Is it worth it to go out of your way to acquire elite status in a hotel loyalty program? What about when your ultimate goal is simply to save money – will the value of the perks outweigh the extra cost required to reach that status? Read on if you’re interested in the perspective of one Canadian budget traveller.
2021 Hotel Elite Status Adjustments
Due to the reduced travel caused by the coronavirus pandemic, a number of hotel loyalty programs have changed the requirements to make it easier for members to qualify for elite status in 2021.
IHG Rewards – Elite qualifying thresholds reduced to 7000, 30,000 and 55,000 points for Gold, Platinum and Spire
Hilton Honors – All elite status qualifications (nights, stays or points) reduced by 50%
Choice Privileges – Elite qualifying thresholds reduced to 7, 15 and 25 nights for Gold, Platinum and Diamond
World of Hyatt – All elite status qualifications (nights or points) reduced by 50%
Marriott Bonvoy – No reduction but members can register for double points and elite nights (February 16 – April 27, 2021)*
*Holders of the Marriott Bonvoy Amex or Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex automatically receive 15 elite nights.
These lowered thresholds for elite status have been well received by members and when combined with a particularly good systemwide promotion have even motivated a few to do “mattress runs” which are hotel stays booked with an ulterior motive and no actual need for accommodation. Depending on individual circumstances, it can occasionally make sense to do a mattress run, but it’s a bit unusual to book an extended stay of this type.
A Budget Traveller’s View
I’m a points enthusiast who primarily cares about saving money on travel. My aim is to finagle free or discounted lodging and loyalty programs can help achieve that goal. I’ve previously written about my approach to booking hotels and while elite status can certainly come in handy, for me it has to be a relatively low priority if it interferes with the main objective of keeping travel costs down.
Remember that any assessment of what status is worth in monetary terms is subjective and while they can be interesting and informative, the numbers aren’t intended to represent actual savings. Don’t let the estimated value of elite benefits distract you from your ultimate goal if that is to reduce your travel expenses.
Does Status Mean Savings?
Hotel loyalty programs vary significantly in their generosity with elite benefits for status holders. And within each program and for each tier, some perks are doled out at the individual hotel’s discretion while others are ostensibly guaranteed across the board.
I will start with the benefit of most interest to many budget travellers: free breakfast. If you are someone who typically eats a full breakfast every morning while travelling, it’s super convenient to just saunter down to the onsite restaurant for your complimentary buffet bonanza or made-to-order omelette. It will save money and time. But, if you’re more of a grab n’go person and prefer a light breakfast, having access to a full spread won’t make your trip much cheaper.
It’s also important to note the multitude of hotels that include breakfast offerings in the rate for all guests. These tend to be the more budget-friendly brands like Holiday Inn Express, Fairfield Inn, Hampton Inn, etc. so having status will not help you in the food department other than maybe a welcome gift of a complimentary snack or two.
Lounge access can be a fantastic perk as well but the quality and quantity of eats will vary. It’s great if you can make a meal out of lounge food but the hours of operation can sometimes make that inconvenient. I can see how a business traveller would get more value out of a lounge than a tourist who’s probably keen to get out and try the local cuisine. So, lounge access can save you cash but there may be a little compromise involved. Another wrinkle is the fact that the hotels a budget traveller tends to book most often are not likely to be ones that offer a lounge.
The next perk to consider is upgrade potential. It’s wonderful to receive a better room than you booked. I know the feeling and won’t deny how pleasant it is to open the door to a nice surprise. But as exciting as it is to enjoy a scenic view or a spacious suite, it doesn’t save you any money if you wouldn’t have booked that room yourself.
I know status holders can be quite strategic in what room they book in order to maximize their chances of a certain upgrade, but, generally speaking, there is an element of unpredictability that erodes the benefit’s value somewhat. Some hotels even intentionally designate room categories in such a way as to funnel status upgrades away from the most desired rooms. If on the other hand you have a status benefit of a confirmed suite upgrade in advance (and the hotel you’re eyeing reliably grants them), the value is obviously better.
Another benefit of elite status is the increased rate of points earning on paid stays. For those who like to stretch their points to cover as many free nights as possible, any additional points are most appreciated. This has actual money-saving potential, especially if there is a promotion on for double or triple points. Those extra points can add up and help make the next trip happen.
There are a few other status benefits such as early check-in, late check-out, enhanced internet, dedicated phone numbers, reservation guarantees and welcome amenities. While they are nice added perks, from my perspective these don’t carry enough weight to justify going out of your way to access them.
This is just how my brain works, but if I were to spend money on unnecessary hotel stays solely for elite status, I would feel compelled to make sure it paid off by trying to extract as much value from it as possible on future trips. I would effectively be locked in to that chain which would presumably mean forgoing good deals or promotions available at other hotels.
If you’re a committed loyalist, this wouldn’t be much of a complicating factor for you. But I’d say most budget travellers are better served by a “follow the deal” approach with minimal attachment to any one chain. If you’re free to capitalize on the best offer available, you’re more likely to save money in the end.
Pandemic Considerations and Future Travel Plans
Obviously these promotions were a result of COVID-19’s impact on travel which will surely continue well into the year and possibly beyond. Fortunately, any status earned this year will be valid at least until the end of 2022 or into early 2023 depending on the program. But the future of travel remains uncertain.
In light of this reality, you need to think about how much travel you’ll actually be doing and where it’s likely to be. Some destinations don’t offer chain hotels or have limited options to choose from. If your heart’s set on a trip to the highlands and islands of Scotland, you won’t be able to tap into those status benefits too easily. Or, if you’re considering a journey through Scandinavia, those mattress run funds might be better used to purchase Choice Privileges points.
Conversely, if you’re planning travel to destinations where you know for certain the hotels will provide an excellent return on your status-earning efforts, that could certainly lend support to your decision to go for it.
My Hotel Elite Status History
Other than IHG Rewards, I’ve only ever experienced hotel elite status with chains that offered status matches from other programs or via a credit card benefit.
I’ll admit that it feels slightly weird to me when the front desk agent acknowledges your status and thanks you for your loyalty when you’re not actually a devotee of the chain. I recall overhearing a guest at the JW Marriott in Vancouver enthusiastically state, “wherever we go, we always stay at the Marriott!”. That is not I.
As for IHG Rewards, my motivation for seeking elite status was the 25,000 point bonus members may choose upon reaching Spire. I did some promo stacking and hotel hopping while booking a couple of sizeable elite-qualifying bonus point package rates. This was back in the PointBreak era so the majority of my stash went to 5000 point free night redemptions. I felt the extra expense was justified considering the number of potential reward stays I was able to accumulate. These weren’t mattress runs but stays deliberately booked with achieving status (and points) in mind.
The only time I booked totally unnecessary stays was not related to the pursuit of elite status but to take advantage of a series of incredibly good Club Carlson (now Radisson Rewards) promotions for earning large batches of bonus points.
Of the options available, my preferred elite status would be Hilton Honors Gold for the complimentary breakfast. If I had some upcoming stays and had to choose a program based on a status incentive I’d probably go with that one.
However, the main goal for me is earning free or discounted nights, so the best promotions are the ones offering lots of bonus points. In my experience, it’s easiest to find bargain redemption opportunities with IHG Rewards, so all things equal I’d rather be earning points with IHG.
Regardless of my take on things, if you are considering booking a stay to get yourself to elite status with a hotel loyalty program, just be sure to think it through carefully to see if it’s truly going to pay off for you before you take the plunge.