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My 2012 Points Strategy: Hotel Elite Status

by on January 10, 2012 · 42 comments

in Elite Status, Hilton, Hotel Industry, Marriott, Starwood

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This is an installment in the My 2012 Points Strategy Series. Posts include: Taking Credit Card InventoryFuture Credit Card ApplicationsAirline Elite StatusHotel Elite Status.

Hotel elite status is often overlooked, but frankly can be much more rewarding than airline status, which seems to get all of the attention. Frankly, hotels can be a huge portion of travel costs and when you spend enough nights a year in them, you often crave unique experiences from your run-of-the-mill standard room.

Enter hotel elite status, which for me has changed the way I think about life on the road. I personally dread bland, cramped rooms, so I carefully plan my hotel stays each year so that I can maintain top-tier status in at least two hotel programs. Like airlines, there is a huge jump from mid-tier to top-tier hotel status, so I don’t even bother trying to maintain middle tier status, though I’ll sign-up for it if it’s free. For me, it’s all or nothing when it comes to hotels.

I understand that many people have differing strategies, including Pricelining for the absolute cheapest room or choosing to avoid hotels all together and stay in B&Bs and apartments (which I have done and absolutely love). However, as someone who spends over 75 nights a year on the road, arranging my own accommodations from private owners is time consuming and risky. Pricelining would surely save me money, though I’m confident I get enough back in benefits that it makes elite status worthwhile for me. I often feel like I live on the road, so having comfortable, spacious accommodations is important for me.

So with all of that being said, which hotel chains am I choosing to gain and maintain elite status with in 2012?

Primary programs:

Starwood Preferred Guest Platinum: Attained after 25 stays or 50 nights a year, this is my premier hotel program. I’ve been a Platinum member for years and have generally been treated very well.

Positives: Suite upgrades when available (amazing benefit in Europe and Asia), free WiFi, free club lounge access (when available), 50% bonus on points earned, points can transfer to many airlines at a 25% bonus, cash & points redemption, competitive point promotions, the fact that qualification can be as low as 25 nights (23 if you have the Starwood Amex) and a new perk: award stays/ cash & points count towards elite status.

Negatives: Inconsistent suite upgrade benefits in the US, no confirmed suite upgrades for the times when you really need it (you are usually at the mercy of the front desk agent who checks you in), no consistent breakfast benefit, peak season pricing inflates the cost of many properties

Summary: Starwood points are extremely valuable and I generally get treated well when traveling abroad. I’d love to see a consistent breakfast policy be added and at least a couple confirmed suite upgrades to be more competitive with Hyatt.

Secondary: Hyatt Gold Passport Diamond: Attained after 25 stays or 50 nights. Hyatt came into my life two years ago and nearly dethroned Starwood as my preferred program (and to be honest it’s basically neck and neck with the slight edge going to SPG).

Positives: 4 confirmed suite upgrades a year on paid stays, daily breakfast, low threshold for free nights–top hotels are only 22,000 points, 1:1 transfer partner with Chase Ultimate Rewards (points program of my Sapphire Preferred and Bold cards). Also, as a Diamond, if you get the Chase Hyatt Visa card the two free nights for signing up are in a suite, which is the best sign-up bonus of any hotel credit card in my opinion.

Negatives: Suite upgrades are not eligible on point stays, no cash & points option, bad transfer ratio to airlines, historically strong promotions have gotten much weaker over time, less reliable posting of points and promotions (which can also be a positive since they sometimes over-adjust in your favor), less of a footprint than Starwood–for example no hotels in Spain, which is one of my most frequent destinations.

Summary: I love Park Hyatt hotels and the fact that four times a year I can book cheap rates and confirm the stays to suites (and still receive great perks like full breakfasts).

Drop status:

Priority Club Platinum/ Intercontinental Royal Ambassador: It’s been a nice novelty to have this status, which a generous TPG reader gave me for free. However, I don’t think it’s practical for me to maintain this status for two main reasons:
1) There are no published requalification criteria. I’m not about to waste a ton of my hotel stays “hoping” to requalify for elite status.
2) They do not honor elite benefits on point stays. This is probably the biggest dealbreaker–the whole point of accruing elite status is to reap the benefits when I finally get a chance to redeem points. I do not like being considered a freeloader when I decide to use my points to go on a vacation, which is how Intercontinental makes me feel.

Until these substantive changes happen, I may use my status a couple more times, but I’m not prioritizing Priority Club in my hotel elite status plans.

Hilton HHonors: As for Hilton, I find their awards to be inflated compared to Starwood and Hyatt and their Diamond benefits don’t warrant having to stay 3 more times–Diamond is achieved at 28 stays or 60 nights. Granted you can get the Hilton Surpass Amex and spend your way to Diamond, which I may consider down the road. Until then, I don’t see huge value in pursuing Hilton at this time.

Marriott Rewards: As for Marriott, their Platinum status is achieved at 75 nights–yikes! Until that changes, it’s a no-go for me–plus I find their promotions to be incredibly boring.

Mid-Level Status

I realize the rest of this post has focused on the very top tiers of hotel elite status, because to me, that’s where the most value lies. However there are still valuable perks to be had at the middle tiers of elite status as well. Here are a few details on what mid-tier status in the major hotel programs will get you.

Hilton HHonors Gold: Requires 16 stays or 36 nights or 60,000 earned base points during a calendar year. Perks include 25% bonus points on dollars spent at hotels, space-available upgrades, complimentary high-speed internet access, and executive club lounge access when upgraded to an executive room or continental breakfast.

Hyatt Gold Passport Platinum: Hyatt Gold Passport only has two elite tiers, so this is the lower one. To achieve it requires either 5 stays or 15 nights. Perks are:  15% point bonus on dollars spent in hotels, complimentary in-room internet, best room available within category booked, expedited check-in, guaranteed 72-hour room availability, special award after every third eligible stay such as bonus points or miles, complimentary beverages.

IHG Priority Club Platinum: 50 nights or 60,000 points earned in a calendar year required. You can also purchase gold status, then open a Priority Club credit card for the points that will get you elite status. Perks: 50% point bonus, complimentary room upgrades, guaranteed 72-hour advance notice room availability, dedicated customer service desk.

Marriott Rewards Gold: Members must stay 50 nights within a calendar year, and once they qualify, they earn 25% bonus points, guaranteed room type, room upgrades (not suites), loung access, free internet.

Starwood Preferred Guest Gold Preferred: If I had to choose a mid-tier I’d go with Starwood Gold, which is actually given for free to Amex Platinum cardholders. Requires 10 stays or 25 nights in a calendar year and confers perks including 50% bonus points on eligible spends (so 3 points per $1 eligible spend), automatic room upgrade and late check-out based on availability and a special customer service number.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • sendaiben

    Nice post! Agree with almost everything except the mid-tier stuff at the bottom:

    Hilton Gold is by far the best hotel mid-tier (free breakfast, upgrades), almost as good as their top tier. Hyatt Platinum doesn’t really do anything for me.

    Oh, and it is so easy to qualify for IHG Plat (I can normally do it with just a few nights, taking advantage of their very generous points bonuses -as you can qualify for only 60,000 points a year) and they do have hotels EVERYWHERE (unlike SPG, unfortunately).

    I am a new SPG Plat, which is wonderful, have Hilton Gold from their Japanese credit card (amazing benefit), and IHG Plat Ambassador for when I get sent somewhere with no SPG or Hilton hotels :)

  • JohnnieD

    You also get SPG Gold when you spend 30K on the SPG Amex card. This is how I am Gold and the 4pm checkout has come in very handy!!!!

  • Felicia Braude

    This is really interesting for me. Because I travel mostly with coworkers… I have been staying at Marriott & Hilton hotels and following suit. I was all Marriott last year, but this year I did a status match for Hilton Gold and am going to try and manage both status qualifiers throughout the year…

    This post makes me think about how I would do it if I traveled alone, but I just follow the pack as far as hotel alliances. Great to learn about what the other programs have to offer.

  • Robert

    Would be nice to see a breakdown of lifetime status with programs. I have used Marriott for years and will hit lifetime platinum this year. For me that is a big part of the appeal of the program.

  • Benthelefty

    And maybe try convincing your co-workers to go to the property you prefer ;)

  • MillValleyMom

    If I have SPG Gold status through my Platinum Amex, how many additional stays do I need to achieve Platinum Preferred? Is it the entire 25 stays, or is it only 15 stays since my baseline is supposedly starting at 10 with my Gold Status? btw, I got the Gold status with your helpful tip a few weeks ago, so thanks!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the summary! I know it’s kind of an odd-ball, but what do you think of IC Ambassador? The one without qualification criteria other than throwing them $200 :P I was considering it because the free second weekend night means it basically pays for itself, and the other benefits are gravy…

    I’m an SPG Gold via Amex Platinum though so it’s a tough call. I’m going to try and qualify for SPG Platinum this year. I think SPG is my favorite just because of how flexible and valuable their points are. Hilton is a tough one for me because I like their hotels, but their points are somehow less valuable than Delta’s SkyPesos :P

  • Matt

    Your primary programs share the same weakness – footprint. I agree they are easily the top 2 in terms of benefits and known qualification requirements, but depending on travel patterns, especially mixed business and personal, not the best choices. I can maintain spg plat, and would like to be Hyatt diamond as well, but out 80 stays last year only 20% or so had Hyatt as a realistic option. Half of those went to Spg to ensure I made it there.

    Hilton, intercontinental, and Marriott have the domestic footprint sorted out, and of the 3 Hilton offers the best benefits at a defined level. As a bonus mid tier is better than the alternatives and includes internet and breakfast so can be valuable. A lot of people need to choose from among these 3 just due to footprint. An article on the programs with large domestic footprints would be interesting.

    Spg plat by choice, Hilton diamond by default this year (well, I directed stay 28 to Hilton by choice).

  • PJ

    what do I do with 40+K Hilton Honors points from Citi Hilton card? is it time to doulbe up with Amex Hilton ? I find SPG card is most likable if you get it on promotion..30+K points are quite good to stay at many very decent SPG properties… Sheraton nearby LAX and SFO costs only 4K weekdays and 3K on weekends what a steal!! Hotels in Rio are NOT cheap at all but 10K gets you into one of their best properties..
    I was turned down on Mariott when I tried to get Sapphire Preferred as welll in early November,, that is a card along with new United ( 50K signon) a frugal traveller like me would love to have as well after 2 Chase Freedoms, Chase Sapphire Preferred, Southwest , Hyatt

  • PJ

    i think it tells you when you sign on your account :) or ezier just phone them up

  • PJ

    IHG is ?

  • PJ

    ah intercontinental holiday inn group i assume :)

  • Kaos

    With Hilton Gold, the value of free Internet and Breakfast is ~$50 per stay. And you get access to executive lounge. You get none of that with Starwood Gold. I think the value of mid -tier status at Starwood is poor. However, I prefer SPG points over Hilton.

  • Benthelefty

    which hotel group gets a night in Rio for 10k?

  • Anonymous

    You’d still need 25 stays. 23 if you got the Starwood Amex

  • pointasaurus

    What hotel status can be had for credit card spend, not stays? HHonors Gold looks like you can get for 60,000 but I got that already last year from the status match promotion. Anyone remember if the match was permanent or for a specified period?

  • CloveLeaf

    Amex SPG card alone gives 4pm checkout, too. The only difference between SPG gold and SPG preferred plus which is sponsored by Amex is the extra point when staying at SPG hotels.

  • Matthew Adams

    Agree on having good experiences with Hilton Gold. I once got an absurd 8 pm checkout offered in Fiji.

  • http://twitter.com/travel_abstract The Travel Abstract

    I got in on the mistake HHonors Gold for anybody who can use Wikipedia back over Christmas.

    I know I’ll never use it but its cool.

    Good luck with all your elite stuff that you crazy elites do.

    I’ll be here rubbing my pesos together hoping to get a decent room rate.

  • PJ

    SPG group 10000 for Sheraton Hotel and resort the other one is 4.8K plus 90 dollars for Sheraton Suits and Hotel otherwise 12K

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  • Mwwalk

    I agree with one of the previous posters, it’d be really nice to know what all of the chains offer for lifetime status.

  • TravelShooter

    “arranging my own accommodations from private owners is time consuming and risky”

    Not really:
    find few top ranked choices on any authoritative site where many properties have 50+ reviews-rankings per property
    –just bagged #1 ranked of (124) ranked B&Bs in SoAm city for $54/night total via 2 short emails–

  • Redline325

    Starwood gives you Gold status for $30k annual spend on the Starwood AMEX. Also the Marriott Chase Visa gives you 15 nights credit (Silver) and 1 night credit for every $3k in spend.

  • SH

    Im not sure if anyone knows the answer to this but my husband and I always use the “on our Honeymoon” mention on vacations to get upgraded to nice rooms even when its not our honeymoon – wink, wink. And it works. Does anyone know if they put notes on your account or if they notate when your anniversaries or honeymoons are. I dont want to use it too much especially if they can see it on their screen, LOL!

  • Jeremy

    I completely agree – I travel 40-50 nights per year and rarely have an SPG or Hyatt option, so I’ve picked Hilton because I can stay Gold easily enough and Hilton Gold is the best mid-tier program of the three chains that have footprint outside of the big cities.

  • tp

    How familiar are you with the Omni program? I may be traveling for work next week for 2 weeks, and my coworkers are already reserved an extra room at the Omni for 11 nights that would be mine if I go. The statuses are based on nights. There are no points- just 10 nights = 1 free night or 500 miles/night. Would you take the miles or the 10 nights/1 free night conversion. I rarely travel for work, so I don’t know how likely I would make it to 20 for 2 nights or if I would just take the 5,500 United miles.

  • Anonymous

    I’d go for the free night and then use it at an expensive Omni. 5,500 united to me = $100 or so. I can probably get double that from hotel free night

  • Nsipod

    Although I love SPG’s points for free stays, getting “elite status” has not helped me at all. I was a Gold member last year and did not get any upgrades at all, no breakfasts (I have never seen a lounge either that was open on weekends), or any free services while staying at hotels in Hawaii, California, Ft Lauderdale, or New York. Also, if you use points for a stay, you do NOT get a free breakfast or use of additional amenities.

    On the other hand, Marriott has some promotions which I do find helpful. First of all, most full service Marriotts have a lounge for Gold/Plat with snacks/dessert in the evening and full breakfast in the morning (weekend breakfasts are optional. The hotel manager decides). Most hotels seem to be charging about $20/breakfast (which is ridiculous, but sometimes, you dont have an option). In addition, their MegaRewards bonus programs give you a free night (cat 1-4) with 2 paid stays (up to 2 free nights). I have found this to be very helpful, and even got a free night on New Years in Miami!

    Hilton Gold has also been pretty good to me. I usually get a room upgrade and free breakfast. Lounge has free alcohol, usually. I do not like the point requirement for free nights though.

    Therefore, I think that if one is looking for a US hotel chain, and stays (on average) of up to 30 nights a year, I would recommend Marriott first, then Hilton, and SPG as a third choice.

  • wise2u

    both Hawaian Airlines cards have 2 to 1 conversion into hilton, so the 35k signup bonus turns into 70k hilton…get them both and add that to your 40k from citi, then you have enough for a high end reward

  • anon

    Just heard a rumor from a very reliable source that SPG will add another (higher) tier level in the next month or so. Sort of an Exec Platinum. Likely min stay requirement will be 40 or so.

  • alcw

    I’ve been platinum SPG for three years. I have gotten treatment all over the board in major US cities. Some locations give me the royal carpet treatment, some treat me like a freeloader. My favorite “perk” was getting the three bedroom suite at the NYC Manhattan on one of those trips where I am in at 10 and leaving at 6 am –gee thanks. I find that it’s really the front desk clerk and how pushy you want to be with them and the manager. For me, the late checkouts, free room wifi and free health club have made me stay with them. Many places I stay have the great breakfast or late afternoon food.

    SPG tends to have many great locations so I haven’t had to go out of my way to accumulate points. Now when it comes to using free nights and perks abroad different story. In Barcelona they gave me the best suite with an amazing view of the city when I asked for an upgrade. In London, they found an nearby room for the kids at no extra cost.

    As for mid tier, Hilton is my next choice.

  • Phil

    You’re missing out on status for Hilton, especially in Asia. As a Diamond, I’ve had incredible upgrades in Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo, etc. Hiltons outside the US/Canada give you much more of a value as a diamond; better rooms, free drinks in what is normally a great executive lounge, plus a ton of bonus miles. You could put together a top tier list of hiltons in Asia and plan your trip around them

  • Matt

    Everyone’s situation is different, but marriott’s elite program is pretty weak and you’ve got some information that’s flat-out incorrect. Marriott silver (the level you suggest based on the “30 nights” comment) gives almost no benefits! A 20% point bonus and free internet in Asia? Hardly overwhelming benefits.

    I stayed 30 paid nights in Hilton properties last year, for Diamond status.
    I stayed I 29 paid nights in Starwood properties last year, for Platinum status. I redeemed 4 free nights at a category 6 hotel, when the cash rate was well over $500 a night, and enjoyed free spa access while doing so. The hotel held a private reception for platinums while I was there as well. There is no amenity difference paid vs. reward stays at SPG. Maybe you’re thinking about Intercontinental?

    I understand most people likely do not have such a dominant 1-night stay pattern, but marriott’s insistance on only counting nights is very customer unfriendly. I could combine my stays at SPG and HH properties that give my top-tier at each, and still be stuck as a Gold at Marriott? No thanks.

    SPG Gold is not great, but as a Gold for most of last year, I still was frequently upgraded to club-level rooms, and barring that maybe one floor lower. I also stayed one night in a presidential suite (offered as part of a service recovery action). Some hotels also offered free breakfast and lounge access, benefits above and beyond that required. I routinely checked out at 4pm.

    Sheraton lounges at least are open 7 days a week as a brand standard and official corporate policy. What lounges are you complaining about being closed on weekends last year?

    SPG Gold does not really offer many benefits, although significantly more than Marriott silver, a status I also hold. Marriott silver isn’t going to get lounge access, meaningful upgrades, etc.

    I agree that Hilton offers more if you can’t or won’t do 25 stays or 50 nights at Starwood, but marriott isn’t even competitive, unless you value those category 1-4 nights very highly.

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  • Meg

    Although Marriott requires more nights to achieve top status, they have a lifetime program. I traveled enough to maintain both Marriott and Hilton top tier status for several years but now that I am retired, I made the effort to get to Lifetime Marriott Gold, which gives me lounge access, which can significantly reduce food costs. Sadly, Hilton has no lifetime program and Hilton elite status will expire this year so I will get no elite benefits when using my existing points for stays.

    I also would be interested to hear about all hotel lifetime programs although I have little hope of achieving that in other hotel chains.

  • Jimmycopp

    It seems to me that Marriott is getting away from the .01 valuation for reward nights for most of their categories, is their anyway beside complaining about it like this to try to get them to rethink their strategy? I realize their 10:1 award points for rev stays is industry leading, but for people amass points by credit card spending they are so far behind SPG it’s not even close…I have to say their consistency and footprint are a big draw, but not enough for me to switch from the SPG Amex…thanks again for you great site!

  • Wz1x46

    I was a Marriott person (Platinum) until I discovered SPG. Marriott has nothing on SPG. SPG is also introduce the lifetime program starting this year. Also food in Marriott lounge all over is the same, while SPG has much better varieties.

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