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As Craig wrote in a previous article here, I somewhat controversially mentioned to him that I have some issues with elite status, particularly hotel elite status. Craig has laid down his reasons as to why he values elite status, so here’s my chance to explain why I find hotel elite status overrated.
Firstly, let me frame my argument with a bit of background. I am pretty much exclusively a leisure traveller, staying about 40-60 nights abroad a year. I may do another 5 to 10 in the UK. It’s not exactly a particularly high number, but at the top end that would be enough for top status with most global hotel chains (Marriott being the exception – but this could be matched from SPG). I’ve never earnt any hotel status, outside of those provided by the UK American Express Platinum card. My destinations vary significantly and are not focused on any part of the world in particular.
One of my biggest issue with brand loyalty is this: when we fly, we have limited choice – there just isn’t that much competition, no matter where in the world you want to fly. With accommodation, it is the complete opposite. Your choices have never been better, from global or local chains, to boutique hotels or Airbnb and everything in between.
Why limit yourself? If you are travelling for leisure, why not have the best experience you could possibly have? “Best” is of course a subjective term and because my destinations vary, what I need from my accommodation also differs depending upon the trip.
Because of this, there is no one chain that will always provide the best hotel for the best price in the most convenient location, everywhere I travel. Chasing status can therefore be dangerous, you are giving up benefits during current stays in order to reap the rewards for the future. Of course, if you have regular destinations that you visit on holiday or through work, then achieving status may just be a happy and convenient by-product.
Even if you do earn top tier status relatively painlessly through work, this can often lead to the dangerous situation of becoming psychologically trapped in the brand loyalty mind-set – “When I go on holiday next, I must stay in X because I will have the best benefits and be treated better”. Unfortunately, this is a simple fallacy. My favourite type of accommodation has to be boutique hotels. The more I have stayed in them, the more I’ve become convinced of their superiority. But then again, it’s not always necessary, so I won’t limit myself to them.
Craig already made one point for me already – several hotel chains offer rather poor benefits except at the very top tiers. Even then, some have poor or inconsistent benefits all around (I’m looking at you IHG). These have been excluded from Craig’s analysis already, so in the interest of fairness I will mainly refer to the schemes that are on Craig’s “good” list.
Let’s look at the benefits that Craig mentioned:
Early Check-in/Late Check-out
There’s been so many times I’ve valued an early check in. The problem is that, even for Diamond or Platinum members, this isn’t a guaranteed benefit. It’s at the hotel’s discretion if they can magically open a room for you, and if they are full, then they are full.
Late check-out is more commonly ‘guaranteed’, but is subject to availability too in reality, for the most part.
However, with a boutique hotel – regardless of status – you just need to ask. These hotels will usually bend over backwards to help you, especially if you can speak to them in advance. I can’t tell you the countless numbers of times I have successfully negotiated a late check out for no fee. In fact, when I went to Finnish Lapland last November, the wonderful hosts at Beana Laponia let us check out at 6pm. The same holds true for check-in. If I’m arriving early, I increase my chances by messaging ahead of time and I can only think of one time I was denied the possibility.
Wherever you are, for check-in, it comes down to what’s available and whether the front desk is willing to be kind. This is simply less likely at the big chains. Boutique hotels have much more flexibility and are generally more willing / able to help out their guests.
Also as a side point, who needs to jump to the front of the check in queue when there isn’t even a queue in the first place? One of many joys of a 10 room hotel.
My biggest problem with these “free continental breakfasts”? They’re most always a bit sub-standard. Don’t get me wrong I’ve had some good breakfasts at these big chains over the years but they are few and far between. And that’s understandable – mass buffets catering for hundreds are rarely good, no matter how many omelette stations and heated bread conveyor belts you throw at them. That’s just a fact. I know when I was young, my parents appreciated the convenience of having the breakfast there but even as a child, I would be bored by about the third day. Maybe I’m a bit critical because eating well on holiday is particularly important to me, but I have rarely been impressed.
Once again – it’s not unheard of for hotels to not even honour the benefit. But many boutique hotels or B&Bs will include free breakfast for everybody – again regardless of status. I’ve yet to have breakfast at a big chain that beats any of the top breakfasts I’ve experienced at boutique hotels or B&Bs. The average standard is higher too.
Nowadays I like to spend most of my day out and about, exploring my destination – and that includes its culinary bounty. Without being hyperbolic, breakfast and/or brunch can easily be the best meal of the day if you do it right. When in a city such as Lima/Melbourne/New York/London/Singapore etc. I cannot even fathom wasting such an opportunity to eat something amazing. In these cases, I just don’t appreciate the emotional constraint placed upon me by the thought that I must make use of my free breakfast.
Nobody wants to pay £20-30 for an Egg’s Benedict – and why should you? It’s less than a tenner in the Wolseley! Rarely does the possibility of a free breakfast influence my decision where to stay, yet I (sometimes unfortunately) often end up with it even without status.
Craig openly admitted in his piece that most chains fail to deliver on their promise of room upgrades, with Hyatt and SPG being the only notable exceptions. However even with those chains, if you’re staying in the USA, where every Tom, Donald and Hank has elite status, then your chances are pretty slim!
I’m only going from anecdata, rather than empirical evidence here, but your chances of an upgrade can be rather good in small chains or boutique hotels. At global chains they have less manoeuvrability and stricter protocols to follow. At smaller places, if things are wrong with your room or they are just feeling nice/helpful, then it can be pretty easy to be upgraded. Maybe I’m lucky, but I have received many upgrades over the last few years for little to no reason. E.g. in Cappadocia, the inhabitants of the entry-level room I had booked in our cave hotel (Esbelli Evi), decided to stay on for one extra night. With much (unnecessary) apology, the hotel owners upgraded us to the “Fantasy Cave”, for the whole 3-night stay. Needless to say it was a stunning suite and utterly huge.
Again, what is the point of this benefit when it essentially comes down to chance? Unless of course you can manage to become a Hyatt Globalist – not easy with their limited footprint.
The other issue with room upgrades is that part of the reason they are desirable is because the rooms in many chain hotels, are quite frankly too small or boring. Most average to good boutique hotels will provide beautiful, thoughtfully designed rooms that are sometimes even better than some of the suites from the big chains. They also tend to have a stronger design aesthetic or connection to local culture. This is not just my opinion, as the chains have even begun to realise and accept this. Millions has been spent by the likes of Marriott & Hilton etc in an attempt to develop new “funkier” brands, embracing technology and with a greater connection to the local community. I think even the most ardent hotel chain loyalists would agree that these experiments haven’t always been a huge success.
I know many value this benefit greatly. Yet for me, this is possibly the most useless elite status perk. I think this really comes down to personal preference and travel style. I’ve had lounge access several times and I have never once used it.
As I mentioned earlier, when I travel, I am always out exploring my destination or doing something. I also actively go out of my way to try and ensure that I don’t waste money on bad food. I’m not going to come back early evening just for a free afternoon tea or dinner – I’ll get better food outside and quite frankly I’m happy to pay for the privilege. I don’t travel for work so I don’t need to return in the evening and work alone, where I may find the lounge a nice place to hang out. In fact, when I’ve popped in to check out these lounges I find that they can often be rather depressing places.
I’m not sure I’ve ever stayed in a hotel (outside of a big chain) that has charged me for WiFi. Free water/wine/scotch? An iphone, or a mobile hotspot, for when you leave the hotel? A daily morning delivery of coffee and pastries delivered to your door? Cooking class? Just a few of the many free perks I’ve had from hotels I’ve stayed at recently. And I didn’t need status.
I will concede some ground here. Elite status will certainly help in this regard. But like Craig admits – you can earn many points through promotions. I don’t miss it too much because I don’t actively collect many points at the moment with hotels outside of Marriott & SPG. I usually end up avoiding the big chains.
But Why Do I Usually Avoid These Hotels?
To be honest, it’s not a hard and fast rule. Occasionally I will end up in a Starwood or an Ibis etc because it is the best value in the best location – but more often than not, this isn’t the case.
I just want the best hotel to meet my needs of that trip and usually these chain hotels are unnecessarily expensive. If I’m with friends, I’ll want something spacious, clean, comfortable with a great shower, because I’m going to be out all day. Location is particularly important. If I’m with my partner, I want something more luxurious, intimate and special – for a good price.
No matter your budget, no matter your destination, you can almost always find a better value hotel at a boutique hotel or “local” chain. E.g. I’m booking a trip to Helsinki in August for 5 nights. The Hilton was roughly £700 and outside the town centre. The Radisson £930, the Crowne Plaza £1000. Hotels from the Scandic chain are in the city centre and roughly £600 (in the end I booked an Airbnb because it came with a sauna).
At the lower end, places like Holiday Inns/Ibis (RIP Happy Mondays)/Garden Inns etc are overpriced. At the higher end, well-known brands like Taj/Leela/Mandarin Oriental/Belmond/Aman are usually much more impressive than your Conrads and Intercontinentals. If you want character/charm/beauty for a much more reasonable price, there will almost always be numerous boutique hotels to choose from. In my experience, you will also enjoy a level of service and personalisation that bigger hotels can rarely provide. Even if you can’t get that free breakfast you crave – just pay for it with the money you’ve saved and still come out on top.
But I Need Some Sort of Loyalty Reward
Then I recommend Hotels.com and their simple yet effective reward scheme. You can even combine this with some cashback too and squeeze even more value out.
Another option, particularly for luxury brands, are Virtuoso agents or Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts. Booking through these agents can often give you rates with numerous perks such as breakfasts, food credit or upgrades. Then there are other sites such as Mr & Mrs Smith, Tablet Hotels and iEscapes.
The Bottom Line
I think the main thing I am trying to get across is, why chase status for “guaranteed” benefits, (that aren’t even really guaranteed), when you can have these benefits/experiences at other types of accommodation if you are just discerning with your choice? Yes, it might be easy to just book the Hilton because you associate them with a certain standard – but you can probably save money and have a better experience with some discerning research. Obviously, if you can easily attain status with somebody else picking up the tab, that is a different scenario.
In order to attract and maintain business, smaller hotels are much more willing and able to innovate, as well as go out of their way to improve the customer experience. This often involves bringing these ‘elite’ style benefits to everyone. Large hotel chains just don’t need to.
The problem is that chains have played with the psychology of taking everything away and then charging you for the “privilege” to obtain it. It’s not too dissimilar to ‘basic economy’ fares provided by numerous airlines. This allows companies to bestow certain members with a “special sentiment”. They make you feel like you are getting cool things for free. Despite this, many other places do it right and are happy to provide these things anyway. It may not feel exclusive when everybody is getting breakfast, but why does it need to? Especially when there are only 20 rooms in the place anyway.
By shedding the shackles of hotel loyalty, you will allow yourself a level of freedom to really have the best, most interesting or luxurious experiences. And overall you’ll probably save money doing so. Most of us have limited holiday time – may as well make each night count.
I admit, this point of view is contrary to many. Some people love brands because they feel affinity and trust towards them and that’s difficult to shift. Some will remain convinced because of their perceived value proposition of their favourite chain. Others just love routine. If so, then I’m glad you made it to the end of this piece and feel free to disregard everything above! Otherwise, I hope I’ve given you some food for thought for your next holiday.