How to Choose the Best Hotel Rewards Program For You

For frequent travelers, choosing one hotel rewards program can help you earn elite status and benefits.
Sally French
By Sally French 
Updated

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Whether you travel once a year or are a frequent international traveler, all travelers should enroll in hotel loyalty programs. After all, many hotel programs reward travelers with perks like free Wi-Fi just for being a member.

If you're pursuing elite status, it's worth the investment to figure out which hotel loyalty program is right for you. As you progress through higher tiers of hotel elite status, you can unlock luxuries like room upgrades, complimentary breakfast and even club lounge access. However, not all hotel rewards programs are created equally.

Here’s what you need to know about picking a hotel program to be loyal to in your pursuit of elite status.

The biggest hotel loyalty programs

While many small hotel companies have excellent programs to reward customer loyalty, most people should pursue elite status with one of the bigger hotel chains.

Why? Because it increases the likelihood of finding a participating hotel for your chosen loyalty program in any given destination. With that in mind, here's an overview of the largest hotel loyalty programs.

IHG One Rewards

Why it’s great: IHG’s recently revamped hotel loyalty program introduced new benefits like confirmable suite upgrades, food and beverage credits and lounge membership. That puts it back into consideration after years of lagging behind the competition.

Unique benefit: Pay $200 for InterContinental Ambassador membership to get a free weekend night at InterContinental, guaranteed upgrades, food and beverage credits and Platinum Elite status. Plus, get free breakfast and a free massage or local experience at certain Six Senses resorts.

World of Hyatt

Why it’s great: Hyatt earned first place in NerdWallet's top hotel loyalty programs due to the strong return on spending. Hyatt's top-tier Globalist elites get club access, complimentary breakfast, guaranteed late checkout and waived resort fees. Plus, Globalists can share their top-tier perks with friends and family through Hyatt's Guest of Honor perk.

Unique benefit: Register to earn 1 Hyatt point per dollar spent on all American Airlines flights — while still earning AAdvantage miles on the flight.

Hilton Honors

Why it’s great: Hilton Honors' top-tier Diamond status is excellent, but serious perks start at mid-tier Gold elite status — which you can get as a benefit of several travel rewards cards. Gold elite status earns you 80% bonus points on stays, room upgrades and either free breakfast or a food and beverage credit.

Unique benefit: All Hilton elite status members — even entry-tier Silver — get the fifth night free on all stays booked with points.

Marriott Bonvoy

Why it’s great: Marriott is one of the largest hotel chains, so wherever you’re headed, it’s likely there’s a Marriott. Aim for Marriott Platinum Elite status as it comes packed with benefits including lounge access, suite upgrades, a welcome gift choice including free breakfast at most locations and 4 p.m. guaranteed late checkout.

Unique benefit: Marriott Titanium Elite status members can register to get United Premier Silver elite status. That status grants you a free checked bag, free extra-legroom seats at check-in and expanded award availability.

Top factors to consider

What hotels will you actually stay at?

You might be seduced by elite status perks, but they materialize only when you actually stay at those hotels. So you’ll want to consider your travel habits as well as the footprint of the hotel loyalty programs.

If your favorite hotel in your favorite travel destination is a Hilton, well, Hilton Honors may be the program for you. If you intend to travel to your company’s headquarters and it's on the same block as a Marriott, then your work has made it easier to earn Bonvoy elite status. If your friends or family happen to be near a Hyatt, lean in that direction.

Generally speaking, you’ll find more hotels with Marriott (8,700+ properties), Hilton (7,200+) and IHG (6,000+). Hyatts will offer you high-quality options in specific areas, but with fewer options overall (1,300).

What hotels are transfer partners with your existing credit card points?

If you have certain travel credit cards, then you might already have points that easily transfer to hotel loyalty programs. Booking hotel rooms with points can often be a better deal than paying with cash, particularly if you can take advantage of perks like getting a fifth night free on award stays:

If you already have points in a certain transferable point currency, that should help narrow down your decision of which hotel program to commit to. And if you're loyal to a particular hotel program, this should give you a better idea of which rewards cards to get next to boost your balance. Terms apply.

What brands (and perks) align with your travel style?

As you chase status, make sure the program’s benefits align with your travel style. For example, if it’s free breakfast you seek, then Hilton offers among the shortest routes to that perk. You can get free breakfast (or a food and beverage credit in certain markets) just with Gold Elite status — which you can get as a cardholder of several credit cards.

However, if it's suite upgrades and lounge access you value the most, Marriott Bonvoy Platinum Elite status or IHG One Rewards' Milestone Rewards will be your best bet.

Which hotel offers travelers the most valuable hotel loyalty points?

Hotel points valuations have increased or stayed the same overall in the last few years, according to an analysis by NerdWallet's travel experts. Programs with a fixed award chart — like World of Hyatt and Wyndham Rewards — have gotten more valuable, while loyalty programs with dynamic award pricing have stayed around the same value.

Hyatt remains the most valuable hotel points currency but lost ground in our 2023 analysis.

Hotel points values this year:

  • World of Hyatt: 2.3 cents.

  • Wyndham Rewards: 1.2 cents.

  • Choice Privileges: 1 cent.

  • IHG One Rewards: 0.8 cent.

  • Marriott Bonvoy: 0.8 cent.

  • Best Western Rewards: 0.7 cent.

  • Hilton Honors: 0.5 cent.

Since 2021, the value of Hyatt points increased the most, climbing from a 1.9 cent-per-point valuation to a whopping 2.3 centseach.

Meanwhile, Wyndham Rewards has grown the most percentage-wise, increasing from 0.9 cents each in 2021 to 1.2 cents in 2023. The value of all other hotel loyalty programs have been stagnant over the past couple of years.

It’s okay to skip hotel loyalty programs, too

Hotel elite status isn’t for everyone. While the highest tiers can be worth thousands of dollars for frequent travelers, the lower tiers are usually worth less than $30. Your effort to chase elite status will require far more investment than that, so don’t waste your time on low-level status. Instead, consider snagging automatic mid-tier status via a credit card.

If you spend only five to 10 nights in a hotel annually, don’t obsess over hotel loyalty. Chasing elite status is worthwhile only if you’ll confidently spend at least 25 nights each year, which can usually get you a mid-level tier of elite status.

Other reasons to skip loyalty to a hotel include:

  • Loyalty means less flexibility: If you have Hilton status, but the Hyatt next door is cheaper, then you’ve found yourself in a predicament. Plus, hotel status might also cause you to overlook alternative, delightful lodging options like short-term vacation rentals or RV rentals.

  • Benefits can vary greatly: Maybe one resort upgraded you to an ocean-view room and let you extend checkout until 4 p.m. — effectively earning you an extra day at the pool. Meanwhile, your next trip got you nothing except a free water bottle and Wi-Fi. Results can vary by hotel brand and often properties get an "out" on providing specific benefits, particularly on the perks that might be the most valuable at that hotel — like late checkout at a resort property.

Choose the best hotel loyalty program for you

If you’ve got loads of upcoming travel planned, then it can make sense to choose one hotel to commit your loyalty to so you can also earn elite status.

Some hotel credit cards offer elite status as an automatic benefit for cardholders. Add in an annual free night certificate granted by some of these cards, and these can be a great option for even infrequent travelers. However, if a new piece of plastic is not in the cards for you, then you’ll have to stay quite a few nights to earn elite status.

If you’re ready to chase status, then consider what points you already have and what benefits you prioritize. While you could certainly choose to commit your loyalty to NerdWallet’s top hotel rewards program (World of Hyatt), remember that the best hotel loyalty program is ultimately the one that you’ll use based on your travel plans and preferences.


How to maximize your rewards

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See more travel cards
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