My 2012 Points Strategy: Hotel Elite Status
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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?
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).
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.
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.