How I’m feeling about my hotel loyalty right now…

I’ve been giving hotels a lot of thought lately, and now that I’ve just about requalified for both Hyatt Diamond and Starwood Platinum for the year (in both cases on stays instead of nights), I figured I’d provide my general thoughts about both programs, as well as InterContinental. It’s also worth noting that I’ve now been a Starwood Platinum for a bit over year since status matching last April, so I now have more of a basis on which to judge Starwood. With that in mind, here are my general thoughts about both programs:

Hyatt

I love Park Hyatt properties. I mean, I really, really love Park Hyatt properties. The more I think about it, the more I realize that Park Hyatts are really what keeps me loyal to Hyatt. The ability to redeem no more than 22,000 Gold Passport points per night (or no more than 33,000 points per night for a suite) at a Park Hyatt hotel is really what drives my loyalty to the chain.


Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi

Don’t get me wrong, Hyatt gets tons of points from me for their consistency. There’s not a more consistent hotel chain, a chain that under promises and over delivers as consistently. But the more Hyatt hotels I stay at, the more I realize that aside from Park Hyatt and Andaz properties, most of their hotels are pretty boring.


Andaz Shanghai

But now that Starwood really stepped up the game, especially in terms of incremental benefits over initial qualification, I think it’s time for Hyatt to step up their’s. I actually don’t necessarily think they should start counting award nights towards elite qualification like Starwood does. I mean, I have no problem if they do, but I think what they really need are marginal benefits above the first 25 stays or 50 nights.

In the past Hyatt’s amazing promotions were reason enough to stay at their hotels since you could earn a free night at a Park Hyatt after every few nights. Obviously that’s not sustainable, so it doesn’t have to be that drastic. But I think where Hyatt is missing the boat is that marginal benefits actually decrease after the first 25 stays and 50 nights. You get four confirmed Diamond suite upgrades after qualifying, but then get nothing extra if you stay double or triple as many nights/stays. So they’re not giving any sort of an incentive to stay with them. It’s still a really solid program, though without the promotions and with Starwood recently stepping up their game, I don’t think it’s the clear winner anymore.

Starwood

I’ve always referred to Starwood as the chain that over promises and under delivers. This is because as a chain they offer “unlimited space available suite upgrades” to Platinum members, but in practice a lot of the franchised hotels don’t seem to be aboard and will do just about anything to avoid giving an upgrade. My frustration with Starwood was that as a Platinum member you could have a stay where you literally get no benefits except free internet, since breakfast wasn’t guaranteed either.

Fortunately back in March they revamped their program to add breakfast as a Platinum amenity option, and also to add incremental benefits for those that more than qualify for Platinum status. As usual with Starwood it sounded great on paper, though I was curious about the implementation. Surprisingly enough I have to say that in my experience so far the implementation has been excellent. While the breakfast amenity does have to be chosen in place of the 500 SPG point Platinum welcome amenity, for my stays thus far the hotels have gone beyond the minimum required. At Le Meridien Munich, for example, I even got access to the full buffet.


Le Meridien Munich breakfast

But what’s really tempting me about Starwood is the marginal benefits beyond the initial 25 stays and 50 nights, which really force me to stay at their hotels instead of at Hyatt properties. The most tempting of those benefits are the 10 confirmed suite night awards after 50 nights, which I’m aiming for this year. This allows you to confirm 10 nights in a suite five days before arrival, which is hugely useful in basically “jumping” the Platinum upgrade queue. With Starwood I seem to always get suite upgrades for my one-night airport hotel stays, but not for the “vacation” stays that really count. So being able to confirm those would be hugely valuable.

Furthermore, the fact that award nights now count towards elite qualification with Starwood make this even more of a no brainer, since I can redeem points for stays at mid-range hotels and have those work towards the additional benefits.

But that still doesn’t solve my major frustration with Starwood, which is the number of points required for their high end hotels. I value SPG points at over two cents each, so at 30,000+ points per night for a category seven hotel, there are almost no circumstances under which a points redemption is a good value. Worst of all is that all villa hotels like the W Retreat Koh Samui charge double of the normal points required given that they don’t have any “standard” rooms. I’ll never understand that, since the redemption category a hotel belongs to is already based on the cost of rooms, so you’re basically being penalized twice.

InterContinental

I also have Royal Ambassador status with InterContinental, though for me this is the program which is becoming less and less valuable by the day. InterContinental Royal Ambassador used to be the best top tier status by far, in my opinion, though over the past couple of years has decreased in value to me, partly because the competition has caught up and partly because InterContinental has done everything they can to “standardize” benefits, which is rarely a good thing.

Nowadays I’m not really loyal to the chain, but rather mainly to a few of their individual hotels, which make me want to keep Royal Ambassador status. For example, the InterContinental San Francisco and InterContinental Berchtesgaden are among my favorite hotels, and I’d hate to give up Royal Ambassador because of how much I love these hotels.


InterContinental Berchtesgaden — my favorite place on earth

At the same time, the status really isn’t sustainable. While they’ve continued to quietly reduce benefits they’ve also increased qualification requirements. While the requirements are unpublished, anecdotal evidence suggests it takes at least 60 nights per year to be invited to Royal Ambassador. If Priority Club had more “middle ground” between InterContinental and their other brands that might not be so bad, but as things stand now, I can’t see myself staying 60 nights per year with them. The most frustrating part of the program is the lack of elite benefits on award stays, which is the biggest slap in the face of all.

Finding value in short stays outside the main chains

Here’s the last challenge I’m having. I’m increasingly finding a lot of value in one to two night stays at Virtuoso and American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts properties that don’t belong to Hyatt, Starwood, or Priority Club. For example, if I see a Ritz Carlton available for $250 per night and it comes with a room upgrade, $100 food and beverage credit, and daily breakfast for two, I’d be hard pressed to book a Westin for $200. And while that’s not always the case, it certainly makes me a bit less “focused,” which is never a good thing when trying to requalify for status.


Ritz Carlton San Juan

The bottom line

There is no perfect hotel chain. I love Hyatt for the ability to stay at mid-range hotels and redeem for high-end hotels. I just wish their mid-range hotels were more interesting. I love Starwood for the benefits I receive when staying at mid-range hotels and the reasonable award redemption costs for mid-range hotels. I just wish their high-end hotels would be priced more reasonably for award redemptions.

My hotel decisions for the rest of the year will be dictated first and foremost by which chain gives me the best value on the promotion front. Unfortunately both Hyatt and Starwood‘s second quarter promotions are pretty lackluster. Barring decent promotions, my decisions will be driven by incremental benefits, which is where Starwood wins for now.

Who is everyone else favoring this year?

Comments

  1. Can you combine Virtuoso/AmEx FH&R with RC/Marriott Rewards or other high-end loyalty pgorams? MR isn’t as great as the other programs you mention, but at least you won’t feel the stay is going to “waste”

  2. @ gba — Yes, you sure can, and I’ll have a detailed post on FHR/Virtuoso tomorrow or Friday. Unfortunately I do feel like anything going to Marriott Rewards is a waste. 😀

  3. I am loyal to Starwood, but that is because my stay pattern tends to favor their best properties. I travel a lot to Thailand, where in my mind, Starwood is just incredible. I also like most of their other Asia properties, and given my frequent trips to LA from HNL, also really like the Sheraton LAX.

    On top of that, i love Cash & Points and the flexibility to transfer Starpoints to airlines with a 25% bonus for every 20,000 points.

    Now if i were a middle America domestic traveler, perhaps i would go with Hilton or Marriott where there is a preponderance of Hamptons and Residence Inn type properties, both of which i like.

    But ultimately, for this traveler, Starwood works best. I do not do IHG because there are no elite benefits for reward stays and I do not do Hyatt because Park Hyatts are limited and generally quite expensive. Elite benefits for Marriott do not impress me.

    With that said, I am impressed how Radisson has stepped up their game and would like to see them give the others a run for their money. I stayed at their Dhaka property and really enjoyed it.

  4. hmmm, a lot more love for SPG? and this is completely unrelated to their program taking you to the Tribeca film fest, fashion week, the US open, etc?

  5. SPG been with them for 5 yrs.

    Question will be traveling with Lufthansa several times in the remaining year. Would it be better to add the miles to my Miles&More account (which i just joined)or to my Mileage Plus, it’s been difficult to get award travel with MP lately? Thanks! Tim

  6. @ bmvaughn — I’ll never understand why people love Marriott. They have the highest elite qualifying thresholds, don’t even offer Platinum members breakfast on weekends, and don’t really do upgrades.

    @ Jay — Read the content of what I wrote and please tell me if you really think anything I say is off base. Hyatt has been weak on promotions this year and SPG legitimately enhanced their program. I’m still dissing on SPG for their high redemption costs at the nicer hotels. C’mon.

    @ Tim — What kind of fares are you traveling on?

  7. Carl hit the nail on the head for me: I travel almost entirely domestically for work and personal reasons. Hilton’s the no-brainer, especially with their stepped-up benefits (which IIRC Starwood merely responded to). I got HH Gold through the three-stay Visa Signature promo last summer and will easily requalify. I’m happy with the benefits, but sometimes wonder what I’m missing with Marriott. I’ve heard not much — does anyone think otherwise?

  8. Since you can get virtually unlimited confirmed at booking suites with Hyatt (MORE than 5 days out) by simply redeeming 6,000 points per stay I don’t see why you have no incentive to keep staying at Hyatt. Every time you stay you get more points which you can perpetually turn around and use for confirmed suite upgrades.

    lately I’ve been much more impressed with total rewards properties. $80 in play can net you tons of free nights at their properties without redeeming any points at all. Total rewards blows any loyalty program I’ve ever seen or heard of out of the water as far as value. Earn 3000 tier points and get diamond status for a year and you can use the lounges even without staying at the property. The lounges all have hot food, many with meat carving stations and seafood entrees every day guaranteed and they all have free premium alcohol.

  9. @ HunterSFO — Because at the end of the day you’d be hard pressed to earn 6,000 Hyatt points per stay, and even if you did, always redeeming points for suites would mean you’re not building up any points towards Park Hyatt redemptions. Frankly for most hotel stays I really don’t care whether I get a suite or not since I’m staying alone and for a short time, though it is nice to get suite upgrades on longer vacation stays. But I wouldn’t call the ability to redeem 6,000 points for an upgrade to be an incremental benefit.

  10. i think spg continues to over promise and under deliver. breakfast is for max 2 guests and is only continental. implementation has been patchy. suite upgrades have proven to be completely useless. and as you point out i can only redeem at lower end properties. so i can go to park hyatt maldives. but the w aldives is a mon starter even though they are about par in terms of price quality and target market. spg is not a great program and while i think you do your best to keep it balanced there is good reason thry ply any potentially influential media outlets like yourself with goodies

  11. I’ll trip Spg plat this week. The new benefits are a nice enhancement, and the mid-range redemptions are great, especially when cash and points are an issue. I generally like their product too.

    Top properties not really being there to redeem is a big concern.

    My other program is Hilton, with the opposite problem where all hotels are high-category, so you almost need to redeem at the very top there. Unsure if I’ll trip diamond or pour more into starwood. With Hilton domestically I end up in hamptons much of the time, where benefits are not so important.

  12. I think a piece of the post is missing, at the end of the Intercontinental section:

    “The most frustrating part of the program is”

    For me most frustrating is lack of any benefits on award stays.

  13. @lucky

    I’ve posted this here before, but I think that if you’re getting good stay benefits without status (via Virtuoso/FHR) and don’t mind the sub-standard elite program, it’s possible to get fairly good value from Marriot Redepmtions with travel packages:

    You can get 12000 airline miles plus a week in a cat 1-5 property for 270000 points. Platinums can earn 25 points per dollar spent (30 with a credit card, I believe) by using gift cards (plus you can book rooms/buy gift cards and get fat wallet cash back). Add in welcome amenties and megabonuses and you can get one of those for under $8000 in spend.

    $8000 in spend at Starwood, for example, as a Platinum with their cc gets you only 50000 airline miles and no hotel stays (before promos) or 4 nights in a cat 4 hotel and no miles.

  14. @ Gary — Whoops, fixed. Thanks!

    @ gba — There’s no doubt there are good redemption values, it’s more the fact that you actually have to spend 75 nights at Marriott properties on revenue stays to get top tier status with them.

  15. “My frustration with Starwood was that as a Platinum member you could have a stay where you literally get no benefits except free internet, since breakfast wasn’t guaranteed either.”

    Or a stay at a property with ‘resort fees’, forget about the upgrade at a resort and you’re already ‘paying’ for Internet . . .

  16. I have just crossed the 50 night threshhold with SPG and heading for 75. I have 10 years of platinum under my belt, and if I get 75 I will be less than 100 nights from Lifetime Platinum. I am also 3 stays away from renewing Hyatt Diamond for the year (you can probably tell I live out of a suitcase).

    I will continue trying to requalify for Hyatt once I’m lifetime SPG Plat. I like Park Hyatts a lot as well, and some Grand Hyatts too. However, I continue to prefer Starwood for two important reasons. First, there is no comparison when it comes to how much more valuable SPG points are over Hyatt points. Second, the benefits I gain from 50 and 75 night threshholds effectively turn my Platinum status into Executive Platinum (to use the AA analogy)

  17. Ben –

    Give TPG some love and use his link to sign up for the Ritz Carlton Rewards Visa. Right now a 70,000 point bonus, plus 3 Club Upgrade certificates. (and other benefits)

    Your first year you will receive Ritz (and Marriott) Gold, which should be good enough since Platinum does not get you a huge amount more.

    With nearly 4,000 properties from Fairfield Inns up to Autograph Collection, JW Marriotts, Renaissance, AC in Spain, and even the Ritz, you have a wide variety of options for earning and using your points. With points savers and 5th night free, you can really find some very good redemptions.

    All in all, I find Marriott Rewards (actually, I switched my account so now it is Ritz-Carlton Rewards) to be a very useful, valuable program with a wide variety (geographically and level of quality) of properties.

    – Lark

  18. I strongly prefer Starwood because, with their points being more valuable than other hotel currencies, you get much more out of cc spend than with other chains. And you can get over-the-top exchange rates out of both “Cash & Points” and “5th night free”. (Admittedly, suites don’t mean as much to me as to some others.)

  19. @ Lark — Am very tempted by the card as it has some amazing benefits, and it’s definitely in my next churn cycle.

    @ Jenny — I’m actually very tempted by Hilton, especially since you can earn Diamond status for $40K of spend on the Hilton Surpass card. They could be a nice backup as a third hotel chain if I could earn Diamond status based on spend.

  20. On Friday when you talk about Virtuoso/AmEx FH&R, can you also include travelsort, Visa Signature Luxury Hotel collection and Chase Luxury hotel & Resort Collection?

  21. For consistency, you can’t beat Hyatts. Maybe it’s just the cities I’ve been lucky to travel to, but Hyatts always had an excellent combination of location, elite benefits, and value, while SPG and Hiltons fall short, normally in the small details like the bathroom or bed. But in Vancouver, New York, LA, Tokyo, Singapore, Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, HK, and SF, I’m happy to be a Hyatt Diamond member. OK, maybe they need a few more European properties…

  22. @ Stvr — Yep, I’ll be sure to include that as well in a follow up post I’ll also have up tomorrow.

  23. I just had the exact same experience you describe regarding FHR. On Tenerife, the Ritz Carlson is $258, but I get $120 in room credit, free breakfast, and an upgrade. The Sheraton was $184…total no-brainer. I even switched another res. to AC Marriott from Starwood to get the Stay twice get one free promo. I haven’t stayed at a Marriott in years, but with FHR it made sense.

  24. I really wish Hyatt would bring back FFN, which was a staple of the program until recently. Hyatt has not offered FFN now for two years! The loss of the Gx bonus offers is very disappointing. There are some spectacular Hyatt hotels, but their limited number of locations makes loyalty difficult.

    On the other hand, Hilton is my preferred program of choice due to the enormous number of locations and often more competitive rates relative to SPG & Hyatt. In fact, Hilton was the program running a 4 stays earn a free night offer last year, while Hyatt offered nothing. As a Diamond, one earns 20 points per dollar at Hilton hotels with the points and points option( Golds earn 15 points/dollar with points & points). Pay with a no fee Hilton AMEX card, and you earn 6 points per dollar at Hilton branded hotels. Then there are the Hilton quarterly promo offers which may offer double or triple points depending on the design of the promo. Then use the points you accumulate for a VIP reward stay of 6 nights or more which makes a Category 7 hotel cost 37,500 points per night.

  25. I would give hhonors a try. Plus you really only need gold (20k spending even with free ae) for the free breakfast and Internet and silver gets free gym access.

  26. @ Tim — I’d probably credit to United. If you qualify for 1K with them you would earn six systemwide upgrades you could use to upgrade to first class on Lufthansa, while if you earned Senator status you’d only earn the equivalent of one upgrade. I’d say that’s the most “compelling” benefit you could get out of it.

  27. Great post.

    It’s always nice to see up-to-date macro level program reviews as well as the micro hotel level stuff.

    I know you get a lot of flack about having too many card-focused posts but I was actually kind of surprised that card related earning and/or benefits didn’t factor into this post to a greater extent as that would seem to be a big part of finding the best program for a given individual.

    It would also be nice to see information about lower/middle tier considerations for folks who don’t spend all their time on the road.

    Echoing the suggestions of others I’d also like to see more specific comments on programs and earning opportunities offered by Hilton, Ritz-Carlton, Virtuoso, & AMEX FHR and how they compare to Hyatt, SPG, & IC/PC.

    -Dax

  28. Ben – For your demographic Marriott does not work. But get back to me when you have a family and want to go on vacation with a family of four and then can’t find a top level Hyatt, SPG or IC that allows four in a room. Then compare to Marriott and almost every top end Marriott can accommodate that. The argument of top level benefits does not play into that situation. It is what it is.

    Cheers.

  29. Derek,
    The SPG award nights are good for 1-2 adults. Policies of children under 17 or under 12 staying free, if using existing room bedding, are pretty common I think, although I do not believe there is a uniform policy.

    The first marriott property i checked only offered accomodation for 4 in the presidential suite. I stacked the deck by searching Paris and don’t doubt marriott is more kid-friendly, but I don’t know if it’s quite as extreme as you make it out to be. Obviously an important concern that is not on Lucky’s radar (or mine) but not a complete dealbreaker.

  30. I tried Marriott Rewards for a while but the inability to combine points and cash on award redemptions turned me away from them. Hilton and Starwood are good in this regard. If I really need a suite I’ll just stay at an Embassy Suites. With Hilton, I love the fact that I don’t have to choose between points or miles.

  31. What BAFFLES me about hotel programs is that you don’t get any elite benefits (in several programs). IMHO I have yet to find a hotel program that is really worth it, but I do agree that Hyatt and SPG are the best of what exists.

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