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In the first couple of years of the COVID-19 pandemic, many hotel loyalty programs made it easier to earn elite status, either by reducing elite status requirements or by extending elite status for those who previously held it.
Fast forward to today, hotel occupancy is coming back to roughly pre-pandemic levels. That means competition among elite status holders for any space-available, complimentary room upgrades is tougher. Hotels sometimes have to do less to incentivize travelers to come back.
But some big hotels treat their most loyal customers better than others. 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.
Here's what to keep in mind as you strategize your 2023 hotel elite status pursuits.
Which hotel program provides the most value?
Our analysis focuses on elite status perks that offer the most concrete value, such as bonus rewards points, suite upgrades and free breakfast. Then, we compared these values with 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 is the best hotel rewards program this year.
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.
The average return across programs is 14% in value per dollar spent. Hyatt’s elite program, in particular, stands out at the top end with its 26% rate — the equivalent of earning more than a quarter back in value for every dollar spent. Hilton isn't far behind with a 22% earning rate.
And on the opposite end of the spectrum, Best Western trails far behind with its 2% return value rate.
Target the elite of the elite
Our analysis revealed something critical: There’s hotel elite status, 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.
Elite status programs like those of Hyatt, Hilton and Marriott offer good value across their elite levels. The rest, not so much.
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 just a few free breakfasts in return.
Second, the elite status offered by many cards is often the lowest level, which carries underwhelming benefits such as a free bottle of water and complimentary Wi-Fi.
If you want better benefits, you’ll want to get a card with a higher-than-usual level of elite status. For example, the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card offers complimentary Hilton Honors Diamond status, which comes with ultra-valuable benefits when you stay at Hiltons, including executive lounge access, space-available room upgrades and a daily food and beverage credit. Terms apply.
» Learn more: The best hotel credit cards right now
Look for promotions
Hotels made it exceptionally easy to earn or retain elite status in 2020, 2021 and sometimes even into 2022. Many lowered the number of nights needed to earn each level, and others offered promotions that earned extra elite nights.
But now, that might not be the case as often. Though, there will still be the occasional promotion that can offer alternative routes to earning elite status beyond simply staying a zillion nights (and spending a ton of money) in a hotel.
» Learn more: Your guide to hotel bonus point promotions
Hotel elite status in 2023, recapped
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.
All information about Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card has been collected independently by NerdWallet. Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card is no longer available through NerdWallet.
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 2023, 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