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What’s the most important thing to look for when considering hotels? Price? Location? Amenities? Maybe a balance of all three? Well, here’s a tip: You’re leaving money on the table and missing out on all the best possible deals if you’re not booking through hotel loyalty programs. We’re talking about getting upgrades to more expensive rooms, access to special lounges, complimentary Wi-Fi, even free stays. But even if you are loyal to one brand, have you ever crunched the numbers to see if your favorite hotel program actually does make the most sense for you? Are you confident that fyou’re earning rewards as quickly as possible, and do you know for sure that the rewards you’re booking are as valuable as they can be?

Today, we’re answering these questions with an in-depth evaluation of the major hotel loyalty programs around the world, and we’re crowning the best based on criteria that matter to travelers. Rather than rely on subjective customer surveys or reader polls, we’re using objective data as we do in all of our TPG Reports. If you disagree with our findings, we’re also giving you a chance to re-weight the criteria — with an interactive tool at the very end of the article — based on your own unique travel needs.

The Points Guy’s top ten hotel loyalty programs:

  1. Starwood Preferred Guest
  2. Wyndham Rewards
  3. World of Hyatt
  4. Hilton Honors
  5. Le Club AccorHotels
  6. Marriott Rewards
  7. IHG Rewards
  8. Best Western Rewards
  9. Choice Privileges
  10. Club Carlson

Read on for a breakdown of our picks and what to look out for.

In This Post

The Candidates

TPG typically focuses on major hotel programs based in the US, but we recognize that there are many chains with a strong presence and wildly loyal fans abroad, too. As a result, we’ve included the biggest chains in the world, as long as those brands have a recognizable presence in the US. So for instance, a company like Homeinns has nearly 3,000 properties, but it operates exclusively in China, and thus probably isn’t a true substitute for a chain like Starwood. We’ve opted to exclude that chain from our analysis.

Here are the 10 programs we do include, in alphabetical order:

Best Western Rewards
Choice Privileges
Club Carlson
Hilton Honors
IHG Rewards
Le Club AccorHotels
Marriott Rewards
Starwood Preferred Guest
World of Hyatt
Wyndham Rewards

Note that even though Marriott and Starwood have finalized their merger and taken steps towards integration, for the moment the two are still operating as separate loyalty programs. Therefore, we’ve treated them as separate entities in our analysis.

Facade of the Ritz Carlton in Vienna. Courtesy Marriott Hotels

The Criteria

When it comes to choosing a hotel loyalty program, many factors come into play. Does the program have properties in the cities you visit most frequently? How quickly can you earn rewards, and how valuable are those rewards? If you earn elite status, how much value does that add?

After thinking about all the elements that go into this decision, we settled on 10 categories, with our weighting for each in parentheses:

Number of Hotels/Rooms (10%)
The number of hotels and rooms the program has across the globe

Geographic Spread (5%)
The number of countries offering participating locations for the program

% of Luxury Properties (7%)
The percentage of luxury properties in the program’s total portfolio

% of Economical Properties (3%)
The percentage of economical (or budget) properties in the program’s total portfolio

Ease and Value of Earning/Redeeming Points (40%):
The speed with which your points translate into awards, and the value of those awards

Perks (10%)
The number and quality of benefits offered to all members, like complimentary Wi-Fi and late checkout

Elite Status (10%)
The additional value you can get by holding elite status and utilizing benefits such as upgrades and complimentary breakfast

Co-Branded Credit Cards (5%)
The added value you can get by holding a program’s co-branded credit card and utilizing benefits like bonus points, automatic elite status and anniversary rewards

Promotions/Bonuses (5%)
The frequency and extent of rewards in a program’s promotions, such as room discounts and the ability to earn extra points or even free night certificates

Non-Hotel Benefits (5%)
The value of options each program offers to members outside its hotels, including the ability to transfer points to airlines and whether the chain has an online shopping portal

These criteria are designed to cover every aspect of a hotel loyalty program, while also recognizing that the most important factor is how you earn and redeem points.

Pool at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando. Photo courtesy Hilton
Pool at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando. Photo courtesy Hilton

The Methodology

With the 10 candidates and 10 criteria in place, it was time to gather data for each one. The first two criteria, number of hotels/rooms and geographic spread, were easily found by contacting each company directly. It’s worth noting that we split the first criteria evenly, assessing the number of hotels and the number of rooms with equal weight. While the two numbers have some correlation, some hotels may have a lot of rooms at only a few hotels (and vice versa).

Identifying a program’s luxury properties and economical properties was trickier. However, we decided to break down these numbers by brands that are consistently luxurious (or economical, as the case may be). This chart does not attempt to be comprehensive; it shows only the two extremes for each hotel chain. Note that it also excludes brands that are part of the corporate umbrella but do no participate in their given loyalty program.

Hotel Program (in alphabetical order) Luxury Brands Economical Brands
Accor Thalassa Ibis Styles
Best Western Best Western Premier Collection Best Western, Best Western Plus, SureStay, SureStay Plus
Choice None Comfort Inn, Comfort Suites, Sleep Inn, Quality, Clarion, MainStay, Econo Lodge, Rodeway Inn
Club Carlson Quorvus Country Inn & Suites
Hilton Waldorf Astoria, Conrad Hampton, Homewood Suites, Home2 Suites
Hyatt Park Hyatt, Miraval Hyatt Place, Hyatt House
IHG Intercontinental Holiday Inn Express, Staybridge Suites, Candlewood Suites
Marriott JW Marriott, Ritz-Carlton Fairfield, Springhill
SPG Luxury Collection, St. Regis None
Wyndham Wyndham Grand Baymont, Days Inn, Hawthorn, Knights Inn, Microtel, Wingate, Super 8, Travelodge

This approach provides a quantifiable way of identifying how easy it is to use points at top-tier locations versus lower-tier ones.

Ease and Value of Earning/Redeeming Points makes up, by far, the most heavily weighted criteria in our analysis. This makes sense as one of the main objectives in selecting a loyalty program is getting rewards. To measure this, we first identified how much you’d need to spend to earn a free night in each program, using the median redemption rate from each.* We then used TPG’s most recent valuations** to determine just how valuable each program’s currency is. These two numbers were then weighted equally (50/50) to determine how much value you can from earning and redeeming points within a program.

*Note that Accor doesn’t have an award chart, instead allowing you to cover a 40 Euro hotel stay with 2,000 points. By using the average nightly rate of hotels in 2016 and reverse-engineering the numbers, we’re able to identify how much you’d need to spend to earn an “average” redemption in the Le Club program.

**TPG doesn’t peg a value to LeClub AccorHotels points. However, by following a similar reverse-engineered process laid out above, we’re able to estimate that these points are worth approximately 2.4 cents apiece (based on current exchange rates). We’ll use this numbers for all future sections.

Perks focuses solely on the published benefits given to all members who join the program. Most programs now include free Wi-Fi or offer member-only rates, while some allow you to freely share points with your spouse or household members. We’d like to give a special shout-out to Hyatt here, which explicitly waives resort fees for all award stays (and even allows Globalist members to avoid these fees on all stays). Individual properties in other programs may waive resort fees on free nights, but Hyatt is the only one with a formal company-wide policy.

Evaluating the Elite Status benefits of each program is exceedingly difficult, given that every hotel chain has different ways of awarding status and different benefits at each status level. For simplicity’s sake, we pegged values to key benefits by focusing on the added nightly value you’d get during a stay at one of the program’s hotels. For instance, you might get $10 of value per night for upgrades to “preferred” or “enhanced” rooms, $15 of value per night for normal upgrades to a higher category of room, and $25 of value per night for suite upgrades. After determining these values, we then extrapolated how much value an elite member would receive across four different thresholds — those who stay 25, 50, 75 or 100 nights a year — given the set of perks offered at each level. The program’s overall score was then the sum of these four values. (If you stay fewer than 25 nights, your elite-status benefits are either very limited or non-existent and are thus excluded from this analysis.)

Having and utilizing a hotel program’s Co-Branded Credit Card is a great way to extend the value of your stays, and thus warranted inclusion in our analysis. Here, we looked at several credit-card features — welcome bonus, earning rates, annual fee, status benefits, foreign transaction fees, additional perks (like renewal bonuses and free night certificates) and other options like a business version or multiple personal cards. For each of these seven categories, we ranked the ten programs and then weighted those ratings to arrive at a final score.

The following list shows all the co-branded credit cards for each of our 10 hotel loyalty programs:

Hotel PROGRAM       Credit Cards
Accor No co-branded credit card
Best Western
Issued by First Bankcard
Best Western Rewards Mastercard
Best Western Rewards Premium Mastercard
;
Choice
Issued by Barclays
Choice Privileges Signature Visa Card
;
Club Carlson
Issued by US Bank
Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card
Club Carlson Rewards Visa Signature Card
Club Carlson Rewards Visa Card
Club Carlson Business Rewards Visa Card
;
Hilton Honors
Issued by American Express
Hilton Honors Card from American Express
Three new Amex Hilton cards will be introduced in January 2018: Hilton Honors Ascend Card from American Express
Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express
Hilton Honors American Express Business Card Citibank was previously also an issuer of the following Hilton Honors cards, which will be converted to Amex cards in January 2018: Citi Hilton Honors Visa Signature Card
Citi Hilton Honors Reserve Card
IHG Rewards
Issued by Chase
IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card
;
Marriott Rewards
Issued by Chase
Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card
Marriott Rewards Premier Business Card
;
Starwood Preferred Guest
Issued by American Express
Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express
Starwood Preferred Guest® Business Credit Card from American Express
World of Hyatt
Issued by Chase
The Hyatt Credit Card
;
Wyndham Rewards
Issued by Barclays
Wyndham Rewards Visa Card (annual fee)
Wyndham Rewards Visa Card (no annual fee)

Looking at Promotions and Bonuses, each program tends to follow its own strategy and schedule when delivering extra rewards to its members. In order to make an apples-to-apples comparison with these offers, we looked back at the promotions offered by each of the 10 programs over the last two years on a quarterly basis. We only considered promotions that applied broadly across the various brands, excluding narrow ones like “Earn double points on Saturday nights at Brand X in Country Y.” We then ranked the programs for each quarter starting in January 2016 and averaged those rankings to determine overall scores.

Finally, we considered the Non-Hotel Benefits of these programs. Earning and redeeming points for free hotel stays and taking advantage of benefits are obviously critical, but some travelers prefer to earn or use points in other ways. We identified six non-hotel attributes: transfers to airlines, airline partnerships, earning airline miles (instead of or in addition to hotel points), redeeming for experiences, shopping portal availability and whether the program partners with a transferable point currency like Chase Ultimate Rewards. And then we scored each program based on how it provides these non-hotel benefits.

Wyndham Grand Desert. Photo courtesy Wyndham
The Wyndham Grand Desert in Las Vegas. Photo courtesy Wyndham

The Results

So after all of this number-crunching, where do the 10 programs land? Here are the overall results:

Best Hotel Loyalty Programs

The Best Hotel Rewards Programs in the World

Starwood Preferred Guest

Starwood Preferred Guest takes the top spot with the best overall score. TPG has long extolled the virtues of the SPG program. In this particular analysis, the program excelled in a few notable categories, as it has the highest percentage of luxury properties and the most rewarding elite status program. It also was a close second in geographic spread, which is impressive given its relatively small number (~2,100) of worldwide properties.

What’s interesting is that SPG nabbed first place in spite of having one of the poorest earning rates among these 10 chains, which made up half of the Ease and Value of Earning/Redeeming Points score. Regular members earn just 2 Starpoints per dollar spent, so while you’d only need to spend $1,500 to have enough points for a free night at a Category 1 property, you’d need to spend a whopping $17,500 for a free night at a Category 7 hotel in high season. That’s more than double SPG’s closest competitor. However, the program made up significant ground thanks to how valuable its points are, as TPG staffers have experienced at hotels like the St. Regis Bar Harbour and the Equinox Resort & Spa in Vermont. Starpoints regularly top the list of our monthly point valuations, and for good reason.

Wyndham Rewards

The fact that SPG took top prize probably isn’t a shock to most regular TPG readers, but the runner-up may come as a surprise. Wyndham Rewards clocked in at second place, just behind Starwood and well ahead of the next closest competitor. Like SPG, the program performed well in a few key criteria, but the biggest contributor is the chain’s recently revamped approach to free night awards. You can redeem just 15,000 points for a free night at any Wyndham property worldwide, from the cheapest Days Inn to the most expensive Wyndham Grand resort. This helped the program earn top marks in the Ease and Value of Earning/Redeeming Points, even though we only value Wyndham points at 1.2 cents apiece. The program also scored highly in Number of Hotels/Rooms thanks to its 8,000+ properties and 700,000+ rooms around the world and also did well in the percentage of Economical Properties.

World of Hyatt

Third place was a neck-and-neck race between two formidable programs, but World of Hyatt edged out Hilton Honors. This is quite impressive for Hyatt given their comparatively small portfolio of properties, with fewer than 750 hotels and roughly 70,000 rooms. Hilton, by comparison, has more than 5,000 properties and 800,000 rooms worldwide. However, Hyatt excels when it comes to its percentage of Luxury Properties, with almost 6% of its hotels falling into this category, good for second place in that criteria. It also provides some fantastic Elite Status benefits like suite upgrades and guaranteed late checkout, and scored well in the Co-Branded Credit Card category.

Park Hyatt Saigon. Photo courtesy Hyatt.

Hilton Honors

On the flip side, Hilton Honors did well in the Number of Hotels/Rooms and Geographic Spread, thanks to its broad portfolio in over 100 countries around the world. Guests will also enjoy a lot of perks when staying at a Hilton, including member-only rates, complimentary Wi-Fi and free sharing of points through the program’s new family pooling feature. Finally, Hilton also takes the top spot for Co-Branded Credit Cards, in large part due to the wide variety of current cards and new upcoming compelling options like the Ascend and Aspire.

Accor’s Le Club

Even though Accor’s Le Club does place high (#5) on this list (largely due to the value of its points at ~2.4 cents apiece based on current exchange rates), it’s important to note that the program is primarily based overseas. While you’ve likely heard of brands like Sofitel and Pullman, Accor’s presence in the US is relatively limited, with just a handful of properties in major cities. As a result, be sure to consider whether this program is a desirable option for you given your typical travel patterns.

Marriott Rewards

Marriott Rewards takes sixth place, with top marks for Geographic Spread thanks to locations in 125 countries and solid performances in Co-Branded Credit Cards and Promotions.

IHG Rewards

IHG Rewards comes in seventh, mainly due to the lucrative Promotions and Bonuses it offers, though it’s also buoyed by its large number of hotels (5,272) and wide geographic spread (~100 countries).

Best Western Rewards

We have Best Western Rewards in eighth (which suffered due to low marks in the percentage of Luxury Properties and a comparatively small portfolio of hotels).

Choice Privileges

Choice Privileges in ninth (also hurt by having no true luxury brands and a comparatively less rewarding Co-Branded Credit Card).

Club Carlson

Lastly, Club Carlson in tenth (yet another with few luxury properties and a small number of hotels).

Finally, we’d also like to note that when reviewing for the site, the TPG staff always pays for their own hotel rooms and flights, and no one is paying us for placement or higher rank in this article.

It’s Your Turn

We know that every traveler has his or her own opinion about what’s most important in selecting a hotel loyalty program. A road warrior may place a heavier emphasis on the perks offered from elite status, while someone who travels exclusively within the US may not care about a program’s geographic spread. We’re giving all readers the chance to customize the weighting to match their needs.

Enter the interactive tool below. Simply use the arrows for each of the 10 criteria to increase or decrease the weighting, making sure that your total adds up to 100%. The results for each of the 10 programs will then automatically recalculate so you can see which hotel program is best for you.

Keep in mind that the final rankings should be viewed through the lens of practicality. It’s up to you to determine if the best hotel program (as identified by the interactive tool) is truly the best option for you. If your analysis winds up with Hyatt at the top but your most frequent travel destinations don’t have any Hyatt properties, you’re obviously best off going with another program on the list. The comparative chart below illustrates how these 10 international chain hotels compare in size, whether you’re looking at the number of hotels, room, or brands.

What It All Means

We hope that anyone who has made it this far recognizes that a hotel is far more than just a place to rest your head or relax by the pool, especially when you consider its loyalty program. We are continually amazed by the number of travelers who arrive at a hotel, are invited to join the chain’s program, and turn down the opportunity (we see this all the time and even conducted a study back in 2013, which found that roughly a third of respondents don’t collect points or miles at all). From our perspective, that’s simply throwing away free money.

Our advice: We encourage TPG readers to sign up for any and all hotel loyalty programs. Hopefully, this analysis gives you a framework to use the next time you’re planning a trip and trying to figure out where your money will be maximized.

Of course, the hotel industry continues to evolve as program executives and property managers look to provide more rewarding structures while simultaneously delivering more customized experiences for guests — millennials demand just that. Rather than doubling-down on the “cookie cutter” approach of prior decades — which led to the explosion of standardized brands like Hampton and Fairfield — many programs are now investing in more unique properties designed to personalize a guest’s stay.

The Internet will also continue to play a major role in shaping hotel strategy, allowing chains and individual properties to gather mountains of data and target customers more effectively. This has driven the rise of lucrative cross-industry partnerships. Looking for a hotel on Google? The search engine may offer a discount for certain loyalty programs. Staying a few times at a given property? You may get targeted for a new co-branded credit card. This innovation will only increase as programs further enhance their capabilities to analyze, predict and then meet guest expectations across their diverse portfolios. If they succeed in this endeavor, the end result will be happier guests utilizing more rewarding programs with greater ease.

Additional reporting by Alexa Noel. Interactive tool by Josh Bricel. Graphics by Dorothy Cury

This story has been amended. The infographic comparing chain hotels misstated the total number of hotels managed by Marriott brands. The number is 1,200,000 and not 120,000.

Featured image by Shutterstock.

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