is the Best Hotel Frequent Guest Program?
Very different to Airline Frequent Flier
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
See also our several other article
series on booking hotels for best value - links on the right
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
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 subsequent parts of this
series are offered to our supporters. If you're not yet a
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The History of Hotel Frequent
The airlines pioneered the
concept of affinity/loyalty programs in the late 1970s and early
1980s (ie almost immediately after
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
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
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.
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
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
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
But other perks of being a frequent
hotel guest such as room upgrades and free amenities such as Wi-Fi are
Your Best Strategy for Hotel
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
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
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
Hotels and Hotel Groups Change
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
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
Furthermore, hotel groups
themselves can be bought or sold, either completely or
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
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.
Program & Brands
More than 2000 properties
Mercure, Novotel, All Seasons, Motel 6,
Studio 6, Sofitel, Formule 1, Ibis
More than 4000 properties
More than 5500 properties
Comfort Inn, Comfort Suites, Quality Inn,
Sleep Inn, Econo Lodge Cambria Suites,
MainStay Suites, Suburban, Rodeway Inn,
More than 3500 properties
Inn, Double Tree, Hampton Inn, Embassy
Suites, Waldorf Astoria, Conrad, Homewood
Grand Hyatt, Hyatt Regency, Park Hyatt,
Andaz, Hyatt Place, Summerfield Suites,
Intercontinental Hotels Group
More than 4100 properties
Inn, Holiday Inn Express, InterContinental
Hotels, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo,
Staybridge Suites, Candlewood Suites
More than 3000 properties
Courtyard, Fairfield, Springhill, Residence
Inn, Towneplace, Execustay, Renaissance,
More than 1000 properties
Starwood Preferred Guest
Meridien, Four Points, Westin, W Hotels, St
Regis, Element, Sheraton, Aloft
More than 6000 properties
Days Inn, Super 8, Baymont, Howard Johnson,
Travelodge, Wingate, and Knights Inn
Our Complete Hotel Frequent
Guest Program Report
This introduction is merely
a taste of our complete buying guide report, with three
additional pages of
individual program detail and analysis, and an invaluable
comparative chart listing the three major programs and what they
variously give you for stays and require of you for free room
The difference between these
three programs starts off seeming to be trivial, but when you
drill down into the report you'll see that two of the three
programs have attempted to obscure the fact that in truth they
are massively less generous than the third.
To get access to the
complete report, please
choose to become a supporter of The Travel Insider.
Any contribution of $5 of more will get you the complete report
This report and analysis
could save you - or earn for you - a substantial difference in
terms of the hotel benefits you accrue and enjoy into the
future. Sure, you could probably do all this research
yourself as well, but which would you rather do - spend tens of
hours researching the different programs, or conveniently click
over and read our findings.
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8 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.