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

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In my previous article yesterday, I outlined ‘the facts’ of the IHG Rewards 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, Regent, Six Senses and Smith partnerships boosted 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, introduction of revenue based redemptions has been a mess, UK credit card no longer available to new applicants

The longer version:

IHG Rewards was my dominant hotel loyalty programme for many years and my wife and I still had over 800,000 points between us until we did a major Six Senses redemption this month

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 is not the best option for you.

The joke is that you can get these benefits, but not via the loyalty programme.  Anyone can book via a dedicated luxury travel agent like our partner Bon Vivant for the same price as booking direct. You will get free breakfast, upgrades, guaranteed club access and guaranteed late check-out at InterContinental, Kimpton, Regent and Hotel Indigo – benefits which IHG won’t give to its most valuable customers.  You can learn about IHG’s luxury and lifestyle programmes here and here and the InterContinental hotels which give free lounge access via Bon Vivant are listed here.

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 Spire Elite status has become increasingly difficult to earn as IHG continually reduces the categories of points which are elite qualifying. In normal years (2021 levels have been reduced) you would need to spend $7,500 (£5,250) excluding VAT to earn 75,000 base points. And, in return, you won’t get much!

Does IHG Rewards have a problem?

Here is the problem which I believe is emerging.

Historically, IHG has basically said ‘you won’t get many benefits, but you will get lots of points and those will get you a lot of valuable free nights’.

The deal is unravelling from both sides.

From the earning point of view, IHG’s promotions have been relatively weak – certainly no better than Hilton or Marriott – over the last couple of years.  You won’t have been racking up points as quickly.

From the redeeming point of view, it is a total mess.  Without any cap to reward pricing, it is impossible to know how many points you need to earn to get a certain reward.  We now have 4-star Kimpton hotels at 98,000 points or Holiday Inn Express hotels at 48,000 points – it wasn’t so many years ago that IHG’s most expensive InterContinental only cost 30,000 points.

The other problem with removing caps is that it removes outsized value from the programme.  You won’t find a $500 room over New Year selling for 40,000 points.

Flexible reward pricing isn’t all bad

We have done the maths in various HfP articles and flexible reward pricing hasn’t, oddly, moved the average value per point. It remains around 0.4p as this article shows.

In the past, the range may have been from 0.2p per point (cheap off-season night at a hotel in an expensive points band) to 1p+ (a peak night at a hotel at the top of its pricing band) with an average of around 0.4p.

Today, the range is more like 0.3p to 0.6p, with an average of 0.4p.  The average person is no worse off, but the person who holds back on redeeming until they get a blockbuster deal suffers.  Unfortunately, these people are usually your best customers.

Where else does IHG Rewards have issues?

As I was writing this article, I was struck by the changes that had taken place since we last covered this topic in 2019:

  • ending of PointBreaks discounted redemptions
  • closure of the two UK credit cards
  • the removal of generous bonus point promotions
  • the move to revenue based redemptions
  • the failure to keep up with Hilton and Marriott in offering ‘experiences’ rewards
  • letting luxury travel agents offer clients free breakfast, lounge access, late check-out and upgrades whilst still not offering it to elite members

I am struggling to think of any aspect, at all, of IHG Rewards which beats its core competitors.

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 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 status.

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 IHG brands though – you only need to look at the four new Heathrow hotels opened in the last few years (Crowne Plaza T4, Holiday Inn Express T4, Holiday Inn Bath Road, Staybridge Suites Bath Road) to see that.

IHG Rewards 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 ending of PointBreaks killed off the best hotel loyalty scheme redemption promotion.  Before it was axed, you would see 150 properties offered for just 5,000 to 15,000 points per night every three months.  If you could plan a trip around them, you got a great deal. No longer.

IHG is lagging badly behind Hilton and Marriott in offering ‘experiences’ rewards. It would take them five years to put together a scheme which could compete with Marriott Moments and which could give the programme some buzz.

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.

Let’s not forget the positive things about IHG Rewards

IHG Rewards retains some strong points due to the strength of its network.  InterContinental generally has good properties in the major ‘gateway’ cities.  The additions of Regent Hotels, Six Senses and Mr & Mrs Smith increase your options further. The Kimpton roll-out in Europe is finally gathering steam.

My last hotel stay before covid was InterContinental Porto. This is an example of what the brand does best – an expensive conversion of a historic city centre building into a luxury hotel which works for both business and leisure. We have seen the same pattern in Bordeaux, Lyon, Marseille etc in recent years. That said, losing the long-promised InterContinental Venice property to Radisson shows that all is not necessary well.

In the UK, Hotel Indigo is carving out a good position as your best option in 2nd and 3rd tier cities. If you are in, say, Durham and want a modern and reliable four star hotel with a bit of style, the Indigo will usually be your best bet. I was at the new Hotel Indigo Bath last week and it was very impressive.

The hotels often have a lot going for them. It’s just a shame that IHG Rewards is now off the pace in virtually every way. It even fails on the simplest task of all – you no longer know what a reward night will cost when you come to redeem it, so you can’t make any firm plans to earn the points you need.

IHG One Rewards update – August 2022:

Get bonus points: IHG One Rewards is offering bonus base points on all cash stays between 18th May and 31st August.  You earn double points on your 2nd to 5th nights, triple points on your 6th to 14th nights and quadruple base points from your 15th night. Our full article is here. Click here to register.

New to IHG One Rewards?  Read our overview of IHG One Rewards here and our article on points expiry rules here. Our article on ‘What are IHG One Rewards points worth?’ is here.

Buy points: If you need additional IHG One Rewards points, you can buy them here.

Want to earn more hotel points?  Click here to see our complete list of promotions from IHG and the other major hotel chains or use the ‘Hotel Offers’ link in the menu bar at the top of the page.

Comments (49)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • Nick says:

    Many will remember that when IHG first introduced Spire Elite status, and we could get free Hertz Gold+ Rewards 5* status, we were ‘promised’ new benefits to be introduced shortly thereafter…What happened? Nowt!

    The most recognition I ever got, was when arriving at the IC Malta that same year, when the reception staff were very impressed by the nicely designed red Spire Elite card, which they handed around each other to take a look!

    Sadly, nothing much to see here, and Hilton has had the vast majority of my business over the past few years as a result.

  • Save East Coast Rewards says:

    I agree with Nick although I had effectively switched to Hilton just before Spire was introduced so never made that tier. For a few years I managed to maintain Royal Ambassador status (this is an invite only IC status level which unlike regular Ambassador is free, although you need to be Ambassador to get promoted to it so you’d need to pay at least once) you needed to stay a lot to get this status and it required effectively all my business and leisure travel to be in IC properties which became impossible when all my business travel started to be in places with no IC hotels.

    I seem to recall when I was demoted from Royal Ambassador you get a year of regular Ambassador for free. I made less use of it than I had expected as I’d visited all the cities I wanted to visit that had IC hotels in my RA years.

    Combining RA with pointbreaks was even better. While towards the end of the scheme a HIX by a motorway for 5000 points was the best you could hope for originally the scheme was very generous and I managed stays in IC Nairobi, Athens and Amman for 5000 points a night. All upgraded to suites (upgrades aren’t guaranteed on reward nights but I can’t remember not getting one).

    Back then I wasn’t aware that there were luxury travel agents that could guarantee certain benefits such as upgrades and late check out so I’m not sure whether these benefits would stack with Royal Ambassador in certain hotels and get you an even better upgrade.

  • Paul says:

    Stayed at IC Park Lane last week as Spire (used CC free night voucher).
    Got upgraded to Hyde Park view room.
    The free drinks voucher for us 2x glass of Chablis (priced at £20 a glass)!

    My review is here…

    • Save East Coast Rewards says:

      How busy was the hotel? (I’ve not looked at your review yet, I’m on a train with no headphones so will look later, I look forward to watching as it’s been a while since I stayed there)

      I think you’ve done well. I know when I had Royal Ambassador status they always applied a strict two category upgrade rule and never went beyond that while many other IC properties would upgrade further. Regular Ambassador members got a one category upgrade. Did you have to ask or was it just given to you?

    • Matt says:

      How did you find the noise levels in your Hyde park view room? No amount of glazing can block out park Lane? I usually prefer courtyard rooms with no view as you’re guaranteed a quiet room and a good nights sleep. I’m there in a couple weeks on cc free night too. Good to know about drinks vouchers. Thanks.

      • Memesweeper says:

        Take a cocktail not a glass of wine would be my tip.

    • IanM says:

      I’m staying week after next (decanted from O2!!) what can I expect as ambassador? Is there a lounge?
      Didn’t think much of your view of Hyde Park!

      • TGLoyalty says:

        You won’t get lounge access unless it’s part of your room rate or you pay to use.

      • Ryan Gill says:

        Ian, did you ask to be changed over to Park Lane and therefore were given a good deal? I had my O2 break cancelled too, but no mention of advantageous alternatives.

        • IanM says:

          No – I got no customer service from O2 at all – they basically said stay cancelled and I can’t get my credit card free night back because it’s expired.
          I had to book Park Lane with another one!

          I think it’s shocking that they’ve done this, there must be loads of people affected

    • James. says:

      Nice review Paul. I am staying at the IC Park Lane on 7 August using the Credit Card voucher. Lets see if I get the same.

      • Memesweeper says:

        Set your expectations low! It’s unusual I think…

    • Nick says:

      For what it’s worth, and I don’t know how important actual location is for anyone, but, IMHO, I’d rate the Crowne Plaza London – The City, above the IC Park Lane.

      Why? I’ve never had a bad stay there. The staff have been excellent, and friendly, and have been every time I’ve stayed there over the past few years.

      The suites are definitely price ‘competitive’ for London, and are all excellent.

      I’ve always been ‘recognised’! I had a big birthday celebration a couple of years ago. I had a suite booked, and I also booked four reward rooms for some guests. ALL of them were upgraded to club rooms.

      Location: You’re opposite Blackfriars Station. It’s a very easy access to anywhere in central London.

      It’s actually my favourite central/city London hotel, bar none, and has been for quite some years now.

      I don’t quite know why I’m saying this either! When you find a pearl, you don’t want to tell everyone, but, hey, take it, or leave it!

      • Soren says:

        Good tip. I will try the CP City next trip. I am also going to try the new(ish) CP Embankment – I’m ex pat UK – I live in US and use the IHG Plat card, the points are fairly good value when traveling in Europe.
        My last CP was Kings Cross 2019. I managed to get an upgraded corner room after some haggling, but the property was poor. I’m back to London in Oct, and gonna burn all my IHG reward nights and call it quits. I’m now back with Hilton in view of their recent series of very generous CC sign up bonus’s. Best London value in recent years was Radisson’s prog…they had some great Park Plaza redemption’s – alas now history.

    • Tom says:

      Personally, I think the Kimpton is a much better option at the moment. Looks nicer outside, bigger rooms, last week I had an upgrade to a Junior Suite, one hour of free flowing beer/wine for all guests, raid the bar voucher for use in the amazing Fitz Bar and a decent breakfast.

  • Degsy says:

    I’ve noticed IHG pricing now also seems very variable – for example I’ve booked Kimpton Clocktower in M/cr on a Saturday night next month for just 22k points. It’s now available for 75k….
    Cash prices have been similarly variable – at the time of booking the room was £180, at one point it dropped to £125 and it’s now £248 (which makes valuing points redemptions quite interesting).

  • Paul M says:

    Unfortunately the IHG customer service is a joke. If you have even a basic query the lack of knowledge even about their own policies is staggering. My go-to used to be IHG simply for the good points deals available but now Hilton every time.

  • JonD says:

    Good analysis of the state of play for IHG and in particular the difference in treatment between booking via a luxury travel agent or as a Spire.

    Having the Ambassador scheme and the Kimpton Inner Circle just further complicates the picture.

    IHG does need to have a good think about what purpose this all serves

  • Si says:

    Are people still receiving random unexpected 25k points when they haven’t quite reached Spire for this year and then also the official 25k points when they do hit the threshold?

    I qualified in February and claimed my 25k but feel I missed out on a potential free extra 25k points I might have got if i hadn’t been so efficient.

    Have I missed the boat to send an email to CS and get my moan on??

    • gareth says:

      I’m in the same boat as you. Qualified March(properly I might add!!) and I’ve not received extra 25k. I’m not emailing etc as I’ve not actually missed out on anything I’m officially owed, just take it on the chin!

  • Drolma-la says:

    UK-based holders of Intercontinental Ambassador status should rise up and besiege IHG to demand an extension to their renewal deadlines, retrospectively if necessary. This may be the nail in the IHG coffin. I won’t miss Intercontinentals’ faux luxe nickel-and-diming.

    • Craig says:

      I can’t see any point in renewing ambassador rather than signing up again just before I need it?

      • GoodExperience says:

        I had a good experience last week when calling IHG customer care. I explained that my ambassador status was expiring at the end of June and that I’d not been able to travel or stay in hotels due to COVID lockdowns and therefore had no value from my membership. The representative said she fully understood and transferred my call to the department that manages Rewards. The person there then renewed my membership for a year, without me asking for an extension and gave me 40000 points in lieu of my inability to use the weekend complimentary night. They were most helpful, willing to recognise the lack of use of ambassador benefits during this time and could not have been more willing to make me have a happy outcome. It took over 45 minutes, but was well worth it. I was very impressed.

        • Craig says:

          Thanks, I’ll give them a call.

        • LostAntipod says:

          Another great exam0le of the inconsistency of their service centre.
          I had a similar example recently. I called because the automatics extension of the free night voucher was due to expire. I made the same point about being. unable to use the benefits I had paid for during the last year. They told me that an ambassador has a once-in-a-lifetime privilege to ask for membership to be extended by 6 months. So my voucher is extended 6 months. No free points for the voucher, no 1 year renewal.

      • Jonty says:

        At one time you got a discount off the points booking rates with a renewal but not in your “first” year. Dunno if that’s still the case?

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