There are countless blog posts about “the best” hotel rewards program, but because we all have a different idea about “the best” that discussion will go on forever without a resolution. I wrote recently about rewards vs loyalty – and today want to look at the hotel rewards program with the highest reward rate for your hotel spend – and it is probably not one of the programs you’d expect!
How I compare: While many miles & points enthusiasts (including myself) earn a lot of their points with credit cards, not everybody wants to dive into that “hobby” or has access to the high-value credit card offers in the USA. Therefore, I focus in this post on points you earn for money spent at the hotels only.
For all the hotel rewards programs I have reviewed to date, I have established the number of points you earn per USD of spent. To make life a little more complicated, some hotel programs offer more points per Dollar at upscale hotels than at budget hotels and most programs offer bonus points for their most frequent guests who have top-tier elite status in their program. Therefore, I have listed three rewards rates:
– Minimum reward rate at any hotel of the chain, earned any guest
– Maximum reward rate available for some hotels, earned any guest
– Maximum reward rate available for some hotels, earned by the top-tier elite members
Some people love the Club Carlson rewards program, because you can earn 20 points per USD of hotel spend – the most generous rate. Some people hate Accor for their skimpy earn rate of only 0.5 points per USD spent at their most basic budget hotels!
But those earn rates are meaningless, without knowing the value of each point. To establish the value of hotel rewards points, I’m starting with the mountains of data collected by the Wandering Aramean and his tool “Hotel Hustle”. He tracks all the hotel searches conducted through the tool, as well as the cash price and the point price per room in those searches, resulting in an average and median point value, as well as the highest/lowest value found (you can see his data here). To come up with the point value I use in my reward program reviews and in this comparison, I adjust as an “informed traveler”. The very fact that you read this blog and utilize tools like Hotel Hustle suggests, that you wouldn’t use your hard earned hotel points for the terrible rewards values that can often be found. For example, Wyndham rewards has a fixed rate of 15,000 points per night (at a value of 1ct/pt or $150/night). Chances are that an informed traveler like you and I won’t redeem those 15,000 points for a $40 rate at an Econolodge and will rather save it for a $400+ night like at the Wyndham Santa Monica!
With the earn rate per USD spent and the value of each point in US cents, I can calculate the reward rate for hotel spend in US cents per USD spent – or really a discount rate for reward members!
The Winner is: The highest value rewards program, offering the highest reward or discount rate to all guests across all hotels, is Wyndham Rewards with a reward rate of 10%! The runner up is Club Carlson with a reward rate of 8% for all hotels & guests. That is a drastically higher rate than some of the most popular programs, with Accor offering a rate of only 1%, Hilton of 2%, IHG of 2.5% and Marriott of 4% for all hotels and guests.
The big and popular programs offer a slightly better deal for guests staying at their higher-priced hotels with reward rates between 5% (Accor, IHG) and 8% (Marriott).
The picture only changes for frequent travelers with top-level elite status, staying at high-end hotels. Concierge level members in Club Carlson earn a reward rate of 14%, while Marriott Platinum members earn 12% and IHG Spire members earn 10%. You have to stay 75 nights per year to reach those levels, making it attainable only to the most frequent guests of those chains! Also noteable is that Starwood’s SPG program that is so well liked by frequent travelers offers the worst rewards rate of all programs to their top-tier status members!
Other considerations before you sign up:
Standard or aspirational hotel awards? While many people sign up for hotel reward programs to earn a free night at a basic hotel for the next family trip, some save their miles for an aspirational stay at a luxury hotel they couldn’t afford otherwise. So, you need to choose your hotel reward program accordingly. The biggest downside to Wyndham Rewards is that they have so few upscale hotels to redeem an aspirational award, making it more difficult to have a free dream trip!
Low or high award rates: A high reward rate doesn’t help you, if you never earn enough points for a free night to redeem, your points expire or are devalued, before you can use them! So, it pays to look at the lowest available award rate for a hotel – as well as the highest ones! Club Carlson offers free nights from only 9,000 points, requiring to spend $450 at their hotels to earn a free night. Even better, a spend of $750 will earn you a free night at at least 10% of all their hotels, because category 1 is not a “teaser category” with few hotels in it! Hilton is guilty of that “teaser” trick, advertising a low redemption rate of only 5,000 points for a free night (or a $1,000 spend), but there are only a handful of hotels in category 1 or 2, so you need a whooping 20,000 points (or $4,000 spend) to be able to redeem at the cheapest 10% of their hotels! (see table for spend required for a free night at 10% of hotels of the group)
And the picture is even worse, if you are trying to save your points for an aspirational redemption at one of the top luxury hotels. While one of the few luxury Wyndham hotels is available after a $1,500 hotel spend – you’ll need to spend $19,000 for a top Hilton property or $17,500 for a top Starwood hotel – far more than most traveler’s hotel budget!
Promotions: Another consideration is that some programs offer you the chance to earn more points with frequent promotions. Just recently I earned more than $155 worth of IHG Rewards points for a stay of only $80 (read how I did it). But this only works, if your travel plans are very flexible and when you are willing to spend a lot of time on this as a hobby. Needless to say, it’s also hard impossible to quantify for the average traveler.
Bottomline: If you are looking for the frequent hotel guest program with the best rewards rate, the winner is Wyndham Rewards with the best value with a reward rate of 10% for all travelers and all hotels, with little restrictions and little effort to earn the points.
The runner up is Club Carlson, with a good earn rate of 8%, the chance to get to an earn rate of 10.8% by signing up to their credit card and easy access with free nights starting at only $450 spend, making them affordable even for infrequent travelers.
Best program for high-spending business travelers: if you are a frequent business traveler, your company’s travel program allows you to choose hotels freely and you stay at upscale hotels most of the time, IHG Rewards Club and Marriott Rewards are your best options. There are many hotels to earn and redeem points and top-level elites get very good rewards rates. US residents can improve their reward rate with status from credit cards easily!
You can find all the data I used for this post below!
Alternative: The best program for infrequent leisure travelers might actually not be a hotel chain program at all. If all you are after is the best reward rate with little effort and few restrictions and are not required to book through your company’s travel agent or portal, you should look at hotel.com’s WelcomeRewards program! It offers a reward rate of 10% at more hotels than all the chain hotels combined, redeemable after 10 paid nights with few restrictions and no effort to hunt down promotions, watch point levels are worry about point devaluations.