Paying Your Way to Free Nights: The Best Hotel Program for Frequent Travelers

Paying Your Way to Free Nights: The Best Hotel Program for Frequent Travelers
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Image courtesy: Hilton Worldwide
 

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 HHonors

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 Rewards

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:

London

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
Points Earned: 29.5/$1 8.75/$1 17/$1 4/$1
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.

Image courtesy: Marriott
 
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
Points Earned: 29.5/$1 8.75/$1 17/$1 4/$1
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.

Image courtesy: Hilton Worldwide
 

Paris

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
Points Earned: 29.5/$1 8.75/$1 17/$1 4/$1
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.

Image courtesy: Marriott
 
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
Points Earned: 29.5/$1 8.75/$1 17/$1 4/$1
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.

Image courtesy: Marriott
 

New York

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
Points Earned: 29.5/$1 8.75/$1 17/$1 4/$1
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.

Image courtesy: Hilton Worldwide
 
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
Points Earned: 29.5/$1 8.75/$1 17/$1 4/$1
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.

Image courtesy: Hilton Worldwide
 

Tokyo

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
Points Earned: 29.5/$1 8.75/$1 17/$1 4/$1
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.

Image courtesy: Hilton Worldwide
 
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
Points Earned: 29.5/$1 8.75/$1 17/$1 4/$1
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.

Image courtesy: Hyatt Hotels
 

Hawaii

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
Points Earned: 29.5/$1 8.75/$1 17/$1 4/$1
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.

Image courtesy: Hilton Worldwide
 
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
Points Earned: 29.5/$1 8.75/$1 17/$1 4/$1
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.

Image courtesy: Marriott
 

Our Analysis

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!

3 Comments
  1. Chance

    Hey Casey,

    I was wondering what would happen to the balance of Marriott points I accumulated with the Marriott Chase card— I currently have about 45,000 of them but no longer have use for the card. I would like to cancel it to open up more opportunities for other great Chase cards in the future.

    The points have fully posted to my Marriott rewards account and I no longer use the Marriott Chase card for anything. If I were to cancel the card, would the points in my Marriott rewards account be withdrawn?

    Same scenario with Hilton points and the Amex Hhonors card.

    • PointsAway

      Hi Chance,

      You’re in the clear! When canceling a hotel or airline program credit card, your points won’t go anywhere. Your points balance is safe. However, points and miles can expire over time if there is no new activity on your account. These expirations tend to range from 12-24 months.

      When holding a credit card in one of these programs, this earning even a mile on a single dollar’s purchase will kick the expiration forward farther into the future. Without one, it’s more important to keep tabs on your expiration date and make sure to have some activity – shopping mall, dining program, actual stay or flight, purchase of a few points or miles, etc – that counts as qualifying activity.

      Also, keep in mind that this doesn’t apply to Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards. Those are both bank operated programs issuing bank points that happen to convert into airline and hotel programs. If you close your account with Chase or Amex, those points go with it, so make sure to transfer them out to other programs in such a case!

      • Chance

        You’re the man.

        Thanks!

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About PointsAway
Casey Ayers is a consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for travel. After amassing enough miles and points to travel anywhere in the world for almost free in less than six months, he developed PointsAway as a way to help others make travel dreams big and small come true.
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