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The Best Hotel Loyalty & Rewards Programs for Business Travelers (2016-2017)

 

The Best Hotel Loyalty & Rewards Programs for Business Travelers (2016-2017)

The hotel loyalty program: That reflexively-asked-about membership that promises better treatment, waived Wi-Fi fees, and upgrades but frequently under-delivers on its promise. As a business traveler, you are likely a member of at least one of the below rewards programs. And over hundreds of hotel visits, you’ve probably formed some strong opinions. Our own members certainly have. When we reached out to them for their real, unfiltered feelings, we arrived at some interesting conclusions about which hotel loyalty programs deliver a sense of true belonging and real value, and which feel like poorly-conceived marketing attempts. Below are the results (along with a handy chart to show you the benefits of each one).

NOTE: If you want to skip to our conclusion about the best overall programs, click here. We’ve also broken down the leading loyalty programs by specific categories so you can find the one that suits you best.


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Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG)

Grade: A

Starwood covers a variety of hotel brands, including some really nice ones like St. Regis, W., and Westin, making it one of the two most popular programs among high-end business travelers (along with Marriott). If you happen to have an SPG Amex, you will get the best per-point value of all the loyalty programs because SPG offers hotel stays in exchange for fewer points than its competitors (it trounces Marriott and Hilton, for instance). SPG has strong partnerships with many airlines as well, allowing you to translate hotel points into airline points anytime, which means better deals on business-class tickets. And if you travel to Europe a lot, SPG offers the nicest selection of hotels of any of the loyalty programs, even though Marriott and even IHG have far more hotels.

However, SPG is stingier with the points it gives in exchange for hotel stays (they must earn more money from their credit card partner program). Members have also run into a number of hotels that either can’t be booked with points, require a ton of points to earn a free night, or have massive blackouts for anything above a standard room. And it’s worth noting that you can’t transfer points to anyone else.

Starwood appears to be neck-and-neck with Marriott (which owns Ritz-Carlton and other high-end properties) as the loyalty program of choice for the highest-end business travelers, and true road warriors – those who are spending 100+ nights per year on the road – get perks that no earthly hotel guests get, such as near-guaranteed upgrades, free-form check-in and check-out times, and double the points of regular members.


Marriott Rewards

Grade: A-

Marriott Rewards is like that loose slot machine thoughtfully positioned on the public edge of the casino floor because it pays out in small amounts frequently. Perhaps more than any other loyalty program we cover, Marriott offers real dollar-value to business travelers. It doesn’t burden members with blackout dates when they’re redeeming their free nights (unless you’re opting for a suite). It allows you to give points to friends and colleagues (not just your spouse), a rare feature. The sheer number of hotels – you can find several in every major and minor city around the world – is also a factor. And for those who love the Ritz-Carlton (and are members of the Ritz-Carlton Rewards Program), Marriott owns them, and points between the two programs are transferrable for most Ritz-Carlton properties. That feature alone justifies membership in this program for Ritz die-hards.

However, Marriott doesn’t allow its Elite members to utilize the perks of their status at leisure-oriented resorts, which is a real bummer for business travelers who have built their loyalty over many years only to be treated like newbies when they’re with their families. Also, your points disappear if you don’t stay at a Marriott property for 24 months, which, while unlikely for most of their members, isn’t competitive with several of the other programs that offer never-expiring points.


IHG Rewards Club

Grade: B

IHG Rewards Club members – typically higher-end business travelers living in one of the major cities in the U.S. – tend to really love their loyalty program. There are no blackout dates (!), it doesn’t take a lot of stays to build up enough points for free nights, and the perk of one unrestricted free night per year more than pays for the $45 annual fee. There are also more IHG hotels around the world than you might realize (4,600+), so the points can be used almost anywhere you go (although the nicest hotels are under the InterContinental brand and are in the world’s major cities, such as London, Paris, Hong Kong, and Washington DC). Additionally, points can be used to earn free flights, especially if you use their IHG Rewards Club Chase Mastercard.

However, IHG members have reported that their perks vary sharply – and randomly – based on location, making for an inconsistent experience. Transferability of points is another area of frustration – you can transfer to exactly 2 other people and are charged for each transfer. Also, if you receive any discount on your room (or if it’s booked by Orbitz or one of the other travel sites), you don’t get any rewards.


Fairmont President’s Club

Grade: B-

Another option for high-end business travelers – but far more limited in its number of properties than the SPG, Marriott, and IHG – Fairmont President’s Club still has some great perks. Its members earn airline miles automatically upon booking hotel stays (which is great for international travel although their only domestic partners are United, American, and Alaskan), get free Wi-Fi, and frequently see upgrades, welcome snack platters, and other “bonus” experiences.

FPC does, however, have plenty of blackout dates and only grants rewards when rooms are booked with them directly. Also, the free nights you earn don’t apply to certain higher classes of rooms and don’t include parking – which at some Fairmont properties is as high as $40 / night.


Kimpton Karma Rewards

Grade: B+

Kimpton is a brand for mid-market business travelers who enjoy the boutique hotel experience. Their hotels are mostly in SF, NYC, and DC. The main limitation to their rewards program is the small number of properties – about 60 – that are under the Kimpton umbrella. But Kimpton Karma members get free Wi-Fi, access to complimentary wine during certain hours each evening, and personalized stay preferences (pillow firmness and other extras). Blackout dates do exist, but they aren’t something members run into very much, so they don’t present a problem. Because Karma Rewards came along relatively late in the loyalty game, Kimpton allows instant access to their Inner Circle status if you have top-tier status in one of the other loyalty programs.


Hyatt Gold Passport

Grade: B-

Hyatt is the “easy access” loyalty program. Stay just 5 nights in a year and you get Platinum status. Use their Chase Hyatt Visa and be rewarded handsomely with a Platinum status and free nights. Points are combinable with another member (such as a spouse) and can easily be translated into airline miles (though at a 2.5:1 exchange rate).

The downside to Hyatt is that it is loaded with restrictions. We’ve heard a lot of grumbling (and done a little ourselves) about the higher-end Hyatt properties having black-out dates during popular times of the year and requiring disproportionately high point costs, making your hard-earned points less valuable. Members complain about the phrase “subject to availability” popping up a lot in regards to their rewards perks, as well as losing all points if you go 24 months without staying in a Hyatt property. Despite that, the ease of access and the amount of Hyatts around the world (along with their consistent quality) make this a very popular choice for travelers.


Hilton HHonors

Grade: B-

The world-famous Hilton brand resonates just as strongly now as when it first pioneered the idea of modern luxury hotels. HHonors beats other hotel loyalty programs in one important area: Ease of earning a free stay with points. Staying just five nights at a Hilton property can sometimes earn you a free night. Diamond members preserve their benefits no matter which type of hotel – business, pleasure, large, or small – they visit. If you spring for the Hilton HHonors Surpass card, you’ll be made a Gold member immediately and will soon be rolling in free hotel stays. And the fact that there are tons of Hiltons around the world makes that benefit particularly valuable.

But their loyalty members won’t soon forget the point devaluations that have occurred over the years, which made their best features less valuable. Many members also report that the perks you receive from HHonors seem to depend on the mood and generosity of the front-desk staff the night you check in. Also, the ceiling for reaching the status you really want – gold – is higher than other programs at 40 nights per calendar year. But the variety of hotel choices and the enduring global popularity of the brand still make Hilton one of the top destinations for the business traveler.


Loews YouFirst

Grade: C

The fairly new Loews loyalty program is growing in popularity among business travelers, beginning to edge its way into “where to stay” conversations. It still has some growing to do, of course. Right now, there are only 21 Loews hotels. But the properties are high-end, so if you happen to travel a lot in New York, Cali, or especially Florida, the limited options may be outweighed by the quality of the accommodations. As an up-and-coming program, access to the highest membership status is relatively easy to obtain – you just need 10 stays in a calendar year – but the rewards are mostly limited to perks and notably exclude free nights. (YouFirst is the only loyalty program reviewed here where members can’t earn free nights.) As a relative newcomer, Loews is still finding its feet in terms of loyalty programs. But with excellent properties (often combined with amazing restaurants) it’s worth keeping an eye on.


Conclusion:

For high-end business travelers – those who make a special effort to stay in a 4 or 5-star hotel – SPG and Marriott Rewards come in first place. If you’re looking for the most bang for your buck and you’re comfortable with mid-range business travel, Hilton HHonors is a very attractive program. But in my opinion, all travelersshould consider joining Jetlux Hotels as well. It has a negligible membership fee and automatically gets you corporate rates and upgrades at high-end business hotels, without stopping you from accessing the benefits of hotel rewards programs. It’s basically like doubling your rewards every time you book.

Because it’s not always possible to stay with the same brand on business trips, a program like Jetlux simply makes more sense, and the benefits are what members are looking for most. Free newspapers are nice, but corporate rates and upgrades are the cream of the rewards program crop.

Become a Member Today

Hotel-Loyalty-Rewards-Program-Chart

Loyalty Program Amenities Comparison Chart

Starwood Preferred GuestMarriott RewardsIHG Rewards ClubFairmont President’s ClubKimpton Karma RewardsHyatt Gold PassportHilton HHonorsLoews YouFirst
Free NightsYesYesYesYesYesYesYesNo
Free Nights Without Blackout DatesYes, but only for standard roomsYesYesNoNoYesYesNo
Room UpgradesYes, but only at Platinum levelYes, starting at Gold Elite levelYes, but only at Platinum Elite levelYes, starting at Premier level and limited numberYesYesYes, starting at Gold levelYes, starting at Blue level
Waived Wi-Fi FeesYes, but lower-tier Internet, and only if you book directlyYes, but lower-tier Internet until Gold Elite levelYesYesYesYes, starting at Platinum levelYes, but lower-tier Internet until Diamond levelYes
Complimentary BreakfastYes, starting at Platinum levelYes, starting at Gold levelNoNoNoYes, starting at Diamond levelYes, starting at Gold levelNo
Flexible Check-outYes, but only at Gold level & not guaranteed at resortsYes, but only at Gold Elite levelYesYes, but only at Platinum levelYes, starting at Tier 3YesYesYes, starting at Blue level
Free ParkingNoNoNoNoNoNoNoNo
Premium Lounge AccessNoYes, but only at Gold Elite levelNoNoNoYesNoNo
Special Events AccessYesYesNoYesNoNoNoNo
Points Exchangeable to Airline MilesYesYesYesYesNoYesYesNo
Points Transferrable to Other MembersNoYesYes, but only 2 per year and there is a feeYes, but only at Platinum level and to immediate familyYesYesNoNo
Never-expiring PointsYes, but need to stay at a hotel or transact points within 12 monthsYes, but need to stay at a hotel within 24 monthsYes, but need to stay at a hotel or redeem points within 12 monthsNoYes, but need to stay at a hotel within 24 monthsYes, but need to stay at a hotel or transact points within 24 monthsYes, but need to stay at a hotel or transact points within 12 monthsNo

 

 

Our JetLux Award Winners for 2016-2017

 

There’s ultimately no one-size-fits-all hotel loyalty program. You have to find one that works the way you work, that prioritizes the things that matter to you. JetLux Award winners each offer something unique to the business traveler. It’s our way of helping you find a program that suits your needs.

Best Business Hotel Loyalty Program for International Travel:

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Hilton HHonors

Hilton HHonors’ victory here stems from the massive global network it can offer business travellers and the ease with which that network can be accessed for real benefits. Read More>>

Best Business Hotel Loyalty Program for Earning Bonus Points:

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Hyatt Gold Passport

There are many reasons why we’ve become fans of the Hyatt Gold Passport – free premium internet and preferred room status after just 5 stays – but the most convincing is the program’s generosity with its bonus points. Read More>>

Best Business Hotel Loyalty Program for Converting Points to Air Miles:

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Starwood Preferred Guests

Starwood is generally associated with the higher end of hotel classes, but the program’s list of more than 1,200 properties covers both the middle ground and the lower end of the market as well. Read More>>

Best Business Hotel Loyalty Program for Earning Free Nights:

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Marriott Rewards

There are many, many ways of deciding which hotel loyalty program offers you the fastest, easiest route to a free night’s accommodation. Read More>>

Best Business Hotel Loyalty Program for Vacation Destinations:

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IHG Rewards Club

IHG Rewards Club is the pick here primarily because they’re willing to open up their high end hotels and destinations to the business travellers who typically grind out their points between major US cities. Read More>>

Best Business Hotel Loyalty Program for Reaching Elite Status:

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Loews YouFirst

Surprised by this decision? Well, read this carefully – Loews’ loyalty members reach the pinnacle of the YouFirst rewards program after just 10 stays in a calendar year. Read More>>

Best Business Hotel Loyalty Program for Keeping Your Points and Status:

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Marriott Rewards

Marriott has the scale and the clout to not worry about counting every penny and cutting every corner, so there’s little incentive here to revoke points and status from its loyalty members. Read More>>

Best Business Hotel Loyalty Program for Credit Card Rewards:

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IHG Rewards Club

First up, there’s a distinction to be made here. When you’re talking about earning hotel loyalty rewards through credit card spending you’ve got to consider both the everyday cards that are tied to hotel points and the cards… Read More>>

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