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There’s no use trying to predict what will happen to the travel industry next. A report from STR and Tourism Economics, a partner of global forecasting organization Oxford Economics, expects a 13% year-over-year increase in U.S. hotel occupancy in 2022, but that should probably come with the caveat, “Who the heck knows?”
Yet there are some things we can know about hotel elite status. We at NerdWallet compared the value of hotel elite status programs to determine which ones offer the best value to frequent travelers, regardless of changing external conditions.
We focused on those aspects of elite status that offer the most concrete value, such as bonus rewards points, suite upgrades and free breakfast. We then compared these values to the cost of earning each status level. This lets us see which elite programs offer the best return value per dollar spent, and which offer only a free bottle of water at check-in. It also gave us a new way to think about which hotel provides the best loyalty program in 2022.
Target the elite of the elite
Our analysis revealed something critical: There’s hotel elite status, and then there’s real hotel elite status. Some programs slap labels like “Gold” and “Platinum” on benefits that are anything but luxurious. Others give their frequent guests real, tangible value.
To boil this down into a single number that lets us compare programs directly, we use what we call an “elite earning rate.” This is essentially the amount of benefit you can expect to get back as a percentage of the amount you spend.
Elite status programs like those of Hyatt, Hilton and Marriott offer good value across their elite levels. The rest, not so much. Hyatt’s elite program, in particular, stands out at the top end with its 25% rate — the equivalent of earning a quarter back in value for every dollar spent. Best Western trails far behind with its 2% return value rate.
What does this mean for you? Don’t get fooled into chasing elite status from a program that offers less valuable benefits. You might earn the highest level of status with IHG, but that doesn’t mean you’re getting the best available value.
Be wary of status earned through a card
Unlike airline elite status, you can earn hotel elite status fairly easily as a benefit from many co-branded credit cards. Sounds great, right? It can be for savvy travelers, but it can also be a letdown.
This is for two reasons. First, the value of hotel elite status depends on how often you use it. You can have the best status in the world, but if you stay only a couple of nights per year, you’re getting only a few free breakfasts in return.
Second, the elite status offered by many cards is often the lowest level, which carries underwhelming benefits. We broke down all the value rates of the top three levels for each program.
Elite earning rate
There is a huge jump in value between Level 2 and 3 for most programs. That’s because the really good perks, like free breakfast and suite upgrades, usually kick in at these higher levels, but are absent from the lowest.
That’s not to say earning elite status through a card is never worth it. But don’t expect to reap the real perks of these programs if the card offers only the lowest elite level.
Look for promotions
Hotels made it exceptionally easy to earn or retain elite status in 2021. Many lowered the number of nights needed to earn each level, and others offered promotions that earned extra elite nights.
Will this trend continue in 2022 as hotel brands look to encourage loyal travel? That’s yet to be determined. It probably won’t look exactly the same as it did in 2021, but we expect to see brands make some concessions to travelers who are still not willing to travel as often as “normal.”
So if you’re deciding where to pledge your hotel loyalty this year, do some shopping around to see which brands are offering the most appealing elite status promotions. You might be able to get outsize value throughout the year and into 2023.
The bottom line
Elite status is only part of the reason to pick a particular hotel brand. (You’ll also want to consider which carry the lowest fees and which offer your preferred pillow softness). But it’s an important insight into which loyalty programs are serious about earning customer loyalty.
Not all hotels are equally serious when it comes to tangible elite status perks. Some, like Hyatt and Hilton, offer great benefits, especially to higher-end elites. Others, like IHG and Radisson, do not.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2022, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card