Comparison Table of Top Tier Hotel Status

My airline comparison tables were hugely popular, so I’ve created a similar table comparing hotel programs. Actually, I’ve been working on it for a while, off and on. There is a tremendous amount of variation in the kind of benefits they provide and the restrictions in their use. Making useful comparisons thus becomes difficult.

I decided to start at the top because hotel status is relatively easy to obtain, so I assume that this is going to be your goal. Many co-branded credit cards award status to lower tiers outright, and there is even greater variation in their benefits and qualification criteria. Update: tables for the lower tiers have since been published.

The programs I chose to compare are Hyatt Gold Passport, Starwood Preferred Guest, Kimpton InTouch, Hilton HHonors, Marriott Rewards, IHG Rewards (the new name for Priority Club), and InterContinental Ambassador (a specialized program within IHG Rewards). The first three are my preferred brands, so I put them together.

Finally, a word about how the tables are designed. Much like with the top tiers of airline loyalty programs, I ran out of space and decided to split the table into two. I did not include standard footnotes within the table because there were so many. Some of these programs have very nuanced rules, and it was easier to create an section at the bottom to explain all of these at once for each program. Be sure to read these caveats because the table by itself may be overly simplified. You can also download a PDF of all the program comparisons (including lower tiers).

Hotel Top Tier 1

Hotel Top Tier 2

Interpretation

I struggled sometimes with whether I should say “yes” or “no” for certain benefits.¬†For example, InterContinental doesn’t guarantee a suite upgrade, and only suggests that it is one of several upgrade possibilities. In the past, some hotels have created special “Executive Rooms” not much different from standard rooms if only to avoid providing a suite upgrade. Starwood and Kimpton do promise an entry-level suite if available even though Starwood has issues with compliance. Hyatt does not promise a suite upgrade at all, but I have had rather good luck.

The fact is that any hotel can provide a suite at its discretion, so I used mine. Are you promised a suite, if available, to the exclusion of other non-suite room types? I think only Kimpton and Starwood meet this description.

Within the table, you may find also find entries that say “Varies” or “Discretion.” Both mean what they say. Benefits within some programs vary significantly depending on the brand and the property. IHG Rewards promises no real welcome amenity, but if one is available I’ve gotten everything from cookies and soda to nasal strips and a bottle of water.

“Discretion” has a more insidious meaning. InterContinental has discretion to assign you one of several upgrade room types. You receive club access only if you are assigned a club room. If you are assigned a different kind of upgrade, then the front desk has discretion whether to extend club benefits. Similarly, Marriott claims to offer late check-out, but you have to request on the day of departure, and the hotel can effectively give you whatever they want from a flat “no” to several hours. I have had Hyatt hotels gently encourage me to leave on time when they are full, but none have denied me a 4 PM check-out when I pushed back.

Analysis

I think we all knew that there were some big differences between loyalty programs. This table doesn’t do a whole lot to change general perceptions, but I think it does a good job of putting all the information in one place. You can tell now by looking at it just how bad Marriott Rewards is. It has the highest qualification requirement, the highest spend requirement to earn the lowest free night award, and some of the weakest benefits.

Take breakfast, for example. A Marriott hotel has the right to deny you club access. At that point, you’re offered free breakfast, but only a continental breakfast. And they might encourage you to take the 750 points instead. If Hyatt denied me club access, I’d get 2,500 points in addition to a full, hot breakfast.

This is one way that Hyatt stands out among its competitors (another is its flexible suite upgrades). Other programs stand out in their own ways. Starwood offers more suite upgrades, even if they are more restrictive, as well as better benefits if you are a “super” Platinum with 75 nights. (Don’t forget that Starwood is alone in offering elite stay credit for award nights, as well as credit for up to three rooms under the same reservation — great for families.) Kimpton suffers in many areas, including late check-out, but it has a very simple rewards program and is the only one to guarantee award availability. It also goes above and beyond in service and offers other ways to get free nights not listed here, including one free night at every new property.

Hilton is the only program that makes it possible to earn status just through credit card spend, though InterContinental makes it even easier with its referral program. One nice thing about InterContinental is that even though it has a limited number of hotels and unpublished qualification criteria, it treats its top-tier elites very well. One bad thing is that it has a less impressive reputation for recognizing status on award stays.

I will leave you with the most interesting conclusion (in my opinion): my calculation of the spending power required to earn a free night in each program. Don’t read too much into it because it is a range and ignores many good values in the middle. Hyatt, Starwood, and Kimpton all started out around $700 in spend to earn the cheapest free night (Kimpton’s range is based on a rate of $100-200 per night). You’ll notice that Starwood, however, is extremely expensive on the upper end. The effect is mitigated if you include the 5th free night on longer award stays, but it still suggests that those properties are either a horrible deal or must be pretty awesome. Maybe it just means that many Park Hyatt properties are an amazing deal at only 22,000 points!

Take a look at the other four programs, and you’ll see less variation. Here is where Marriott might win, with some of the cheapest top category awards, but Hyatt is not too far off. Hilton has some of the cheapest awards, though I’m not sure how many people are actually staying at Category 1 hotels. It is worth noting that even after Hilton’s recent devaluation, I still estimate it takes at most $4,750 in spend to redeem for a Category 10 hotel in the peak season. This is not far out of line from other programs and is well below the theoretical maximum for some Starwood properties.

Your Turn

Have I made any glaring errors or omissions? Please let me know! I went through a couple rounds of revisions on the airline tables before reaching a finished product. I admit I am not very familiar with some programs like Marriott. If benefits aren’t clearly explained online, I may not know they exist or how they are implemented in practice. Help me make this table better!

Scott created Travel Codex after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • nordictat2girl

    Wish you would of included Club Carlson. I have had nothing but good exp. with them and can be quite giving when it comes to points etc. :-)

    • Scottrick

      If someone would like to collect the same information for Club Carlson and forward it to me, I will add it. But right now I want to finish collecting the information for the programs I already have listed before adding another program.

      • nordictat2girl

        Well honestly it should of been included from the start :P as alot of us DO use CC and to be honest…Priority Club of which you included is a bloody joke nowadays. ;)

        • Scottrick

          Club Carlson’s program does not impress me much. I included IHG Rewards because of its link to InterContinental Hotels.

          • Mark

            I say don’t include CC – I like the value but am sure no one else would ;)

            Mark

        • SuperKirby

          Aww come on now, Priority Club is great! they are EVERYWHERE. And whats most important to me, is the actual location they are at IN a city. Since there are so many of them, choosing where I want to stay in a city is no problem. With other hotels, I’d have to go 5-10 miles out of where I would want to stay at.

          Having said that, if a Hyatt happens to be EXACTLY where I need it to be, then I prefer them the most. Otherwise I find myself staying at a PC 80% of the time. It’s the exact location that is more important to me.

          i.e. The Z-Ocean PC in South Beach, FL is on around 14th street, right in the middle of the happening areas. Marriott and Hilton are at around 1st street, also nice areas but that is too south for me. Sure if there was no PC in Miami (won’t ever happen cause they’re everywhere), then I would choose the Hilton or Marriott. Hyatt? in downtown Miami, I would have to take a $25 one-way cab to South Beach (i’ve done this too many times). And Club Carlson!? 35 miles away in a suburb called Kendall. This is just one of many examples I can think of. Of course choosing a hotel program is based on your what your needs are so everyone will have different needs/wants.

          PC’s reward list isn’t bad either, check out Bora Bora or Tahiti on their website =)

          And Scottrick, thanks for the great charts!

  • JLSocks

    Good analysis, but Your spend analysis for Marriott award nights is not quite right as you’ve excluded the points requirements for free stays at Ritz Carlton properties, which are considerably higher than 45k per night.

    • Scottrick

      …And that would be why they are so cheap on the high end. Got it, 70K per night, which would put them at around $4,670 in spend for a free night. Not much different from Hilton. I’ll update the table.

  • Sam

    You left out some benefits for Marriott. Suite upgrades are given if there is availability and when there is no club lounge or when it’s closed, you get full breakfast in the restaurant.

    • Scottrick

      (1) Can you find language in the program benefits that guarantees a suite upgrade if available? The best I can find is: “Upgrades may include rooms with desirable views, rooms on high floors, corner rooms, rooms with special amenities, rooms on Executive Floors, or suites.” So basically even a ground floor room facing the A/C unit and next to a fire escape is a valid upgrade if its in the corner. Contrast this with Starwood’s language: “Upgrades to best available room at check-in, including Standard Suites.” This is where I made a judgment call that Marriott was not really promising a suite, as I described above.

      (2) The breakfast benefit applies to “participating” JW Marriott, Marriott, Autograph, and Renaissance hotels. I have a hard time figuring out what that means. It leaves out Edition, Ritz-Carlton, and AC hotels. It also excludes resorts and suggests any hotel can choose not to participate. Again, I would appreciate a pointer to clearer language, but I agree I need to do more research on this benefit.

    • Scottrick

      Actually, I remember why I said continental breakfast and not full breakfast. The Marriott Rewards website was weak on details, but this press release suggests only continental breakfast will be provided, in the lounge or out.

      http://news.marriott.com/2013/05/heres-the-dish-complimentary-breakfast-for-marriott-rewards-gold-platinum-members.html

    • Seamus

      I completed a Marriott platinum challenge in January of 2012 (a nice Renaissance LNF rate of $65ish a night for a few weeks with a platinum upgrade to a studio suite and club access that clearly displeased management). I then found it not worth going out of my way to stay at other Marriott properties due to price/value ratios for the rest of the year. One benefit of the program, which I believe applies as well to Hilton but not Hyatt and SPG, is that they give status benefits (though not requalifying credit) on discounted rates. I think this is great. Marriott downgraded me to Gold this year, but I was most excited to still be treated as an elite member with club access (undrinkable wine) and a nicer room at the Renaissance Amsterdam paying less than 40% of published rate with a priceline purchase. While I may be more of a cheapo bottom-feeder than most upper-tier hotel program elites, that benefit is great for those paying for their own travel.

      • Scottrick

        What do you mean by discounted rates? Hyatt and Starwood both recognize benefits for award stays and third-party rates booked elsewhere. If you’re referring to corporate rates, benefits are negotiated as part of the contract.

  • Steve

    Really nice analysis, Scott.

    • Scottrick

      Thanks!

  • Bob

    Hilton actually gives elite credit for award stays as well.

    • Scottrick

      Thanks, it will be included in the update.

  • Gene

    You’ve missed some facts on Royal Ambassador — qualification is about 60 nights, there is no fee if you are renewing your RA status, and you are guaranteed either club and/or a suite (the “Executive Room” thing is a lot of noise about nothing).

    • Scottrick

      The benefits description I read say that an upgrade can include an executive room, club room, or suite. If you have found a different description on the InterContinental website that says otherwise, please point me to it. They still do not guarantee a suite as long as a club room is a valid option.

      I plan to update the qualification requirements to 55 nights, which is the consensus I found from other bloggers who have RA status, and I’ll explain the annual fee better.

      • Gene

        I’m just sharing my personal experience. I’ve been an RA for 8 years and have logged about 500 IC nights. I can count on one hand the number of times I haven’t had a suite or club access.

        I agree that 55 nights may be the magic number. Out of fear of losing my status, I shoot for 60 nowadays.

        • Scottrick

          Unfortunately I can’t create a table with personal experience. I also have a good track record getting suites at Hyatt, but I didn’t give them a break, either.

  • MJM

    Thanks. You’ve been working on this for awhile and now IHG says they will start counting award stays as of July 1 and make other changes. :-) I have a question about Marriott cash and points. Is there anyway to get the cash part to be a special rate like AAA? It seems like cash and points only shows the non-points night(s) at the regular rate and I practically never book the regular rate, so I’d still make separate reservations and have the front desk keep me in the same room. Seems like Marriott wanted to be able to say they do cash and points but not really have a cash and points program like SPG or IHG. Perhaps you already did a post on this qualitative difference when Marriott announced cash and points.

    • Scottrick

      I forgot that IHG was going to change that. I should add an extra line to the table to indicate if award stays count toward status. We now have three hotels that allow it.

      Generally cash + points rates are separate from AAA rates at all hotels. I don’t think there’s any way to do what you’re asking. I didn’t do a post on Marriott’s cash + points rates, but my recollection is that it was not a very good deal.

  • Glenn

    Nice analysis.

    The one area I would caveat is under the “Calculated as Dollars Spent”, all of these chains except Kimpton have lower end properties so that makes it look like you can stay for free at a cheaper rate. However, for Kimpton, your free night would be in the same “tier” of hotel as where you earned the free night since they have no tiers. So someone who wants to earn a free night at an upscale property would need to spend more at other chains than at Kimpton. This is a minor point but IMO makes Kimpton look more attractive.

    • Scottrick

      That’s a good point. Kimpton has a value proposition if you are earning free nights with stays, especially if those stays are discounted rates on weekends, etc. On the other hand, my “dollars spent” measure shows it is possible to spend $200 a night on 20 nights and get only one free night.

  • Shane

    Scott,

    Nice charts. The biggest flaw in them is finding the hotels to use. These benefits are only as good as the hotels you can stay at. This is where Marriott and Hilton really excel. The Marriott program befuddles travel bloggers by how they keep winning awards yet on the surface, they are the hardest elite program to maintain top status (the nights and the lack of stays as a earning option) and although rollover helps, it doesn’t really matter much. On top of that, Marriott seemingly don’t offer anything better benefit wise than a Hyatt or Starwood. The real reason they are popular lies in the business travel market where business travelers know what they are getting (consistency) from a Marriott property. Also, I can find one almost anywhere. As long as your travel destinations aren’t dictated by your hotel loyalty and you can stay at the hotels you like, then by all means. Ultimately my travel destinations do affect which hotel brand I try to stick with. Otherwise I’d never obtain any worthwhile status. Keep in mind that business travelers stay typically M-Thu so nights are how they earn status instead of hotel hopping, mattress running and 1 night stops.

    In the end, we’re lucky to have so many options. For my needs, a Hilton/Marriott has to be the #1. I’m able to pick a secondary and so far Starwood has sufficed (more hotel options than Hyatt which was my 2nd choice).

    • Scottrick

      It always matters where you’ll be. I don’t begrudge people who travel to places where Marriott or Hilton are the only options, just as I don’t begrudge people who find that Southwest is the best option for their flights. Lots of points and benefits without an opportunity to use them are meaningless.

      That said, I do think there are a lot more Hyatt and Starwood properties than some people think. Very rarely have I had to resort to a Hilton, Marriott, or IHG hotel. Part of this may be because I do a great deal of travel to leisure or big city destinations. I may select destinations in part because I know a Hyatt hotel is there. Those who don’t get to choose their destination (e.g., business or visiting family) don’t get my flexibility. I’m trying to to convince Hyatt to open a new Hyatt Place in Amarillo right now. ;)

  • Linda T

    Marriott has rollover nights and that changes the qualification structure a bit. Also, even though they do not lock themselves into certain guarantees, I have found as a Platinum member that often what I get exceeds any expectation. I have regularly gotten suite upgrades at Ritz Carlton when I am traveling on points only! It is a YMMV thing, but I cannot tell you how many times I have stayed in rooms way past check out time, gotten free breakfasts when lounges were closed or free upgrades even when traveling on an e-certificate or points.

    • Scottrick

      I don’t mean to be unkind, but I think Marriott is exceeding your expectations because with their program you cannot expect much. That is the nature of a guaranteed vs. discretionary benefit.

      I would love it if all hotels went above and beyond. Some people have reported very good experiences with Marriott and InterContinental, but I also found their program benefits to be the most vague. I’m a rules kind of guy, and I like knowing what I can expect walking into a hotel.

  • Peet

    good work, Scott. this makes it easy to quickly compare and contrast. im going to download and store these tables on my laptop and phone!

  • Jeremy

    I agree with others saying CC should be in here. I agree with you that the benefits such as breakfast and what not are terrible however from a points earning/redemption angle they are great, the credit card is fantastic (last night free on all award stays), and bonus promos are awesome (I earned 25K points on a $325 total three night stay back in Feb). They have a lot of great international properties too, especially in Europe and are fairly large in size.

    As far as Priority Club/IHG Rewards you get platinum by holding the credit card.

    • Scottrick

      Fair enough. I’ll make sure Club Carlson gets added before I post the mid-tiers. I’d like to point out, however, the irony that people love to talk up the great international hotels that Club Carlson has, yet they also love to complain that Hyatt and Starwood have limited portfolios. IMO, when it comes to the number and availability of hotels worth staying at, Hyatt and Starwood beat Club Carlson.

      • disqust101

        Carlson doesn’t have legitimate top tier properties

        • Scottrick

          My thoughts exactly. It’s more of a credit card that earns free nights and just happens to be affiliated with a hotel loyalty program.

  • http://reubano.github.com/ Reuben Cummings

    FYI, you tagged this post ‘comparison’ while the other posts are tagged ‘comparisons’.

  • Ash

    Also keep in mind that IHG cheats consumers. Recently they sent me an offer saying I will get xxxx points if I make 2 reservations using their website. I have made the reservations and also completed the stays. Now they say ‘these reservations were made by calling their call center”. I have forwarded them evidence as well, still they repeat the same story. So all in all, keep this in mind when you compare IHG with other hotel chains.

  • Gunter Veit

    I am an IHG Ambassador since 10 years. First 7 years platinum level, last 3 years Royal Ambassador. This year they downgraded me again to Platinum. They wrote back that Royal Ambassador status is only by invitation and the criteria varies.Its the top 1% of their customers and last years it was about 80 nights per year…. So you can be loyal as much as you want and never know if it was worth it….. Pretty good way to offend your best customers. So I am in the process of switching programs and appreciate your work!

  • Wort

    Marriot Platinum FYI Does Upgrade to Suite on Availability it’s on the website under the fine print of Room Upgrades…Im doing a similar project…but good job !

    • Scottrick

      Could you please link to the page and quote the text? My reading of their benefits is that it promises an upgrade which “may” include a suite. This is similar to most chains. The hotel could upgrade to any other non-suite room and still satisfy the upgrade benefit. Contrast this with SPG, which promises a suite if available.

  • Mark J

    The Marriott Rewards Card gives you 10 nights toward a tier, so not even silver. As others have mentioned the Priority Club/IHG card gives you instant Platinum status, but personally I don’t care for the Holiday Inns. Club Carlson is great at giving a whole truckload of points – I was 2 nights in Muscat with 2 coworkers (whose points I poached) and ended up with 100K points. This was enough to stay at the nicest hotel in Copenhagen and I still have enough for 2 more nights. I stayed about 80 nights in hotels last year – predominately in Marriott’s and barely made gold, the Marriott benefits in my opinion are lacking, but occasionally they have promotions where you get a free night. I ended up with 3 last year, one of which expired without being used. Had I stayed at the Hilton instead, I would have made it to the top tier. A mistake that I will not repeat this year.