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Hotel elite status can be confusing. Some hotel programs lavish perks like free breakfast and suite upgrades on their VIPs. Other programs hand elites a bottle of water at check-in and call it a day. And, unlike airline status, some hotel elite status can be earned simply by holding a co-branded credit card.
To make sense of this confusion and offer insight into which hotel elite status is worth attaining and which is best avoiding, we performed an ultra-nerdy analysis of the pros and cons of seven hotel brand loyalty programs.
What we did
We focused on those perks of hotel elite status that offer tangible value, such as bonus points and free food, and ignored softer benefits like priority check-in. A full methodology can be found at the bottom of this article.
We made many assumptions when compiling these rankings. Some, like the value of suite upgrades or lounge visits, had a major impact on these rankings. We tried to remain as objective and agnostic as possible, but our results do reward programs that offer these bigger perks.
Importantly, we assumed that the number of nights stayed in a given year is equal to the minimum number needed to earn each status tier. Status earned through credit cards will only be worth the same amount if you stay the same number of nights as someone who earns it normally. That is, perks are more valuable the more they’re used, and vice versa.
We rated hotel elite programs by comparing their “elite earning rate,” which represents the expected value one can expect to receive, as a percentage of the cost of earning a given elite status. That is, if you would get $100 in value from Nerdy Hotels Gold Status, and it costs $1,000 to earn, it would offer a 10% elite earning rate. The higher the elite earning rate, the better.
Best overall hotel elite status program
To determine the overall winner, we averaged the elite earning rates of each program’s entry-level, mid-level, and high-level status tiers. This gives a good snapshot of the cost-to-benefit ratio of these programs, but it does not mean that the winner (Hyatt) is the right choice for everyone. For example, super-frequent travelers should keep in mind that Marriott’s ultra-level status tiers (Titanium and Ambassador) were not considered in this “overall” rating, since they have no comparison to other programs.
The top three programs (Hyatt, Hilton and Marriott) offer similarly valuable programs, with Hyatt taking the edge thanks to its consistent value across the top tiers.
The next tranche of IHG, Radisson and Wyndham are also effectively tied at roughly half the value-to-cost ratios of the top three programs. And Best Western falls far to the rear, demonstrating that its seemingly generous elite matching program might not be so generous after all.
Best entry-level status
Winner: Radisson Silver
This category comes with a big caveat: None of these low status tiers offer much value, period. Radisson’s Silver elite status appears head and shoulders over the competition with a 1.7% earning rate, but keep in mind that the winner of the lowest tier among airline elite status offers a whopping 39% earning rate. We calculate Radisson Silver's raw value at a mere $22 — hardly worth getting out of bed for.
In fact, the most striking aspect of these entry-level hotel elite status tiers are how consistently underwhelming they are. Most offer a mere 10% earning bonus on reward points and hand-wavy benefits like priority check-in lines. In general, it’s safe to largely ignore all hotel programs’ entry-level benefits.
Best mid-level status
Winner: Hilton Gold
Hilton takes the top spot in this category, thanks largely to a generous 80% point bonus and free breakfast offering. The fact that this tier is available to Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card holders makes it especially attractive — though again, the benefits of any card-earned status are only proportional to the amount you stay at Hilton properties. If you have status but never use it, then there is no value.
» Learn more: Hilton Honors elite status: Your complete guide
Best high-level status
Winner: Hyatt Globalist
The earning rates jump considerably at this upper echelon, with Hyatt Globalist edging out Hilton Diamond and Marriott Platinum.
The top three programs offer suite upgrades, lounge access and free breakfast at this level, dramatically increasing the benefit-per-dollar-spent value over lower tiers. Marriott only offers a 50% bonus on points for Platinum elites, but we estimate that this tier is slightly cheaper to earn than Hilton or Hyatt’s offerings. Hyatt’s “milestone rewards,” which offer perks on top of the usual elite status benefits, made the difference here. We estimate that a Globalist member who makes the most of it will earn 60% of their spending back in the form of rewards and perks.
» Learn more: Guide to Hyatt elite status
Best (and only) ultra-level status
Winner: Marriott Titanium and Ambassador
Only Marriott and Best Western offer more than three status tiers, and Marriott’s are the only truly premium options. Marriott’s Titanium and Ambassador elite status tiers offer a solid 50% and 38% elite earning rate, respectively. The latter is less relatively valuable only because of its enormous $20,000 required annual spend.
For those willing to spend this much (or whose places of work are willing to), Marriott ultra-level status tiers are well worth it. Indeed, there is nothing to which they can be compared.
Value of each elite tier
Our “elite earning rate” allows comparison between different programs, as it reveals the value you can expect to earn from each tier based on the cost it takes to reach that tier. But if you’re considering earning status from a credit card, or are otherwise interested in the raw values of each tier, here they are, broken out by program:
To determine the value of each elite status tier, we identified six perks that carry clear value:
Welcome amenity (such as bottled water).
Bonus rewards points.
Fee waivers (such as Hyatt’s resort fee waivers for Globalists).
To determine the cost of earning each tier, we calculated the lowest estimated spend based on the earning criteria. That is, if a given elite status tier required 10,000 points or 100 nights, we used the lowest estimated value, per the assumptions below.
To determine the elite earning rate, we simply divided the total benefits for each tier by the cost of earning that tier.
For the value of suite upgrades, lounge access and free breakfast, we canvassed estimates from our in-house travel experts, and averaged the results. The point valuations and average nightly rate were drawn from data collected from our valuations analysis.
Reward points: We used our current hotel point valuations as of September 2020.
Suite upgrades: $58 per night per upgrade, occurring at 50% of nights stayed.
Lounge access: $28 per stay.
Free breakfast: $15 per night.
Average nightly rate: $146.
The bottom line
When it’s all said and done, don’t spend too much time chasing entry-level status at any hotel chain. If you’re a semi-serious traveler with your eyes on mid-level status, you’ll get the most back out of Hilton and Hyatt. And if you want top-tier status, you’ll be in good hands as a Hyatt Globalist — but don’t overlook Marriott’s ulta-premium Titanium and Ambassador status.
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