Winner: InterContinental's Priority Club Rewards
At one time or other, we have all been presented with spreadsheets compiled by many of the major hotel programs, comparing point for point the benefits of multiple loyalty programs and proving, irrefutably, that their program was better than all the others.
They can't all be the best, of course. But the fact that they can make credible claims to superiority is telling. What it tells us—and this was not the point the hotels hoped to make—is that different programs are best for different people.
So the question is: Best for whom? For this Editor's Choice award, we have assessed the programs as they would work for what we take to be an average traveler.
Our hypothetical traveler—let's call him Mr. T—makes two business trips averaging two nights each, and three leisure trips, also two nights each, for a total five stays and 10 nights. We'll assume an average per-night rate of $125 (leisure nights somewhat less, business nights somewhat more), for an annual hotel expenditure of $1,250.
With that in mind, our Editor's Choice pick as the Best Hotel Loyalty Program for Mr. T is InterContinental's Priority Club Rewards program. Now, here's how we arrived at that selection.
So, what does Mr. T need in a hotel loyalty program?
First and foremost, he needs a program with participating hotels wherever he travels, and at price points appropriate for both his leisure and business travel budgets.
Independent boutique hotels have their charms, but when it comes to frequent-stay programs, bigger is better.
A program with more properties, in more cities, is more likely to have a hotel wherever you happen to travel than a program with fewer participating hotels. And the number of participating brands is important because it's an indicator of the range of price points available to program members when choosing a hotel chain.
Also important is award-night availability. The gold standard for award access is "no capacity controls." Beware of "no blackout dates" claims—they're irrelevant if not downright misleading, since hotels can still selectively withhold rooms on high-demand days without publishing specific blackout dates.
Points expiration is always an issue, and even more so for infrequent travelers who are at higher risk of losing their points due to inactivity.
And while the high cost of hotel stays makes points redeemed for free hotel nights a compelling value, there will always be a significant segment of travelers who will choose to earn airline miles for their stays. So that option provides desirable flexibility.
(A definitive comparison of all the programs' value propositions—how much you get back in awards for every dollar spent on paid stays—is impractical. There are just too many earning and redemption variables spread across too many brands.)
The Editors' Choice
We evaluated 13 hotel programs, from Best Western Rewards to Wyndham Rewards, ranging in size from just 45 properties to more than 6,000. For each program, multiple factors were evaluated, including the number of hotels, elite qualification and benefits, points expiration, award prices and blackouts, and so on. Reader feedback was also factored in.
As we said above, our Editors' Choice pick for Mr. T is InterContinental's Priority Club Rewards program.
With about 4,400 hotels in the InterContinental Hotel Group network, Mr. T should be able to find participating Priority Club hotels in every major metro area, as well as in many smaller communities.
Priority Club's wide range of brands includes Candlewood Suites, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo, Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, InterContinental, and Staybridge Suites, so Mr. T can opt for budget-appropriate hotels whether he's traveling for business or pleasure. And with hotels in more than 100 countries, the world is his oyster if he chooses to redeem points for an international trip.
Mr. T can opt to earn either airline miles or Priority Club points for his stays. If free stays are the goal, prices begin at 10,000 points for award nights at Holiday Inn hotels. Priority Club also offers PointBreaks awards—a changing list of hotels offering free nights for just 5,000 points. And the program's "Any Hotel, Anywhere" feature allows members to cash in points for prepaid lodging cards that can be used to book any hotel that accepts American Express cards.
Adding additional value to the program is Priority Club's propensity to host frequent bonus promotions. As an example, its summer promotion is among the industry's most accessible.
Points do not expire, but "rooms are limited, subject to prior sale and availability of allocated resources, and may be unavailable during high demand periods."
For Mr. T, Priority Club falls short in one other respect: elite perks. While his 10 nights per year would gain him entry-level elite status in the programs of a number of hotels, including Choice Hotels International, Hilton, Marriott International, and Omni Hotels, Priority Club status requires 15 nights in a year. On the other hand, first-tier elite benefits are modest, so it's no great loss.
Just as there are different types of travelers, so are there different programs that excel in accommodating their differing priorities.
For a small business owner, for example, traveling on his own dime and planning to reinvest points for future business stays, Wyndham's Rewards program encompasses more than 6,000 hotels, including such value-oriented brands as Baymont Inn & Suites, Days Inn, Howard Johnson, Knights Inn, Microtel Inn & Suites, Ramada, Super 8, Travelodge, and Wingate by Wyndham.
For the road warrior who travels on a generous corporate expense account, and who requires a full complement of elite perks and wants to take award nights at luxurious hotels, Starwood's Preferred Guest would be a good choice.
And for the infrequent leisure traveler on a tight budget, Best Western Rewards offers points at more than 4,000 Best Western hotels. Points don't expire, and can be redeemed not just for free stays but for a wide range of gift cards, merchandise, and memberships, including Auto Club.
Do you agree or disagree with our winner in this category? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!
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