The Olympics of Hotel Elite Status: Part One

Travelers, including myself, often put a lot of emphasis on airline elite status. Let’s face it: The gap between bottom tier and top tier can make a huge difference in how comfortably you fly and the fees you pay.

Not as many people spend time thinking about hotel elite status. The reason, I suspect, is that you already start with a relatively comfortable product. Everything else is gravy.

Today, I’d like to look at hotel elite status. Elite status can get you a lot of extra benefits, including suite upgrades, free meals and others. But it’s also relatively easy to obtain: You can almost always get at least the lowest level with a credit card or just a few nights at a chain.

Instead of describing every tier at the Big Five (Hilton, Marriott, Starwood, Hyatt, Intercontinental), I’m going to look at “breakpoints.” In other words, do you need to earn the top tier status to get the most marginal benefits? The answer is often no. Top tier status will sometimes get you a few more benefits, but those incremental stays might be better spent at a competitor, earning elite status at a different brand.

One warning: These are the types of posts that I like to write the most. This could be long, but I hope it will be helpful. I won’t hit every benefit for each program, but I’ll try to cover the major points.

Hilton Hhonors

The Conrad in Bali

The Conrad in Bali

Sweet Spot: Gold

Hilton has four elite tiers: Blue (the base), Silver (4 stays or 10 nights), Gold (20 stays/40 nights/75,000 base points) and Diamond (30 stays/60 nights/120,000 base points). As is the case with all other brands, a “stay” is defined as one check-in and check-out, regardless of the actual number of nights that you are there. Points are earned based on spending at Hilton properties: You generally earn ten base points per dollar spent.

The tier that I would aim for in Hilton is Gold, where you get most of the benefits of Diamond with far fewer requirements.

Silver gets you very little: a few bottles of water, health club access and a 15% bonus on base points earned. You also pick up a fifth night free on reward stays.

  • Gold introduces one of the more valuable benefits at Hilton: Breakfast, and possible access to the executive lounge. Most hotels offer a choice of some number of points or free breakfast for two people in the room. The lower-tier brands will offer you points or a snack.
  • You will be eligible for an upgrade to a “preferred room,” which may be on the Executive Floor. If you are on that floor, you will have access to the lounge, which offers breakfast and snacks throughout the day. Note: If you are a Gold member and not upgraded to the Executive Floor, you will not have access to the lounge. Be sure to ask for your upgrade if they don’t give it to you.
  • Your bonus on points earned moves up to 25%.
  • Enhanced complimentary internet access.

Diamond adds a few additional benefits, including guaranteed access to the lounge, more bonus points and a better chance of being upgrade to a suite. You also get two check-in amenities, which could be something like points and breakfast or a movie. The added benefits are nice, but I’d rather use the extra nights to earn status somewhere else.

Earning Status (Other Than Stays)

A credit card is the fastest way to earn status. The Surpass and Reserve American Express cards could give you immediate Gold status, while the Citibank version offers Silver, with the potential to upgrade to Gold based on your spending level. If you spend $40,000 annually on the Surpass card, you get Diamond status.

Hilton also matches status based on what you have at another hotel chain. You can see the details here. If you want a credit card, you can get it through the Credit Cards for Charity banner here:

All proceeds to charity. Do good by doing well!

Marriott Rewards

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Sweet Spot: Gold (But It’s Close between Gold And Platinum)

Whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to deal with Marriott if you travel. Their acquisition of Starwood means that they will be the largest branded lodging chain, and #2 won’t even be close.

Marriott is also one of the most difficult in which to earn elite status (of value). It doesn’t give status based on stays or dollars spent. Rather, it only uses nights stayed. Silver/Gold/Platinum status requires 10/50/75 nights per year, respectively. There’s also a “secret” status, Platinum Premier. The qualifications vary, but additional benefits seem to be few.

Silver doesn’t get you much over the base benefits. You’ll get a 20% bonus on base points, a special phone line and priority late checkout (You can request it, but it’s not guaranteed. Good luck.). And that’s about it. The problem is that the next elite level, Gold, requires an additional 40 nights.

At the Gold level, the benefits get interesting:

  • I find guaranteed late checkout to be a very valuable feature. You can stay until 4pm, giving you an additional day in whatever city you are in. There has been some confusion at the hotel level regarding this benefit, so don’t hesitate to call them on it.
The T&C

The T&C

  • Enhanced internet access. I’m Silver on Marriott and a hotel gave me the enhanced access for free last night, but it’s not guaranteed. If you want to stream, you’ll need this level.
  • Guaranteed access to the Executive Lounge. Unlike Hilton, they can’t keep you out, even if you are on a different floor.
  • Possibility for room upgrades, although you will rarely get a suite with Gold (or Diamond, for that matter)
  • A 25% bonus on points. Not much of an improvement on Silver’s 20%.
  • Hertz #1 Gold membership.

This is where it gets sticky. For some people, Gold is all you need. You can take those additional 25 nights and go somewhere else. For others, Platinum makes sense. You’ll get a 50% bonus on points, a special phone number and a Platinum amenity when checking in (usually food or points). But Platinum status also gives you a unique airline benefit: United MileagePlus Silver status. For the occasional United passenger, this is enough to get you free bags, bonus points, priority check-in and a few other goodies. If you fly United occasionally, this benefit is worth it. If United is your main carrier, you probably already have a higher elite status if you are traveling enough to have spent 75+ nights at Marriott.

Earning Status (Other Than Stays)

Given the size that Marriott will soon be, I’m going to write an entirely separate post on this topic over the next few days. But there are ways that credit cards can give you Silver, Gold or even Platinum status, based on your spending. Why you’d want to get elite status if you never stay at the properties is another question.

Starwood Preferred Guest

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Sweet Spot: Platinum

Unlike Hilton and Marriott, which have three elite levels above the base level, Starwood only has two. Platinum status at Starwood, though, adds more value than the top tier at Marriott or Hilton. Gold requires 10 stays or 25 nights. Platinum starts at 25 stays or 50 nights.

Gold status at Starwood isn’t bad. It’s in the range of what the other hotels offer at their mid-tier elite status. You’ll get three points per dollar spent instead of two, late checkout, better internet access, an upgraded room and the opportunity to earn points with their travel partners, such as Delta. At check-in, you will get a small amenity, such as food or points.

It gets interesting at Platinum, which has three different levels: 50, 75 or 100 nights per year. Everybody gets:

  • Free Executive Lounge access
  • A room upgrade, including standard suites
  • Complimentary health club access

At 50 nights (Platinum qualification), you have an additional selection of benefits. Most people choose the 10 suite nights, which get you a chance to upgrade in advance.

At 75 nights, you’ll get a fourth point per dollar spent, the ability to request a particular check-in time and bonus points on partners.

At 100 nights, you’ll get your own ambassador, a person that you can call to take care of bookings for you.

Starwood is interesting in this respect. They give you an incentive to go beyond standard Platinum status. As far as I’m concerned, it’s neck and neck between Starwood and Hyatt for whose brand gives the best elite status. Let’s hope that Marriott maintains the best aspects of SPG.

Earning Status (Other Than Stays)

Again, the credit card is the way to go. Card members automatically receive two stay credits and five night credits toward status. You can get the card through the banner above, under Hilton.

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And finally, you can apply for credit cards through the Credit Cards for Charity link above. All card proceeds are donated to charity, so please do well by doing good!

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