Intercontinental’s Royal Ambassador elite level is in some ways the best elite status of any hotel program (although Lucky makes a pretty good case for Kimpton’s Inner Circle).
But first, the areas where it really falls short.
- Very few benefits are guaranteed on award stays
- No guaranteed club lounge access
- Very few properties — this is status at Intercontinental hotels only, and while it comes with ‘Platinum’ status in the Priority Club program that’s not especially meaningful either.
Still, the positives are remarkable. On top of the usual elite level benefits one finds with the major chains, they offer:
- Guaranteed 8am check-in, not just 4pm late checkout
- Complimentary free drinks from the mini-bar
Now, the minibar thing is ultra-cool. But after a few times over-indulging, and hosting parties in your suite, at least I find that you really just appreciate it for always having a bottle of water handy.
Still, the 8am check-in benefit is huge for arrivals in Europe and even some parts of Asia — knowing you’ll have a room after a long flight and without having to pay for the previous night.
In some ways Starwood’s new Your24 benefit — checkin any time, checkout 24 hours later but still being able to avail yourself of 4pm late checkout if checkin is 9am or later — trumps. It’s a benefit for their 75 night Platinum members. But it is not guaranteed.
The upgrades in the program can be amazing. It’s the only program where I’ve gotten the Presidential suite. Confirmed in advance. As an upgrade.
See, the benefit is technically to ‘an executive room or suite’ but different hotels interpret this differently. Some treat it literally, with that as all you’re entitled to. The Mark Hopkins in San Francisco, around 2006, got a new General Manager who didn’t like offering Royal Ambassador upgrades and created a new room type… a standard room with a fax machine that he dubbed a ‘business room’ and thus an ‘executive room’. Boom.
Many hotels declare that Ambassadors receive a one-category upgrade and Royal Ambassadors a two-category upgrade. Some properties cap the upgrade (the Intercontinental Bali says you cannot be upgraded above a duplex suite — although many in fact receive better upgrades at checkin) while others do not, hence booking two levels below the Presidential suite for ~ US$175 twice yielded me that top suite at the Intercontinental Manila.
I’ve had Ambassador Suites at the Intercontinentals in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and the Diplomatic Suite in Bangkok. I’ve had giant suites at the Willard in DC, hardwood floors in Atlanta, and a glass-enclosed terrace at that infamous Mark Hopkins just before the Royal Ambassador-hating General Manager was put into place there (He’s since been re-assigned).
And in many ways it has also been one of the easier statuses to get. Not as easy as signing up for a credit card. But Royal Ambassadors get to refer someone else to the status. They receive a certificate to do so in their welcome packet.
Years ago there was no expiration date on the certificate and folks even re-referred themselves. But there was an even better trick: Royal Ambassadors who were themselves referred would receive referral certificates in their welcome packet. So a referral circle for perpetual status could be created.
Eventually they cleaned up the fulfillment issues, referred Royal Ambassadors weren’t supposed to be able to refer other Royal Ambassadors (although occasionally those certificates would still slip in).
And shorter expiration dates on the referral certificates made things a little bit harder as well. They aren’t permitted to be sold but I’ve seen these certificates go as high as $750 on eBay.
The ‘real criteria’ to qualify for the status is unpublished, but most years has seemed to hover around 50 nights total at a Priority Club hotel and stays with at least 3 Intercontinental properties. But some folks have been renewed with less and others have found a higher threshold.
I was finally facing a downgrade after 8 years. When you are downgraded you get complimentary regular ‘Ambassador’ status. I received my Ambassador kit and a free weekend night certificate.
I mentioned recently that I would be losing the status and a generous reader sent me a referral certificate (thank you!).
It turns out that the referral certificate had expired a few months earlier. But I decided to send it in anyway. And they didn’t bat an eye. In my case at least — it is only one data point — they apparently didn’t check the expiration date.
So I received my Royal Ambassador kit in the mail yesterday.
It was basically the same as the Ambassador kit, the luggage tags even said ‘Ambassador’ and not ‘Royal Ambassador’ (do they still make the latter?). The differences were that the member card had my new status, and the welcome letter was correct – and included a code for 5000 bonus Priority Club points rather than the 10,000 that now comes with the Ambassador welcome letter. Although I will not complain about now having received 15,000 points from my welcome kits!
And so I had requalified for Intercontinental Royal Ambassador status the easy way: with an expired referral certificate. To another year!
I wouldn’t pay the price on eBay. I am not in a position at this point to spend enough nights at Intercontinentals to retain status and there aren’t enough non-Intercontinental Priority Club hotels in the places I travel that I want to stay at in order to retain the status. So I’ll likely lose it early in 2014. But I’ll enjoy it for year nine, at least!
Although the strange deficiencies like not offering guaranteed club lounge access, and differing treatment hotel-by-hotel mean that it takes work — usually contacting a property in advance to discover their current upgrade procedures and tailoring my bookings accordingly — make this a bit of an enigma of a program. But still a very valuable one indeed.