Battle of the Hotels: Why I stay most often with IHG
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Editor’s note: It’s no surprise that TPG writers and editors are loyal when it comes to travel. So we decided to do a battle that covers the top four U.S. hotel groups. Check out the episode of the Talking Points podcast to hear us defend our picks. And click on the links below to read which hotels we chose and why.
Further reading: Podcast: Battle of the Hotels: Points and Miles experts help you decide where to invest your loyalty
Further reading: Battle of the Hotels: Why I think Marriott is the best
Further reading: Battle of the Hotels: Why I think Hilton is the best
Further reading: Battle of the Hotels: Why I think Hyatt is the best
Related: Take our "Talking Points" listener survey.
JT Genter explains why he’s sticking with IHG — even though the IHG Rewards program doesn't get much love.
Over the past two and a half years, my wife -- and TPG writer -- Katie and I have lived out of hotels as digital nomads. In this time, we've stayed a combined 239 nights at Intercontinental Hotel Group (IHG) hotels, far more than any other hotel group.
In addition to earning top-tier status (75 nights), I've doubled down on IHG by purchasing InterContinental Ambassador to get upgrades at InterContinental hotels and a reward weekend night.
Although I have top-tier status with Hilton (from the Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express), Wyndham (status match) and Best Western (status match) and mid-tier status with Marriott and Choice, IHG continues to get most of our business. The information for the Hilton Aspire Amex card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
IHG's massive footprint
Pretty much anywhere I've gone -- even Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia -- there's been an IHG hotel. As of September 2019, IHG's portfolio includes 5,795 hotels in nearly 100 countries. That's not as many as Marriott's 7,663 properties in 131 countries, but this footprint still makes IHG one of the largest hotel brands.
And it's continuing to grow. There are nearly 2,000 hotels in the development pipeline. Plus, IHG's partnership with Mr. & Mrs. Smith will soon add over 500 boutique hotels to the IHG Rewards program.
That means I'm able to earn or redeem points and accrue elite-qualifying nights almost anywhere I want to go. The same can't be said for Hilton -- which won't have a hotel in major cities like Abu Dhabi anytime soon -- or Hyatt, which has just 875 hotels worldwide.
Wide-ranging hotel brands
IHG is probably best known for its Holiday Inn Express properties and that is understandable as the brand's 2,826 properties make up about half of IHG's offerings worldwide. But, IHG is much more than just Holiday Inn Express. It offers everything from extended-stay hotels (Candlewood, Staybridge) and practical brands (Avid Hotel, Holiday Inn) to unique boutique brands (Hotel Indigo, Voco) and even an exercise-focused brand (EVEN Hotels).
IHG hasn't historically had a large number of luxury hotels. For years, Crowne Plaza and InterContinental hotels were its only upscale brands but that's changed recently. In 2018, boutique hotel brand Kimpton was fully integrated into IHG Rewards, and 2019 has seen a rapid expansion of IHG's luxury footprint with the acquisitions of Regent Hotels and Six Senses Hotels & Resorts and the announcement of an IHG Rewards partnership with Mr & Mrs. Smith's over 500 boutique hotels.
As I write this, I'm working from an extended-stay hotel where I've been staying for the past two weeks. It isn't fancy but this Staybridge Suites is perfect for a longer-term stay. It has helpful amenities like free laundry, an in-room kitchenette and even a basketball court. There's complimentary breakfast and evening social hours with free beer and snacks. Plus, we were upgraded to a one-bedroom suite thanks to having elite status.
For my father's first visit to Asia in late September, we wanted to do something more upscale, so we booked the Regent Singapore, newly integrated into IHG. Thanks to my top-tier Spire Elite status, I was upgraded from a base room to a two-room suite and the room Katie booked was upgraded to a larger room with a balcony thanks to her IHG Platinum Elite status from the IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card.
If you're only looking to stay at luxury brands, IHG probably isn't going to be for you. But I love being able to earn elite status from mostly midmarket hotels and leveraging that status for perks at luxury hotels.
IHG became a favorite with points-and-miles travelers through its promotions, such as PointBreaks and Accelerate. IHG fans have become so used to getting extraordinary promotions that there's griping when IHG "only" discounts two dozen hotels to 5,000 points -- $25 per night at TPG valuations -- or "only" offers a promotion for 28,000 points ($140 at TPG valuations).
These promotions aren't as incredible as they used to be, but there's still plenty of value to be had. Earlier this year, Katie and I stayed at the brand-new InterContinental Phu Quoc Long Beach Resort for just 45,000 IHG points for four nights by combining the IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card's fourth-night reward benefit with discounted 15,000 per night PointBreak pricing at the hotel. TPG values these 45,000 points at $225, which equates to just $56 per night at a brand-new InterContinental resort.
The other PointBreaks redemptions that we have taken advantage of since the beginning of 2018 haven't been as fancy, but they've provided some excellent award rates for what we needed:
- Staybridge Suites Austin Arboretum-Domain: 11,250 points per night after a fourth night reward
- Hotel Indigo Austin Downtown-University: 15,000 points per night
- Crowne Plaza Charlotte Executive Park: 15,000 points per night
- Holiday Inn Nola-Naples Vulcano Buono: 5,000 points per night
Perk-heavy credit cards
Although Katie and I live mostly out of branded hotels now, we didn't always. In the years before starting to work full-time for TPG, we usually stayed at independent hotels and guesthouses. That started to change when we got the IHG® Rewards Club Select Credit Card (no longer open for new applications).
For just a $49 annual fee, this card offers mid-tier IHG Rewards Platinum elite status, an anniversary reward night and a 10% rebate on points. These perks prompted us to start considering IHG hotels for our travels and we were blown away at the perks and upgrades that we got at overseas hotels from just this one low-annual-fee card.
Although the Select Credit Card is no longer available, there's another IHG co-branded credit card that's almost as lucrative. The $99 annual fee IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card is one of my favorite credit cards. Like the Select, the Premier also offers an anniversary reward night and IHG Platinum Elite status. It also offers a fourth night reward on award stays, 10 points per dollar spent at IHG and $100 credit for NEXUS, Global Entry or TSA PreCheck.
A reasonable points program
The IHG Rewards program has one of the least-valuable points in the TPG valuations, but that doesn't mean that there's no value to be had. IHG Rewards standard hotel prices range from 10,000 points per night to 70,000 points per night -- although there have been a few exceptions added recently.
At TPG's valuation of 0.5 cents per IHG point, that means an award night at one of the ~366 properties priced at 10,000 points per night will set you back just $50 worth of points. And there are some solid options in there, as Katie uncovered in her Stretch Your Points series.
On the high end, IHG Rewards (generally) top out at 70,000 points per night, even at an incredible property like the InterContinental Bora Bora Thalasso or the InterContinental Times Square. Even better, you can use the IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card's fourth-night reward benefit at these properties to drop the effective price per night to 52,500 points -- which is around $263 per night worth of points.
We loved our redemption at the InterContinental Bora Bora Thalasso, but Katie and I are budget travelers at heart and we have been able to get some incredible value out of our IHG points.
When visiting the TPG offices in New York City, we default to the Holiday Inn Express Bronx NYC Stadium Area -- which is just 20,000 points per night. With a fourth night reward, we're redeeming just 60,000 points for four nights. That equates to about $75 worth of points per night for a stay in NYC. We're just a couple of blocks from the 4 train into Manhattan and we get free breakfast. That's hard to beat.
Another perk of IHG Rewards' current program is there's no peak and off-peak award pricing. That meant that we were able to book the Holiday Inn Express Austin Downtown-University during SXSW 2019 for just 30,000 points per night. After getting a fourth night reward, the five-night stay in the heart of the action cost us 120,000 points -- about $120 per night worth of points.
Just before my niece's birth this past spring, Katie and I decided to base at a hotel near my sister and her family for a couple of weeks. It's basic but the Candlewood Suites Birmingham/Homewood was everything we needed. At just 15,000 points per night -- just 11,250 per night after getting each fourth night reward -- we were redeeming just $56 worth of points per night for the stay.
Here are the other points stays we've done since the beginning of 2018 and the effective rate that we paid after factoring in a fourth night reward when applicable:
- Hotel Indigo Atlanta Airport-College Park: 20,000 points per night -- conveniently located near the airport and has a shuttle
- Holiday Inn Express Plainville-Foxboro Area: 15,000 points per night -- located just a short drive from where the New England Patriots play (although we were in the area for a friend's wedding)
- Holiday Inn Express Chicago-Downers Grove: 11,250 points per night
- Holiday Inn Express Madrid-Tres Cantos: 7,500 points per night -- located in a wonderful community just a short train ride from downtown Madrid
- Holiday Inn Berlin Airport-Conf Centre: 15,000 points per night
- Candlewood Suites Houston IAH / Beltway 8: 10,000 points per night -- for a cheap overnight near Houston's airport in early 2018
These aren't aspirational properties but we were able to get good value out of our IHG Rewards points from these stays.
The IHG Rewards program doesn't get much love -- and understandably so -- but it's still my go-to thanks to its wide range of hotel brands around the world, great promotions and credit cards with great perks.
Nevertheless, IHG isn't currently earning all of my business. I stayed 89 nights at an IHG hotel during 2019, but Marriott and Choice combined to get 100 nights of my business. If it wants to truly compete with the likes of Marriott and Hilton, IHG still needs to improve aspects of its elite program.