It’s been a terrible year for getting value out of frequent guest programs. Since the beginning of the year we’ve seen pretty substantial adjustments in most of the big programs.
- Hilton is expanding to 10 reward categories and adding high season to boot, points required to redeem at some properties will be going up by as much as 90%. Last day to make bookings at the old prices is March 28.
- Priority Club changed from charging points by hotel brand to a 9 category redemption structure that’s often more expensive. March 18 is the last da to call to ask them to honor old prices.
- Marriott raised the price of reward night redemptions at 36% of their properties. You have until May 16 to use your points at old prices.
- Starwood raised the price of reward night redemptions at 20% of their properties (mostly mid-priced ones) as well as the cost of cash and points awards. March 5th is the last day to redeem points at 2012 levels.
- Wyndham is increasing points prices by as much as 87% for top hotels. March 14th is the last day to redeem points under the old award chart.
All of these chains have lowered some property reward night prices as well, but the increases generally far outweigh the decreases.
But there are programs good enough to switch to if your travel patterns match up with the chains’ locations. The advice is reinforced by the recent devaluations, rather than changed by them.
Overall the smaller programs seem to be where the most generous perks and points are… Hyatt, Starwood, Club Carlson, and Kimpton in particular.
Further, Hilton is still better than Marriott or Priority Club if you care about benefits and the ability to use your points for ‘aspirational’ stays. But choose the bigger program whose coverage fills in the gaps left behind by the smaller one you actually decide to care about.
And it turns out that the advice is the same as before the devaluations. It’s the programs that were weaker already that have become worse, the ones many of you shouldn’t have been focusing on to begin with, and these changes are just a wake up call.
So where do you go?
- Starwood - pioneered no blackout dates or capacity controls on reward nights — if a standard room is available at the hotel you can have it for points. Most other chains have since matched this. They also pioneered suite upgrades for Platinum elites. Last year they improved the benefit, allowing 50 night Platinums to express their preference for when they most want a suite, up to 10 nights a year (even on award stays). Award nights count towards status. The chain probably has the most high end hotels you’d actually dream about spending your points for.
Their Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express (my referral link) remains a gold standard for earning valuable points through credit card spend, and they have the largest number of airline transfer partners as well so the points are especially flexible (though transfers are not immediate).
Their biggest weakness, in my view, is that they don’t award as many points as other chains for your spending on room nights, and the most expensive properties cost a lot of points because of a punitive rule where “all suite” hotels at the top end cost double points (even though they are at the top end in the first place because they are all suite hotels).
- Hyatt – for confirmed suite upgrades (and even non-elites can confirm suites at booking for 4 nights off the Hyatt Daily Rate for 6000 points total, not per night – with Hyatt you rarely need to stay in a non-suite with the caveat that corporate rates don’t work for this unfortunately), for Diamond confirmed suite upgrades, and also suites on award nights which are the cheapest to attain — as well as the strongest breakfast benefit in the industry (full – not Continental – breakfast for up to 4 registered guests in the room when there’s no lounge or lounge is closed).
Their top end hotels are reasonably priced, and their round of changes to their award chart this year consisted of making more hotels less expensive than the number that went up in price — and they shifted the redemption categories of very few hotels. So the very best elite benefits and a good earn/burn proposition for their points make this a go-to program if their 500 global properties are in the right places for your stays.
- Kimpton – if your travel patterns match Kimpton locations, their personal treatment of elites (and they status match!) is pretty much unrivaled. Which is sort of surprising since the program is being run by a veteran of United! Lucky offered a nice writeup on the program back in December.
- Club Carlson – if you don’t mind staying in Radissons (much easier if you frequent Europe a good deal), their points earning and co-branded card benefits are just really good. In fact, Club Carlson is probably “overindexed” to use Jeff Diskin of Hilton’s awful term — too generous. The Club Carlson Visa benefit of buy one get one free on award nights (last night of every 2+ award stay is free) is pretty compelling too. It’s not my cup of tea because the hotels themselves aren’t to my taste and the elite benefits are far from tops even if the points program is pretty valuable. But it will work for some.
Bottom-line: Hyatt and Starwood are the best for elite benefits (Hyatt’s are better, but Starwood has better coverage with twice as many properties), and are also the least devalued major programs in 2013. Direct your stays to one of those two programs, the one that suits your travel patterns the best.
And fill the gap, if there is one (where your chosen chain doesn’t have hotels where you travel) with the Citi® Hilton HHonors™ Reserve Card (my referral link) which offers you free Gold elite HHonors status just for holding the credit card.
Mommy Points has confirmed as well that the two free weekend night signup bonus with the card will still get you two nights at nearly all Hilton properties, despite the coming March devaluation. So those nights are even more valuable than before, since they’ll be harder to get on points alone.