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Hotel frequent guest programs can get you upgraded rooms, extra amenities, and free stays.

In some ways they are necessarily similar to frequent flier programs, but your approach to hotel programs should be very different.

 
 
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Which is the Best Hotel Frequent Guest Program?

Very different to Airline Frequent Flier Programs
 

As a member of a hotel frequent guest program it sure is nice to go to the priority check-in line, to be treated more respectfully, and maybe to end up in an upgraded room on a Club floor.

See also our several other article series on booking hotels for best value - links on the right hand side

 

 

We are probably all familiar with airline frequent flier programs, and we all also realize that, within some small range of variation, the various airline frequent flier programs are very similar.

Furthermore, our choice of airline program to belong to is influenced by the carriers that serve our home airport and the routes we fly.

But hotel programs are a different kettle of fish.  We have more choices and there are much wider variations (particularly in the benefits) between hotel programs.  We can be - and should be - more careful and selective in how we strategize our hotel frequent guest memberships.

In this first part of our new multi-part series we set out some of the framing issues for you to keep in mind.  In the subsequent parts, we analyze the different programs in terms of their inclusions and which are best and worst.

The History of Hotel Frequent Guest Programs

The airlines pioneered the concept of affinity/loyalty programs in the late 1970s and early 1980s (ie almost immediately after airline deregulation) - programs generally known as Frequent Flier programs.  The first airline to launch a frequent flier program was Texas International Airlines (which subsequently became Continental which in turn has now become United) in 1979, but due to the perversity of history, the American Airlines Aadvantage program, launched in 1981 is generally (and mistakenly) considered to be the first program.

AA's unfair credit to being first is exacerbated by the fact that United Airlines launched their Mileage Plus program a mere one week after AA launched its Aadvantage program.

The airline programs quickly evolved and extended to 'partners', and hotel chains soon joined into the airline programs.

This gave the hotel groups some exposure and experience to the effect and impact of these loyalty programs, and caused them to realize how important they were to their guests and how these programs were starting to shift guest loyalty.

Participating in airline programs also proved to be somewhat expensive, and so the hotels decided to create their own programs for all the obvious reasons, particularly allowing them to create their own branding and their own direct connections with their frequent staying guests.

The first hotel program was released by Holiday Inn in January 1983, a mere 20 months after the launch of Aadvantage and Mileage Plus.

This program, their Priority Club, started off in a perhaps too generous mode - after earning 75 points (you would receive one point for a one or two night stay, and two points for a 3 or longer night stay, so in theory you could get 75 points after staying 75 or perhaps slightly more nights), you would be awarded a roundtrip for two to Europe, plus six nights hotel stay in Paris (and according to one source, also a week of free car rental).  Sounds unbelievable?  Here's a Google copy of a newspaper advertisement in August 1983 promoting the deal.

If memory serves me right (and I think I actually earned and redeemed one of these awards myself) the tickets were on desperately failing Pan Am and so probably didn't cost Holiday Inn too much money, but nonetheless, the program was sadly discontinued in Feb 1986 before being relaunched later than year - in a very much less generous form.

Holiday Inn's Priority Club was followed by Marriott's Honored Guest Awards in November 1983.  Other hotel groups slowly and seemingly reluctantly followed, although Hilton was a notable hold out until 1987, at which point it concluded it was losing market share to Marriott and Holiday Inn due to not having its own frequent guest program.

Over time, the hotels have generally discovered that hotel reward programs are not as strong a motivating factor to their guests as are frequent flier programs - it seems people want free airline tickets more than they want free hotel rooms.  And so all the hotel programs, to a greater or lesser extent, allow you to either earn hotel points or airline points (and in the case of Hilton, you can even earn both).

But other perks of being a frequent hotel guest such as room upgrades and free amenities such as Wi-Fi are definitely appreciated.

Your Best Strategy for Hotel Loyalty Programs

Just as with airline frequent flier programs, your best strategy - on the face of it - may be to concentrate your stays with specific hotel groups so as to earn elite status at that hotel group(s).

But that is where the similarities end.  We all know that there are of course costs involved with concentrating on primarily one airline, and if we're confessing the truth to someone other than our company's financial controller, we'll concede that on occasion we buy a more expensive ticket on our preferred airline rather than a cheaper ticket on an airline we're not chasing elite level frequent flier status on.

The costs and sacrifices in single-mindedly pursuing a specific hotel chain are much greater than with the airlines.

There may be much greater differences between a stay at Brand X Hotel and Brand Y Hotel in the same city, whereas the airline experience flying from your city to the destination city is more or less similar, no matter which airline you choose.  One seat on one plane is much more similar to a different seat on a different plane than may be the case with one hotel room in one hotel compared to a different hotel room in a different hotel.

Furthermore, just as with airline programs, if staying at a participating property belonging to your preferred hotel program would mean you're staying somewhere less convenient, or paying over the odds for the accommodation, then you should think twice and instead stay at the most logical/sensible hotel for you.

More exactly, you should attempt to quantify the benefits associated with staying at your preferred hotel chain, and any time that the compromises required to stay with that chain exceed the benefits, don't stay there.

Elite Membership Levels - Worth the Effort?

You need to realistically assess two things when considering hotel programs.  The first is your chance of qualifying for any level of elite membership, and the second is the probability you will derive any additional benefit from elite level membership.

There are two main benefits from elite level membership.  The first is getting a higher rate of point earning.  But this is only of value if you believe you'll actually be able to redeem the points in the future for something of value - hotel stays or third party gift cards and other program benefits.

The second benefit is access to room upgrades and other amenities during each stay.  The room upgrade benefit is usually reserved for a higher than entry level of elite membership.

And while we all like to stay in as spacious and nice a room as possible, don't get carried away on chasing room upgrades (although if it gets you onto a 'concierge' or 'club' floor in a hotel with free food and drinks, the benefits become more tangible).  In most hotels, you'll be getting a perfectly good room anyway; it isn't like the night and day difference between coach and first class on a flight.

If you can make elite status with a hotel chain and if you can see some tangible benefit to you in doing so, then by all means do so and direct your business that way whenever there isn't any cost or convenience penalty in doing so.

But other than that, we don't see any great reason to chase after elite hotel memberships the same way we all obsessively do with our airline memberships.

Other Potential Issues

Note that most hotel programs require you to book directly with them.  Some will allow you to have a travel agent handle your booking, and a few will allow you to book through third party websites as well.  But most don't.

Even if/when you are booking direct with the hotel, sometimes you might find that some rates don't qualify for points.

Airline Frequent Flier Miles or Hotel Program Points?

Here's another issue to consider - should you choose to receive airline frequent flier miles for each stay or hotel program points?

A key factor here is whether the hotel program has lifetime points/membership, or expiring points and/or membership.

If you're in a hotel program with expiring points, and if you don't think you're likely to be able to amass enough points to convert into a useable award before they expire, you are probably better off to take the frequent flier miles from each stay.  Better a bird in the hand than two in the bush.

But if you're confident you will be able to benefit from the hotel points, then the chances are you probably are already accruing plenty of frequent flier miles, so perhaps the hotel points are more valuable to you.  This may mean that at some happy time in the future, you can convert your airline miles into free tickets and your hotel points into free accommodation, giving you a lower cost overall for a vacation.

At the risk of stating the obvious, frequent flier miles received from hotels do not count towards your qualifying miles for elite level frequent flier status.

Hotels and Hotel Groups Change Unusually Frequently

The hotel industry always seems to be in a state of greater change than the airline or rental car industry.  The reason for this is because many times, each individual hotel is independently owned, and merely contracts with one of the major brand names to operate as a franchisee or in some other relationship, and so individual hotels can switch brands fairly readily.

This proclivity for switching brands is augmented by hotels being bought and sold on a fairly regular basis, with new owners often having new ideas about the best hotel group tie-in.

Even hotels that are owned directly by the major hotel groups can sometimes be sold or replaced.

In addition the various hotel groups typically have a number of different brand identities within the group, and they sometimes move hotels from one brand to another.  Their different subsidiary brands will sometimes have different policies regarding earning points and also how many points are needed to be redeemed to stay there.

Furthermore, hotel groups themselves can be bought or sold, either completely or partially.

This is perhaps akin to rental car companies having each of their cars independently owned, and the various car owners contracting with different rental car companies on a car by car basis.  And instead of a rental car company having a fleet of cars of different types, each different type of car would be sold through a different brand name.

The point of all of this is to establish that listings of the biggest and best hotel groups are very volatile and likely to be ever-changing.  This in itself detracts from becoming too 'brand loyal' to any one particular hotel group, because you can never be sure if your favorite hotels to stay at (or to redeem free stays in) will still be there the next time you wish to visit them.

Major Hotel Chains and their Frequent Guest Programs

There are very many different hotel brands, but most of them end up being owned by one of a few major groups.

Here is a list of the largest hotel groups and the loyalty programs they operate.  On subsequent pages we analyze the details of each program.

Hotel Group

Loyalty Program & Brands

Accor
More than 2000 properties

A-Club

Includes Mercure, Novotel, All Seasons, Motel 6, Studio 6, Sofitel, Formule 1, Ibis

Best Western
More than 4000 properties

BW Rewards

Best Western

Choice
More than 5500 properties

Choice Privileges

Clarion, Comfort Inn, Comfort Suites, Quality Inn, Sleep Inn, Econo Lodge Cambria Suites, MainStay Suites, Suburban, Rodeway Inn, Ascend Collection

Hilton
More than 3500 properties

Hilton HHonors

Garden Inn, Double Tree, Hampton Inn, Embassy Suites, Waldorf Astoria, Conrad, Homewood Suites, Home2

Hyatt
445 properties

Hyatt Gold Passport

Hyatt, Grand Hyatt, Hyatt Regency, Park Hyatt, Andaz, Hyatt Place, Summerfield Suites, Hyatt Resorts

IHG Intercontinental Hotels Group
More than 4100 properties

Priority Club

Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, InterContinental Hotels, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo, Staybridge Suites, Candlewood Suites

Marriott
More than 3000 properties

Marriott Rewards

Courtyard, Fairfield, Springhill, Residence Inn, Towneplace, Execustay, Renaissance, Ritz-Carlton, Edition

Starwood
More than 1000 properties

Starwood Preferred Guest

Le Meridien, Four Points, Westin, W Hotels, St Regis, Element, Sheraton, Aloft

Wyndham
More than 6000 properties

Wyndham Rewards

Ramada, Days Inn, Super 8, Baymont, Howard Johnson, Travelodge, Wingate,  and Knights Inn

 

Continued.....

Please read on for more analysis on the different hotel frequent guest programs and advice on how to get the best value from them, and for individual program details.  Links are on the top right hand of this page.
 

If so, please donate to keep the website free and fund the addition of more articles like this. Any help is most appreciated - simply click below to securely send a contribution through a credit card and Paypal.

 

Originally published 15 Oct 2010, last update 28 May 2011

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
Related Articles
Choosing the Best Hotel Frequent Guest Program
Analyzing the Different Hotel Frequent Guest Programs
Explaining the Individual Program Reports
Coming soon :  Specific Program Details - Accor, Best Western, Choice
Coming soon :  Specific Program Details - Hilton, Hyatt, IHG/Holiday Inn
Coming soon :  Specific Program Details - Marriott, Starwood, Wyndham
Special Spreadsheet comparing costs/benefits of Hilton, Marriott and Starwood programs

See also
How to Negotiate the Best Hotel Rate (4 part series)
How to Book Hotels for the Lowest Price through Priceline (4 part series)

 

 

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