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The Best Hotel Loyalty Programs for 2017

Like frequent flyer programs, hotel loyalty schemes are a key component of the travel rewards world, offering everything from free stays to significant upgrades to the savviest travelers. But which of the major programs offers the best value?

There were 10 nominees for this year’s Editors’ Choice award in the category of Best Hotel Loyalty Program for 2017, representing the 10 largest hotel chains. The loyalty programs considered were: Marriott Rewards, World of Hyatt, Wyndam Rewards, Choice Privileges, Best Western Rewards, IHG Rewards Club, Club Carlson, Hilton Honors, Accor LeCkub, and My 6 (the Motel 6 program).

Best Hotel Loyalty Program for 2017: The Methodology

We based our scoring on a composite of six important factors for the loyalty programs of the 10 largest worldwide hotel chains in both number of locations and number of rooms.

We factored the following into our evaluation: the monetary value of free-night awards as a percentage of the amount you need to spend to earn awards (“Payback”); the number of paid nights you need to spend to earn a useful elite benefit, beyond a simple point earning bonus (“First Useful Elite Level”); how extensive the opportunities are for travelers to earn and use award points (“Total Chain Rooms”); the degree to which individual hotel brands within the chain cover the entire price spectrum from luxury to budget (“Price range”); the number of airline partners offering reciprocal earnings and award benefits (“Airline Partners”); the length of time points remain valid without some form of renewal (“Point Value Retention”); and the cashback value of the points earned per dollar charged on a co-branded credit card (“Credit Card Payback”).

We view hotel loyalty programs through the lens of “ordinary” travelers, leisure or business, who travel enough to take advantage of a loyalty program but not enough to be considered road warriors. Our credit-card scoring was based strictly on points per dollar charged, without regard to enrollment bonuses.

Best Hotel Loyalty Program for 2017: The Winner

Among these major hotel loyalty programs, Marriott Rewards earned our top score for a composite of measurement factors that we judged to be the most important for ordinary travelers. Here’s how we arrived at our winner:

Marriott Rewards does well in almost all of the key categories, and scores above the others overall. Of key import in naming Marriott Rewards the Best Hotel Loyalty Program for 2017 is the fact that you can earn and use Marriott points in most of the developed world. Its 35 different brands cover a wide price spectrum from luxury to upper midscale, lacking entries only in the lower end.

You need reach only the first elite level, Silver, to enjoy space-available room upgrades, premium Wi-Fi, and late checkout. This level also includes the promise of a guaranteed walk: If a Marriott chain hotel is unable to honor your reservation, the hotel promises to find you a room at another equally good hotel, pay for you to get there, and pay for the room.

It also has a large number of airline partners for earnings and awards, and its credit card offers the second-highest point value.

Best Hotel Loyalty Program for 2017: Other Finalists

Hotels, much more than airlines, cater to often widely diverging traveler requirements. A typical family of four on a road trip, for example, probably doesn’t care about the payback for stays at Ritz-Carlton hotels. Conversely, a high-level business executive probably isn’t much interested in what Motel 6 has to offer. Accordingly, we suggest honorable mention status for other programs:

  • Hyatt, number two in the ranking, is close to Marriott in most factors. It’s a clear choice if you prefer Hyatt’s brands to Marriott’s, and its credit card points are much more valuable than points from any other program’s cards.
  • Wyndham, number three in the scoring, is a winner for folks who normally stay at relatively downscale hotels. Its 16 brands are mostly in the upper midscale, midscale, and budget price categories. And its big inventory of vacation properties and condos makes it a winner for people who prefer that class of accommodations. Its unique policy of charging a fixed 15,000 points for a “free” award stay at all locations gives great paybacks for travelers who stay in its more upscale brands.
  • Accor is a good choice for travelers in Europe, and especially France, where it’s headquartered and offers a broad range of options. But its payback is poor and it has no credit card.

Best Hotel Loyalty Program for 2017: Additional Methodological Details

All of the numerical data for this analysis was obtained directly from the websites of each chain and its loyalty program.

Payback: We measured payback as the monetary value of a free-night award as a percentage of the amount you need to spend to earn a free night at the same hotel. Our calculations randomly select hotels for travel the same dates in mid-June. Calculated chain-wide average payback levels ranged from 4.4 percent to 10.5 percent. But in most cases, the ratio of paid price to point price varies substantially among individual units of any chain, so travelers who earn points at expensive hotels and use them for stays at low-point hotels can easily achieve high payback. IdeaWorks calculated payback variations from 2.5 percent to 24 percent, depending on where points were earned and used. Weighing factor: 5.

First Useful Elite Level: We measured the number of paid nights you need to spend with a chain to earn a useful elite benefit, beyond a simple point earning bonus. Those benefits typically include some combination of premium Wi-Fi, a free space-available upgrade on any paid room, guaranteed availability for paid nights, early check-in, late check-out, a “preferred” room, and free breakfast. In most programs, the first useful elite level is the second level, typically requiring up to 40 nights; the main benefits at the first level are bonus earning points and free Wi-Fi. Weighing factor: 3.

Total Chain Rooms: We tabulated the number of rooms in each chain worldwide, reflecting the extent of opportunities for travelers to earn and use award points. This measure is most useful for people who travel to a lot of different destinations so they can, for example, earn Marriott points in Shanghai and use them in Orlando. Weighting factor: 3.

Price range: We tabulated the numbers of hotels in each chain that fell into various price groups: luxury, upper upscale, upscale, upper midscale, midscale, and budget, to show the degree to which individual hotel brands within the chain cover the entire price spectrum. Accor includes brands that cover the entire gamut; Hilton covers all but the budget segment, and Carlson and Marriott cover all but the midscale and budget segments. At the other end, Best Western, Choice, and Motel 6 do not cover either luxury or upper upscale segments. Weighting factor: 3.

Airline Partners. We tabulated the number of airline partners offering reciprocal earnings and award benefits. Although most chains have other partnerships, airlines are clearly the most important. The number of partnerships ranges from none at Motel 6 to 40 or more at Hilton, IHG, and Marriott. Programs with a lot of airline partners typically include others, as well, ranging from rental cars to ordinary merchandise. For most travelers, airline partners are far more important than any others. Weighting factor: 2.

Point Value Retention: We show the length of time points remain valid without some form of renewal, an important factor for travelers who earn credit slowly. For the most part, you lose your accumulated points if your account does not show any activity for a period between 12 and 24 months, although even some minor account activity “resets the meter” back to zero. Weighting factor: 2.

Credit Card Payback: All chains except Accor and Motel 6 offer at least one co-branded credit card that earns points for every dollar charged to the card. Where chains offer more than one card, we selected the one most likely to appeal to ordinary travelers. Our scores are based on the value of points per dollar charged for purchases, in general; all co-branded cards earn multiple points, up to 10 times, for charges at participating hotels. Weighting factor: 2

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