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The Critical Points: USA Today's 10 Best Hotel Loyalty Programs misses the mark

Nov. 08, 2019
6 min read
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Each week in his column “The Critical Points,” TPG Loyalty and Engagement Editor Richard Kerr presents his opinion on a loyalty program, card product or recent news that he believes is overlooked, unsung or the result of groupthink taking mass opinion in a direction with which he doesn’t agree. His goal is not necessarily to convince you to agree with his position but rather to induce critical thought for each of the topics and positions he covers.

USA Today recently released a list of its 10 best hotel loyalty programs. A panel of three experts came up with a field of 20 nominees that were sent to an audience to vote. I expected to see the usual suspects at the top of the rankings, but was genuinely puzzled when I saw the winners.

Without further ado, here are the 10 best hotel loyalty programs — in order — according to USA Today:

  1. Wyndham Rewards
  2. Choice Privileges
  3. I Prefer Hotel Rewards
  4. Hilton Honors
  5. Stash Rewards
  6. Sonesta Travel Pass
  7. Radisson Rewards
  8. Best Western Rewards
  9. IHG Rewards Club
  10. Marriott Bonvoy

To say the results are surprising would be an understatement. Even putting aside the value a loyalty program gives to a member, purely from an exposure standpoint, I don't know how programs like Stash, Sonesta and I Prefer would receive more votes than a Marriott or IHG.

The article also doesn't define the criteria used to select the nominees, nor does it indicate how voters were given the options to vote. That means we need put aside the voting strategy which produced the above results and focus on the programs themselves and why they should not be in the position they are.

Where this list falls short

Wyndham Bonnet Creek
There are some solid Wyndham properties — like the Bonnnet Creek location near Disney World — but it's hard to rank the program as the best out there. (Photo courtesy of the hotel)

Wyndham: The program and its partnership with Caesars certainly has its uses, but in my mind, it's in no way the best hotel loyalty program. Wyndham recently dropped its policy of one price for all award nights and doubled the cost of high-end resorts and desirable properties to 30,000 points per night. There isn't an easy way to earn Wyndham points outside of staying at the properties, and they're not a transfer partner of any credit card program. The chain doesn't have aspirational properties, and the vast majority of its hotels are budget brands — think Days Inn and Super 8. I have never met a die-hard Wyndham loyalist in all my years of covering the loyalty space.

Choice: Much like Wyndham, the program is intriguing and has certain uses, but there are few desirable properties, and the vast majority of the hotels again fall into lower-tier brands like Comfort Inn. It is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, and I certainly wouldn't ignore the program entirely, but it's not the second best in existence.

I Prefer, Stash and Sonesta: I have nothing against these programs, but their elite benefits are lacking and the footprints are much too small for these to be the third, fifth and sixth best programs respectively. I'm having a hard time believing they even have enough exposure with the public to be voted in these positions. I Prefer and Stash are rather loose programs, as the participating properties are independently-owned boutique hotels. Sonesta is a small chain that does look like a pretty good program, but there are only 80 properties worldwide. With that size, how can it command spot number six on the list?

Hyatt: One of the most popular — and arguably the most valuable program — is missing entirely from the list.

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Marriott: While I agree Marriott has its problems post-merger, the world's largest hotel chain has a program that delivers value to millions of members, and you can find a participating location almost anywhere in the world you want to go. The program is more valuable to more people than the majority of those listed above it.

IHG: The chain is located worldwide, has aspirational properties like resorts and InterContinental hotels as well as family- and budget-friendly properties. It's also incredibly easy to earn thousands of IHG points — especially with frequent bonuses on purchased points. Why the program would be listed low at number nine makes little sense.

Radisson and Best Western: I think these other two programs are listed close to the correct spot, though Radisson could be a bit higher because of how useful it is outside of the US and with attractive brands — like Radisson Blu in Europe and the Middle East.

My rankings

The gorgeous Park Hyatt Mallorca is one property increasing in price. Photo by the author.
Hyatt offers some tremendous value, earning it the #1 spot on my list. (Photo by Nick Ewen / The Points Guy)

I think the best hotel loyalty programs should be decided based on the following criteria: value of points when redeemed toward free nights, value of elite benefits, ease of program use, effort required to earn points and quality of the hotel product. Based on those criteria, here are my own top 10 most valuable hotel programs:

  1. Hyatt
  2. Hilton
  3. Marriott
  4. IHG
  5. Radisson
  6. Wyndham
  7. Accor
  8. Best Western
  9. Omni
  10. Sonesta

The argument against Hyatt being number one will always be the chain's footprint, but Hyatt continues to make improvements through partnerships and acquisitions — updates that are making a noticeable difference. The points are valuable, the award chart is reasonably priced and its elite benefits are the best.

Moving down my rankings, you largely follow the size of the hotel chains — which make them easy to use and available for most travelers.

Bottom line

There's a lot to question regarding USA Today's list of best hotel loyalty programs. Without knowing the criteria and with a voting audience that isn't clearly defines, it's hard to say how these programs ended up the positions they did. However, I believe you'd be hard pressed to find any loyalty program analysts, experts or enthusiasts that would agree with these rankings.

Featured image by (Photo by Witthaya Prasongsin/Getty Images)