The state of hotel loyalty programs: Will this year’s status earnings be worth it next year?

Nov 12, 2021

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This week at the NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference, many hotel CEOs, including those of Hilton, IHG and Marriott, said the industry is really starting to look up. People are traveling, and borders everywhere are continuing to reopen.

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Folks from coast to coast are taking more trips, blending vacations with business (cough cough, bleisure) and redefining what it even means to be a traveler every single day.

But what about the state of hotel loyalty programs? That really depends on who you’re asking, right?

Personally, I still find a lot of value in the various hotel loyalty programs and I’m already planning my elite status goals for 2022 and beyond. Others, though, are wondering if this year’s status earnings (many made easier thanks to brands slashing requirements) will have been worth the work put in.

The pandemic changed our relationships with points

Though they might not have served us best in the last 18 to 20 months as we all dealt with changes in hotels due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the delta variant surge and other disruptions, rewards points that we earned during this time are starting to burn a hole in our digital wallets.

The pandemic altered many of our abilities to earn elite status, particularly through travel, but the majority of the most popular rewards programs — including Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt and IHG — met their customers halfway through this ordeal.

For 2021, all four of the major programs slashed qualification requirements, making it easier for folks to earn or maintain elite status — some might even argue that this was the easiest year ever to earn elite status. To make it even better, most have also extended elite status earned in 2020 or 2021 all the way to 2023.

Related: Hotel and airline elite status extensions stretching into 2023

It’s not too late to earn elite status this year

Just because holiday lights are already going up doesn’t mean the year is coming to a close quite yet. You still have time to earn status by making the most of the offers and extensions the big chains have bestowed on us. This is especially true if you use a credit card to meet your goals before 2022 (and obviously we have some tips to help you).

To put it in perspective: At TPG, we have some brilliant minds who have made the most of the year, even with some limits on travel. Senior writer Katie Genter is well on her way to Marriott Titanium Elite status thanks to earning 55 elite qualifying nights without even stepping foot onto a Marriott property.

Others took advantage of extensions and promotions to earn higher elite status this year with more miles on the road and more nights in hotel rooms. One even “accidentally” earned Hyatt’s second-highest status after being a die-hard Marriott loyalist.

No matter how the pandemic changed how you travel, I think it’s worth giving loyalty programs a fresh start in 2022, especially as we all start traveling again more freely.

But will elite status be worth it next year?

Now, we have to acknowledge the fact that there have been some negative issues plaguing hotels due to the pandemic, and those changes have directly affected many of the rewards that come with elite status. For example, the million-dollar question right now is what will happen with changes to elite status amenities, such as hotel breakfasts (a key perk for some programs)? 

Right now, many hotels are still only offering grab-and-go breakfasts, while others have fully reinstated their regular breakfast menus. The state of the buffet is still a question for down the road.

Even the ways different brands handle non-elite perks, such as discontinuing daily housekeeping service, could outweigh the benefits travelers earn from their status and cause people to move to a different program.

For a lot of folks, these changes may seem insignificant. But for people looking to spend a lot of money or stay the necessary amount of nights to earn elite status (and the associated perks), it starts to beg the question: Is it even worth it?

Add that to the inconsistencies between brands within the same portfolio and websites stating available offerings only to find out at the actual hotel that those services aren’t available, and we’re all left scratching our heads — and reconsidering our loyalties.

Not to mention the move away from traditional rewards charts to dynamic pricing, such as Marriott’s recent announcement and new peak pricing from brands like Hyatt.

However, it’s still too early to tell exactly how much these changes will affect us next year. I’ll double down and say that we still owe it to ourselves — and the brands to which we pledge allegiance — to give elite status our best shot in 2022.

Where hotel brands currently stand

Beyond the general state of hotel loyalty programs in 2022, each brand has ushered in its own loyalty program changes. So whether you’re a World of Hyatt wizard or firmly committed to Marriott, take a look below for a brief summary of where each program stands.

Marriott

(Photo courtesy of the JW Marriott New Orleans/Facebook)

This year, TPG readers named Marriott Bonvoy the best hotel loyalty program, and we can see why. With more than 7,000 properties across the globe, you don’t have to go far to find a Marriott brand at your destination, whether you’re looking for a luxe hotel or a more affordable option.

Marriott Bonvoy also offers plenty of other perks that fans of the program love. Members can get a fifth night free when booking with awards points, meaning a rewards vacation can last even longer. Or, take advantage of your points by booking experiences ranging from tickets to the Super Bowl or Billy Joel in a suite at Madison Square Garden to private guide tours or VIP access to cultural events like Miami Art Week and the World Expo in Dubai.  

And there’s the fact that Bonvoy members can earn even more points from the things they do every day, like eating out at restaurants, ordering food or taking select Uber rides. The program was designed to help people earn — and have experiences in return.

Readers also named Marriott Bonvoy Titanium as the best hotel elite status thanks to the brand doubling down on its status extensions in 2021. Giving members a head start to reach Titanium was a nice show of faith for Marriott, and fans of the program are rewarded with perks like Choice Benefits, suite upgrades and even United Premium Silver Status.

Related: The award traveler’s guide to Marriott Bonvoy

Looking ahead, it’s an exciting time to be a Bonvoy member. The company recently announced that it’s adding 19 new all-inclusive resorts to its portfolio, giving members more exciting ways to earn and redeem points. It’s also making great innovations in the breakfast space, including offering vegan options, iced coffee and funfetti cinnamon rolls at select hotels.

Now, obviously, next year’s move to dynamic points pricing will be a big shakeup, but luckily Marriott claims that, at least for a while, the new pricing model won’t be too different from what we’re already used to. Time will tell if this change really takes a hit on redemptions — and you all can voice your thoughts in the next TPG Awards.

Hyatt

With a series of popular brands like Thompson, Miraval and Alila, Hyatt has some stellar properties despite its smaller footprint compared to Marriott and Hilton. In particular, Thompson is a brand I’ve found offers a consistently chic stay in cities all across the globe, not to mention new locations in New York City and Austin, Texas, that I’m excited to visit.

Of course, Hyatt also reduced elite status qualifying requirements by 50% this year and is extending any status earned in 2021 through Feb. 28, 2023.

Related: Everything you need to know about World of Hyatt

But, unfortunately, the brand did announce new peak and off-peak pricing that rolled out in October for stays starting March 1, 2022. Though Hyatt will maintain its eight categories of hotels, the new structure allows for a peak, standard and off-peak rate within those categories — meaning that a Category 8 hotel, the brand’s highest level, could now range between 35,000 and 45,000 points per night.

Looking at a Category 3 hotel, for example, the difference between a peak and off-peak night is a whopping 67%.

For what it’s worth, Hyatt claims that most nights will still be at the standard rate. And looking at certain dates, we found that combining off-peak and peak night could actually cancel out the difference.

Similar to changes made to Marriott’s program, only time will shake out how we really feel about Hyatt’s new pricing structure.

Hilton

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

For Hilton Honors members, this year has been a good one in terms of extensions of lower qualification requirements. Hilton, like Hyatt, lowered its elite status qualifications. Fewer stays, nights and base points are required to earn status this year. For example, to reach entry-level Silver elite status, members only need seven nights, three stays or 17,500 base points.

Hilton also extended elite status for members through March 31, 2023.

While other brands are just starting to introduce new pricing, we’re all used to Hilton’s dynamic pricing. It even offers a handy online tool so people can quickly search hotels around the world to see an estimate of how many points are required to book a stay.

Hilton is also still offering its fifth-night free program for Silver, Gold and Diamond Hilton Honors members. This can be a great perk for people looking for longer stays or to maximize a family vacation.

And I’m excited for a handful of new Hilton properties opening around the world, but most specifically, the brand-new, all-inclusive Hilton Cancun.

Related: The award traveler’s guide to Hilton Honors

IHG

Then there’s IHG, a brand well known for its wide range of hotel types and a solid points value.

For folks who already had IHG elite status, it’s been automatically extended through February of 2023. For people still working on status, the brand rolled over qualifying nights from 2020 and reduced the elite status requirements across the board.

Or, you can skip all of that and sign up for the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card to get instant Platinum Status for complimentary room upgrades, welcome amenities, express check-in and more.

Related: The award traveler’s guide to IHG Rewards Club

While I’m not personally chasing IHG status at the moment, a number of great new hotels — including the upcoming Six Senses New York and the now-open Six Senses Shaharut — have me wondering if I should. Plus, there’s a Kimpton in nearly every city domestic city I love.

Other programs

Of course, those aren’t all of the hotel loyalty programs in existence. There are plenty of other rewards programs outside of the four majors that people love and are devoted to. But what I’m hopeful for in the near future is seeing new rewards programs roll out from brands that either haven’t had one in the past or have an untraditional version of a rewards or status program.

Earlier this month, the new CEO of Standard International, a beloved boutique hotel chain, told me that they don’t necessarily need a rewards program because the allure of the brand keeps people coming back. If they do launch a rewards program, “it will be unlike any other.”

Personally, I want to know what that looks like.

For some major upscale brands, such as Four Seasons, you can almost always count on world-class service — and to drop some serious cash in exchange. Wouldn’t it be great to earn something back from those dreamy but expensive trips?

Easy answer: Yes.

With all of the changes at the major brands, some travelers may be apt to switch to an all-encompassing third-party program. With Hotels.com, for example, travelers can earn one free night at a hotel after staying 10 nights booked through the online portal. That free night equates to the average value of the 10 previously booked stays. It’s all pretty simple.

And there are also credit card portals from Chase, American Express and Capital One where travel, including hotel stays, can be booked directly with points, cutting out the hassle of rewards charts and dynamic pricing, for the most part. While these programs are continuously evolving — Capital One just launched a brand-new travel card and travel booking portal — they allow people to simply stay at the hotels they want, regardless of brand allegiance.

Bottom line

As we reflect on elite status with major hotels brands, remember it’s all about compromise — at least, for now. Most programs made it easier than ever for us to earn elite status in 2021, even if we weren’t able to travel as much as we’d hoped. (Remember, the vaccine rollout really only started earlier this year, and the delta surge has been significant.)

But as we move into a world where travel is getting much easier, we also have the right to question if changes in how hotels operate — and could continue to operate even after the pandemic and staffing and supply issues dissipate — will ultimately make having elite status worth the hassle.

I say we keep looking forward to 2022. Next year, we’ll be able to put more of the changes in loyalty programs, such as Hyatt’s peak and off-peak pricing and Marriott’s new dynamic pricing, into real-life practice.

Featured photo courtesy of Marriott.

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