The Importance of Looking Beyond Big Hotel Loyalty Programs

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Hotel Loyalty Programs
Mandarin Oriental, Singapore. Source: Mandarin Oriental.

Why I Look Beyond Big Hotel Loyalty Programs and Why You Should, Too

I enjoy the heavyweight hotel loyalty programs.  The offerings from chains like Hilton, Hyatt, Wyndham, Radisson, and IHG subsidize the vast majority of my lodging needs.   But by falling overly in love with these programs, we can lose sight of another huge win – all those other properties who don’t participate.  Sure, some other properties may have a niche program for loyalists, but nothing compared to the big chains’ versions.  I’m focusing today on why I try to routinely stay in what I’ll call “other properties” in this article (or consider them, at least).  Perhaps a few of you can benefit from looking past the big hotel loyalty programs now and then, also.

Superior Quality and Service

Right off the bat, I want to address how other properties provide excellent quality and service.  But first, I’d like to bring up Park Hyatt.  Why do hobbyists love this hotel brand arguably more than any other within the big hotel loyalty programs?  Yes, we can be lucrative redemptions in terms of cents per point.  But more importantly, many consider Park Hyatt an ultra-luxury brand.  There are only a few other ultra-luxury brands (if that many) within the big programs – including Ritz Carlton, St. Regis, and Waldorf Astoria, perhaps.  The masses want ultra-luxury.  All the while, they are leaving out other ultra-luxury hotel chains, one-off properties, and B&B’s that don’t participate in such programs.

I’ve had far superior experiences in terms of quality and service with the following chains when compared to anything I’ve enjoyed with the big hotel programs.

Whether at a Park Hyatt or another big hotel loyalty program property, hobbyists are looking for an ultra-luxury experience and are often disappointed.  Why not consider options where superior quality and service is a more consistent standard?

Properties Where The Big Guys Aren’t

Points with the big programs are great until you can’t find a participating property at your planned destination.  That’s why I value another quasi-big program, Best Western, more than many, since they have properties in many points hotel-dry locations, domestically and internationally.  However, in many situations and locations, staying at a points hotel simply isn’t an option.  This is a harsh truth for any traveler to other countries, and even to off the beaten path locations in the States.  Your points and status will get you nothing there.

Hotel Loyalty Programs
Grand Floridian Resort and Spa.

Truly Unique Experiences

Other properties can provide experiences and activities that simply aren’t available elsewhere.  Currently, we enjoy these types of stays at Disney World Deluxe Resorts, the Grand Floridian and Contemporary Resort most recently.  We loved the unique presentation and view of the nightly Magic Kingdom fireworks from the Grand Floridian.  We enjoyed walking to Magic Kingdom from the Contemporary Resort – an impossibility from any points hotel.  The list of other magical touches and experiences goes on and on.

Maintaining Control

I’ve talked about the importance of maintaining as much control as possible in this hobby and beyond, mostly in terms of why I cash out points.  By going beyond the big hotel loyalty programs, you are taking back more control of your travel life.  You aren’t tolerating devalued elite levels, soiled hotels, bad value, and nonsensical chain policies.  You can patronize hotels simply because you truly want to stay there, rather than your points are expiring and using the points at a Wingate Hotel is the easiest option.

I fully realize that I willingly cede part of this control when I use big hotel loyalty program points for stays.  I mitigate this by redeeming for big program properties I want to visit, even if the cent per point valuation is considered subpar.

Hotel Loyalty Programs

Better Deals by Avoiding the Big Hotel Loyalty Programs

Staying at other properties can lead to better deals and stacking opportunities.  I’m thinking of options at the low- and top-end here.  One example:  you can stack Fine Hotels and Resorts benefits and Amex Offers for stays at a variety of other properties.  Also, you can often negotiate better rates at other properties more easily than you can with big programs.

Yes, You Can Have This All for Free

It’s easy to assume that looking beyond big hotel loyalty programs will inevitably lead to expensive vacations dependent on cash.  Rather conveniently, our hobby has increasingly blessed us with an excellent option to subsidize these stays – cash back rewards in all of its many forms:

These are just a few options to get you started – the options here are seemingly endless.  Bottom line, you can easily apply cash rewards to stays at other properties.

Looking Beyond Big Hotel Loyalty Programs – Conclusion

I enjoy the fun of earning and redeeming hotel points currencies as much as any other hobbyist.  But I also know that these points currencies are not a panacea.  Hotel points simply won’t work for everybody all the time.  It’s what we do in those other times that matters.  So I’ll keep earning and burning with most of the big programs while also pursuing stays at other properties I’ve had my eyes on for days, months, and years.  What are your favorite other properties?  How have you defrayed the cost of staying at these hotels?

Benjy Harmon
Benjy is a fan of points, miles, and financial independence (FI). An experienced world traveler, husband, and father, he currently focuses on roaming throughout the USA expense-free (or close to it). He enjoys helping others achieve their FI and travel goals.

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6 COMMENTS

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Benjy, putting discussion of specific hotels / networks to the side, the concept you offer is absolutely spot on. For a given destination, one’s loyalty program might not have the level of property quality one wants. Or, if it does, it is a poor redemption value and it is better if one pays cash. And, if one pays cash, one ends up considering other brands — whether or not they have a loyalty program. (Hold this thought.)

    I spend 130 to 140 night a year in hotels. I have found that elite status with a given network doesn’t necessarily translate into realized or (truly) meaningful benefits at a specific property. Even if top-tier elite status affords suite upgrades, individual hotel owners seemingly must be coaxed into fulfilling this benefit. As a multi-year Marriott Ambassador, I have actually had a front desk person say “but, this is nice enough” when several suites were available. This type of interaction forced me to rethink things. In most situations, elite status means nothing to the individual hotel owner because they see guests as “one and done.”

    This changes if you are a repeat customer at a specific property. After a few stays (and liberal but modest tipping), everyone who is guest-facing remembers your name and magically things begin to happen. One non-network hotel in Los Angeles that my wife and I visit monthly treats us like royalty. Room upgrades beyond belief. Special treats on special occasions — for example, a cabana at the pool. Without a call to the valet, simply spotting exit the front desk, a team member is already getting our car.

    Back to the thought we have been holding — as you were discussing high-end properties, the way one can obtain elite status benefits without elite status is via AMEX Fine Hotels & Resorts — whether or a specific property is within a network with a loyalty program. The “beyond belief” room upgrades in LA are far beyond the AMEX room upgrade benefit. Readers should note that via AMEX FHR, you still earn points and status nights under your loyalty program in spite of the “you must book with us directly” rule. In light of this, does achieving or maintaining elite status in any hotel loyalty program really matter?

    Benjy, opening up one’s perspective to this concept is absolutely liberating.

  2. I agree with @ John that a few of those other brands you mention can also be extremely expensive out of pocket propositions. Accor is an alternate program that has more comparable across-the-board rates as the others along with its own loyalty program, ALL. Domestically I like their Fairmont & 21c brands.

    • Pam,

      Yes, many brands (points hotels included) can be expensive out of pocket. But we have options to avoid going out of pocket with most any property, not just points hotels.

      Thanks for mentioning Accor and the ALL program!

  3. I somewhat disagree with two things:

    One, and that’s a minor issue, Shangri-la is a big chain. By revenue, they are the 7th largest chain in the world, not far off from Hyatt. As such, quality varies quite a bit. Not just across their brands (JEN can be pretty bad), but also across properties belong to their flagship brand Shangri-la. I only stayed with them a few times, but wouldn’t call them more consistent than PH.
    Omni and Jumeirah also vary in quality, e.g., the Jumeirah Frankfurt is not great. The Omni Boston may have been an excellent hotel once, but not anymore IMO.

    Two, you can’t really compare PH with MO and FS in my opinion. MO and FS tend to be positioned above PH and the difference in pricing is often times quite noticable.

    I am with you on your main point, though, that it’s totally worthwhile to not restrict oneself to a few point currencies. OMAAT recently noted that some people choose hotels based on the locations of their favorite chain. I have done that a few times, sure. But for the most part, I think you’re missing out big time if you let the chain dictate where you’re going.

    • John,

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughtful comments. I’ve had consistent experiences at the Shangri-La properties we’ve chosen and experienced. I can definitely understand that any one person’s experiences can differ based on the property and situation. There’s something to your quality comment, as well, although I would say PH quality can vary to an extent despite it having relatively few properties. Ryan S’s PH Zanzibar experience is one recent example.

      I agree MO and FS can’t be closely compared with PH – MO’s and FS’s are superior! 🙂 Yes, apples to apples comparisons of certain locations can reflect different price ranges, but others are similar.

      Each person will have differences in certain nuances, but on a whole, I think we all do better to not overly focus on big points programs at the expense of others.

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