Hotel benefits by length of stay

The other day I was looking at hotels for an upcoming weekend trip with flexible dates. I settled on a convenient Hilton property, and was immediately annoyed that I only really needed 4 nights, even though the fifth award night would be free. I vented on Twitter and Milenomics contributor Robert Dwyer pointed out that if I had a Citi Prestige card I'd be sitting pretty with that card's fourth-night-free benefit.

That got me to thinking about the connection between length of stay and optimal booking options.

One-night stays

One-night stays are great because they're opportunities to redeem free night certificates at chains where you don't otherwise have any points or status. For example:

  • Chase IHG Rewards Club Premier cards offer an anniversary free night certificate good at properties costing up to 40,000 points;
  • the new suite of Marriott and Starwood credit cards will offer anniversary free night certificates good at properties costing between 35,000 points and 50,000 points, depending on the card;
  • Chase Hyatt credit cards offer anniversary free night certificates good at category 1-4 properties (up to 15,000 points per night).
  • For stays within the United States, the US Bank Radisson Rewards ($50 annual fee) and Radisson Rewards Premier ($75 annual fee) cards offer up to three anniversary free night certificates valid only at Radisson Rewards properties in the United States when spending $10,000, $20,000, and $30,000 on the cards each cardmember year. If you're going to spend $30,000 on one of these cards my general feeling is that you may as well pay the extra $25 annual fee and get 75,000 additional points annually between the two additional points per dollar the Premier card earns and the 15,000 additional anniversary points.

For longer stays, I don't like free night certificates because they force you to overpay for the nights that aren't covered by the certificate, or move between properties during your trip. But for one-night stays they're ideal, and I often use them for things like airport properties before an early morning flight.

Another option for one-night stays, depending on the property, is booking through one of the luxury travel portals:

  • the Visa Signature Luxury Hotel Collection offers a package of benefits including free Wi-Fi, breakfast for two guests, and a $25 food and beverage credit. If the price is the same as through other booking channels, then on a one-night stay the food and beverage credit can handily offset things like resort fees (which would also be owed on award stays), while on longer stays, the resort fees continue to mount while the food and beverage credit can be used only once.
  • likewise American Express offers a Fine Hotels and Resorts booking channel to their Platinum cardholders, which offers a more generous $100 food, beverage, or spa credit at some properties. Just as above, on a one-night stay that credit naturally goes further than on longer stays.
  • Finally, you can use a Virtuoso travel agent like classictravel.com to secure similar benefits while booking with the card of your choice.

Two- and three-night stays

This is the real wheelhouse of hotel points and fixed-value points, especially if you're able to redeem cheap fixed-value points like US Bank Flexpoints against your stay (if the total cost is above $500), since you'll also earn points on the room rate you pay. If you'd otherwise pay cash, redeeming points is usually a good idea in this window, since easily-earned points like Hilton Honors, World of Hyatt, and (under certain circumstances) IHG Rewards Club points don't offer any advantages, and the resort fees at luxury properties eat up the potential value of the food and beverage credits discussed above.

Some third-night-free offers may also be available through American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts, but unless you've done your research in advance I wouldn't sign up for a Platinum card just in hopes of capitalizing on third-night-free offers.

Four-night stays

At the four-night mark, three additional opportunities open up:

  • fourth-night-free booking options through American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts. These are somewhat more common than third-night-free offers, so for four-night stays in cities served by Fine Hotels and Resorts this may be worth checking since the free night and on-property benefits may lower the total cost below any points redemption you'd otherwise consider.
  • the Citi Prestige fourth-night-free benefit allows you to book four-night stays while only paying the room rate on 3 nights (although taxes and fees are still owed on the fourth night).
  • the Chase IHG Rewards Club Premier card fourth-night free benefit on award stays, which means that otherwise-marginal redemptions may be worthwhile, if the free fourth award night boosts you well above your points' imputed redemption value.

Five-night stays

Presumably because their Top Men told them that virtually no one books five-night award stays, Hilton Honors, Marriott Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest all offer the fifth night free on awards stays (Hilton only in the case of elites, but if you're not a Hilton elite I don't know what to tell you).

Seven-night stays

Finally, if you actually have a seven-night stay with Marriott planned at a Category 5 or higher Marriott Rewards property, you should consider booking it with a Hotel + Air Package before August 1, 2018, in order to receive 120,000 or more airline miles alongside your hotel redemption.

Conclusion

I give most people the benefit of the doubt that they understand their travel needs better than I do, so I try not to tell people what they should or shouldn't do. The flip side of that is that you should take the time to assess your own travel needs and figure out which configuration of airline, hotel, and credit card programs works best for you.

For example, if you take the occasional five- or seven-night international trip, but are putting your manufactured spend on a Radisson Rewards credit card, that's not an indictment of the program, it's a mismatch between what you're doing and what you need to be doing to pay as little as possible for the trips you want to take.

Likewise, if your travel consists of taking the occasional road trip to Chicago, you may well want to be earning free night certificates and points you can redeem at the Radisson Blu Aqua, one of the few really great hotels in the Radisson Rewards program in the United States.

Absolute versus relative redemption values

In Wednesday's post about passing on the current IHG Rewards point sale, I mentioned that it's not enough to get good absolute value from a points redemption if you're not also getting good value relative to other redemption options. I think a lot of people understand this idea intuitively, but since it's central to my travel hacking practice, I want to spell it out in more detail.

Absolute value matters if you don't have choices

If you're constrained in your choice of hotels, airlines, or routes, then you are perfectly justified in thinking about the absolute redemption value of your points. A classic example would be a wedding or conference where you're expected to stay in a particular hotel. If the conference rate is $300 per night, and you're able to book it for 30,000 points instead, you know for a fact you're getting 1 cent per point in value.

You still have to make a choice though: is 1 cent per point a good redemption value or a bad redemption value? If you're redeeming a currency that's otherwise redeemable for cash at one cent each, like Ultimate Rewards points, then it's a bad value, since the paid rate will earn a larger rebate than the redemption. If you're redeeming a currency you paid much less than one per point for, then it might be a good value, since you're realizing a discount off a stay you'd otherwise have to pay cash for.

Relative value matters if you get to choose

In Madison, Wisconsin, there are there chain hotels more or less equidistant from the Capitol:

  • Hilton Madison Monona Terrace
  • Hyatt Place Madison/Downtown
  • AC Hotel Madison Downtown

On a random upcoming Wednesday night, the lowest available rates are quite close:

  • Hilton: $144.53
  • Hyatt: $148.01
  • AC Hotel: $162.86

If you were paying cash, you'd book the Hilton and call it a life. Meanwhile, the cost in points is all over the place (as you'd expect since they're different currencies). Here are those costs, and the redemption value compared to our fallback option of paying $144.53 at the Hilton:

  • Hilton: 36,000, 0.4 cents per point
  • Hyatt: 8,000, 1.8 cents per point
  • AC Hotel (Marriott): 25,000, 0.58 cents per point

These are all well within the normal range of redemption values for these currencies. But in order to determine the highest relative value, we need another piece of information: the cost we paid for the currency in question.

If you earn Hilton Honors points through grocery store manufactured spend, you earn 6 points per dollar spent, instead of 2 US Bank Flexpoints (worth 3 cents towards travel redemptions) with the Flexperks Travel Rewards card or 2 Membership Rewards points with the American Express Premier Rewards Gold card. Meanwhile, if your best method of earning Hyatt and Marriott points is transfers from a flexible Ultimate Rewards account like the Sapphire Preferred, Sapphire Reserve, Ink Plus or Ink Preferred, then you're effectively paying one cent each for those points — the value of Ultimate Rewards points when redeemed for cash.

The best relative value is therefore the Hyatt redemption: paying the equivalent of $80 for $144.53 in value is better than paying $180 (Hilton) or $250 (Marriott).

Alternative: availability-weighted relative value

The above methodology is appropriate for someone with access to plentiful manufactured spend and plentiful travel, which is sometimes treated as the "default" mode for travel hackers.

But of course that describes relatively few people in the real world. Far more common are business travelers who passively accrue points balances on their employer's dime, and casual travelers who discover they've accidentally accumulated a substantial balance in one or more loyalty accounts.

In those cases, I think the relative value calculations I described are almost useless, and it's better to use what you might call "availability-weighted" relative value: if Marriott Rewards points are the points you happen to have because your workplace has a contract with Marriott, you should redeem them more aggressively than a strict relative value calculation would suggest.

This is equally true of travel hackers who refuse to redeem points for anything less than their "optimal" value. If you have a large Hilton balance and a low Ultimate Rewards balance, it makes perfect sense to make a weak redemption at the Hilton instead of a good redemption at the Hyatt. That's what I mean by "availability-weighting" relative value.

If this is your strategy, remember you'll also want to normalize your balances for your typical redemption size. If you have 300,000 Hilton Honors points, 300,000 Hyatt points, and 300,000 Marriott points, which currency do you have "more" of? The obvious answer is Hyatt, where redemptions top out at 30,000 points, then Marriott (70,000), then Hilton (95,000+). However, those answers might be flipped if you have particular properties, and particular values, you typically redeem each currency at.

Conclusion

There is so much fuzzy thinking about the value of different loyalty currencies that I usually ignore people trying to nail down the precise value of this or that program, although I liked the Wandering Aramean Hotel Hustle "average point values" feature back when it was functional, mainly because it confirmed my intuitions.

Instead, I find it simpler to work forward from cost rather than backward from value. I know how much I pay for the loyalty currencies I earn, so for a given trip, I try to find the redemptions that cost the least in foregone value, while also taking into account which currencies I have the most of and therefore are most in need of redemption.

Just remember: your least valuable point will always be the one you don't redeem.

You probably shouldn't participate in a good IHG points sale

Through Friday, June 15, IHG Rewards Club is offering a 100% bonus on purchased points, meaning you can buy up to 200,000 points for $1,000, or 0.5 cents each, when you buy 52,000 or more points (lower amounts cost more per point).

This is pretty cheap for IHG Rewards Club points

You can always buy unlimited IHG points for between 0.6 and 0.7 cents each year-round with the "points and cash trick:" reserve a room using points and cash, refund the reservation and your cash co-pay will be refunded in points. So a 50,000-point night that you book with 30,000 points and $130 in cash, then refund, will allow you to buy 20,000 points for $130, or 0.65 cents each.

Still, 0.5 cents is 20% less than 0.6 cents, so if you have upcoming travel plans that are good IHG redemptions at 0.6 cents, they'll be even better redemptions at 0.5 cents each.

You can also earn portal cashback at Points.com, which handles these transactions for IHG, reducing your net cost further below 0.5 cents per point.

IHG Rewards points aren't very valuable, but they're more valuable than that

IHG Rewards points are often worth between 0.5 cents and 1 cent each, so purchasing points at 0.5 cents each speculatively could reasonably be expected to translate into a discount of perhaps 50%, after taxes, on a future stay. That's not bad, especially if you aren't able to manufacture Hilton or Hyatt points in sufficient quantities to meet your travel needs.

Of course, there is a maximum points cost of a free night award of 70,000 IHG Rewards points (for now), while there's no limit to the cost of a paid night, so there's no theoretical limit to the value you can get.

IHG award availability stinks

The problem is that at the properties where you could expect to get the maximum value for your IHG points, award availability is extremely limited. Not only are properties like the InterContinental Hotels Bora Bora Resort Thalasso Spa extremely stingy with award space, what space does become available is quickly snatched up due to IHG's willingness to sell points for so much less than their redemption value at those properties.

A huge pool of cheap IHG points chasing scarce award availability makes people even more desperate to book rooms when they do become available, even holding onto reservations and rooms they don't plan to actually use.

I like the example of the InterContinental in Bora Bora because it has an entire FlyerTalk thread dedicated to folks trying to find award availability there, but the same is true of many desirable IHG properties during periods of even medium demand.

Conclusion

If you have firm plans, have identified an IHG property that provides good absolute value (I'd aim for 1+ cent per point) and relative value compared to any other hotel currencies you have available, and have confirmed the property has reward nights available for the dates you're interested in, then this is an opportunity to buy points at a decent discount compared to the price they're sold for year-round.

But if any of those conditions isn't met, then under no circumstances would I buy IHG Rewards points speculatively.

There are no off-the-shelf travel hacking strategies

Last week I wrote what I thought was a commonsense corrective to the din of blogger voices encouraging readers to sign up for the IHG Rewards credit card before it was replaced with a couple of somewhat-more-expensive co-branded credit cards.

The post attracted a fair amount of disagreement (mostly polite disagreement, because my readers are phenomenal) by folks who had the card and enjoyed the annual free night benefit.

But, of course, people who already hold the card could not possibly have been the audience for a post titled "No, you shouldn't rush to sign up for IHG's crappy credit card." You can't sign up for a (Chase) card you already have. The post was explicitly addressed at people who had not yet signed up for the credit card, to discourage them from making a rash decision based purely on the fact that the card was going away.

Money is a sensitive subject, but travel hacking is about money

I understand perfectly well why folks who already carry the $49-annual-fee IHG Rewards credit card were upset by my criticism of it. How people earn, spend, and save their money is an area of almost-religious devotion among Americans, so if I say you're overpaying for a bad credit card, you don't hear that I think you're overpaying for a bad credit card, you hear that as criticism of your judgment or intelligence.

Unfortunately, that's just not going to work if you want my unbiased advice about travel hacking. You're going to have made mistakes in the past, you're making them right now, and you're going to make them in the future. If, every time you disagree with me, you treat it as a personal attack on you, you're inevitably going to experience this blog as a series of personal attacks.

I'm not here to tell you what you want to hear. I'm here to help you spend as little money as possible on the trips you want to take.

And, to be perfectly clear, I'm just as critical of my own decisions as I am of your decisions. The Delta Platinum American Express card is a tough card to justify keeping (impossible to justify if manufactured spend no longer counts towards MQD waivers), but I still have it. I'm just as much of a sucker for the overstated, overwrought, underperforming Platinum companion ticket as you are for your free IHG night.

Using someone else's travel hacking strategy is an expensive mistake

I can and do write about my travel hacking strategy:

  • Grocery store manufactured spend on my US Bank and American Express cards;
  • Office supply store manufactured spend on my Chase Ink Plus card;
  • Unbonused manufactured spend on my Chase Freedom Unlimited and 2% cash back cards.

But it makes no sense for me to recommend that strategy to an anonymous reader:

  • The Chase Ink Plus is no longer available to new applicants;
  • Not all grocery stores allow PIN-enabled prepaid debit cards to be purchased with credit cards;
  • Not every community has access to convenient liquidation strategies;
  • Some people have enough money with Bank of America to qualify for Platinum Honors rewards and earn 2.625% cash back with the Bankamericard Travel Rewards card.

I don't know you, I don't know your travel habits, I don't know your credit score, I don't know your net worth, how can I possibly give you advice about the right travel hacking strategy?

I can say under what circumstances a card is useful. A lot of readers seem to have glossed over my endorsement of the IHG Rewards credit card: "If you've got a favorite IHG property you stay at every time you visit your family, don't let me stop you from knocking off a couple bucks by using a credit card free night certificate."

I can say under what circumstances a card is worthless, like a US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards credit card in a city without grocery store or gas station manufactured spend.

But I'm never going to try to tell you the best credit card, travel hacking, or manufactured spend strategy for you without a long, expensive conversation about your travel needs and opportunities.

Footnote: it doesn't matter if I was "right"

Today it came out that even existing cardholders will have their free nights limited to properties costing 40,000 points or fewer per night, and you might have seen Nick Reyes scrambling to cancel his son's now-worthless application, but I'm not gloating that I "called it" or that this somehow proves me "right." As a travel hacker and friend of travel hackers, I wish existing cardholders got their uncapped free night certificates grandfathered from here until the end of days.

But if I was "right," I was only right because you shouldn't apply for cards you're not interested in just because there's a sudden blogger pressure campaign, whether it's based on a card's upcoming retirement or the periodic higher affiliate payouts that send them into paroxysms of prose.

And all it took to be "right" was applying the same logic over and over again: pay as little as possible for the trips you want to take.

No, you shouldn't rush to sign up for IHG's crappy credit card

Chase and IHG Rewards Club have offered a co-branded credit card for a number of years with the following features:

  • a $49 annual fee;
  • a signup bonus between 50,000-100,000 IHG Rewards Club points;
  • an anniversary free night certificate good at any IHG property in the world.

I've written multiple times about why such a card (like the similar Marriott Rewards Premier credit card) isn't interesting to me. Free night certificates require you to either move mid-stay (when you run out of free night certificates) or pay cash for nights you could otherwise pay for with fewer or more easily acquired points.

If IHG were an important hotel chain, with important hotels, where it was important to stay, I wouldn't have any problem with folks saving money on their annual IHG stays by paying a $49 annual credit card fee.

But no one has ever been able to give me a convincing argument for why a travel hacker should stay at an IHG Rewards Club property except that they have an expiring free night certificate from this crappy credit card.

Now the crappy IHG Rewards credit card is being replaced by two crappy IHG Rewards credit cards

Spencer Howard reported yesterday that the Chase IHG Rewards credit card is being retired, to be replaced by a couple of equally bad credit cards.

This has given an opportunity to affiliate bloggers to flog their old workhorse one more time before it shuffles off its mortal coil. My takeaway is a lot simpler.

Why don't you have an IHG Rewards Club credit card already?

I have a World of Hyatt credit card because I can redeem the annual free night certificate at Hyatt properties, where I'm also able to redeem my Ultimate Rewards points for good value.

I have a Hilton credit card because I stay at Hilton properties and manufacture spend with it at grocery stores, which gives me a solid discount off retail at the many Hilton properties around the world.

I don't have an IHG Rewards Club credit card because IHG Rewards Club sucks.

When I talk about travel hacking, I mean one thing and one thing only: paying as little as possible for the trips you want to take.

If you've got a favorite IHG property you stay at every time you visit your family, don't let me stop you from knocking off a couple bucks by using a credit card free night certificate.

But if, after all these years, you've never felt it was worthwhile to sign up for a $49-annual-fee credit card offering a free night at a chain you never stay at, why would it suddenly become worthwhile just because the card is going away?

The false urgency of now

There will always be people telling you that this, right now, is your last, best, or only chance to buy whatever it is they're selling. And there's usually not much harm in that. If you need a pair of socks, who cares if the haberdasher tells you they're his very last pair and how lucky you are to have them? If you need the heel of your shoe repaired, what's the harm in the cobbler telling you how close he was to shutting up the shop for the night before you walked in?

But there's a big difference between getting a little buttered up by the guy who's selling what you want to buy, and being suddenly hectored on all sides by people whose produce is about to spoil, and who need to get it off their shelves as quickly as possible.

The urgency they're expressing doesn't have anything to do with the once-in-a-lifetime offer you're about to lose out on. It's about the rotting produce they're not going to be able to sell for much longer.

So, are you buying it?

Assorted 2018 hotel news and program updates

Quite a few changes have been reported to hotel loyalty programs in 2018, so here are a few brief thoughts in case you're wondering what to make of them.

70,000-point IHG Rewards Club properties

IHG Rewards Club has announced the following hotels will cost 70,000 points per night in 2018:

  • InterContinental Paris - Le Grand
  • InterContinental Bora Bora Resort Thalasso Spa
  • InterContinental Le Moana Bora Bora
  • InterContinental Hong Kong
  • InterContinental - ANA Manza Beach Resort
  • InterContinental London Park Lane
  • InterContinental The Clement Monterey (California)
  • InterContinental San Francisco
  • InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco
  • InterContinental The Willard Washington D.C.
  • InterContinental Boston
  • InterContinental New York Barclay
  • InterContinental New York Times Square

I did some award searches and where I found availability, these hotels are still pricing at 60,000 points per night, so the pricing changes seem not to have gone into effect yet.

Using the Points + Cash trick (book then refund Points + Cash reservations until you have enough points for an all-points reservation) you can buy IHG Rewards Club points for 0.575 cents each year-round (and often somewhat cheaper than that), so a 70,000-point property costs roughly $402 per night. The only properties on this list where I'd even consider spending that much money are the French Polynesian resorts in Bora Bora. If you and a partner each had a $49-annual-fee Chase IHG Rewards Club credit card free night certificate, you could combine those with a couple free nights at $402 each and get a 4-night stay, for example, for a total of $902, or $225 per night, which compares favorably to the cost of an award night at the Conrad Bora Bora Nui (without drawing any conclusions about the respective quality of the properties).

Note that award space at those properties can be very difficult to find.

Improved transfer ratio from Membership Rewards to Hilton Honors

Also widely reported has been a permanently improved transfer ratio from flexible American Express Membership Rewards accounts to Hilton Honors, up from 1:1.5 to 1:2. Judging by the complaints I hear from readers, Membership Rewards points are the most difficult flexible points for non-expert users to redeem, so increasing their value when transferred to one of their simplest transfer partners is obviously an unalloyed good.

I don't think Membership Rewards points should be earned speculatively with the intent to transfer them to Hilton (if for no other reason than Hilton Honors points are easier and cheaper to earn with a Surpass/Ascend card), but I also don't think anyone should pay cash for a hotel stay while they have access to cheap and plentiful Hilton Honors points, since the least valuable point is always the one you don't redeem.

Award nights now count towards World of Hyatt elite status

Historically, Hyatt Gold Passport and World of Hyatt elite status could only be earned with nights (and until last year, stays) that had a cash component: only cash and Points + Cash stays earned elite-qualifying credit.

That changed this year, so award nights will also count towards elite status qualification. Unfortunately, it takes 60 nights to qualify for Globalist status, so I doubt this will have much effect except on the margin. An average of 5 nights per month doesn't seem unreasonable in general, but an average of 5 nights per month at Hyatt properties would require booking away from cheaper or better properties, which is a funny way to save money.

Of course, it's easier for some people than others.

Continental breakfast for Gold and Diamond elites at Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts

Hilton has updated their "My Way" choice of benefits for Gold and Diamond elites at Waldorf Astoria properties to include the option of "a daily complimentary continental breakfast in the hotel's designated restaurant for you and up to one additional guest registered to the same room each day of your stay."

Interestingly, they have updated the elite benefits page to reflect the change but have not yet updated the actual My Way options in the app or online, presumably because the only guy who knows how to do so hasn't worked there for years. Hopefully Waldorf Astoria staff have been notified of the change, but I expect elites will have to do some haggling until the system is fully updated.

There are some cool Waldorf Astoria properties but the only ones I can see an obvious reason to choose are the Hawaiian, Caribbean, and Park City locations. Does anybody have a favorite Waldorf Astoria property?

Breaking even with IHG Rewards Club Spire elite status

Last week I wrote about the possibility of using IHG Rewards Club as the primary hotel loyalty program for a reimbursed business traveler. In that post I considered only the Platinum elite status that comes with the IHG Rewards Club credit card. But of course IHG has a newish top-tier status, called Spire.

In the comments, reader Just some guy mentioned one popular way to achieve Spire status:

"Virgin Atlantic points are easy to acquire, and when transferred to IHG are elite qualifying. Every year that you hit 75k elite qualifying points, your status will be raised to Spire and you'll be gifted an additional 25k points.

Spend 32k of those points on Intercontinental Ambassador status and you will be given 5k points back and a buy one weekend night get one free certificate. Ambassador status gets you a guaranteed upgrade at intercontinental hotels."

There are a couple things here worth unpacking. Let's get started.

What is IHG Rewards Club Spire elite status worth?

Spire elites earn a 100% bonus on base points earned on paid stays, for a total of 20 points per dollar spent, and paying with an IHG Rewards Club credit card earns an additional 5 points per dollar. Updating the chart in last week's post, that gives the following comparison between Hilton Honors Gold, Marriott Silver, and IHG Spire status:

The way to read this chart is that an IHG Rewards Club member with Spire status has to spend less on paid stays than a Hilton Gold or Marriott Silver member to receive a free night at hotels in similar tiers. Note that this only applies to paid stays! If you're looking exclusively at credit card spend you need to use imputed redemption values, a completely different calculation.

Since Spire status can be acquired by transferring 75,000 Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles to IHG Rewards Club, and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Citi ThankYou points, it's relatively easy to calculate how much you need to spend at IHG properties to justify buying Spire status.

Here's the math: 75,000 flexible points transferred from any of the 3 currencies translates into 100,000 IHG Rewards Club points, for the reason Just some guy mentioned. 100,000 IHG Rewards Club points are worth at most $700 — the amount they'd cost if you used the Points + Cash trick discussed in the comments here (you can usually find prices as low as $600 for 100,000 points, but $700 is the "standard" price). For the same reason, the additional 5 Rewards Club points per dollar spent you earn as a Spire elite are worth 3.5 cents.

The amount of money that has to be spent on paid IHG stays to break even is the difference between the value of the flexible points transferred and the value of the IHG points received, divided by the value of the additional points earned as a Spire elite. The more valuable your flexible point redemptions, the more you have to spend as a Spire elite to break even, as this chart shows:

So a Chase Ink Plus cardholder who redeems Ultimate Rewards points for 1.25 cents each and who transfers 75,000 points to Virgin Atlantic is spending $937 for $700 in value. To make back that difference, they'd need to spend about $6,750 at IHG properties, which would earn 33,750 in "extra" Spire points compared to a Platinum elite — worth $237, the difference between the amount paid in Ultimate Rewards points and the value received in IHG Rewards Club points.

One more point: once you've reached 75,000 Elite Qualifying Points, you'll receive Spire elite status naturally. That means the values above are only for spend up to the point where you'd qualify for Spire anyway. If you spend more than $7,500 at IHG properties per year ($15,000 at extended stay properties), you're almost certainly better off simply acquiring Spire status through your normal spend.

Alternatively, you can wait until the end of each calendar year to determine how far you are away from keeping Spire status, and only transfer the number of flexible points needed to maintain your status for the next year.

If you do pursue that strategy, keep in mind that points earned with the IHG Rewards Club credit cards do count as elite qualifying points. That means each point you earn with credit card spend is a perfect substitute for your flexible points. That's not terribly relevant for unbonused spend since the card earns just 1 Rewards Club point on unbonused spend. At IHG properties, however, the card would effectively earn 5 Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, or ThankYou points per dollar spent, since it would save you that many flexible points at the end of the year.

What is InterContinental Ambassador status worth?

Besides late check-out (a benefit I personally value enormously but isn't, strictly speaking, worth anything) InterContinental Ambassadors also get a buy-one-get-one-free weekend night. Again, it's easy to determine the value of the free weekend night:

  • 27,000 Rewards Club points cost $189 (32,000 points cost $224 but Ambassadors should receive a 5,000 point voucher — I've seen mixed reports on this question so am giving both values);
  • InterContinental properties top out at 60,000 Rewards Club points, which cost $420 at 0.7 cents each;
  • So a free weekend night is worth using if the property's "Ambassador Weekend Rate" is below $659 but above $189.

If a property's Ambassador Weekend Rate is above $659 per night, you should just buy (up to) 120,000 Rewards Club points and redeem them for two nights. InterContinental properties in lower tiers will cost even less.

If a property's paid rate is below $189, you should pay the paid rate for both nights and not bother with Ambassador status at all.

For nightly prices in between, you'll save money by paying the paid rate for one night and $189 in points for the second night.

Adjusting these values for the value of points earned with Spire status on paid stays is an exercise left to the reader.

Conclusion

Just as I concluded last week, IHG Rewards Club (and InterContinental Ambassador) appear to offer great value to folks with a lot of paid travel that they're able to direct to IHG properties. The ability to "top up" your status each year by transferring flexible points first to Virgin Atlantic, and then to IHG, is an additional advantage of the program over the other large hotel loyalty programs.

On the other hand, leisure and budget travelers are likely better off sticking to programs with more valuable points or points that can be earned more easily, like Hilton, Hyatt (through Chase Ultimate Rewards), and Starwood Preferred Guest.

IHG Rewards Club, reconsidered

[edit 8/7/17: updated charts to reflect 60,000-point top-tier IHG Rewards Club properties. Conclusions left unchanged.]

Easily the reaction I least expected to Tuesday's post on credit card auxiliary benefits was the passionate defense that emerged in the comments of IHG Rewards Club.

I have always dismissed IHG Rewards Club more or less mechanically: their credit card doesn't offer high enough unbonused or bonused earning rates to justify manufacturing spend on it, and IHG Rewards points have so little value that it's extremely expensive to combine them with the credit card's annual free night certificate for stays of more than one night.

IHG Rewards Club offers a good rebate on paid nights for co-branded credit card holders

But what about using IHG as your primary hotel loyalty program? How would a top-tier elite fare in each of the biggest hotel loyalty programs? Fortunately, this information was at my fingertips thanks to the calculations I'd already done for Chapter 6. Here are the results, showing the amount of hotel spend required to earn sufficient points for a free night award at low-, mid-, and top-tier properties with each program:

Next, It's worth pointing out that this comparison, in which IHG Rewards Club has a strong showing compared to the other two programs, is in fact deeply unfair to IHG. That's because IHG Rewards Platinum elite status is trivially easy to earn: all you have to do is carry their Chase co-branded credit card.

To earn top-tier Hilton Honors Diamond status you need to spend $40,000 on one of their premium co-branded credit cards or complete 30 stays or 60 nights (award stays and nights count), and to earn Marriott Rewards Platinum status you need to spend an ungodly amount on their Premier co-branded credit card or stay 75 nights.

Comparing IHG Rewards Club Platinum status to the much more fair Hilton Gold or Marriott Silver status (which come with their co-branded credit cards), the comparison suddenly shifts sharply in IHG's favor:

While low-level properties are still slightly easier to earn with the Hilton and Marriott co-branded credit cards on paid stays, earning stays at mid-level and high-level properties is easiest with IHG Rewards Platinum status and their co-branded credit card. That's true whether you use a co-branded credit card to actually pay for your stay or not.

IHG Rewards elite status isn't worth much

If your goal is to earn award nights as quickly as possible on reimbursed paid stays, IHG offers a very strong value proposition for co-branded cardholders. On the other hand, Hilton Honors Gold status and Marriott Rewards Gold status both come with free breakfast, while IHG Rewards Club Platinum status doesn't come with...anything.

Whether having breakfast included on your stays is worth a lot, a little, or nothing is entirely up to you — I've seen good arguments on all sides of the question. But if you're going to make IHG Rewards your primary program for paid stays, you should be aware of what you're getting.

IHG Rewards Club offers frequent, potentially lucrative promotions

While the other big hotel loyalty programs have fallen into a tired habit of offering double or triple points promotions every quarter, IHG Rewards Club has done a pretty good job of maintaining a steady tempo of promotions which, if you have enough paid stays during promotional periods, can spin off a phenomenal number of points.

While it's hard to quantify, by aggressively targeting paid stays during relevant promotions you can increase the rebate value of your participation even further.

Conclusion

So, this has been my reader-inspired reconsideration of the value of IHG Rewards Club. My revised conclusion is that it's an extremely strong program for co-branded credit card holders who have lots of paid or reimbursed stays, and who are not concerned with the limited benefits available to those with elite status.

While Hilton will remain my primary hotel loyalty program as long as it remains so easy to manufacture Honors points (and Diamond status) in bonused categories, I have a renewed appreciated for IHG Rewards Club, and I have only my readers to thank for it.

Rewards programs, ranked by reliability

One fun thing about writing a blog is that reader feedback gives you a chance to see how different ideas interact and collide. Last Friday when I wrote "While I'm willing to take unlimited risk in my investment portfolio, I'm willing to take virtually no risk in my travel hacking portfolio," reader Danny commented:

"This seems like an interesting sentiment. I'd be far more concerned with keeping my investments sound than my points balance."

Then on Monday I wrote with respect to my findings on Hilton all-inclusive award pricing that:

"If points costs will fall to match low revenue rates, it is easier to justify earning large quantities of Hilton points knowing that you'll almost always get close to, or above, their imputed redemption value."

I've been thinking about these two ideas, risk and reliability, and how they interact in my travel hacking practice.

Devaluations are the big, unknown risk

For several years, the US Bank Club Carlson credit card offered the last night free on all award stays. Now, this benefit was never quite as good as it was cracked up to be since Club Carlson properties, even or perhaps especially high-end Club Carlson properties, are dumps (true story: months after the Radisson Blu Warwick Hotel Philadelphia finished their renovations to not be a dump any longer they left the program).

Many people, expecting that benefit to continue indefinitely, earned hundreds of thousands, or millions, of Club Carlson Gold Points (trust me — many of them are readers of this blog).

Then the last-night-free benefit ended, and those points could only be redeemed at still-crappy Club Carlson properties. The same spend that earned those millions of points could have been used to earn 2% cash back, unbonused Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards points, or another rewards currency.

That's the kind of risk that I do my best to avoid in my travel hacking practice, by earning the rewards I redeem and redeeming the rewards I earn.

Reliability is the certainty of being able to redeem rewards for the trips you want to take

Reliability is something slightly different than risk. A reliable program offers consistent redemption values, whether or not that value is high or low, attractive or repulsive.

For example, according to Hotel Hustle, the IHG Rewards Club offers quite remarkable consistency, with a median value of 0.58 cents per point, with 75% of award searches above 0.44 cents per point and 75% of awards below 0.68 cents per point. That doesn't make it attractive to manufacture IHG Rewards points, but it gives you a clear view of the value of any points you might earn in one of their periodic sweepstakes or promotions.

My top ten loyalty programs, by reliability

Whether a particular rewards currency is "worth earning" depends on both your cost of acquisition and your particular travel plans, so this is not a list of the top ten most valuable loyalty programs. It's only a list of the top ten rewards programs sorted by my view of their reliability.

  1. Cash. Cash has the great benefit of maintaining its dollar redemption value no matter what happens. It is, in that way, the most reliable rewards currency. Into this category also falls the fixed-value redemption of currencies like Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, BankAmericard Travel Rewards, and other rewards programs with fixed values, like Delta SkyMiles Pay with Points redemptions. Their reliability is unimpeachable.
  2. IHG Rewards anniversary free night certificates. In the several years I've been travel hacking, I've never seen an IHG property that I would be willing to transfer points, buy points, or manufacture points in order to book. But they really do have a Chase IHG Rewards credit card that gives you an annual award night at any IHG Rewards property in the world! I've never seen a report of the certificate not being honored for any reason, except the chain's preposterously loose rules on award availability. As far as I can tell the thing is completely reliable. Compare that to Marriott's anniversary night certificates, which have become almost unredeemable as properties continually migrate up out of Category 4.
  3. Flexible Ultimate Rewards. Chase Ultimate Rewards points held in a Sapphire Preferred, Sapphire Reserve, Ink Bold, or Ink Plus account are more valuable than cash but slightly less reliable, since their value depends in part on the value of transferred points. One component of the value of a flexible Ultimate Rewards point is the value of one United Mileage Plus mile, but the value of a United Mileage Plus mile is highly volatile, so that portion of the value of an Ultimate Rewards point is also volatile. Nonetheless, Chase strongly supports the 1:1 transfer ratio of Ultimate Rewards points to their partners, so the reliability of the program overall is raised by the relative constancy of programs like World of Hyatt and Southwest Rapid Rewards.
  4. US Bank Flexpoints. Long-time readers know I love the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards Visa because of its generous bonused earning categories, but the process of redeeming Flexpoints introduces some unreliability into the system. Flights will sometimes be shown with odd fare differences which push them into a higher redemption band, for example. Nonetheless, the ability to redeem Flexpoints for between 1.33 and 2 cents per Flexpoint makes them one of the most reliable currencies around.
  5. Flexible Membership Rewards. Here the problem of transfer partner volatility is magnified by the eclectic range of partners Membership Rewards has. For example, in 2015 the transfer ratio to British Airways Avios dropped 20%, from 1000:1000 to 1000:800. Then in 2016 British Airways created a special exception to their distance-based award chart in order to charge between 33% (off-peak) and 60% (peak) more for business class flights between Boston and Dublin on Aer Lingus. Today, you may need to transfer 75,000 Membership Rewards points to Avios to pay for a flight that would have cost 37,500 Membership Rewards points before the two devaluations. This doesn't mean that Membership Rewards points themselves have radically decreased in value (how often do you fly between Boston and Dublin?), but the example illustrates the way in which their reliance on transfer partners for value introduces a lot of volatility into the value of their rewards currency, since they don't control their partners' award redemption rates.
  6. Southwest Rapid Rewards. Unlike a true fixed-value currency, Southwest Rapid Rewards points have fixed values only within each fare bucket: Wanna Get Away (between 1.4 and 1.6 cents), Anytime (about 1.1 cents), and Business Select (about 0.9 cents). That means that while you know you'll get one of those three values, which one you get depends on availability, reducing in my view the overall reliability of the program. Southwest enthusiasts avoid this problem by carefully watching the schedule and snapping up Wanna Get Away fares as soon as they become available, increasing the overall reliability of the program for them, at least for flights booked far enough in advance.
  7. World of Hyatt. According to the Hotel Hustle database of search results, the lowest value redemption at Hyatt properties is 0.91 cents per point (the median is 1.78 cents). If my Chase accounts were abruptly closed and I had to speculative transfer my entire Ultimate Rewards balance, I would choose World of Hyatt in a heartbeat. Hyatt doesn't have properties everywhere in the world, which makes it hard to rely on as a first-string hotel rewards program, but if there's a Hyatt in your destination you're exceedingly likely to get a good redemption value.
  8. Starwood Preferred Guest. Starwood has three different sources of value: their points can be redeemed for hotel stays at Starwood and Marriott, they can be transferred to airlines partners (either directly or through a Marriott Hotel + Air package), or they can be redeemed for revenue flights. That makes it almost impossible to get a bad value for your Starpoints, although it also causes the much more serious and common problem of hoarding Starpoints and being unwilling to redeem them for anything but the perfect redemption!
  9. Hilton Honors. As I've been discussing lately, the biggest effect of the recent changes to Hilton Honors is that they've apparently deliberately increased the reliability of the program. While there will always be sub-par redemptions in any non-fixed-value loyalty program, Hilton appears to have increased the number of properties where points redemptions make sense compared to paying cash rates.
  10. Legacy airline programs. I got into travel hacking at the very tail end of the period when, with flexibility and planning, it was still possible to fairly reliably book low-level domestic award tickets. Those days are over. Virtually all of my domestic travel today, in both economy and first class, are revenue tickets, not because revenue tickets have become cheaper but because award tickets have become completely unreliable as a means of booking domestic travel. International travel, especially on partners, hasn't seen quite as bad a gutting, and flexibility and planning still go a long way to booking flights overseas. Having access to legacy airline currencies through Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, and Starpoints is still a reasonable tactic in case you happen to find award availability, but I don't think it can be the cornerstone of a strategy any longer.

Conclusion

There you have it, my completely subjective top ten ranking of rewards programs by reliability. This is certainly not the only ranking possible: those whose travel regularly brings them to expensive cities with Starwood properties will find they're able to get consistent value from Starwood Preferred Guest, and those who live in cities with many international partner airlines will likely get more consistent value from legacy airline programs than I do. But today, a combination of cash back, Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards, and one or two strong hotel programs seems most likely to help you pay as little as possible for the trips you want to take.

I don't buy points, but maybe you should!

Every major loyalty program sells their points for cash, normally at a fixed rate through the industry-sponsored site Points.com.

For example, you can buy up to 60,000 Delta SkyMiles per calendar year for 3.76 cents each, up to 75,000 United MileagePlus miles for 3.76 cents each, up to 150,000 American AAdvantage miles for 3.19 cents each, and up to 60,000 Alaska Mileage Plan miles for 2.96 cents each.

Hotel programs likewise sell their points currencies for cash, with IHG Rewards Club selling up to 60,000 points for 1.15 cents each, Hilton HHonors selling 80,000 points for one cent each, Marriott Rewards selling up to 50,000 points for 1.25 cents each, Starwood Preferred Guest selling up to 30,000 points for 3.5 cents each, and Hyatt Gold Passport selling up to 55,000 points for 2.4 cents each.

Purchased points are too expensive for me

I don't personally buy miles or points because it's a more expensive way of acquiring miles and points than the other methods I have available.

United MileagePlus miles and Hyatt Gold Passport points cost just 1 cent each when purchased with Ultimate Rewards points transferred from a Chase Ink Plus account.

I happen to have a Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard, so if I ever needed to stock up on AAdvantage miles, I can do so for 2.105 cents each — the cash back I'd earn manufacturing the same unbonused spend on my Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard.

And of course I earn 6 HHonors points per dollar spent with my American Express Hilton HHonors Surpass card at grocery stores, so even compared to an "optimal" redemption rate of 2 cents per US Bank Flexpoint, I'm already buying HHonors points at a mere 0.67 cents each, 33% less than the 1 cent per point Hilton wants to charge.

Purchased points may make sense for you

As the examples above make clear, the decision whether to purchase miles and points or manufacture them rightly depends upon your next best alternative: your opportunity cost.

If you're currently manufacturing the bulk of your otherwise-unbonused spend on a 5% cash back card like the Wells Fargo Rewards Visa during the introductory promotional period, then manufacturing spend on a one-mile-per-dollar card costs not 2.105 cents per mile, but 5 cents per mile, 57% more than, for example, American is willing to sell them!

Likewise, if you have $100,000 on deposit with Bank of America, you might be earning 2.625% cash back with a BankAmericard Travel Rewards card. That may make purchasing Hyatt Gold Passport points at 2.4 cents each worthwhile, compared to manufacturing spend on a Chase Hyatt credit card.

Purchase small numbers of points for high-value, upcoming redemptions

While you usually see affiliate bloggers advocate buying large numbers of points speculatively when loyalty programs offer the highest bonuses on purchased points (bringing down the cost per point), I have exactly the opposite view.

If you find yourself with an upcoming, high-value redemption, and don't have the time to manufacture the required points, then go ahead and buy them. Paying "too much" per point, if it drastically brings down your total out-of-pocket cost, makes perfect sense: the goal isn't to pay as little as possible per point, it's to spend as little money as possible on the trips you actually want to take!

But the money you spend speculatively buying miles for redemptions you don't actually have planned could almost invariably be better spent building a credit card and manufacturing spend strategy that generates the trips you want to take at far lower out-of-pocket expense.