Our focus here is typically on how to earn free nights and flights while doing as little paid travel as possible. That might mean capitalizing on card sign-up bonuses, spending category bonuses, shopping portal and dining opportunities, and other ways to earn miles and points through the daily course of your life. However, it’s worth talking about the old-fashioned way to rack up points and miles, too: actually flying and staying at hotels!
Today, we’re going to look at what it would take the average travel to earn a free night at some of the best hotel properties in the world. The results might surprise you.
The value of a hotel program depends on a few key factors. First, of course, is how many points are required for a stay. This depends not only on how widely free night redemptions vary in cost, but also on how properties are distributed on this chart. For example, Hilton’s chart soars as high as 95,000 points per night for its most sought-after properties, but the vast majority of even highly desirable properties come in well below this amount.
The versatility of points, and where they can be earned, is a close second. The ability to transfer Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt and Marriott and Membership Rewards points to SPG and Hilton, for example, greatly impact both programs. The ease by which Ultimate Rewards points in particular can be earned quickly is a feather in the cap of Hyatt and Marriott’s programs.
However, for our purposes today, we’re going to assume a traveler holds a hotel-branded credit card, uses it for their stays at their chain of choice and earns points in no other way. This will allow us to look purely at the standard number of points earned per dollar, the extra points earned by paying for stays with a hotel-branded card and any further points earned by way of elite status granted by simply holding a hotel-branded card.
Points Earned On Property
Because there’s no way to predict the average length of a traveler’s stay, we’re going to ignore any bonus points earned on a per-stay bonus and focus purely on the points earned per dollar staying at Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott and SPG properties.
Further, we’re going to assume stays at properties that award at the “standard” rate for each brand. For example, budget lines like Hampton Inn, Four Points by Sheraton and Fairfield Inn all earn at a lower rate than stays at Hilton, Sheraton or Marriott would. In some cases, high-end properties like The Ritz-Carlton also award points at a less advantageous rate. We’ll assume stays take place at standard properties earning the most beneficial rates offered.
Hilton offers a standard earning rate of 10 points per $1 for all expenses at many properties. In addition, the company offers a hybrid approach to points called My Way Earnings. This program allows you to either earn an additional 5 points per $1 – bringing us to 15 in total thus far – or miles with an airline partner. We’ll assume you choose the “Points + Points” option to maximize Hilton earnings.
The Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express card offers 12 points per $1 of earnings at Hilton when paying with the card. It also offers complimentary HHonors Gold status, which grants a 25% bonus to earned base points. In other words, HHonors Gold means earning 12.5 base points instead of 10.
In total, this means it’s possible to earn 29.5 points per $1 on most stays when paying with an HHonors Surpass card. This high earnings rate helps to make up for Hilton’s high award redemption costs compared to other points programs, as we’ll see soon.
Hyatt Gold Passport
Hyatt typically awards 5 points per $1 spent on property. The Hyatt Visa Signature card offers an additional 3 points per $1 in earnings at Hyatt for paying with the card. In addition, the card grants automatic Platinum status, which is good for a 15% bonus on base points earned. That equates to an extra 0.75 points per $1. In total, Hyatt cardholders should earn 8.75 points per $1.
Marriott offers 10 points per $1 on most stays. Add to that an additional 5 points per $1 for paying with a Marriott Rewards Premier card. The card also grants enough elite credits to automatically earn Silver status with Marriott, which is good for a 20% bonus on base points earned. That means it’s possible to earn 17 points per $1 at Marriott.
Starwood Preferred Group
SPG members earn 2 points per $1 on stays. The SPG American Express card offers the opportunity to earn an additional 2 points per $1 when paying for stays. The card does not grant SPG Gold status, which is good for an extra point per dollar. This can be obtained by way of the American Express Platinum, but as we’re focusing only on hotel-branded cards, we’ll assume no card-granted status, leaving us at an earnings rate of 4 points per $1 with SPG.
Comparing the Programs
Picking any one location might put one program at an advantage over another, if a chain happened to focus a lot of energy in that destination or offer a particularly valuable redemption. To control for this and get a general idea of which programs offer the best earnings for regular guests, I randomly selected five destinations off the top of my head: London, Paris, New York, Tokyo and Hawaii.
For each location, I did my best to select the “best” property offered by each chain in each city, and then to choose a reasonably nice alternative that required fewer points. I eliminated the use of each chain’s budget properties, such as Fairfield with Marriott, Aloft with SPG, Hampton Inn with Hilton and Hyatt Place with Hyatt. Though the alternative didn’t necessarily need to be a world-class property, we wanted to ensure it was still very nice. I also didn’t include any airport locations as these are often far from the city center and not particularly conducive for sightseeing adventures.
Here’s a city-by-city breakdown of our results:
|Aspirational London||Hilton HHonors||Hyatt Gold Passport||Marriott Rewards||Starwood Preferred|
|Hotel Name:||London Hilton on Park Lane||Andaz Liverpool Street||St. Pancras Renaissance||W London Leicester Square|
|Points Required Per Night:||80,000||25,000||45,000||25,000|
|Hotel Spend for Free Night:||$2,711.86||$2,857.14||$2,647.06||$6,250.00|
The St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel is an architectural icon in London. Built in 1873 under the purview of Sir George Gilbert Scott, many agree the hotel is one of the most romantic architectural designs in the city and is rife with Victorian splendor. Though this hotel requires more miles than either Hyatt or SPG’s competitors, Marriott’s higher earnings rate per dollar on property helps it pull ahead.
|Value London||Hilton HHonors||Hyatt Gold Passport||Marriott Rewards||Starwood Preferred|
|Hotel Name:||Hilton London Kensington||Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill||London Marriott Hotel Maida Vale||The Park Lane Hotel|
|Points Required Per Night:||50,000||25,000||30,000||16,000|
|Hotel Spend for Free Night:||$1,694.92||$2,857.14||$1,764.71||$4,000.00|
Hyatt fans have cause to fight on this one. The Hyatt Churchill is a fantastic property worthy of being considered an aspirational stay, as our review from last year shows. However, Hyatt has only two properties in London, both of which are categorized as Category 6 properties.
Hilton, meanwhile, offers a few dozen total locations in the Greater London area, many of which share a points value with its Kensington location. The number of Hiltons in town surely help to depress these properties’ categorization, meaning a cheaper stay for award travelers.
|Aspirational Paris||Hilton HHonors||Hyatt Gold Passport||Marriott Rewards||Starwood Preferred|
|Hotel Name:||Not Applicable||Park Hyatt Paris Vendôme||Renaissance Paris Vendôme||Prince de Galles|
|Points Required Per Night:||•||30,000||45,000||30,000|
|Hotel Spend for Free Night:||•||$3,428.57||$2,647.06||$7,500.00|
Once again, Marriott edges out the competition thanks to its higher earning per dollar on property. Notice that no Hilton property is listed here. Shockingly, only one Hilton is located in Paris that’s not associated with one of the city’s airports. It seemed more appropriate to include it as a value property than an aspirational one, given how extraordinary its competitors are.
Both Vendôme properties are truly world-class, and prior to Hyatt’s devaluation of its program early in 2014, it would have run away with this category. Even now, the Park Hyatt remains a great choice for Ultimate Rewards earners, but Marriott wins the earned-on-property award.
|Value Paris||Hilton HHonors||Hyatt Gold Passport||Marriott Rewards||Starwood Preferred|
|Hotel Name:||Hilton Paris La Defense||Hotel Du Louvre||Renaissance Paris La Defense||Paris Lé Meridien Etoile|
|Points Required Per Night:||60,000||20,000||30,000||12,000|
|Hotel Spend for Free Night:||$2,033.90||$2,285.71||$1,764.71||$3,000.00|
Marriott again takes the cake with a relatively affordable redemption option given its high earnings potential. That the Renaissance La Defense is arguably the nicest of these four options is only a further feather in Marriott’s cap.
|Aspirational New York||Hilton HHonors||Hyatt Gold Passport||Marriott Rewards||Starwood Preferred|
|Hotel Name:||Conrad New York||Andaz 5th Avenue||Marriott Marquis||St. Regis New York|
|Points Required Per Night:||70,000||25,000||45,000||30,000|
|Hotel Spend for Free Night:||$2,372.88||$2,857.14||$2,647.06||$7,500.00|
Hilton walks away with a win in New York despite requiring tens of thousands more points than its competitors. This is a good example of how Hilton’s much, much higher earning rate can come home to roost, even on high-value redemptions. Meanwhile, take note of the extraordinary spend required for a free night at the St. Regis. While doubtless an incredible property, is it worth triple the Conrad? It’s hard to argue in favor.
|Value New York||Hilton HHonors||Hyatt Gold Passport||Marriott Rewards||Starwood Preferred|
|Hotel Name:||Hilton New York||Grand Hyatt New York||Courtyard Manhattan/SoHo||Sheraton New York Times Square|
|Points Required Per Night:||60,000||25,000||35,000||12,000|
|Hotel Spend for Free Night:||$2,033.90||$2,857.14||$2,058.82||$3,000.00|
Hilton sweeps New York thanks to its wide selection of properties in the city. Hyatt’s hurt by the fact that all of its non-Hyatt Place properties in the city are listed as Category 6 properties. Each is quite nice, but an argument could surely be made to knock one or two down a category in order to break this logjam.
|Aspirational Tokyo||Hilton HHonors||Hyatt Gold Passport||Marriott Rewards||Starwood Preferred|
|Hotel Name:||Conrad Tokyo||Park Hyatt Tokyo||Tokyo Marriott||The Westin Tokyo|
|Points Required Per Night:||95,000||30,000||35,000||20,000|
|Hotel Spend for Free Night:||$3,220.34||$3,428.57||$2,058.82||$5,000.00|
One could argue the Tokyo Marriott doesn’t live up to its competition, but it fits our loose qualifications, so we have to give it the award. Note that despite its breathtaking 95,000 point requirement, the Conrad Tokyo would come in second place, thanks to Hilton’s earnings potential.
|Value Tokyo||Hilton HHonors||Hyatt Gold Passport||Marriott Rewards||Starwood Preferred|
|Hotel Name:||Hilton Tokyo||Hyatt Regency Tokyo||Courtyard Tokyo Ginza Hotel||Sheraton Miyako Hotel Tokyo|
|Points Required Per Night:||50,000||12,000||30,000||10,000|
|Hotel Spend for Free Night:||$1,694.92||$1,371.43||$1,764.71||$2,500.00|
Hyatt chalks up its first win here, offering an uncommonly good value with the Hyatt Regency Tokyo at just 12,000 points. This is an eminently achievable stay, no matter how you’re earning your Hyatt points.
|Aspirational Hawaii||Hilton HHonors||Hyatt Gold Passport||Marriott Rewards||Starwood Preferred|
|Hotel Name:||Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort||Andaz Maui at Wailea||JW Marriott Ihilani Ko Olina Resort & Spa||St. Regis Princeville Resort|
|Points Required Per Night:||60,000||25,000||40,000||35,000|
|Hotel Spend for Free Night:||$2,033.90||$2,857.14||$2,352.94||$8,750.00|
Hilton’s Hawaiian Village in Waikiki wins this battle, in which Hilton, Marriott and Hyatt all stay in relatively close competition with each other. Notice the extraordinary leap up to the St. Regis by comparison: while the number of Starpoints required falls between the number of Hyatt and Marriott points required for their locations, the financial outlay is more than triple in order to earn a free night.
|Value Hawaii||Hilton HHonors||Hyatt Gold Passport||Marriott Rewards||Starwood Preferred|
|Hotel Name:||Doubletree Alana Waikiki||Hyatt Regency Maui||Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel||Sheraton Kauai Resort|
|Points Required Per Night:||50,000||20,000||25,000||12,000|
|Hotel Spend for Free Night:||$1,694.92||$2,285.71||$1,470.59||$3,000.00|
Marriott wins this final category with its good value beachfront Courtyard resort on the Big Island.
I was surprised by how often Marriott walked away as the winner of this particular contest. Hyatt’s program has long been a favorite of mine since I am fairly adept at racking up Ultimate Rewards points and they are a 1:1 transfer partner. Marriott is, as well, but typically requires more points than Hyatt for an award stay.
While Marriott might make less sense for those like me most likely to redeem an award night using points earned from Ultimate Rewards exclusively, their program makes a compelling argument for value for those who stay on property and pay with the right card regularly.
Of course, a number of caveats apply to this analysis. First, as mentioned previously, bonuses awarded per stay aren’t included in this analysis. This can greatly impact how quickly you amass points depending on if your travels tend to take you from one place to another each night or you set up shop in one location for a week or more.
Second, we don’t take into account how hard or easy it is to earn a higher level of status, and therefore a higher bonus level than what might be offered as a benefit of the card.
Third, we didn’t consider how often each chain might offer opportunities to earn bonus points, or the number of bonus points or nights offered by each hotel credit card at sign-up. These are important features that we normally focus on, but we tried to look beyond enticing sign-up bonuses to see what the long-term outlook might look like for heavy travelers in this case.
Finally, we’re not taking into account how often rooms are available at their standard rates, the kind of value a Cash + Points stay might hold when offered or how easy it is to amass more points between stays.
The moral of the story is that no one program holds the crown for World’s Best. What I found interesting is how poorly SPG performed compared to the competition, and how well Hilton did even in locations where some of its most points-heavy redemptions were featured. This comparison goes to show that when it comes to hotels, it’s not really how many points that matters: it’s how many you can earn, and how quickly.
What’s your favorite hotel program, and why? Let us know in the comments!