I've written a few speculative posts in the past based on the conceit that manufactured spend makes staying in hotels full time a cheap way to save on rent in retirement.
I recently joked on Twitter that it's cheaper to stay at the Hilton in San Francisco than it is to rent an apartment there, which got me to thinking: are there really places where the rent is so high that living in hotels could make practical sense?
To compare the cost of renting versus monthlong hotel stays, I used the figures in this recent CBS News article about median apartment prices in the 10 most expensive cities in the United States. These are median, not average, prices, so 50% of rental units are less expensive and 50% are more expensive.
I don't have any reason to trust these numbers, compiled by ApartmentList.com, but at least they give us some concrete figures to work with.
I then looked at the imputed redemption value of a 30-day stay with four programs:
- Hilton HHonors (manufactured with an American Express Surpass card at gas stations or grocery stores at an imputed redemption value of 0.35 cents each and redeemed in blocks of five nights, with the fifth night free);
- IHG Rewards (purchased during a fake reservation at 0.7 cents each);
- Hyatt Gold Passport (1 cent per point transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards);
- Choice Privileges (manufactured with the Chase Choice Privileges Visa at an imputed redemption value of 1.0525 cents each).
In the case of Hilton and Choice I compared their earning rate to the 2.105 cents per dollar earned everywhere on a Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard.
Wherever possible, I observed the following rules:
- I used the actual municipality given by CBS News/ApartmentList.com, so in the case of Oakland I excluded properties in San Francisco, and vice versa (the exceptions were Los Angeles, which doesn't have a Hyatt property downtown — I used the Andaz West Hollywood instead, and Miami, where I included Miami Beach properties);
- I used the cheapest property located within the central area of each city, with the exception of Washington DC, where I used the Holiday Inn Washington-Georgetown.
- Where seasonal adjustments were small, I used the smaller figure as long as it was realistic. In one case where the seasonal increase was over 100% (Bluegreen Vacations Solara Surfside, the Choice property I used in Miami) I gave both the high and low season figures;
- Large seasonal variations are the rule with Hilton HHonors, so in all cases I gave both the low and high season figures.
Finally there's an additional wrinkle worth noting: since hotels offer both award stays and paid stays for the same nights, you should be able to reduce your actual expenses below the imputed redemption values I give by paying cash for those nights where the cash rate is lower than the imputed redemption value of an award night.
Here are my results, in all their Excel spreadsheet glory:
For each city, I've highlighted the chain with the lowest and second-lowest imputed redemption values. That leads to a few observations:
- In four of the ten cases, the Hilton properties have the lowest imputed redemption values whether or not the property is charging low-season or high-season prices;
- In four of the remaining cases, the Hilton property is cheapest during low season and the Hyatt property is lowest during the Hilton property's high season. In these cases the logical thing to do would be to move from Hilton to Hyatt once high season pricing went into effect at Hilton;
- The IHG Rewards Club property never has the lowest or second-lowest imputed redemption value.
These results so strongly confirm my biases towards Hilton and Hyatt that I had to double-check my math to make sure I hadn't tampered with the scales.
Hilton's dominance seems to be a mechanical product of two facts: earning 6 HHonors points per dollar with the Surpass card, and taking advantage of the fifth night free on award stays. While Hyatt typically charges fewer points for award reservations than Hilton, they have to charge 72% less to get an edge on Hilton. Since Hyatt doesn't charge more for rooms during high season as Hilton does, that's where their edge tends to emerge.
From one point of view, my original question was answered conclusively: in none of the top ten most expensive rental markets are monthslong award stays cheaper than renting the median apartment.
This conclusion should be taken with a healthy dose of salt, however:
- as noted under Methodology above, you can save money over award stays by swapping in cheap paid nights over weekends and during low season. Doing so will also trigger points earning, which reduces the total amount of manufactured spend necessary each month;
- as a top-level elite, your stay at many properties will include a continental or hot breakfast, and may include dinner as well, depending on the food spread available in the property's lounge;
- this research compared the median rental property in a city to downtown chain hotel properties. Depending on the city, the median rental property may be in much worse condition, in a much worse neighborhood, much farther from downtown. In other words, if you're an upper middle class travel hacker working in San Jose, you're probably not living in the median rental property in the city, and you're probably paying much more in rent than the figures I cited.
Finally, while I intentionally framed it that way, living in hotels isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. For example, you may find that moving into a hotel for a month while you're between apartments, or in the process of moving to a new city, offers savings compared to other short-term housing options, or convenience compared to staying with friends or renting a room on AirBNB.