With hotel chains merging all the time, and many chains with multiple brands you never knew fell under their portfolio, the relative value in hotel rewards programs varies widely. And that relative value is highly dependent on where and how much you travel.
To break down and hopefully simplify hotel rewards programs, WalletHub conducted a massive study on programs among the largest hotel chains in the world, an annual undertaking examining over 20 factors, from the cash value of points to where you can use them, to find out who best treats their frequent guests. We, being the scrupulous skeptics that we are, analyzed the whole thing and found the best programs for different types of travelers.
First off, are hotel rewards programs worth having?
That advice can really extend to any hotel loyalty program, as unlike with airlines you may find huge price disparities, and the money you save there may be greater than any perceived benefit from hotel loyalty.
“A free night in a hotel is attractive, but it…can entail a substantial commitment from the consumer over a significant period of time,” said Professor Sung H. Ham in commentary attached to the study, who teaches marketing in the business school at George Washington University. “Consumers may still overvalue the rewards that can be obtained from being loyal, (as they) are less likely to engage in price comparisons and may ultimately end up paying more for each stay to earn the free night reward.”
He added that consumers who don’t belong to a loyalty program are far more likely to aggressively comparison shop, and even with free stays and perks factored in, they often spend less overall than members of loyalty programs.
“The accumulated savings from engaging in price comparisons could allow disloyal consumers to pay for the free night — and possibly more — themselves,” he said.
That’s not to say you won’t find value in a hotel loyalty rewards program. It’s just to say that you need to find the one that fits your travel style best. Many are most beneficial to people like business travelers, who aren’t picking up the bill themselves. Still, membership doesn’t cost anything and never hurts to have. At the very least, you’ll get a hearty “thank you for being a member!” from whoever checks you in.
The best hotel rewards programs
Best overall program for any traveler: Wyndham Rewards
Major brands: Days Inn; Howard Johnson; Microtel; Ramada; Travelodge; Super 8; Hawthorn Suites; all Wyndham brands
Pros: Best dollar value per $100 spent, room redemption availability
Cons: Limited international options, points expire quickly
Rewards value per $100 spent: $13.46
For the fifth year in a row, Wyndham topped WalletHub’s study, offering the best value to heavy, moderate, and even light travelers. A big reason for this is the sheer volume of hotels in the Wyndham portfolio, covering over 9,000 properties across 20 brands. One huge advantage Wyndham offers is the ability to rack up the same number of rewards points no matter where you stay, so a night at the Microtel rates you the same points as at a Wyndham Grand resort. This may not be as attractive for big spenders, but if you frequent mid-range and budget hotels you can earn nights in nicer places pretty easily.
Another plus for Wyndham is that the points purchased are only marked up about 7 percent, the second-lowest of any chain. Points expire in 18 months, though, so if you’re not traveling a good amount every year this might not be the program for you.
Best for light-to-moderate international travelers: Radisson
Major brands: All Radisson brands; Park Plaza; Country Inn & Suites
Pros: Lots of international options, rewards relatively quickly
Cons: High markup on points purchased
Rewards value per $100 spent: $12.50
Radisson placed a solid second in WalletHub’s study, with the second-highest value across all types of travelers and lots of options if you’re looking to stay abroad. Points last a full 24 months with Radisson too, so if you don’t travel a ton you may still have a chance to cash in some rewards. If you do travel a lot, Radisson is also among the easiest chains to achieve top membership status, with only 60 nights or 30 stays rating you a Platinum membership. You’ll find over 1,400 hotels at which to use that status, and you’ll get the same rewards across all brands, with no brand exclusions.
Best for infrequent travelers who don’t want points to expire: Best Western Rewards
Major brands: All Best Western and SureStay brands; Sadie; Vib; Glo
Pros: Points don’t expire, best options for redemption
Cons: Blackout dates, high markup on points purchased
Rewards value per $100 spent: $9.75
You could literally have stayed in a Best Western once in 2012, not looked at a Best Western since, and still have rewards points in your account. The non-expiring points are the biggest selling feature of this 4,500-hotel chain, spanning 13 brands in over 100 countries. Another interesting feature Best Western offers is matching your status with any other hotel chain, so if you’re elite with another hotelier you’ll get all the bonus points, upgrades, and free Wi-Fi connections at Best Western too. Not that this program’s elite status is all that hard to achieve: You’ll get Gold status after just 10 nights or seven qualifying stays.
Best for frequent international travelers: Marriott Bonvoy
Major brands: AC; Aloft; Autograph Collection; Fairfield Inn & Suites; Moxy; Residence Inn; Renaissance; Ritz-Carlton; Sheraton; St. Regis; Springhill Suites; W; Westin; all Marriott brands
Pros: Massive collection of properties both international and domestic
Cons: Some brands do not participate in rewards nights, points differ depending on brand
Rewards value per $100 spent: $10.89
Bonvoy, the new-ish love child of the Marriott-Starwood merger, covers the largest hotel chain in the world, and if you want to redeem your points almost anywhere in the world, this is the program for you. That said, covering such a breadth of hotels carries with it a lot of caveats, the most annoying of which is the inability to redeem those points with certain brands. Understandable that piling up points at the Fairfield Inn shouldn’t necessarily rate you free nights at the Ritz, but aggravating nonetheless. Points accrue differently depending on where you stay too, so be sure to consider that when booking.
Best for budget travelers who want the most for their money: Choice Privileges
Major brands: Clarion; EconoLodge; Rodeway Inn; Quality Inn; Sleep Inn; Comfort Inn
Pros: Low markup on points purchased, large number of domestic hotels
Cons: Few hotels near international cities, not many transfer partners
Rewards value per $100 spent: $11.38
Choice was the only chain in the study to offer more rewards in 2019 than it did in 2018, and interestingly offers a better value for light travelers than it does moderate. It also offers the third-best value per dollar spent, and since it’s the lowest-cost hotel chain in the study, that means you’ll get the most here by spending the least. Globetrotters may not see much value in Choice, though, as international destinations are limited, and you won’t be able to use your points with nearly the number of airline partners you might with other programs.
Best if you want to use your points for other things: IHG Rewards Club
Major brands: InterContinental; Indigo; Holiday Inn; Kimpton; Crowne Plaza
Pros: Lots of airline partnerships
Cons: Value of rewards, big markup on points purchased
Rewards value per $100 spent: $7.48
There’s a good reason IHG has the largest number of airline and shopping partners of anyone in the study — the points at the hotels themselves are pretty much worthless. IHG rated dead-last in rewards per dollar spent, and marks up its purchased points a whopping 32 percent. So even though you’d be able to redeem those points with dozens of airlines across the world, do some calculations as to how much they’re actually worth before you buy. This might be a good move for frequent fliers, but otherwise, the program doesn’t offer much.