal at most hotels if you are Platinum or Spire Elite (being given a free Kit-Kat as a reward for being top tier is not exactly generous) but, arguably, it is a decent return for bottom rung Gold members, especially those who get it from the FREE IHG Mastercard.  Hilton Honors Silver or Marriott Bonvoy Silver or Gold Elite – all equivalent tiers – don’t get you any real benefits at all.

The irony is that IHG Rewards Club Spire Elite status has become increasingly difficult to earn as IHG continually reduces the categories of points which are elite qualifying. You would need to spend $7,500 (£6,250) excluding VAT to earn 75,000 base points. And, in return, you won’t get much!

For the lover of points and free nights in luxury hotels, though, the scheme is ideal.  The large number of cheap UK properties outside London means that – when bonus point promotions are running – it is easy to run up points very cheaply, via mattress runs if necessary.

Reward nights are capped at 70,000 points – with the exception of the new InterContinental Maldives and a couple of casino properties – so luxury hotels tends to give a better ‘pence per point’ ratio than cheaper IHG brands.

Combined with the fact that InterContinental generally has good properties in the major ‘gateway’ cities, you can use the bonus points you earn cheaply to redeem at very smart hotels.  The recent additions of Regent Hotels and Six Senses – the latter not yet integrated into IHG Rewards Club – increase your options further.

(Mid tier redemptions are less useful. Most Holiday Inn Express properties in Central London are now 35,000 points per night. That isn’t a good deal when the InterContinental Park Lane is only 70,000 points, although I accept that a ‘fresh’ HIX with free breakfast is perfectly acceptable for many people.)

The PointBreaks offers every three months are also excellent valuein fact, it is the best hotel loyalty scheme redemption promotion150 or so properties are offered for just 5,000 to 15,000 points per night.  If you can plan a trip to correspond with a participating property, you will get a very good deal.  Some people are unhappy that the cost is now 5,000 to 15,000 points rather than just 5,000 points, but the truth is that the selection of hotels offered at 5,000 points had become laughable.

What don’t I like?

The ‘free’ internet for elite members can, in some hotels, be slow and you are ‘encouraged’ to pay to trade up.

The benefits of Spire Elite are now totally out of kilter with the difficulty in obtaining it. Free breakfast should be a minimum. The potential for suite upgrades would be welcome, as would the opportunity to use additional points for club rooms or suites.  I am very keen on Marriott’s approach of often offering better rooms on points at the time of booking for a small additional cash payment.

InterContinental has its own loyalty programme, Ambassador, which I wrote about here. This means that this brand tends to put a low value on IHG Rewards Club status.

Non-US and non-UK members do not have the ability to get status by taking out the IHG credit card. In the UK, you can pay £99 for the Premium credit card and you are immediately Platinum Elite. If you are French with no local credit card, you have little choice but to spend $4,000 excluding tax in IHG properties.

Like Hilton and Marriott, the oldest brand in the chain – Holiday Inn – tends to have the oldest and dirtiest properties. There are some impressive new builds knocking around across all of the brands though – you only need to look at the four new Heathrow hotels opened in the last few months (Crowne Plaza T4, Holiday Inn Express T4, Holiday Inn Bath Road, Staybridge Suites Bath Road) to see that.

IHG Rewards Club withdrew from Amex Membership Rewards a few years ago. This means it is harder to obtain IHG points without staying. You can, if necessary, transfer Amex points to Virgin Flying Club and then on to IHG but the 1:1 ratio is not great and these points no longer count for status.

The UK IHG credit cards do offer decent sign-up deals of up to 20,000 points, although these do not count for status.  Day-to-day spend points earned from the credit card do count for status, confusingly. This means that you can earn Spire Elite status by spending £37,500 on the IHG Premium Mastercard.  See our ‘Credit Cards Update‘ page for links.

Finally, it is worth noting that most customer service queries are dealt with via a contact centre in the Philippines. This can make it very difficult at times to get a sensible response to any semi-complex issue.

For 2019 I have been relying on Hilton Diamond, via their status match, and Marriott Titanium Elite (via the old ‘Platinum Challenge’) for the bulk of my chain stays.  This is reducing the time I spend with IHG despite my top tier status.  It is unlikely that I will retain either of these in 2020, though, and I imagine that I will be back with IHG for some of my business.

Comments (60)

  • Alex W says:

    “You can, if necessary, transfer Amex points to Virgin Flying Club and then on to IHG but the 1:1 ratio is not great unless you are short of status points.”
    Transfers from Virgin are no longer elite qualifying 🙁

  • Paul says:

    Yes I agree the Spire elite is now pointless and like rob taking a long break from the chain. Indeed, given that Hilton have provided me with Diamond till March 2021 it would be difficult to see how I would go back to IHG.
    My Spire came from CC spend but ends in December. I have ambassador status but $20 from the minibar is also unsatisfactory now. If it were per night that’s one thing but it’s per stay so is worthless.

    A free night in Park Lane or the Amstel is a different matter but at $200 and a plummeting exchange rate it’s also becoming expensive.

    Diamond with guaranteed lounge access, free breakfast and usually great upgrade means choosing Conrad over Intercon is easy now.

    • Trevor says:

      I suppose it depends largely which hotels you are happy staying in. I have to say, from memory, the last three Hiltons I have stayed in had been an absolute disaster – and only in two cases were they willing to give an immediate refund.

  • John says:

    There is a poster on flyertalk who keeps saying Spire is easy to obtain and bragging about requalifying with a single stay – by spending $7500

    • TGLoyalty says:

      Poster is correct that 7.5k hotel spend is all it takes but I think the far easier route is a combination of IHG CC spend and stays.

      Spend £10k and you are 1/3 of the way there and in some creative curve spending and you can hit spire every year with zero trouble.

    • Andrew says:

      Oh…

      So does that mean if I stick a conference or wedding booking through using my IHG Reward Club card, I’ll automatically get Spire Elite?

      • TGLoyalty says:

        If they are points qualifying at IHG hotels then you would by positing them to your IHG account get 10 base points per $1 plus tier bonus.

        Also yes if they can be paid with a CC then you could use IHG card to hit spire quicker (£35k spend anywhere or £17.5k IHG spend/foreign fx spend or any combination of the two)

      • Rob says:

        4 points per £1, all qualifying, so will get you close.

  • Lee says:

    I currently have Spire Elite and with only 3 or 4 stays at the chain, they are making a change from Hilton. I have 4 bookings currently for the next month. I tend to opt for their better rooms and add breakfast, so it is not cheaper than Hilton.

    I am Diamond with Hilton, but often there is not a Hilton close by – IHG fills that gap.

    I will qualify for Spire Elite for 2020.

    The weak chain for me is Marriott – With Gold Elite you get very little and the standard is not that good. Have no real chance to get to the level above to get free breakfast, which is what we used to have pre-Bonvoy.

    Sure I am not expecting to get much from Spire Elite, but I do get points quicker, which could result in a free stay soon. Probably in the USA due to the poor exchange rate.

    • TGLoyalty says:

      Last couple summer hotels in Europe have had free breakfast included anyway. The rate only shows on the website though and not through the app

      • Lady London says:

        Breakfast is headlined as being included for bookings made using their current summer promotion.

  • Aliks says:

    OT – regarding Marriott Gold Elite benefits – does this really give guaranteed lounge access? I just checked on the Marriott web site and it says you have to be Platinum Elite to get this????

  • Matt says:

    Couple of ihg questions:

    Any tips, please, for combining ihg credit card free night and ambassador free night? I haven’t used either free night before so am complete noob at this. Is it possible, for example, to book higher cat room Fri for cash and keep it Sat and Sun with the vouchers? I’m looking specifically at Miami next April, but any general tips for the future will be very welcome.

    Does anyone have experience of spire upgrades at CP Key West? Cash price currently makes it a better use of my free night voucher, but I might just go for a nice independent via hotels.com . Any suggestions for good options?

    Thank you for all help.

    Matt

    • Rob says:

      AMB is buy one get one free, do best bet is to book s higher category Fri/Sat on voucher, use the card night for Sun and hope they let you keep the room.

    • Jason says:

      Matt

      I have found America and Canada pretty accommodating, I book the rooms and then email in advance and ask nicely if they would be kind enough to let us keep them. On our current holiday the GM in Toronto allowed me to keep out club access Ambassador 2:1 and granted it to my kids in a second room all in points..3 nights in total.

    • Sandra says:

      You need to email in advance and ask if you will be able to keep the room as the free room via IHG card is only a basic room. In Europe I have found that some hotels are more accommodating than others. Last year in Warsaw the Intercon gave us an excellent upgrade with the Amb 2 for 1 and let us keep the room and lounge access on the 3rd free night. However Budapest Intercon, which gets very busy with guests starting/ending river cruises, would not let us keep the room on the 3rd night unless we paid a supplement to upgrade it to the Amb room booked on the 1st night (before the automatic upgrade) plus a supplement to keep lounge access. In total I think the 3rd night actually cost us E120 in supplements. I think it really depends how easily the hotel can fill their rooms.

      • Matt says:

        Rob, Jason, Sandra: thank you all for your helpful and interesting replies.
        Matt

  • Aliks says:

    Just to clarify – the HfP Marriott review page says that Marriott Gold Elite gives guaranteed lounge access – is this correct??

    • New Card says:

      That’s old. Needs Platinum now.

    • Rob says:

      Not any longer, that needs an update – and will get one next week!

      • Doreen says:

        Would be great if you could find out from your Marriott contacts if there will be a Soft Landing granted in 2020 – i.e. drop down one category if you do not achieve requirements. In my own case, an Ambassador who will probably not even achieve 75 nights (Titanium)

    • Doreen says:

      They renamed categories when they merged SPG and Marriott – SPG Gold was 25 nights, Marriott Gold needed 50 nights and gave Lounge access/breakfast. Now you need to be Platinum at 50 nights for Lounge/breakfast and Marriott Bonvoy Gold is 25 nights, giving not much.

  • Trevor says:

    Can you please look at the leading hotels of the world scheme because it has all changed recently – but still features some of the very best hotels in the world. They used to be genuine benefits such as a free breakfast for two, automatic room upgrade, automatically check out, and when qualified for the airport transfer one way.

    • Spurs Debs says:

      I’ve booked a hotel in Tokyo through SLH and have got free breakfast, early check in. I don’t recall it ever being covered in HFP?

    • Rob says:

      Actually staying in one at the moment. The LHW benefits seemed so weak I got Emyr to book it via Virtuoso instead – free brekky, $100 per room food credit etc.

      Agree about a re-review though.