How to Compare Hotel Programs' Elite Status Benefits

While most people see the value of elite status with airlines, many seem to overlook just how rewarding elite status can be with hotel chains. That’s not to say that “Pricelining” hotels is a bad strategy, but rather that you should consider how valuable the benefits of hotel elite status could be to you. So to keep this post simple, let’s talk a bit about top tier status at the five major hotel chains:

Hilton HHonors

In order to earn Hilton Diamond status you need to make 28 stays or spend 60 nights per year at Hilton properties, or alternatively earn 100,000 base points (which is a bit over $6,000 of annual spend at Hilton properties, if you choose to earn points for your stay). Alternatively, you can earn Diamond status for $40,000 of annual spend on a Hilton Surpass American Express credit card.

Assuming you want to earn points for your stays (as opposed to miles), you earn 10 base points per dollar spent plus five bonus points for choosing points, plus a 50% bonus for being a Diamond member.

As far as the on-property benefits go, you get free internet access for the duration of your stay, and also get access to the club lounge. Beyond that, you typically get a room upgrade to a room with a better view, on a higher floor, etc. At Hilton’s other brands, like Embassy Suites and Hampton Inn, the benefits are marginal, since breakfast is included. Instead you get a points amenity (250 points at Hampton Inn hotels, 1,000 points at Embassy Suites hotels, etc.) or your choice of “snacks.” Typically it’s a pretty awful selection, consisting of either two soft drinks OR two candy bars.

Overall, given the high requirements for attaining top tier status, the benefits are minimal.

Hyatt Gold Passport

In order to earn Hyatt Diamond status you need to make 25 stays or spend 50 nights per year at Hyatt properties.

As a Diamond member you earn five base points per dollar spent, plus a 30% bonus for being a Diamond member, for a total of 6.5 points per dollar spend.

Hyatt has pretty good on-property benefits, though. As a Diamond member you get free internet access for the duration of your stay, and access to the club lounge. If for whatever reason the club lounge is closed and you aren’t granted access, you get restaurant breakfast plus 2,500 bonus points as compensation. While the bonus points only apply if the hotel actually has a club lounge (and it’s closed), you get the free restaurant breakfast even if the hotel doesn’t have a club lounge.

Furthermore, you get a Diamond amenity at every property worldwide. Within the United States you get to choose between 1,000 Gold Passport points and a food and beverage amenity, at full service Hyatt hotels. At international properties, you don’t have a choice – you get a food and beverage amenity, which ranges anywhere from three apples to a nice bottle of wine and box of gourmet chocolates.

Hyatt is also the only chain to issue their top tier elite members four confirmed suite upgrades annually. You can apply them to any paid stay of up to seven nights at the time of booking, assuming a standard suite is available. If you decide not to use a suite upgrade, you automatically get upgraded to the best available non-suite room.

Given the reasonable requirements to qualify for top tier status with Hyatt and the excellent benefits, I think it’s the all around best value program.

Marriott Rewards

In order to earn Marriot Platinum status you need to stay 75 nights per year at Marriott properties. You can’t earn top tier status based on stays, so Marriott has the highest top tier elite qualification tier of any program. That being said, for every $3,000 you spend on the Marriott Rewards Visa, you get one night elite qualification. In other words, to earn top tier just from credit card spend, you would need to spend $225,000 per year on the card.

As a Platinum member you earn five to 10 base points per dollar spent (depending on the property you’re staying at), plus a 50% bonus for being a Platinum member, for a total of 7.5 to 15 points per dollar spent.

Marriott offers free internet at hotels for Platinum members worldwide. As a Platinum member you get an upgrade to the best available non-suite room, much like at Hyatt. Furthermore, you are guaranteed access to the club lounge if it is open at the hotel (with the exception of Ritz Carlton properties, as they have their own rewards program). If the club lounge is closed or the hotel doesn’t have a club lounge, you get complimentary continental breakfast. If for whatever reason you don’t get that benefit during your stay, Marriott will reimburse you $100.

As a Platinum member you also get a welcome gift of either bonus points or a welcome gift, typically consisting of a food and beverage amenity.

Marriott’s elite benefits are quite similar to those of Hilton, though they have by far the highest elite qualification requirements. So this definitely isn’t the chain for someone looking to make top tier status out of pocket, though if you have to stay at Marriott hotels anyway, the benefits are solid.

Priority Club/InterContinental

Priority club and InterContinental probably have the most complicated elite tier structure. While InterContinental hotels are part of Priority Club, they have a separate elite recognition program which is invitation only.

For simplicity, let’s start with the Priority Club program. The top tier status level, Platinum, requires 50 nights or 60,000 points annually. The 60,000 points might sound like a lot, though points add up quickly with Priority Club, since they include all points earned in that total (and not just base points). In other words, if you sign up for the Priority Club Visa with a 60,000 point sign-up bonus, you basically get instant Platinum status.

Platinum members earn 10 base points per dollar spent at all non-InterContinental Priority Club properties, and an additional 50% Platinum bonus. The only other real benefit of Priority Club Platinum is room upgrades “upon availability.” This is very loosely enforced, though, and some hotels just don’t have very many premium rooms (like Holiday Inn Express properties, some Holiday Inns, etc.).

The more interesting aspect of this is status with InterContinental. They have a separate top tier status level, Royal Ambassador, which is invitation only. Anecdotally it seems to take about 60 nights at Priority Club properties to earn, and typically requires you to make stays at three or more InterContinental properties.

The benefits of Royal Ambassador are excellent, in my opinion. You typically get at least a double upgrade (and unlike with other chains, upgrades are guaranteed) along with complimentary consumption of the drinks in the minibar. One of the benefits that I find to be absolutely key, especially for international travel, is guaranteed 8AM check-in and guaranteed 4PM check-out. I can’t even begin to say how often that has saved me, be it because I was arriving in Europe after a redeye, or only had a flight late in the afternoon. So while other chains offer late check-out upon availability, they often do so for all guests, so I wouldn’t consider it to be a key benefit.

Lastly, you usually get a pretty nice welcome gift, much nicer than with any other hotel chain, typically consisting of a fruit plate, a couple of bottles of water, some sort of food amenity, and often a local gift that you can take home.

The one other thing that’s interesting about the earning structure at InterContinental hotels is that you earn a flat 4,000 points as a Royal Ambassador for a stay at an InterContinental hotel. It doesn’t matter whether your stay costs $79 or $79,000. InterContinental justifies this by usually explaining that Royal Ambassador status is more about recognition than rewards – and I have to give them credit, because they take great care of Royal Ambassadors at their hotels.

Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG)
In order to earn Starwood Platinum status you need to make 25 stays or spend 50 nights per year at Starwood properties. If you have the Starwood American Express credit card you automatically get five free nights and two free stays towards elite qualification annually.

As a Platinum member you earn two base points per dollar, plus a 50% bonus for being a Platinum, for a total of three points per dollar spent.

As far as on-property benefits go, Starwood offers free internet at all their properties worldwide. Furthermore, you get access to the club lounge at those properties that have lounges (though I find Starwood hotels to proportionally have far fewer lounges than the other chains). The main draw for people to the Starwood program seems to be the lure of free suite upgrades. They offer Platinum members the best room available, including standard suites.

Lastly, you earn a welcome gift, typically giving you the choice between points or a food and beverage amenity.

People seem to either love or hate Starwood. I happen to think they over promise and under deliver, and I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt here and say that it’s not intentional. If you plan your stays carefully you may get frequent suite upgrades, though there are some Platinum members that seem to get suite upgrades only every five or so stays. The issue is that there’s very little to fall back on, since most Starwood properties don’t have lounges (and you don’t get free breakfast if there’s not a club lounge). So you might end up having a great stay, with a huge suite and access to a club lounge, or you may end up in a standard room without so much as free breakfast.

There you have it, that’s my run down. Feel free to share your experiences as a top tier at your preferred hotel chain. Stay tuned until next week, when I’ll take a look at what hotel points are actually worth in each program, given that hotel points are most definitely not all created equal.

Program

Top-Tier Eligibility

Top-Tier Benefits

Cons

Hilton HHonors

28 stays / 60 nights or $40K Hilton AMEX spend (Diamond)

-20 pts/$1 spend

-Room upgrade

-Club lounge access

-Free Internet

Suite upgrades are very rare

Hyatt Gold Passport

25 stays / 50 nights (Diamond)

-6.5 pts/$1 spend

-4 confirmed suite upgrades

-Club lounge access

-If lounge is closed, free restaurant breakfast + 2500 pts

-Free Internet

Limited number of properties worldwide

Marriott Rewards

75 nights (Platinum)

-7.5-15 pts/$1 spend

-Upgrade to best available non-suite room

-Club lounge access

-If lounge is closed, free cont. breakfast

-Free Internet

Welcome amenity

High threshold to qualify for elite status

Priority Club (Intercontinental)

50 nights/60,000 points (Platinum)

 

 

~60+ nights, invitation only (Royal Ambassador)

-15 points/$1 spend

-Upgrade based on availability

 

-4000 points/stay at Intercontinental

-Guaranteed upgrade; often a double upgrade

-8am check-in, 4pm check-out

-Welcome amenity

Royal Ambassador, the highest tier, is invitation-only

Starwood Preferred Guest

25 stays/50 nights (Platinum)

-3 points/$1 spend

-Best room available (includes standard suites)

-Club lounge access

-Welcome amenity

-4pm checkout

-Free Internet

Few properties have club lounges

 

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Comments
Picture?type=large Kent O. commented 09 Feb 2011

Ben,

A good column as usual. It seems Hyatt and Intercontinental have the best top tier programs. I would suggest you do an analysis of the Gold levels (mid tier status) of hotel loyalty programs. Hilton and Marriott may actually be better values at the Gold level where guests get room upgrades, free breakfasts, and free internet access.

Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 10 Feb 2011

@ Kent -- Good topic for a future column, I think. The thing that sticks out the most for mid tier programs is how wildly the qualification requirements vary. For example, acheving mid tier with Marriott requires the same number of nights as top tier with several other programs. I agree with you that Hilton definitely has the best mid tier status, though, at least given the qualification requirements.

Picture?type=large Roderick R. commented 21 Jun 2013
My first post, Ben. I used to live in Tampa, are you still there? I am a Miami person these days. Your synopsis, as always, if very helpful Ben. You, Darius and Hillary for me have the best analysis and since I started reading I have picked up a good deal more airline miles by shifting around credit lines (for example a freedom chase to a 100,000 mile BA offer-now over but hopefully returning in the fall-hope to get it for my sister, who actually has lower income but more Chase credit .) Currently, I am Hilton Gold with the Citi reserve (probably will keep that card as I don't plan on spending 40K to get the dubious benefits of Diamond and SPG gave me Gold until 12/2014, about 18 months, just for asking, which I thought was very generous. One thing, nobody has really talked about the Marriott/Ritz experience from what I see. Do the Marriott people really give Ritz Gold the Marriott Gold benefits on check-in or do they give the deer in the headlights blank stare? If so, perhaps looking into the Ritz $395 card might be a thought. It's only 10K/year to keep Gold level after year one, pretty easy compared with Platinum Marriott. If you actually get Gold Marriott benefits (which you are suppose to-the lady actually made me choose and close all Marriott accounts and move my points over to Ritz.) The reason I do not shy away from the $395 fee is the $200 airline credit, which effectively makes it a $195/year card. Many ways to get the $200 airline credit as you know, people have expressed success in getting Aadvantage gift cards reimbursed, although this is not suppose to work, but seems to. Maybe because it's hard to figure out baggage overages and change fees from 100/150/200 charges? Would love to hear more about this. My partner has Fairmont visa signature and they are super nice, the best Chase customer service I have experienced-too bad not a more extensive domestic property map, and some are old antiquated and some are actually very nice properties. Even have the 2 free nights available at the Monte Carlo 4 star hotel, which goes for I think around 300-450 a night depending on time of year, etc.) Their Banff property is very highly rated as well. Too bad Chase has so many of the great cards. Good that Ultimate rewards (if I read it right) can be transferred to a family member or friend's account. I find Chase customer service to, frankly be in need of a double upgrade. I have Sapphire, BA Visa Sign. Fairmont Visa, Ink Classis and thank God recently ink Plus w/50K opening bonus-thinking of trying to get Chase to move the credit limit on the Classic Ink to a Business United new application. They are good about moving credit around and leaving a small amount of credit on a card from 2005 or 2007 for the ever important "account aging" category that banks look at. That said, a good tip (I'm sure you know it) is to keep $500 credit open so the average account age with all these app-o-ramas does not get to be 4 months...LOL. Thanks for all the great posts-hope our paths cross. I may go to the Tampa Freq. Flyer Univ. just because its driving distance so very inexpensive to check it out. All the best and keep up the great posts! R. Scott R. rsr40@columbia.edu
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