I have focused a fair bit on airline miles since we launched Tricks of the Trade. If used well these can represent tremendous value and allow you to fly in the types of premium cabins you may not have been able to experience otherwise. However, flights are only one part of any holiday and today I would like to take a look at how you can continue the aspirational experience at your hotel too.
There have probably been times you have been scanning hotel options for your planned holiday, only to reluctantly concede that you just aren’t willing to shell out £700+ per night to stay at a luxury hotel and have settled for a more reasonable mid-range option. In reality, that luxury hotel may still be a viable option and one you can access without paying a penny – literally.
Many of the major worldwide hotel chains offer loyalty programs that award points to customers that stay at properties within their portfolio. You can then redeem those points for free nights across the chain in question. Yet, as with airline miles, there is also a multitude of other ways to rack up hotel points without setting foot in a hotel lobby.
There is also one distinct advantage that hotel points hold over airline miles for UK-based travellers who dislike the surcharges that accompany their airline redemptions.
Most hotel award stays using points are genuinely completely free – exempt from any sort of taxes, charges or service fees.
I will outline below some of the main hotel loyalty programs that are relevant to UK-based readers. You may find there are some facts that about a particular program that I haven’t mentioned. This is simply because I didn’t want this article to be five pages long and take you an hour to read! That said I hope to add a full rundown of each of these programs to the site in due course – likely over the summer period but I will make a basic start here.
The Hilton Hotels and Resorts Group includes hotels such as DoubleTree, Conrad and Waldorf-Astoria. Their loyalty program is called Hilton Honors (HHonors).
In the last few months, Hilton has made some major changes to their loyalty program. The number of points required for a free night used to be based on a redemption categories chart. This ranged from 5,000 points a night to 95,000 points per night depending on which category your hotel fell into. The points required for a free night is now related to the cash price of the room in question but is still capped at a maximum 95,000 points per night for standard rooms.
- Public Sector workers can enjoy discounts of more than 30% at European properties as detailed in this article.
- They run regular bonuses such as the current ‘2k Every Day’ promotion that allow you to rack up points quickly even on cheap stays. You can also transfer Amex MR points earned from the American Express Gold or Platinum cards at a rate of 1:2.
- A good range of high-end Conrad and Waldorf Astoria properties to redeem points at.
There are three elite tiers in the program: Silver, Gold and Diamond.
- All elite members receive their 5th night free on reward stays. This can be a very valuable perk (You can access free Silver status with the Hilton Visa as I explained here)
- Hilton Honors Gold status is arguably the best mid-tier status of any hotel loyalty program with free breakfast at all hotels (with the exception of Waldorf Astoria properties).
You find full details of the benefits of each tier here.
IHG Rewards Club
IHG Rewards Club is the loyalty program for the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) which includes Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, Hotel Indigo and of course InterContinental hotels.
There are three elite tiers within the program: Gold Elite, Platinum Elite and Spire Elite.
Overall the perks of IHG elite status are very underwhelming. It is difficult to see the benefits of earning top-tier status in the absence of guaranteed upgrades, breakfast or lounge access and the like.
- It has been relatively easy to rack up large piles of IHG points in recent times via generous promotions. Reward nights cost between 10,000 and 60,000 points per night.
- Their quarterly PointBreaks promotion has traditionally been considered one of the best in the industry. Under this deal, you can book hotels at just 5,000 points per night for as many nights as you want.
- With the exception of InterContinental, there aren’t many truly aspirational properties to look to redeem your points at.
Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG)
Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) is the loyalty program for Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide which includes St. Regis, Westin, Sheraton and W Hotels.
Following Marriott’s purchase of Starwood in 2016, the SPG program is expected to be merged into a new combined Marriott/Starwood version at some point during 2018.
There are two elite tiers in the program: Gold and Platinum.
Elite benefits are generally strong. Gold members can benefit from 4 pm late checkout and an upgrade of sorts. Platinum members get free breakfast, suite upgrades and lounge access.
You can find more details regarding the elite tiers here.
- In general, reward nights cost anywhere from 2,000 to 35,000 Starwood points (Starpoints).
- You will receive the fifth night free on reward stays which can help to bring the total points cost of your stay down sharply (not available at the cheapest reward categories).
- Starpoints can be hard to accumulate unless you are travelling regularly for work/leisure and staying at Starwood properties. The best way to accumulate points otherwise is via credit card sign-up bonuses (such as the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card which I reviewed here) and ongoing credit card spend.
- They have an interesting partnership with Uber that allows you to earn Starpoints from your Uber journeys. More details here.
- Following the Marriott merger, you can now freely convert SPG points to Marriott Rewards points and vice versa. This opens up some really interesting opportunities to use your SPG points at Ritz-Carlton, Autograph and Marriott properties.
- Good range of aspirational properties to redeem points such as The Gritti Palace in Venice and The Naka Island in Phuket.
Marriott Rewards is the loyalty program for the Marriott International hotel group including Ritz-Carlton, JW Marriott, Edition, Autograph Collection and of course Marriott hotels.
There are three elite tiers within the program: Silver, Gold and Platinum.
Elite benefits are generally good. Gold members receive free breakfast, high-speed internet and guaranteed late checkout. They also are given lounge access at select brands. Platinum members are given all of the above as well as room upgrades.
You can see a full breakdown of the tier benefits here.
- The cost of a reward night ranges from 7,500 to 45,000 points. Free nights at Ritz-Carlton properties cost between 30,000 and 70,000 points per night.
- As with Hilton and Starwood, you receive a fifth free night on reward stays.
- Marriott Rewards points can be hard to accumulate unless you are travelling regularly for work/leisure and staying at their properties.
- The best way to otherwise accumulate points is via credit card sign-up bonuses and ongoing credit card spend. The Marriott Rewards Credit Card has been closed to new applications for some time now.
- Given that you can exchange 1 SPG point for 3 Marriott Rewards points following the Starwood merger, the best way to earn Marriott points currently is probably via the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card which would see you earn 3 Marriott points per £1 spent.
- Good range of aspirational properties at which to redeem points such as the Ritz Carlton Bali.
Club Carlson is the loyalty program for hotels brands such as Radisson Blu, Park Plaza and Park Inn by Radisson.
They run good promotions periodically that allow members the potential to earn large amounts of points to use towards more lucrative free night stays in the future. A prime example is the current ‘Triple points plus 5k’ deal. Under this promotion, you will triple your regular points earnings rate as well as receiving a bonus 5,000 points for every Sunday or Monday night that you stay.
There are three elite tiers: Silver, Gold and Concierge.
Overall, it seems the benefits of elite status are average. Only top level Concierge members receive free breakfast. On paper, it is impressive that even Silver members are eligible for an upgrade but it remains to be seen how ‘upgrade’ is defined. All elite members can request early check in and late check out but it isn’t guaranteed.
- A reward night costs between 9,000 and 70,000 points.
- You can top up your balance via Amex MR points which convert at a very decent 1:3 ratio.
- Not a huge range of aspirational properties to redeem points at, although excellent value can be had at the likes of the Radisson Blu Hotel Waterfront, Cape Town where cash rates can often be astronomical during busy periods.
Is there any cost to join these programs?
No. All of the major hotel loyalty schemes are free to join and there is no reason why you shouldn’t do so today, especially as there have been promotions in the past which have only been open to existing members.
I have collated a list of links to the relevant ‘new joiner’ pages of all the schemes I have covered today:
Hilton Honors registration page
IHG Rewards Club registration page
Starwood Preferred Guest registration page
Marriott Rewards registration page
Club Carlson registration page
In due course, I will go into much greater detail about the best ways to earn and spend points using the various hotel schemes mentioned here. Some examples of the more lucrative redemptions you can book using hotel points can be found in a follow-up article here.
Ultimately, the ability to earn points and/or redeem hotel points does have a large say in where I stay when I travel. There is also the added bonus of reward nights doing exactly ‘what it says on the tin’: being completely free!
Don’t forget that many of the best luxury hotels such as Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental don’t offer a loyalty program. However, you can still enjoy room upgrades, free breakfast and late checkout by booking through the Xexec Travel Team.
The Travel Team can be reached on 020 8201 6483 or at firstname.lastname@example.org