I’ve always found it amusing how miles chasers (myself included) tend to over-obsess about flights, sometimes to the neglect of hotels.
After all, getting there is only a small part of your trip. The hotel is where you’ll be shacking up every night, and if you spend all your time hunting for award flights and no time researching hotels, that probably won’t end well.
In that spirit, I thought I’d share more about which hotel loyalty programmes I use the most and why. Keep in mind I’m taking the perspective of a leisure traveller; business travellers will obviously have very different considerations:
- Business travellers’ choice of hotels may be dictated by the corporate rates their company has negotiated
- Business travellers are less likely to be concerned about perks like free breakfast, since they can expense it anyway
- Leisure travellers are more likely to value suite upgrades, since business travellers usually stay solo and may be out of the hotel for large chunks of the day
- Leisure travellers have to earn elite status on their own dime, and so thus prefer programmes where benefits kick in at a lower tier (e.g. Hilton offers free breakfast to mid-tier Golds)
Which hotel chain has the largest footprint?
|Programme||Number of Properties|
For context, it might be helpful to first establish who the big boys are out there.
While Marriott may be the largest hotel company in the world by the number of rooms, it’s not the biggest in terms of footprint- that title goes to Wyndham Rewards. Budget-focused Choice takes third place, and then after that it’s the more familiar names of Hilton, IHG, Accor and Hyatt.
Of course, there’s quantity, and there’s quality. I don’t find Wyndham, Choice or Radisson very useful because of their lack of aspirational properties, and chances are if I’m considering one of their properties, it’s because of budget rather than loyalty.
Which chains do I have status with?
The main factor driving where I stay is elite status. I currently hold status with the following programmes:
Here’s how I got each of them:
- Accor Platinum is a puzzling one. I held this status previously but didn’t stay enough nights to requalify, yet my account hasn’t been downgraded for whatever reason
- GHA Titanium is almost too easy to earn; you could earn it in three nights by staying at three separate brands. I didn’t even do that, but GHA offered a blanket extension for 2023 anyway
- Hilton Diamond was a gift from a friend who stayed more than 100 nights in a year
- IHG One Diamond was from an extremely generous status challenge, which I further extended by a year through buying an InterContinental Ambassador membership
- Marriott Bonvoy Lifetime Gold is a relic from my days in consulting, where I racked up 450+ nights at Starwood Hotels. No need to be envious; this status is close to useless
- Radisson Rewards Premium is a standard benefit for AMEX Platinum Charge cardholders
- Shangri-La Circle Jade was a standard benefit for AMEX Platinum Charge cardholders until April 2021; Shangri-La extended all status until 31 December 2022, then further till 31 December 2023 with its fast-track requalification offer
It’s worth mentioning that while I don’t hold status with World of Hyatt, I know someone with Globalist status. Globalists can book Guest of Honour stays on behalf of other members, where he/she receives Globalist perks nonetheless. Talk about friends with benefits!
It may sound impressive to have status with seven different programmes, but in reality, only a handful are useful. The most important elite benefits to me are room upgrades, free breakfast and lounge access.
Accor Platinum members get two guaranteed Suite Night Upgrades upon qualification, and a further Suite Night Upgrade each time they accumulate 4,000 additional status points (capped at 12 per year). They are also eligible for space-available upgrades to the next room category, including standard suites, at the time of check-in.
GHA Titanium members are eligible for space-available two-category room upgrades at the time of check-in.
Hilton Diamond members are eligible for space-available upgrades which include standard suites, at the time of check-in. However, the T&Cs do not oblige the hotel to offer upgrades, even when higher category rooms are available.
IHG One Diamond members can earn up to three confirmed suite upgrades per year through the Milestone Rewards programme, each of which can be applied for a stay of up to five nights. In addition to this, they are eligible for space-available upgrades which include standard suites, at the time of check-in. However, the T&Cs do not oblige the hotel to offer upgrades, even when higher category rooms are available.
Marriott Bonvoy Lifetime Gold members enjoy the same perks as regular Gold members, i.e. a space-available upgrade to an “enhanced room” at the time of check-in. Unfortunately, an enhanced room may be in the same category, just on a higher floor.
Radisson Rewards Premium members are entitled to space-available one-category room upgrades at the time of check-in.
Shangri-La Circle Jade members are entitled to room upgrades, though the wording of their benefit is extremely confusing: “get upgraded to the next room type within the same category of your room reservation.” What that means exactly, I have no idea.
Based on my personal experience, GHA has been the best at consistently honouring their room upgrade policy. I’ve received upgrades at Capitol Kempinski, PARKROYAL Marina Bay, Pan Pacific Singapore, Kempinski Munich, QT Sydney, Sindhorn Kempinski, each time at least two categories, and sometimes even more.
Hilton is hit and miss. I’ve had more luck with upgrades within Asia (the Waldorf Astoria Bangkok was particularly memorable); in Europe and the USA, upgrades are close to non-existent unless you’re the more assertive type.
I’ve not done a lot of stays at Accor hotels, although I did get upgraded at the SO/Bangkok, albeit only after some back and forth with the front desk who insisted HoteLux rates weren’t eligible for benefits (they are).
Accor Platinums enjoy complimentary breakfast at Asia Pacific hotels.
Hilton Diamonds enjoy complimentary breakfast worldwide, except in the USA where they get an F&B credit of US$10-25 instead (rather useless, if you ask me).
IHG One Diamonds and Shangri-La Jades enjoy complimentary breakfast worldwide.
GHA Titanium, Radisson Rewards Premium, and Marriott Bonvoy Lifetime Gold members do not receive complimentary breakfast.
Free breakfast is probably an even more important perk for me, since I’d rather take a guaranteed saving each day over a shot at an upgrade.
Hilton has been very useful in this regard; during my visit to Conrad Koh Samui last year, I saved more than S$600 on breakfast charges for myself and the wife thanks to Hilton Diamond status (Gold members would enjoy the same).
Of course, Hilton’s breakfast benefit can also be completely useless if you’re travelling in the USA. During my trip to New York, I discovered first-hand how the US$25 breakfast credit barely covered a coffee and pastry at some hotels.
I haven’t had an opportunity to test-drive my IHG One Diamond status yet, but their free breakfast benefit comes with no strings attached, and I reckon that might influence some of my stay decisions in 2023.
Executive lounges are useful places to catch up on work, and while the quality of F&B can be hit and miss (some offer champagne and canapes, others little more than soft drinks and potato chips), it at least presents an option.
Hilton Diamond members enjoy guaranteed lounge access, wherever such a facility exists (limited exceptions exist at properties like the Waldorf Astoria Rome), as do Accor Platinum members.
Unfortunately, none of the other statuses I hold offer such a perk. IHG One Diamond members do enjoy lounge access, but only as a milestone benefit at the 40 night mark- something I’m unlikely to hit.
Where can I transfer points?
Status is only part of the equation. After all, my goal is to pay as little out of pocket as possible, and while free breakfast and upgrades are good, there’s no point if I’m going to be paying silly money for the room.
So my next consideration is which programmes I can easily earn points in, and unfortunately, it’s slim pickings in Singapore.
|N/A (programme does not use points)|
Only three banks in Singapore offer transfers to hotel programmes, and the ratios are typically poor. For instance, you could transfer 10,000 Citi Miles to 10,000 KrisFlyer miles, or 10,000 IHG points. I value a KrisFlyer mile at around 1.5 cents apiece, and an IHG point at 0.67 cents apiece, so by choosing IHG points I’m taking a massive haircut.
Likewise, the transfer ratios for Standard Chartered nerf any potential value. You can transfer 2,500 SC points to 1,000 KrisFlyer miles, but you’ll need 5,000 SC points for 1,000 Accor points. It typically doesn’t make sense, although Accor’s transfer bonuses can sometimes make it better.
That leaves American Express. Thanks to referrals and 10Xcelerator spending, I have a good number of American Express Membership Rewards points to redeem. This gives me the option of transferring points to Hilton or Marriott.
Where can I buy points for cheap?
But even if I can’t transfer credit card points at a reasonable value, not all is lost. The major hotel programmes often sell their points at a discount, which can represent good value depending on when and where you plan to stay.
|Programme||Best Price for Points|
|N/A (no points sales)|
|N/A (programme does not use points)|
|0.5 US cents/point|
|0.5 US cents/point|
|0.83 US cents/point|
|1.68 US cents/point|
For example, back in March 2022 I went to watch the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament in Indian Wells, California. As this was a spur of the moment thing, all the hotels had already been booked up and the few remaining were charging ridiculous rates for stays.
Even a humble 3-Star Homewood Suites La Quinta was asking for US$624 per night, before taxes. But award nights were going for 50,000 points per night, and with the 5th night free, I paid an average of 40,000 points per night for a 5 night stay. At 0.5 US cents per point, that’s US$200 nett!
Yes, a Homewood Suites is hardly the stuff of dreams, but I’ll take those savings. And of course, you can also save big on luxury hotels like the Conrad Maldives by buying points at the right time.
The chains I most frequently buy points for are Hilton and World of Hyatt.
Putting it all together
Based on the above considerations, I tend to gravitate towards Hilton for my stays:
- Obtaining Hilton points is fairly easy for me, thanks to AMEX Membership Rewards points transfers and frequent points sales
- Hilton Diamond offers me free breakfast and a shot at room upgrades, plus guaranteed lounge access
- Hilton’s global footprint is large enough that it’s not difficult to find a property in most of the places I travel to
My second choice would be IHG.
- While I don’t have many credit card points to transfer to IHG, I can buy them at a reasonable rate during sales
- IHG Diamond offers me free breakfast and a shot at room upgrades
- IHG’s global footprint is roughly as big as Hilton’s
Again, I want to emphasise that this isn’t a prescriptive recommendation: I pick these two programmes because of the status I hold and the points I can easily access. This isn’t meant to settle the question of “which hotel loyalty programme is the best” (I vote World of Hyatt, for what it’s worth), more to illustrate my thought process when picking hotels.
Should you even stay at chain hotels?
Perhaps a more fundamental questionis whether you should feel obliged to stay with chain hotels in the first place.
I have nothing against AirBnBs; in fact they’re sometimes a much superior option in places where you roadtrip through small towns like New Zealand. Alternatively, Expedia and Hotels.com have their own loyalty programmes that don’t tie you to any particular chain.
As much as I appreciate the free breakfast and lounge access that status hotels offer, I also acknowledge it can be a bit of a crutch, insofar as it keeps you from exploring other local eateries and watering holes.
At the end of the day it really boils down to the individual. If you like the predictability of a chain hotel — 24-hour check-in, standardised bathroom amenities, centralised customer service, turn down mints on your pillow and reliable breakfast spreads — then there’s no shame in building your trips around places where you can find that. On the other hand, if the hotel is more of a place to crash for the night and you plan to be out most of the time, then forsaking the chain game can be very liberating.
When it comes to choosing hotels, Hilton is usually my first choice because of elite status and points accessibility, followed by IHG. I might also give special mention to GHA for its network of unique brands, and how easy it is to qualify for/retain top-tier status.
Even though it’s tempting to shoot for Marriott Platinum status now that the chain is offering 2X elite nights until 23 April 2023, I feel that might be stretching myself a bit too thin. Moreover, Marriott Platinum seems ripe for a nerf, given how it’s now available for free with the right card in the USA, and how inflated the Marriott elite ranks are in general.
Which hotel chain do you default to and why?
Thanks for the very useful article! Been wanting to read something like this for a long time. What about the ease of attaining and then maintaining status in these programmes? Which would be the easiest for leisure travellers? I attained Accor Platinum during a 2021 winter trip where there were heavy discounts and double points promotion, so it was easy, but to maintain status in a post Covid era with fewer promotions would likely be trickier.
retaining status will be very tricky once all the covid-era extension end.
realistically speaking, i’ll almost certainly be losing shangri-la jade and possibly ihg diamond (assuming most of my stays go to hilton). GHA should be fairly easy to retain since you just need three nights in a best case scenario, but beyond that i might just be down to whatever free status i get from my credit card + hilton.
i suppose the question is whether i should even focus on requalifying for hilton diamond since hilton gold already provides free breakfast…
Used my IHG Diamond recently in UK (Holiday Inn) and Copenhagen (Crowne Plaza) – 5 adults in 2 rooms and got complimentary breakfast for everyone. The Ambassador fees were worth it.
i’m glad to hear that, but it sounds like they were very generous in that case! by right the free breakfast just covers two adults.
Is there any point in using 40k points to change for the platinum elite status for ihg hotels? Is there no free breakfast for platinum elite status?
if you ask me, platinum elite with IHG is rather useless. some vague chance of a room upgrade, no bf.
Sigh, any chance they may be offering a free upgrade to diamond status soon?:(
Anyone have any datapoints about how often they upgrade IHG diamond members for major US cities? Have a few stays lined up and deciding between Marriott with platinum and IHG
Hi Aaron, you might want to update a couple of the tables since GHA now offers points and they can be transferred for free via the app (with some limitations).
Although only transferable to/from other members, not commercial partners.
GHA does not offer points, they offer D$. they’re not the same thing.
Don’t quite understand why you think that Marriott Platinum privleages should be nerf, given that Hilton Diamond could easily be obtained in US as well. And I don’t see how it has been nerfed.
Because Marriott has 2 tiers higher than Platinum, while Hilton maxes out at diamond.
The lack of upgrades + the mass availability of platinum in the US is a soft nerf in itself, what little chance of upgrades just became even lower. As a plat, I have never got a Suite upgrade at any bonvoy property ever, whereas surprisingly as Hilton Diamond I’ve gotten considerable upgrades many times despite much less stay.
I have Accor Plat, Radisson VIP, IHG Plat and Hilton Gold.
Normally I will stay in Accor most of the time to try to clock 60nights yearly as the rest of the elite status are more or easier to earn for my case.
And i assume this article is more for your choice for this year.. as next year some of the status might be downgraded?
Not sure if this changes anything – but Accor allows you to double dip and pick up some Avios points at eligible properties when you link your accounts!
Isn’t it 5000 sc points for 1000 Accor points? You have listed as 3500.
good spot, have fixed that.