The past few weeks have seen two hotel loyalty programs shake up their award charts in a big way. For members of the Marriott Rewards and Hilton HHonors programs, the points tucked away for some future plans were suddenly a much different asset, and mostly not in a good way (though I maintain there are still some gems in the HHonors reboot). And, while I can sympathize with people who have been squirrelling away points, saving up for "the big one" at some point in the future who have now seen their plans change significantly, I’m also rather bemused by their plight. Call it schadenfreude, if you will. It isn’t because I take joy in the setbacks they’re experiencing; it is because I think more and more people are finally discovering the truth: The value proposition of hotel loyalty programs is crap for many travelers.
I used to be a traveling consultant, on the road for work 2-4 nights per week for 35+ weeks a year. That’s how I first got in to the point and miles game. And I accrued a lot of points and miles. I also had top-tier hotel status as a function of all those nights on the road with an expense account. I got upgrades on occasion and the other elite benefits the programs offered. Then I quit my job to travel more. I had hotel loyalty back then, or so I thought. After my first few trips I realized that I was losing that game. BADLY. Once I had to pay for the rooms myself rather than getting reimbursed the math changed dramatically. Skipping out on hotel loyalty was a phenomenal way to save money, it turns out. At least for me.
There are two main types of benefits I see that come from hotel loyalty: on-property benefits and point redemption. It turns out that I cannot really find value in either. Here’s how I came to that conclusion based on my travel patterns.
"Free" upgrades to a suite, "free" breakfast and "free" internet are the main areas where loyalty programs provide benefits on-property. For some there are also lounges with snacks/drinks in the evening. And, with very few exceptions, it turns out that none of these are actually worth much to me. Finding a hotel which offers free breakfast and internet to all guests rather than to only elites isn’t very hard to do, it turns out. As an added bonus, these hotels are often available at a lower price than the properties where the benefit has "value." On the off chance that the breakfast is not free, I’ve yet to find myself in a scenario where the on-premises breakfast was a better choice than walking around in the neighborhood for a few minutes and finding a local shop. Whether it is dumplings in Beijing, sushi in Tokyo, noodles in Bangkok or pastries across most of Europe, getting breakfast out rarely breaks the bank and it provides a much better sense of place than being holed up in the hotel.
Suite upgrades are another area where I just don’t get the value. Maybe it is because I live in a small apartment when I’m home so I’m used to it, but the idea of a huge suite for my sleeping needs is one that I struggle with. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t turn them down – but the value of a suite upgrade to me is roughly nil. Especially when I’m traveling solo. I spend so little time in the room; I actually somewhat prefer one I cannot get lost in.
And the snacks/drinks in the executive lounge as a replacement for dinner is something I just do not understand. I have read far too many trip reports of people taking their meals in the lounge, "because it is free." I’ve cringed when traveling with a group and hearing that some were doing the same and suggesting that their partner join them rather than going out for the local fare (we actually invited the plus one out in that instance). Even in Europe or Asia where the lounge spreads are generally rather more impressive they still are not necessarily local food nor are they free, just included in the rate. For this category I almost see the value as negative. Failure to get out and actually experience the local dining scene should count against travelers; I know it does on my scorecard.
Somewhat surprisingly, it turns out that with all my travels the number of nights I’d even consider redeeming points for a stay are pretty low. I don’t actually go places where the redemptions are such great value. My travels this past year probably had me in towns without a western-branded hotel more than 30-40% of the time anyways. So even if I wanted to redeem points for a hotel that wouldn’t have been an option. Even where there are such hotels available the cost to acquire the points is, generally, more than I’m willing to pay. The Hyatt in Kiev, Ukraine, for example, is a lovely property. But we needed four nights in town and it was cost-prohibitive to stay there as a revenue booking. Even on points it was rather costly, far more expensive than taking a room at another hotel not far away. Sure, a credit card may have helped offset the points accrual costs but that’s not a long-term strategy for realizing 75+ nights in hotels annually.
Cash is king
At the end of the day I’ve found that realizing ~15% back on my bookings – 10% as credit towards any future hotel stay and 5% in cash – is a better value for me. I’m able to book in at less expensive properties to begin with, hotels that I’d rather be staying at thanks to the local flavor. They offer the free breakfast and internet that I want and, with very few exceptions, are perfectly suited to my sleeping needs. And when I add up the amount I save per night, multiplied across the 75+ nights and combined with another 15% off, well, I just don’t know why I’d care about points or status.
I realize that rate of return by using hotels.com and their Welcome Rewards program. That covers the 10% back (after every 10 nights). It is a direct credit and there are minimal hoops to jump through. Of the booking engine-based schemes it is the best I’ve come across so far. For the extra 5% cash back I use a cash-back booking portal. I happen to be partial to my own travel rebates site, but there are others available, including TopCashBack, ebates and more. Check the rates on those sites; they can vary and different sites may offer better or worse deals on any given day.
If you really are committed to getting the hotel points – something that a hotels.com booking will preclude – these cash-back booking portals can still work for you. I know that Marriott, SPG, IHG and Accor participate in many of them (I have Accor on mine). Just make sure that your brand loyalty isn’t costing you more money in the long term.