Why Hotel Elite Status Is Still a Good Deal

Even though airline status may no longer make sense for even the most frequent leisure traveler, I said on Wednesday I think there is still a case to be made for hotel status. Today I’ll expand on that argument.

Status Benefits Exceed the Perks of Award Stays

You could just book all your flights with miles, if they’re really so cheap to acquire. Book yourself into business or first class and get most of the benefits you might otherwise get through elite status. You also won’t have to worry about whether your upgrade will clear. You’ll get lounge access on the international flights, priority check-in, and a whole lot more.

Award redemptions match up with elite status very well, and the only major loss is the ability to change award tickets without a service fee. The value of a fee waiver depends on your booking habits, but some change a ticket a dozen times and others only once. It’s rare that your status benefits get much of a workout except to waive change fees. And paying such fees just might be worth it if by forgoing status you still save money overall.

However, when I book an award stay at a Hyatt hotel — or pretty much any hotel with which I have status — my elite benefits include a complimentary upgrade, bonus points or a welcome amenity at check-in, late check-out, and either breakfast or lounge access. Those perks are not included with just any award stay. Starwood, Hilton, and other hotels offer similar benefits to their members. In certain cases you can even get a complimentary suite upgrade on an award stay.

Hotel Benefits Are More Valuable

This is certainly a debatable point. I happen to think the benefits I’ve earned as a Hyatt Diamond, Starwood Platinum, and Hilton Gold are more valuable to me than some of the benefits I’ve received as a United Premier 1K. Other 1Ks may feel otherwise, and travelers at other tiers and at other airlines will have their own assessments. But here’s mine:

Access to a standard domestic hotel lounge is maybe $10. Often the food is not much better than a pastry and some coffee, saving me a Starbucks run. If I get a meal at a restaurant or an international lounge, then I’ll bump it up to $20.

Just last weekend I was staying at the Westin Palace in Milan, where my “continental breakfast” for two turned out to be a full buffet that retails for EUR 40 (about $55). It certainly wasn’t worth $55, but I would have paid $20. I’ve sometimes treated family or friends to breakfast using my Hyatt benefits and been able to avoid a bill even higher than the room rate!

I also regularly take advantage of early check-in and late check-out perks, even when the former isn’t officially promised. Such benefits might cost $40-100 at a resort hotel, and I do think they are worth the retail cost. Who wants to get kicked out of a hotel on Sunday morning when you don’t head home from your vacation until dinner?

Then we get to upgrades. I really value hotel upgrades. Not on every trip; I certainly don’t need a suite when I’m by myself. But when with family I like to have the extra space. The difference in retail cost between a standard room and a suite can be anywhere from $100 to $500 or more every night. My valuation probably ranges closer to $20 to $100 per night. But most importantly I get to spend more time in my suite, whereas an airline upgrade is rarely for more than a few hours.

Hotel Status Costs Less

So elite status gets you some extras, and those might be worth more at a hotel than when flying an airline. Are those extras worth the cost? Possibly.

When you take a weekend vacation, you could travel any distance but will probably always spend two nights in a hotel. Take one such trip a month, and you’re staying 24 nights in a hotel. That’s still 26 nights or 13 stays from the top tier. Well, you probably also take two longer trips of one week each. These might be international, so you fly more but stay 6 nights each. Now you have 36 nights and 14 stays, 72% of the way to your goal.

For all I know more than half of those were ineligible award tickets, particularly those international trips. Short flights, especially add up quickly in cost without contributing much to my elite status. But depending on the hotel chain you chose, your award stays still count toward elite status. If you decide to do some hotel hopping every night to count each night as a separate stay, you could already be done! If not, there are mattress runs.

Mattress Runs Are Easier, Sometimes Cheaper

Mommy Points indicated she was frustrated with mattress runs, but I think they are much more accommodating than mileage runs. She’s upset that she has to drive back and forth to check in, but I think this says more about where she chooses to live since in Seattle I can just walk down the street to six Hyatt and Starwood hotels to pick up an extra stay on my way home from work.

Rather than compare two people’s approach to mattress runs, let’s look at the time it takes to do a mileage run. I bet just getting to and from the airport takes the same amount of time for her as driving to the hotel, and it certainly takes me about two hours on either end. Then there’s all the time sitting on a plane and the likelihood I’m leaving earlier in the morning and getting back after midnight. Mattress runs, however, tend to involve only the travel time and not actually staying in the hotel. Within the U.S. you usually don’t even have to check out in person.

Mattress runs are also cheaper and easier to find. If you’re 40,000 miles short, that’s an extra $1,600 on mileage runs at a good 4 CPM that takes some searching. If you’re 14 nights short, that’s $1,400 or less at your local budget property, which is probably the same price throughout the year unless there’s a major event. I happen to live in a city where there aren’t many inexpensive candidates, but winter is more reliable and there are opportunities to check in to airport hotels during layovers. Sometimes I’ll even mattress run across the street when I’m staying at a competing brand.

Bonus Opportunities for Status and Points

Finally, hotels offer more generous bonus opportunities than airlines for earning elite status and extra points.

An airline awards miles only for your own tickets. Starwood awards credit for up to three rooms booked as part of the same reservation. Go back to the scenario where we ended up with only 36 nights for the year. What if you take the kids on one of those 6-night trips and book a second room? Now you have 42 nights. Heck, if you find a great mattress run you should book them three rooms at a time.

Book your stays at specific times to earn even more. Hotel promotions are pretty regular and often apply to most of the chain’s properties, yet you never know when an airline will offer a bonus or if it will be for a route or fare class that works for you. If you’re a Hyatt fan, figure out which hotels close their lounge on the weekends so you can get a bonus 2,500 points as an existing Diamond member. These are often popular with business travelers, so rates are often cheaper on weekends, too.

Finally, many hotel credit cards are generous in awarding elite status. This is not a good thing for the middle tiers since a card may award those benefits outright. But if you’re goal is the top tier, there are still options to earn stay and night credits toward elite status either just for having the card or for spending a certain amount. Such benefits are becoming more rare with airlines that have either eliminated the opportunity (United), impose a high annual fee (American), or otherwise offer mediocre benefits (US Airways).

Conclusion

There will always be those who say that hotel status doesn’t offer them value. Perhaps they prefer the flexibility of third-party programs like Hotels.com, unique independent properties, or just don’t want to be hamstrung by the limited number of some better brands (Hyatt is awesome, but there are only about 500 hotels). But the same criticisms could be levied against an airline. If flying in coach, they’re all pretty much the same. You’ll have to make a connection if you don’t live in a hub. And finding itineraries with your preferred carrier to visit more exotic destinations (Siem Reap, not Bangkok) isn’t necessarily any easier.

The basic message is that hotel status still offers meaningful benefits even though nearly all those benefits are things you can buy a la cart. But I think these are benefits you’ll enjoy more and would be more willing to pay for, unlike a free checked bag that you always carry on. I also like the consistent service and recognition I get as a hotel elite (Hyatt is my benchmark for customer service), and having status with two or more programs gives me a better chance I’ll find a property that fits my needs.

Scott created Hack My Trip after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • geoff

    Scott, do ‘MR’s’ not get very pricey unless you find a very inexpensive Holiday Inn Express/Candlewood?
    Seems most Starwoods and Hyatts are north of $100/nite, usually much more.
    And the number of actual nights needed seems excessive unless one’s business/company picks most of them up.

    • Scottrick

      I still think it’s cheaper to mattress run at $100 a night than to mileage run your way to 100,000 miles. At a good number like 4 CPM, that’s easily $4,000 for flights. At $115 (including taxes) for hotels, you’d be looking at $2,875 for hotels.

      But I do not recommend going from zero to top-tier on the basis of mileage or mattress runs alone. The elite benefits of a hotel are meaningless if you aren’t there to enjoy them, and on a plane, getting an upgrade to first class for 12 hours is still an inconvenience if you don’t actually need to fly.

      I compare cost only to show that if you find yourself partway to elite status, I think it’s cheaper to complete the job with a hotel than an airline. It’s also more likely (for me at least) that I’ll make more natural progress at a hotel, whereas I have to make an effort with out-of-the-way itineraries when flying. There are lots of ways to travel — car, train, plane — but they all require a hotel to stay at when you arrive.

      • Wandering Aramean

        What is the value of the points accrued during the run? What is the value of the guaranteed benefits you get for having the status. Just because I can buy “X” for less than “Y” doesn’t mean it is a better deal.

        As for one being easier/cheaper to complete than the other, it probably depends on what your travel patterns are like. If you take one trip from the west coast to Asia each quarter for work in a premium cabin that’s probably 50k EQMs and more than enough dollars to make status. But possibly only 16 nights. Paying for another 30+ nights of hotels outright would be quite ridiculous. Even paying a premium – say $20-40/night – would be a lot of money invested with a quite questionable RoI. Your math uses 25 nights as the metric when the rule is 25 stays. Unless you only are only doing one-night stays that doesn’t add up.

        Probably not worth making a mileage run to top off status there either, but you’ve still not managed to show me what I’m missing by ignoring the hotel status and staying in less expensive properties 50+ nights/year.

    • Scottrick

      I’ll add a few examples of “good” mattress runs lately:

      –Visiting family in Portland, where I didn’t need a room, I booked a three-night stay at the Four Points by Sheraton because the rate was only $80.
      –If I want to treat friends to breakfast, I’ll book a room at the nearby Hyatt Olive8 for maybe $150, but the breakfast credit is worth near $100.
      –The Sheraton Bellevue has had several $90 AAA rates recently. I wouldn’t ordinarily drive that far, but when I know I’ll be visiting One Mile at a Time, who lives a few blocks away, I check the night before and book one if it’s still available.

      They’re not super low $40 rates that I would book just for the points. But I’m still not spending much more than $100 a night to pick up a few extra stays for status at the end of the year.

      • geoff

        Gotcha. Thanks

      • Wandering Aramean

        So you pay $150 for a $100 credit. You do realize that you’re overpaying by $50, right? Do that for 50 nights/year and that’s $2500.

        You can buy a lot of breakfasts and internet access with that cash.

        • Scottrick

          Since I already planned on treating friends to breakfast, no, that’s $100 I would have spent anyway and a $50 mattress run on top.

    • Scottrick

      Another good one: Hyatt Regency Santa Clara can run $300+ on weekdays when all the business travelers are in town. On weekends, it drops to $85 and includes 2,500 bonus points for Diamond members because the lounge is closed.

      It also happens to be one of my favorite properties in the Hyatt system.

  • harbourxie

    I don’t think Hyatt will give 3 night credits for 3 rooms booked for the same nights. Please correct me if I am wrong. Thanks,

    • Scottrick

      No, only Starwood, which was my example.

      There are so many differences between programs I didn’t want to list them all in this post. But I have compared them before (this chart is a little out-of-date due to new award charts, but most benefits are current):

      http://hackmytrip.com/2013/06/comparisons-of-top-tier-hotel-status/

  • Wandering Aramean

    Two major flaws in your calculations IMO:

    1) It may “cost less” than airline status but there is still a significant cost to acquiring and keeping the status. Often more than the value of the “free” breakfast and “free” internet you’re getting. What is the price difference you’re paying by remaining loyal rather than shopping by rate? If you’re paying $20/night extra in room rate then your savings have disappeared. Even though the benefits are “free” to you.

    2) The values you’re attributing to the benefits don’t make much sense to me. You cite the example of a 40 euro meal that you might’ve paid $20 for. What would breakfast cost if you wandered out and had a real meal instead of remaining in the hotel? What if you had booked an off-brand hotel instead? Similarly for early check-in or late check-out, how do you truly pick a value for those benefits? I go to Europe reasonably often and can count on one hand the number of times I was not able to check in to my hotel upon arrival, even though I was clearly in the lobby well before the published check-in time.

    I also am quite entertained but the value assigned to a suite upgrade. Especially when most programs don’t provide those to elites as a guaranteed benefit. That’s like saying the $200 transcons I’m buying should be valued at $2000 each because I might get an upgrade to first class.

    Finally, the supposition that there are a lot of 50 night/year leisure travelers out there is quite a stretch.

    If the value proposition works for you that’s great. But don’t pretend that the benefits are free or even cheap. You’re absolutely paying for them.

    • Scottrick

      (1) If all I want is a bed, then I could pay less. I happen to like the brands I stay at and would continue to look for them without status as a factor. An upgrade, Internet access, and breakfast are worth more than $20 to me.

      (2a) I might have paid 10 Euro ($14) if I’d gone outside the hotel for breakfast. But breakfast is very important to me and I don’t like to leave the hotel until I’ve had it.

      (2b) I place more value on late check-out because, like you, I haven’t faced an issue with early check-in and it is not a benefit of any tier I currently possess. This does have a clearly stated cost at places where it’s been most valuable to me, including Las Vegas and Hawaii.

      (3) I indicated I value suite upgrades at $20-100 when the published premium is $100-500. You’re upset because an 80% discount isn’t enough? And I don’t value the room I might get, I value the room I do get. My upgrade success is pretty good, and I have confirmed suite upgrades for the times when it’s most important.

      (4) I didn’t say there are 50 night/year leisure travelers. I said there are people who may very well stay around 30 nights, especially if they’re reading a travel blog. I have relatives who travel every weekend to see their kids play soccer for example. If you’re willing to check-in/out between two Hyatt Places in the same city on a soccer trip, 30 nights can become 30 stays and get you Diamond status for a family trip to Hawaii.

      (5) When did I say the benefits were free or cheap? I suggested the cost to earn them was less than through an airline’s loyalty program.

  • Mommy Points

    If I could walk down the street and check in somewhere cheap the way you describe indeed it may sway me a bit more. Driving 30 miles each way into Houston to check in makes it oh-so-not-fun for the times I had to make the drive.

  • jettyboy

    I agree – up to a point. Your whole analysis completely misses the point that there are plenty of non-chain options available when it comes to hotels, whereas with the airlines you are basically stuck with only a few options. Given the fact that the outside option is so strong and often more attractive and cheaper, I would definitely dial down the emphasis on hotel status – there are many of us who do not like to stay in chain hotels unless we have to.

    • Scottrick

      If you have a personal preference for non-chain hotels, then naturally my argument wouldn’t apply. I’m just discussing the economics of the situation. I think hotel status continues to make sense for some leisure travelers.

      I disagree with your blanket statement that non-chain hotels are “strong and often more attractive and cheaper.” There are plenty of destinations I enjoy where one or two chain properties present the best available option, and there are other cases where a non-chain property is better.

      • jettyboy

        I dont disagree with the fact that there are destinations where chain hotels present good options – it is just that I would wager that there are solid non-chain alternatives available in many many places. And to completely discount those in your analysis of the benefits of loyalty seems misguided.

        • Scottrick

          I didn’t completely discount them. I’m presenting an argument why hotel status can still make sense, not that it necessarily makes more or less sense than other options.

          “There will always be those who say that hotel status doesn’t offer them value. Perhaps they prefer the flexibility of third-party programs like Hotels.com, unique independent properties, or just don’t want to be hamstrung by the limited number of some better brands … The basic message is that hotel status still offers meaningful benefits even though nearly all those benefits are things you can buy a la cart.”

  • clayd333

    Great article. There are a ton of reasons how/why/if this makes/doesn’t make sense for you. To each their own. Some people are hard core business travelers, some are big spenders on CCs, some like brands, some like off the beaten path travel.. The point is that loyalty still makes sense for a lot of people. If the chains start following the rapid devaluation of the airlines like Hilton did, it may no longer make sense for anyone. If you are loyal to a chain and it works for you enjoy it while it lasts!!!

    • Scottrick

      That was kind of my point. Any loyalty program may or may not work for an individual. I think hotel programs work more often for more people than airline programs.

      • clayd333

        Agreed