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If you're ready to make up for more than a year of lost travel with multiple trips, then it might make sense to join hotel loyalty programs and pursue hotel elite status in 2021. With it, you’re bestowed small conveniences that take some of the headache out of travel — like late checkout and faster internet. As you progress through higher tiers of hotel elite status, you’ll unlock luxuries like room upgrades, club lounge access and complimentary breakfast.
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 commit to one of the bigger chains. Why? Because it increases the likelihood of finding a participating hotel for your chosen loyalty program in any given destination.
IHG Rewards Club
Why it’s great: IHG’s hotel loyalty program is a favorite for families and business travelers alike. It ranked No. 1 in NerdWallet’s analysis of best hotel rewards program for families, No. 1 for best overall hotel rewards program and No. 2 for best hotel rewards program for frequent travelers.
Useful benefit: You can pay $200 to reach a top status tier called InterContinental Ambassador, which can be especially valuable given its complimentary restaurant credit and weekend night certificate.
World of Hyatt
Why it’s great: The highest tier of Hyatt elite status, Globalist, is especially lucrative. Waived resort fees can save hundreds of dollars on long vacations. Plus, there’s club access, complimentary breakfast and more.
Useful benefit: You also earn 1 American Airlines AAdvantage bonus point per dollar spent at Hyatt.
Why it’s great: Some elite status programs offer free breakfast, but the highest tier of Hilton elite status, Diamond, could cover every meal of the day thanks to executive-floor lounge access.
Useful benefit: Silver, Gold and Diamond members get the fifth night free on stays booked with points.
» Learn more: 7 reasons to join Hilton Honors
Why it’s great: Marriott is one of the largest hotel chains, so no matter where you’re headed, it’s likely there’s a Marriott. This allows you to use your Marriott elite status benefits pretty much wherever you go.
Useful benefit: Once you reach Platinum elite status — earned after you stay 50 nights per year (or less if you have a Marriott credit card) — you receive free breakfast and free lounge access.
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 you’re the kind of person who returns to your hometown often and the nearest hotel is a Hilton, well, Hilton Honors may be the program for you. If you intend to be traveling to your company’s headquarters on the same block as a Marriott, then your work has made it easier to earn Bonvoy elite status. If your favorite vacation spot happens to be a Hyatt stronghold, lean that direction.
Generally speaking, you’ll find more hotels with Marriott (7,000+), Hilton (6,400+) and IHG (6,000+). Hyatts will offer you high-quality options in specific areas, but with fewer options overall (950).
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, especially if you can take advantage of perks like getting a fifth night free on award stays.
If you already have points in a certain currency, that should help narrow down your decision of which hotel program to commit to. If you have both kinds of points, Marriott gives you the most flexibility.
What brands (and perks) align with your travel style?
As you chase status, make sure its 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 (not even holding a Hyatt-branded credit card will get you free breakfast at most Hyatt properties, on the other hand). Or, if you prefer low fees and plentiful award booking options, consider IHG.
Who offers customers the best hotel loyalty points?
Hotel points valuations have slightly declined or stayed the same overall in the last few years, according to an analysis by NerdWallet's travel experts. Most hotels’ points slid just 0.1 of a cent since last year, and Hyatt remains the most valuable hotel points currency.
Marriott has had the biggest decline during the pandemic. On the flip side, Radisson’s points valuation has recovered to pre-pandemic levels, doubling in value this year.
It’s OK 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 $25. 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 midlevel 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 20 nights each year, which can usually get you a midlevel 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. Hotel status might also cause you to overlook alternative, equally delightful lodging options like short-term vacation 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 some Wi-Fi. Results can vary and there’s often no guarantee that you’ll get any specific benefit.
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. But 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, IHG, remember that the best hotel loyalty program is ultimately the one that you’ll actually use based on your travel plans and preferences.
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 2021, 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