HOW MUCH DOES A 'FREE' NIGHT COST?
By Joe Brancatelli
March 13, 2013 --In light of the massive frequent-stay devaluation we discussed two weeks ago, you logically want a recommendation about the "best" lodging plan to play.
I will give you the same answer I gave two weeks ago: There is no definitive best frequent stay program. There never has been.
If you're serious about maximizing the impact of hotel spending, you must accept that there are only options and alternatives, judgment calls and personal decisions. There is no yellow brick road to lodging Oz. In fact, as far as I know, there aren't even any good hotels in Oz.
However, as you can see from the far-too-detailed chart, things have changed now that five big hotel chains have told us our loyalty doesn't count as much as it once did. Hyatt, the chain that spared its Gold Passport customers any major cutbacks, looks better than ever. Hilton HHonors has suffered the most frequent and most severe recent devaluations and now the program isn't nearly as appealing as similarly sized rivals such as Marriott Rewards. And Starwood Preferred Guest is far out of the mainstream of value if your sole goal is earning a free room nights.
But overall best? No such thing. Based on who you are, how you travel and what you want, any of the nine programs listed on the chart could be right for you.
Daunting as the charts are, however, they do tell a tale. Let me tell it as a way to help guide the decisions you need to make for yourself.
For starters, you will note that some programs are not listed. Accor, the French giant, is as large as Marriott and Priority Club Rewards, but it has fewer than a dozen hotels in the United States. So I assume that its LeClub plan won't work for most of us. Programs sponsored by Fairmont and Kimpton stress loyalty perks rather than award nights. And the programs sponsored by the luxury Loews Hotels, the much-admired Drury Inns chain and the LaQuinta brand don't have the geographic reach needed by most business travelers.
That leaves the nine programs on the chart, which calculates the actual-dollar cost of earning a free award night in four important cities: London, where eight of 10 of the busiest U.S.-Europe airline routes lead; Honolulu, because it is America's tropical paradise; Hong Kong, because it's the first Asian city many U.S. travelers want to visit; and Orlando, because, well, it's Orlando and the kids want to go.
Before I delve into the specifics, look at the last column marked "spend required." That's the bottom line, the amount of lodging dollars you'll be required to spend to earn a free night in that destination. You'll notice the chain with the least costly award night in each of the destinations is different. That's about as stark and definitive an explanation as I can offer. There's no clear "best value for money" program. It's all conditional and, in this case, geographical.
It might be worth noting here that Starwood Preferred Guest is the most expensive award night by far in three of the cities. It would have been most expensive in Hong Kong, too, except that I knowingly chose one of its off-the-beaten-track properties. If your only goal is award nights, don't play Starwood Preferred Guest. As I explained two weeks ago, Starwood's strength is a flexible American Express credit card (it helps you transfer points to miles) and excellent elite-level benefits.
To maximize your earnings in any program, charging your hotel spending to a credit card tied to the frequency plan is imperative. That's why the chart assumes you'll take one of the chain's credit cards and it reflects the annual fee in the cost of earning a free night. All cards will give you bonus points for the spending. The best cards will also give you instant elite status in the hotel program and that means still more bonus points. (The second row of the chart explains this: it shows the number of point you earn per dollar spent at the hotel, the number of points you earn per dollar of hotel spending charged to the card and the percentage bonus you receive via the elite status that the card bestows.)
Speaking of credit cards, that's probably the way to go with Hilton HHonors. It was once the best program to earn stays at top-flight hotels in major global cities and exotic resorts. No more. Hilton's awards at the top level are now clearly overpriced. It's only at the lower end, thanks to its Hampton and Hilton Garden Inn chains, where HHonors is still competitive. If your goal is to earn inexpensive award nights in family-friendly hotels in destinations such as Orlando, by all means go with Hilton HHonors. Otherwise, take the Hilton Reserve card from Citibank (it offers instant HHonors Gold status for $95 a year) and concentrate your stays with other chains.
Even with it's heavy devaluation upcoming in May, Marriott Rewards still offers competitively priced awards. It's rarely the cheapest award night in any city, but Marriott's impressive array of properties at virtually every lodging level is its strength. It performed well enough in London (where I wanted a free night at a highest-quality hotel in and around Park Lane), and Hong Kong, where I aimed for the best property on Hong Kong Island. It also did well in Honolulu (where finding the lowest-priced Waikiki lodging was the goal) and Orlando, where I favored family-friendly accommodations in the Lake Buena Vista area.
Some notes when it comes to the properties I selected: In Honolulu, the only Best Western is at the airport—and it is overpriced to boot. Its London and Hong Kong properties aren't top-class, either. That's because many of the best Best Westerns overseas appear to be off-limits for award nights. The great Club Carlson showing in London is partially mitigated by split opinions on The May Fair, its property just off Park Lane. (I've included the TripAdvisor.com rating for each hotel chosen as a rough guide.) Carlson isn't present in either Hong Kong or Honolulu, so that hurts the program's value, too. The frequency plans offered by Choice and Wyndham are also bedeviled by the inconsistency of their hotels and the lack of availability in some prime spots.
A note on Hyatt: Its major drawback has traditionally been its smaller size. In fact, based on number of participating properties, Gold Passport is the smallest program on the chart. But given its strong elite-status levels and its good representation in major cities and prime resort destinations, it punches above its stated weight.
A final note: The U.S. dollar nightly rate for each hotel on the chart is listed in parentheses. Prices reflect the best-available, refundable cost on a specific night, May 22.
I didn't chose May 22 at random. It's my 60th birthday and maybe I'll cash some of my award points for a hotel in London, Honolulu or Hong Kong, three of my favorite cities.
Orlando I leave to you and the family.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2013 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.