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Holding mid- or top-tier status with a hotel loyalty program can lead to perks such as bonus points and free upgrades, but as TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Nick Ewen explains, it’s not always necessary.
The points and miles hobby can be both a blessing and a curse. Sure, it’s wonderful to experience top-notch international first class and luxurious hotel rooms, but once you’ve gotten a taste for these premium travel experiences, it can be hard to go back. Nevertheless, going out of your way to earn elite status when you aren’t a road warrior may not make sense, and today I want to go through the reasons why you might want to stop feverishly pursuing hotel elite status.
Before I get to those reasons, however, I want to acknowledge that this post may come off as hypocritical. After all, I wrote the series on hotel elite status and I have been known to take a mattress run or two to maintain my grip on Hyatt Gold Passport Diamond status. That being said, earning status with one (or more) hotel chain may not make sense, depending on your individual situation. Here’s why you might want to change your tune, as I recently have:
1. Diminishing Benefits
If you’ve traveled recently, you’ve probably encountered a flight and/or hotel that was at or near full occupancy. The economy may not be booming yet, but hotel occupancy rates have rebounded nicely since the Great Recession. This has been a boon for hotel management but has hurt frequent travelers. While I haven’t done any mathematical analysis, my anecdotal experience has found that room upgrades have become few and far between. After all, why give a suite to a top-tier elite member for free when there’s a business traveler willing to pay a premium?
We’ve also seen many instances where hotel chains are actively trying to poach elite members of other programs, swelling their elite ranks and adding competition when it comes to upgrades. Hilton HHonors has offered matches to its top-tier Diamond status through 2018, and while Hyatt has discontinued its status match and challenge program from the past, I know many (including TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig) who have utilized it in the past and received some pretty terrific benefits.
2. Credit Cards with Elite Status
I hung up my road warrior shoes a couple of years ago, but there was a time when I traveled enough to earn top-tier elite status with Hilton, Hyatt and Starwood. While it does still take a lot to reach these upper echelons, more and more credit cards are offering the perks of status without requiring the extensive travel to earn it the hard way. In fact, I could earn status with every major chain by paying less than $1,000 in credit card annual fees:
- Club Carlson: $75 for the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card, which offers automatic Gold status
- Hilton HHonors: $95 for the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card, which offers automatic Gold status
- Hyatt Gold Passport: $75 for the Hyatt Credit Card, which offers automatic Platinum status
- IHG Rewards: $49 for the IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card, which offers automatic Platinum Elite status
- Marriott Rewards: $85 for the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card, which offers automatic Silver status
- Starwood Preferred Guest: $450 for The Platinum Card from American Express, which offers automatic Gold status
If you’re keeping score, that’s a total of $829 for elite status with six different hotel chains (and a couple of the above cards even waive the annual fee for the first year). If you wanted to earn each of those the hard way, you’d need to accrue 165 eligible nights during a calendar year!
Of course, this is not the only way credit cards play a role in deciding to not pursue hotel elite status…
3. Credit Cards with Perks
It’s not a secret that elite status provides an array of perks, especially for top-tier members. However, more and more credit cards that aren’t affiliated with a specific hotel chain offer compelling value propositions for staying at a given hotel. Here are some examples:
- Citi Prestige Card: Offers the fourth night free on paid stays at almost any hotel around the world
- The Platinum Card from American Express: Offers the Fine Hotels & Resorts (FHR) program, with perks like complimentary breakfast, room upgrades, resort credits and late checkout
- Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express: Offers The Hotel Collection, with similar perks to FHR like breakfast and room upgrades
There are many chain hotels that participate in these programs, but there are many non-points properties that do as well. If you can get the same perks of elite status by booking through these channels and can stay at a local, boutique property rather than being forced into a particular brand of hotel, that’s a win in my book.
4. Lack of Local Flavor
Another big drawback to the major chains is how detached they can keep you from the local culture. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve had some fantastic stays at properties that do a great job at integrating into the local environment. However, it’s sometimes restrictive when you feel obligated to choose a chain hotel due to your status and the various perks it provides.
Here’s a perfect example. Earlier this year, my wife and I took a trip to New York to stay at the Andaz 5th Avenue. We had stayed there before and really enjoyed it. However, we could’ve tried any number of local hotels, but given my Diamond status, we focused solely on Hyatt properties. Then, instead of venturing out and finding brunch at a local spot in the city, we felt obligated to take advantage of the complimentary breakfast provided to me as a Diamond member (which, in all fairness, is quite good). Nevertheless, we potentially missed out on experiencing an even better, local meal by following the benefit.
Contrast that to our experience in Colmar, France last November. A friend suggested this small town in the Black Forest for the Christmas markets, but the only American chain hotels in town were a Best Western (near the train station, so outside of the old town) and a Comfort Inn (well north of the old town). We booked a three-bedroom apartment through Airbnb instead, and it was fantastic. We had over 1,000 square feet, a washer/dryer, full kitchen and everything we needed to be comfortable. Most importantly, it was literally steps from the Christmas markets. By being forced away from the allure of the chain, we had one of our best trips ever.
5. Sacrificing Convenience Or Cost For Loyalty
The major hotel programs have a global presence, with some (Hilton and Marriott) being more widespread than others (Hyatt and SPG). Nevertheless, there are times when you feel obligated to stay at a less convenient or more costly hotel due to your pursuit or enjoyment of elite status. This can create additional stress or added expense if you have to commute to your meeting or desired tourist attractions.
I experience this every time my company has a meeting in our Evanston office. We typically stay at either the Hilton Garden Inn Evanston or the Hilton Orrington, both of which are within walking distance of the office. The nearest Hyatt (my chain du jour) is several miles away, so not exactly a practical choice. I can’t help but get frustrated when I have to stay there when I should enjoy the fact that I am less than 10 minutes by foot from my meeting (and still get perks courtesy of my Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card).
6. Transferable Point Programs Give You Added Flexibility
A final reason why it may not be worthwhile to stay loyal to a single hotel chain is the fact that many transferable points currencies allow you to quickly boost your account balance in a variety of programs without actually staying in those properties. In the past, sending all your business to a single chain would not only help you earn elite status but would also allow you to bank thousands of points that could be used for future award stays. The rise of transferable point programs allows you to be choosy when it comes to your redemptions.
Here’s a quick rundown of which hotel programs partner with which transferable point programs:
- American Express Membership Rewards: Choice Privileges, Hilton HHonors, Starwood Preferred Guest
- Citi ThankYou Rewards: Hilton HHonors
- Chase Ultimate Rewards: Hyatt Gold Passport, IHG Rewards, Marriott/Ritz-Carlton Rewards
As you can see, just about all of the major players in the hotel industry partner with at least one transferable point program, giving you valuable flexibility when planning your award stays and decreasing the need to remain loyal to a single program.
There’s no doubting that hotel elite status can open up a wealth of perks, and I’ve enjoyed these benefits at properties like the Park Hyatt Zurich and St. Regis Bal Harbour. That being said, there are many other ways to make the most of your travel, and I’d encourage you to explore these options before pursuing and obtaining elite status and getting locked in to a narrow subset of accommodation options out there.
Featured image courtesy of W Maldives.
What are your thoughts on hotel elite status?
While Citi announced some negative changes to this card back in July — including a lower sign-up bonus, the elimination of Admirals Club access and the end of the free rounds of golf benefit — one of its most valuable perks still remains, which is the 4th Night Free perk. This benefit alone can save you thousands of dollars a year if you use it to its full advantage.