Is hotel loyalty worth it?

Peter sends in the following question regarding hotel loyalty:

Lucky,

I’ve never been able to rationalize earning points or attaining status in hotel programs given what priceline can get you; of course, I’m talking about the leisure traveler who doesn’t need to stay right across the street from the convention center or doesn’t need an amenity that a particular hotel offers. Just to throw a few data points out there, I have gotten the London marriot park lane for 100 pounds a/i, the regular rate was around 225 pounds and I have also gotten a Newjersey Hyatt for $42 a/I, regular rate was $112. That said, what does loyalty get you?….room upgrades, amenity kit, breakfast, lounge access, and internet. To me, all that isn’t worth paying double and sometimes triple the price. I’ll pay the $10 – 20 if I need internet, I could do without lounge access; as far as breakfast is concerned, I’d rather sample the local fare at a café than pay the $20 eggs and bacon at the hotel. So then there’s the room upgrade. Sure, its nice, but I’m already getting a comfy bed with a good bathroom at a nice hotel. Its not like I’m jumping from economy class to business or first where I’m getting a lie flat bed, decent food, and premium alcohol. Not to mention how much more expensive the gap is between economy and business that the only practical way to be in the premium cabin is to use miles or upgrades. But maybe you see things in a different light. Is it just the convenience of having status, getting to the hotel and being upgraded and treated like royalty as opposed to sweating it out on priceline? Given my two hotel examples above, I can’t justify doing anything else but pricelining hotels. Thanks in advance for your input.

Peter

This is a great question, and one I struggled with for the past couple of years, but I think I’ve finally found the answer. There’s no doubt that Priceline is tough to beat for the occasional leisure traveler, and possibly even the frequent leisure traveler. And if you can’t understand why people would do mileage runs, you probably won’t understand my reasoning here either, because you actually have to enjoy the hunt and often the time it takes to attain status to fully get the “value” out of it.

This might surprise some, but I think in general you’re right, you’re better off using Priceline for your hotel stays. It’s hard to beat the price. Yet, as a guy very much focused on “the numbers,” I haven’t used a third party booking site for a hotel even once this year. Why? Because I stick to the right programs.

For someone that has a good mix of international and domestic travel, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you’re typically not going to get enough value out of Hilton, Marriott, or Starwood, if you’re just focused on cost.

Hilton has a limited number of promotions, and even with their second quarter promotion you’d only earn one free night at any hotel after every four stays. In addition to that, points earning opportunities are somewhat meager, and elite benefits aren’t that great either. At Hampton Inn hotels, you’re not getting a whole lot as an elite, since internet, parking, and breakfast is typically already free. At the high end international properties, you’re just getting lounge access.

It’s much of the same for Marriott. While they’re a great chain and their elite members are typically quite happy, you’re not getting all that much value out of the program as a leisure traveler. They just don’t have promotions that make a compelling enough case to be loyal to them as opposed to using Priceline, especially given their high elite qualification tiers.

Starwood is right on the border of being worthwhile for someone looking to minimize their costs, given the “cash and points” redemptions they have. They also typically have pretty good promotions, like their current promotion, whereby you get one free night for every three stays you make. Make three stays at Four Points domestically, and you get a free stay at a hotel in an expensive international city. Their elite benefits are pretty good, though they come mostly in the form of suite upgrades, which isn’t worth the world for someone looking to minimize costs.

Then there are the hotel chains that actually might be worth being loyal to as a full-on leisure traveler. Priority Club has a nice mix of hotels, and it’s very easy to get Platinum status with them, though that’s not worth the world. Most importantly to me, it’s very, very easy to rack up a lot of points. For a one-night Holiday Inn stay last year, for example, I earned 20,000 points. While that’s not really typical, the points earning opportunities are very, very good, and the redemption opportunities are great as well. Make sure to see this FlyerTalk thread for all the promotions Priority Club has. They also have the Friends & Family rate, whereby you can get something like 40% off the best flexible rate. Typically that will get you somewhat close to Priceline levels at many hotels.

But for the leisure traveler, the place I really see value is Hyatt’s Gold Passport program. Diamond status takes 25 stays or 50 nights, and the benefits are excellent, including free internet, a few confirmed suite upgrades, and a hot buffet breakfast or club lounge access on all stays. This can be a real money saver. But that alone doesn’t make it worth the premium.

The real value comes from their amazing promotions. For example, the “Big Welcome Back” promotion just wrapped up, which was insanely profitable for me. Through it, Hyatt offered one free night for every two stays. In many (most?) US cities, there are Hyatt Place hotels for around $60-70/night. Throw in some Costco certificates to get 20% off, and you’re looking at about $60/night all-in. That means a free night is “costing” you $120.

That free night can in turn be used in cities like Sydney, Tokyo, or Paris, where hotels would run you quite a bit more. Best of all, you still get all elite benefits if you have status, so as a Diamond you’d get free internet, lounge access or free breakfast, etc. I’d say that’s worth quite a bit.

As if that’s not enough, Hyatt has had some equally nice offers to sweeten the deal even more. They offered 5,500 American Airlines miles per stay for five stays, and offer 2,500 United miles per stay for United elites through next January.

Now this free nights promotion doesn’t run all year, but we just finished an earning period of about three months, and rumor has it that the promotion will be back in August for another four months. So that’s seven months out of the year where you can earn nights at a very low rate, and I’d say in this case, it’s a substantially better deal than Priceline.

As I pointed out earlier, this isn’t for everyone. You actually have to enjoy the game for this to be profitable. “Mattress running” is work as well, though you can minimize the negative impact by just “mattress running” when you’re somewhere you need to stay anyway. So if you need to stay in a smaller US city, instead of using Priceline, book a Hyatt Place. You could earn quite a few miles, plus half a free night, plus the Diamond amenity bonus (if you were a Diamond). Or if you need to make a trip anyway, consider hotel hopping. If you’re staying in San Francisco, for example, hop between the three Hyatt properties.

So what’s the moral of the story? You’re not doing anything wrong by using Priceline. As a leisure traveler you’re definitely not “missing out” or being blind by using it. But if you like five star hotels at bargain basement prices while getting some of the best rooms and amenities available, promotions like the ones Hyatt has are unbeatable. I’m pretty sure on a cost per stay basis for my vacations this summer, I’m doing better than anyone could have done using Priceline.

About lucky

Ben Schlappig (aka Lucky) is a travel consultant, blogger, and avid points collector. He travels about 400,000 miles a year, primarily using miles and points to fund his first class experiences. He chronicles his adventures, along with industry news, here at One Mile At A Time.

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Comments

  1. One other thing about booking through priceline that affects me personally. On priceline you have no way to confirm a bed type. usually you get a double bed or a queen bed. my wife and i need a king bed to sleep comfortably (i’m 6’5″ 230lbs). so even if i wanted to, i can’t do priceline if i’m traveling for leisure with her.

    just another non-monetary priceline issue.

  2. While I understand ‘the chase’ and can see your perspective on hotel loyalty, I’m not sure on your use of the word ‘profitable’. However, you can certainly get an increased ‘value’ from the chase.

    Peter has some good points about some benefits being meaningless to him. He’d rather experience his destination by a breakfast at a cafe across the street, than to have a western breakfast in the lounge. Sure you might be able to save some money with the comp stuff, but many are there to experience all they can outside of the hotel.

    Admittedly, it is nice to see what each properties have to offer, and to that end, I’m glad you are so interested in and thorough of your reviews of properties around the world.

  3. @ Ripper3785 — Good points, though I’d argue it can be “profitable” in absolute terms. If you live near a Hyatt Place that’s $70ish, for example, and are a United elite, you can earn 5,000 United miles and a free night for every two stays of $120 (after using Costco certs). I’d argue that’s better than anyone could do on Priceline, and it doesn’t even take into account the other benefits received.

  4. I kind of understand the comment about breakfast – having it “complimentary” in the hotel “forces” you to miss out on the “local” stuff. I’ve often remarked that since becoming Hyatt Diamond 7 years ago. But for value, its really quite hard to beat. For example, over 7/4 wknd, I was at the Andaz LA using BWB free nights (not the best use but I don’t have any other targetted use right now) – to “earn” each of those “free” nights, I did a MR at a Hyatt Place which cost was about $60 – so each of the Andaz LA nights cost me $120 – Priceline often has this hotel for $110 + tax + Priceline fee. So I did a little bit better with the Hyatt MR strategy. In the process with the promotions that Hyatt was running, I also earned 27500 AA miles and 3325 Hyatt points and had breakfast each day of the stay which “cost” would have been $50+ (not that I would have actually paid it of course).

  5. I just went through this when planning a road trip. Despite being a gold with both HH and SPG I did my first priceline buy. The overall savings will make it worth it upwards of 50%.

  6. Investing in the programs makes sense if you have an expectation of needing those higher priced stays. It is a bad deal to invest $120 just to get a free night that you could simply buy outright for less money.

    If one has no desire or need for suite upgrades and “free” breakfast then the loyalty is almost never worthwhile in the long run. I’ve saved easily hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars by eschewing loyalty and just staying where the price and property quality are right over the past 3 years. No need to drop $250/night at the Hilton in Cologne when there is a perfectly serviceable 3* hotel around the corner with rooms for $80/night and still with free breakfast. Ditto in Sydney, London, Tokyo, Edinburgh and any number of other cities I’ve visited recently.

    Even with the mattress running for the free nights the value isn’t always right, especially when one is paying out of their own pocket or travels extensively outside the USA.

  7. @Mordy yes – Marriott certainly does. Starwood and Hilton do not. I think Hyatt does but others will chime in on this one.

    For someone who doesn’t care about suites, views, breakfast, internet, etc. then it’s much more of a ‘close call’ on Priceline versus other booking methods and bonuses.

    And that person will probably find it easier and worthwhile to make effective use of Priceline.

    But to many travelers the value of suites, breakfast, internet, perhaps minibar, late checkout (and perhaps early checkin) is NOT zero.

    I love my first class suites on planes, but the flight is maybe 12 hours and my resort stay might be 120 hours! A nice deck overlooking the ocean, a separate room from the bedroom , a large luxurious bathroom. These are nice things to me at least that make the stay more pleasurable.

    And a lounge isn’t just free bad food! It’s often not being nickel and dimed, it’s a place to conveniently pick up bottled water perhaps, a place to have someone tend to you as you plot out your day, a bit more persnnalized than seeking assistance in the hotel lobby.

    If you travel on your own with a guide book, don’t value the extra space at all, and don’t want to chase the deals, then by all means stick with Priceline. Goodness knows it is a valuable tool!

    Everybody’s travel style is different, I don’t argue mine is better than anyone else’s, I personally don’t use Priceline much any more but I help others to all the time!

  8. One doesn’t have to chose between priceline and points earning stays at one of the chains. I do both depending on my needs for that particular stay. I do priceline if I have no need for the points and more importantly if I will be in the room for a short time and don’t need the late check out

    Also, at times I find myself in cities where the rates are outrageous. For example I will be in Singapore during the GP. Most of the hotels I stay at have no availability or have rates in the 800 SGD+ range. the Singapore Conrad however had an award room which I booked. Also been in New York where the cheapest HIX was 550 USD+ which I also booked with points

    Sometimes you can have the best of both. PL 5* in SYD i’ve found usually books into the Marriott Harbour which does honour elite benefits on PL stays. Their lounge happy hour, from memory, lasts a full 4 hours

    Jeff

  9. I’ve made mention of this before and since this topic corresponds nicely I’ll venture another comment.

    There’s certainly additional “cost” to loyalty programs in the fact that you don’t experience anything other than big box hotels. Perhaps some like the idea that you can stay anywhere in the world at these hotel chains and have remarkably the same experience. But, the question becomes, why even bother to travel?

    Isn’t the experience of staying in that B&B or family (or even small company) run hotel part of the joy of travel? That, to me, is certainly a cost of “loyalty.”

    And, one aside, despite how people who love these programs tend to spin them, ultimately they’re a better deal for the big box hotels than they are for the consumer. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be around.

  10. Will always put my money towards valuable promotions like big welcome back by hyatt – lucky has referenced many times. Stayed in 6 hyatt places for about 90-100 dollars per night and got 2 nights in sydney and one at beaver creek. The opera view sydney room retails for ~ 500-800 a night; not sure about beaver creek, but pretty sure I came out on top. Bravo Hyatt!

  11. I don’t care about room upgrades or free breakfast either (but the free internet is nice), so I’ve avoided hotel loyalty for a long time, but I finally went for it because Hyatt had *TWO* promotions at the same time, and I was able to take advantage of both promotions with each stay

    One is the Big Welcome Back promo Lucky alluded to. I decided to make 6 local stays, which cost me about $300 total. What did I get in return? Well, I have 3 free nights at hotels that would otherwise cost $400-600 (imagine an $1800 3 night hotel bill settled for $300–that’s what it amounts to). I also qualified for platinum through Jan 2012. This alone is worth it.

    At no additional cost, I signed up for the American Airlines miles promo. I ended up with an extra 27,500 with American. I value them at about $300.

    So 27.5k miles, 3 free nights at a 5 star hotel and Platinum status @ Hyatt. All for $300? Yes, I’ll take that.

  12. Just putting my 2c on this as well.

    Being a relatively new traveller and new to flyertalk and miles and all, I’ve gone through a few programs and I have, just like Lucky, decided that Hyatt is close to where it’s at.

    Firstly, their free nights promotion lets me stay in hotels I would never dream of staying at, at prices the same as normal hotels; Park Hyatt Tokyo, Park Hyatt Zurich etc. etc.

    Secondly, I was able to diamond trial at 5 stays (essentially becoming diamond at 5 nights (!) ), so I enjoyed breakfast and increased service etc, but also suite upgrades. Some may not value the bigger rooms or suites, but for my partner and I, we love being in the hotel as much as the city, and if we’re travelling, coming back to a suite is amazing. As for breakfast, room service sometimes takes the hassle out of a sleep-in, and if I don’t want it, I’ll eat somewhere else (either way, it’s on the house!)

    Thirdly, with cheap rates, nearly -every- rate I’ve found that was cheapest for Hyatt has been matched by Hyatt’s BRG, giving me a -further- 20% discount. If that’s not cheap, I’m not sure what is (?)

    Lastly, Being diamond gives me a concierge which helps me with hotels, locations, and sometimes tips on the city as well. It’s like having a receptionist almost.

    So essentially, I’m paying the cheap prices for hotels, AND getting benefits such as breakfast, AND getting large room upgrades, AND getting great service everytime, so it’s worth it for me. Besides, I wouldn’t be paying different to what I would normally pay for a 3 star hotel in a good location.

  13. If you can easily find hotels for $50/night and earn lots of free nights with them then that’s great. That isn’t feasible for most folks. Yes, a $600 room in Sydney is great but if you can also find a room at a local place for $150 are you really saving so much money? Not in my book. Plus you don’t have to deal with staying in the same boring hotel in Sydney that you would in Des Moines. Yes, I’ve stayed in the Marriott in Sydney on points and I wasn’t all that impressed; certainly not to the level of the prices they charge.

    Staying in hotels with local flavor is a great part of travel. Even if I had the IHG points for the Holiday Inn in Accra I wouldn’t use them. I’m going for something with a bit more flavor. I find that staying in the local properties is much more educational and enjoyable. And generally quite a bit less expensive, too.

  14. @Wandering Aramean: if your refering to my post, the qualifying stays were not mattress runs, they were all at different locations for different activities; so a win win. Also, park hyatt sydney > sydney marriott, IMO.

  15. Peter makes a fair point. But I’ve landed a few dogs on Priceline, and that’s been enough to keep me away.

    Thanks to having stumbled onto your blog a few months ago, I went for Hyatt and feel like I’m getting an incredible value. This has been more than worth it (including the extra effort in checking in for the seven nights I didn’t need).

    Thank you for the very useful information!

  16. Hey Lucky,

    Using the IHG F&F rates do not earn PC points or credit, right? Do they also not qualify for current PC promos?

    Thanks!

  17. Fairmonts Presidents club is better for a leisure traveller IMO. 5 stays gets you $50 worth of dining certs, gauranteed suite and room upgrade certain plus third night free (off virtually any rate). Fairmont runs enough promos that snagging their hotels at reasonable rates isn’t terribly hard.

    I use mostly PL but try and get 5 stays a year in at Fairmont.

    In terms of effort, there is almost always some hotel deal in a major city going on to get a good rate at a hotel. It’s your choice whether to research a particular city for thrum or depend on a loyalty program to try and get thrum.

  18. Lucky, this was the best explanation of the topic I’ve seen. The way you explained the principles made them crystal clear. So, thanks! Of course now I’m a little bummed I didn’t do the Hyatt Big Welcome Back promo. I’ll be checking regularly to see if they do bring it back in August.

  19. I think the big issue is leisure verses business travel and the question of whether one can really seperate one from the other. When I travel for business, I am allowed to pay no more for a room than a set rate. Likewise, I get $45-$65 for food based on the city. If I can eat in the lounge then that cash is mine. Likewise, if I go sample the local fare then there is less cash left over.

    When I travel for leisure, all the above doesn’t apply since it is out of my pocket. However, if I’m at 23 SPG nights and need two more to lock in Platinum or 26 at Hilton and need 2 more for Diamond, the extra $50 I may spend in leisure will be recouped on my business trip next week by use of the lounge. I think the mistake (for a business/leisure traveler) is to look at each night as a isolated transaction instead of across the board.

    In addition, as Lucky pointed out, many of my leisure stays are free based on the various promotions. In essance, business stays provide my weekend leisure stays in which I pay nothing.

    I would have to have my next years status locked in and all my free nights used before the amount of money I could save with Priceline would make it worthwhile. If you are just a leisure traveler then its completely different….

  20. I am just surprised to read about someone actually managing to score a decent room via Priceline. Every time I’ve used them I’ve ended up in the crappiest room in the entire hotel, with the staff treating me like I was one step above the custodial staff.

    I don’t belong to a loyalty program, because I just don’t stay at hotels often enough, but no thanks re: Priceline.

  21. I am more or less the infrequent traveller some times a year but you could ask the same for the flying industry.

    Case in point, the trip I am doing to new york in august will be miles and point based to a specific convention. Prices are unbearable for flying, hotel prices as well. It will allow me to book a hotel close enough to the space, The other points? I just use them for special occasions like the Holiday Inn in Munich where usually I do pay 60 € for a night, but suddenly cheap hotels where at 400+.

    So for the leasure traveller who does not care- most likely not. But for the casual business traveller it is worth a look to see the 2-4 year projection on what it does mean to go loyal. 🙂

  22. This a superb thread. Thanks to Lucky and Peter for their viewpoints as well as to all the commenters who followed. This is why I enjoy this blog and continue to learn from others.

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