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I was introduced to hotel loyalty schemes through Points collecting; specifically when I picked up the American Express Platinum card which gave me Elite status for multiple hotels programmes. Different schemes will suit different people, so let’s have a look at the pros and cons for the various options to help you find the best hotel loyalty programme for you.
In this article I’m going to focus largely on the hotel programmes where you can get elite status through the American Express Platinum card (I’ll also include info on how to get status through other UK credit cards) – namely:
- Club Carlson
- Shangri-La Golden Circle
- Melia Rewards
- Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) and Marriott Rewards
- Hilton Honors
I’ve also decided to include Intercontinental Hotel Group (IHG) Rewards Club, as you can get Gold/Platinum status through the IHG branded credit cards and there are so many IHG hotels around that excluding IHG Rewards Club just doesn’t seem right.
This is a pretty long list, so I started by eliminating the schemes that didn’t work for me. Let’s do this by running through the various benefits each programme offers:
This hotel group covers more properties at the lower end of the spectrum, and has a large number of choices across Europe. So it’s great for those who enjoy a load of weekend breaks! The membership can be used at over 1,000 hotels worldwide. There are multiple levels of membership (Red, Silver, Gold and Concierge) with increasing levels of benefits.
However: They do not have many hotels outside of Europe, which makes them a bit inflexible and limited in use. Room upgrades are not guaranteed, and the main benefit of higher membership status is the ability to earn points faster…the rest are pretty insignificant.
Shangri-La Golden Circle:
On the other end if the scale, these hotels have more of a global presence, with five star options in a lot of major cities. This is a good option for business travel, or those who like to book-end their travels with a bit of luxury! The Golden Circle membership again comes in categories; Gold, Jade and Diamond. Every tier offers the option to earn points or air miles.
However: Although they have properties across the globe, they have a very small presence overall; less than 100 properties worldwide.
Melia has a great presence in Europe, with 350 hotels in 30 countries (145 of which are in Spain alone!)
However: They do not have many options to choose from outside of Europe. There is no way to earn points from credit cards in the UK, so the points collecting system is rather limited. You also don’t earn that many more points when you are a top tier level member compared to the White membership (14 points for every €/$ on the booking as opposed to 10 points).
Personally, these loyalty schemes didn’t stack up enough for me, so when trying to find the best hotel loyalty programme, I concentrated on the following programmes.
Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) and Marriott Rewards:
The recent merger between Starwood and Marriott was a great game changer. Along with Ritz-Carlton, it has created one of the largest hotel chains in the world. The elite status that they offer is very comprehensive, and you are able to transfer points between the two programmes.
If you feel these programmes would benefit you, the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express is well worth getting, with very little application requirements. It costs £75 a year, and you get a free night after spending £25,000. In addition to the points you earn as an SPG member, you get more Starpoints every time you spend on your credit card! The points you earn can be redeemed on over 150 airlines, or converted into more than 30 major airline frequent flyer programmes. As a bonus, when you transfer in a block of 20,000 points, you get an extra 5,000 in whatever category you choose. With a sign up bonus of 10,000 (11,000 with a referral!), it’s super easy to accumulate points quickly. This makes them the most powerful and flexible points in the world! (Well you know, in my opinion…)
However: Until at least 2018, the two loyalty programs are still going to operate separately. This means you still have to sign up independently to both programs and link your accounts to make the most of the benefits. Their points systems are also not equal, with a conversion rate of 3 Marriott Reward points to every 1 Starwood point.
Hilton again offer a large collection globally, with 14 brands and nearly 5,000 properties in over 100 countries. Most of these hotels are mid-tier, but they are mostly of a decent standard. The Barclay Hilton HHonors Platinum Visa card is great if you’re new to points collecting. It includes Silver elite status, and again, there is very little criteria needed to get the card. Not only do you earn points when you spend on the card, but the included silver status allows you to earn 15% bonus on all the Hilton Honors Base Points you earn. On top of that, when you spend £10,000 in any calendar, you automatically receive Gold elite status. Guaranteed upgrades, free breakfast and access to hotel lounges are some of the perks the Gold status gives you, and you get a free night after spending £750 in the first 90 days of having the card. This is one of the most attainable and useful elite hotel statuses on offer.
However: They do not have as many truly high end properties, and some of the Hilton brands are looking a bit tired.
Intercontinental Hotel Group (IHG):
IHG offers a great points collecting system at over 5,000 hotels across 60 countries. Most of these are lower end, and include the Holiday Inn chain, giving it massive coverage. They also have a great selection of higher end hotels in gateway cities.
IHG Rewards Club runs generous promotion offers regularly – the latest being another ‘Accelerate’ promotion, which can get you about 10,000 Bonus Point per night if you’ve got a decent offer.
An easy way to get elite membership is through the IHG credit card, or IHG Premium credit card. These allow you to skip the hoops that you would usually have to jump through (like minimum nights stayed or points collected in a year). This credit card can be applied for through Creation, and gives you loads of rewards. For the standard card, you automatically get Gold Membership simply for opening the account, and you earn 10,000 IHG Rewards Club bonus points when you spend £200 in the first 3 months of opening your account (which is pretty easy to do!). You also earn points just for spending money on your card, with 1 point for every £1 you spend in the UK, 2 points for every £1 you spend in an IHG location in the UK, and 2 points for every £1 you spend abroad. The premium card costs £99 a year, and gives you a free night every year when you spend over £10,000. This is really useful for higher spenders, but may not suit everyone.
You can also buy an Intercontinental Ambassador membership ($200 for the first year, and $150 to renew). This can easily pay for itself on the first use, as room upgrades are guaranteed, along with 4pm late check out. Whenever booking, you can use a combination of points and cash to maximise the rewards. You can also choose to channel the points you earn from staying with IHG in hotel points or air miles (which is a major plus in my books!) You must choose one or the other through your accounts settings, but you can switch your preference as many times as you want.
However: Unless you stay at one of the Intercontinental hotels, the ambassador status doesn’t get you much. Intercontinental Hotels only offer 182 global properties.
So, which is the best hotel loyalty programme?
That sums up the big hitters! I deducted the schemes that didn’t suit my travel needs, and went from there. The IHG, SPG and Hilton programmes are my preference (in case you couldn’t tell from the long pro sections!), as I value flexible points, and the benefits easily cover the costs. They each have a card/s that allows you to substantially increase the number of points you earn, and are all easy to get. However, different chains suit different needs. Some are just more niche than others!
For me, credit cards were a large part of choosing schemes. The SPG Amex and Hilton Barclaycard are my personal favourites, and ones I would definitely recommend for beginners!
American Express Membership Reward Points are great because they can be transferred into loads of hotel schemes and airlines, and have fantastic sign up rewards; the Gold card gives you 20,000 points without a referral when you spend £2,000 in the first 3 months (22,000 with a referral) and the Platinum card gives you 30,000 points without a referral when you spend £2,000 in the first 3 months (35,000 with a referral).
There are lots of options when it comes to making the most of hotel schemes, and I think the best approach is to have 2-3 regular programmes but also remember to be flexible and not to get too carried away by status or loyalty – Insideflyer’s ‘Dr Redeye’ wrote an excellent article on the perils of hotel loyalty here.