The current Choice Privileges promotion is so stupid I expect it to become the norm

I was rummaging around on my Hotel Promotions page (check it out if you have any upcoming stays; current promotions are running as late as June 4, 2019) and noticed some funny language in the terms and conditions of the current Choice Privileges promotion. Once I understood what was going on, I groaned at both the idiocy and genius of the promotion design.

The first “top-up” promotion I’ve seen

How the Choice Privileges promotion works is that you are guaranteed to receive a total of at least 8,000 points when you complete two qualifying stays (a qualifying stay being one booked through the website, app, or over the phone). Your stays should still be eligible for the promotion if you book through an online shopping portal, where Choice has quite broad participation. You’re also guaranteed to receive a minimum of 5,000 bonus points. Here’s what the terms and conditions say:

“Registered members will be awarded a minimum of 5,000 to a maximum of 8,000 bonus points after the second qualifying stay. The number of bonus points awarded depends on the number of base points earned from the two separate qualifying stays, with points varying by hotel. The total of base points plus bonus points awarded, however, will be at least 8,000 points.”

To see how this works, take a real-life example: my two-night stay at the Quality Inn Harpers Ferry in October of last year. I paid $236.55 in room charges on that stay, which as a non-elite member earned me 2,360 Choice Privileges points (I guess they’re so stingy they round down).

If I’d had a second, identical stay, I’d earn another 2,360 points, for a total of 4,720 points, leaving me 3,280 points shy of the 8,000 minimum total points. In that case, I’d earn the promotion minimum of 5,000 bonus points, for a total of 9,720 points. If I’d booked a room rate half as expensive, earning just 2,360 points on my two stays, I’d earn 5,640 bonus points, for a total of 8,000 base points plus bonus points.

As this example makes clear, the value of the promotion (as opposed to the value of the program itself) is higher the lower your room rate: 640 bonus points higher.

A promotion design this dumb has to be a sign

Once I realized what was going on, I knew immediately this won’t be an isolated promotion. After all, despite the assurances of airline executives that they’ll never lose money ever again, nothing has fundamentally changed about the airline industry: it requires enormous, up-front, long-term capital investments and finances those investments by selling individual tickets to customers that are extremely sensitive to prices and the overall condition of the economy.

In other words, when the next recession comes, airlines will lose money hand over fist, just like they have in every previous recession, and will do anything possible to get more customers on their planes. The “rationalization” of frequent flyer programs into revenue-based earning will go out the window, and airlines will start shoveling miles towards anyone willing to buy a ticket.

The “top-up” promotion model is optimized to precisely target the marginal traveler: the airline can still award you 5 miles per dollar you spend on airfare, but, for example, guarantee you’ll receive at least one redeemable mile per mile traveled. Last-minute and business travelers can be handed a nominal minimum (like the 5,000-point minimum Choice is offering), while those buying cheap tickets and without elite status can have their balance “topped up” to the promotion maximum.

My version of the co-branded paradox

I was listening to the latest episode of the new Milenomics² podcast, which everyone should subscribe to, and sign up for bonus Patreon content from, and the hosts brought up what they call the “co-branded paradox.” By this they mean the counter-intuitive way that even if you like staying at Hyatt properties, or like flying on Delta, your best bet for a credit card to use on everyday spend is probably not a Hyatt or Delta co-branded credit card.

That’s for the simple reason that while those cards may offer other worthwhile benefits, they actually earn points at a lower rate than other available options. A Chase World of Hyatt credit card may be worth carrying for the annual free night, but for non-bonused spend you’d be better off using a Freedom Unlimited card, which earns 50% more Ultimate Rewards points. At restaurants, the World of Hyatt card earns 2 points per dollar, but so does the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which allows you to transfer your points to Hyatt or any of Chase’s other transfer partners.

Likewise, you might want to carry a Delta Platinum card for the annual companion ticket or to take advantage of free checked bags, but that card only earns 1 SkyMile per dollar spent, while a no-annual fee Amex EveryDay earns 1.2 Membership Rewards points everywhere when you use the card 20 times per month (and the $95 EveryDay Preferred earns 1.5 points everywhere when you use it 30 times per month).

This is even more true in the case of products like the Chase IHG Rewards Club credit cards, which earn just 1 point per dollar spent on unbonused purchases: the more you value IHG Rewards Club points, the less you should be willing to spend on their co-branded credit cards, for the simple reason that a simple 2% cash back credit card earns almost 3 points per dollar, given that points can be purchased year-round for 0.7 cents or less.

All this produces a simple conclusion: get co-branded credit cards if you like their benefits, but don’t use them for actual purchases, where you can earn more points, more valuable points, or both using other products.

This is fine as far as it goes, but I actually think the logic of the co-branded paradox can be taken one step further.

Put everyday purchases on the card that earns the least useful rewards

What listening to the Milenomics podcast got me thinking about was the fact that most frequent travelers are usually already optimizing their earning of their most useful loyalty currencies. If you’re a paid business traveler that likes flying on United, you’re already earning United miles every time you fly. The fact that you like flying United shouldn’t encourage you to earn more United miles because your paid travel is already taking care of that. Likewise if you’re spending 55 nights a year at Hyatt properties for work, you’re likely already earning somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 points per year, plus two annual free nights (at the 30-night and 55-night thresholds) and any points earned from seasonal promotions.

To me, this is the real co-branded paradox: if your paid travel and manufactured spend are already optimized around the most useful rewards currencies, then your everyday spend should be going to the least useful rewards currencies, the ones that are nice to have lying around but that you don’t count on for your major travel needs.

A few examples off the top of my head:

  • Barclaycard Choice Privileges Visa. If you’re like me, you don’t stay at Choice Hotels properties very often. But when you do want to stay at a Choice Hotel, you can get terrific value from having a handful of Choice Privileges points lying around.

  • Bank of America Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard. This is another card that doesn’t make any sense to put hundreds of thousands of dollars in spend on, but if you do like to occasionally ride on Amtrak, you might like to have 20 or 30 thousand points kicking around so you don’t have to pay cash for what would be an especially high-value redemption, like 2.9 cent-per-point long-haul sleeper accommodations.

  • US Bank Radisson Rewards cards. I don’t carry any of these cards anymore because, with the exception of the Radisson Blu Aqua in Chicago, I have mostly found Radisson properties to be trash heaps. However, if you do still carry any of these cards due to their anniversary point bonanzas, you might also consider using them for everyday spend, earning as they do 5 points per dollar on unbonused spend.


Of course in one sense I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek: obviously you shouldn’t prioritize earning less-useful currencies over more-useful currencies. But this is another way of expressing my long-standing observation that people really are inclined to earn too much, and redeem too little, of the currencies they consider most valuable. If there’s one good thing about the end of the Starwood Preferred Guest program it will be that we won’t have to listen to people complain that Starpoints are “too valuable to redeem” ever again!

If you’re maxing out a couple of Ink Plus cards at office supply stores every year and sitting on a million Ultimate Rewards points already, then I think it can make perfect sense to put away the Freedom Unlimited card when you go out to eat and pulling out something a little more exotic. Not because Amtrak Guest Rewards points are more valuable than Ultimate Rewards points in the abstract, but because they might be more valuable to you at the frontier you are personally operating at.

More digging under the hood of Choice Privileges

The difficult thing about writing about Choice Privileges is that they have so many properties it can be tough to know precisely where to focus: the 6,000-point Quality Inn in Wilsonville, Oregon, the 30,000-point Port Inn Kennebunk in Maine, the 35,000-point Quality Hotel View in Malmo, Sweden, or the 55,000-point "Preferred Hotels & Resorts" Myconian Naia in Mykonos, Greece?

That being said, let's see what we can say about the value proposition of the program as a whole.

The Choice Privileges Visa Signature Card has a strong earning rate on unbonused spend

Barclaycard used to issue Wyndham Rewards credit cards that earned two points per dollar spent everywhere. Before 2015, that wasn't particularly remarkable: Hilton Honors cards earn 3 points per dollar spent everywhere, Marriott Rewards cards will soon offer 2 points per dollar spent everywhere, and so on. The important question is always a card's earning rate compared to the cost of redemptions you actually want to make. But in 2015, that changed: all Wyndham properties now cost 15,000 points per night, which means legacy cardholders can stay at any Wyndham in the world for just $7,500 in unbonused spend.

While Choice Privileges isn't as generous as Wyndham, they do have a "flatter" rewards structure than many other programs:

  • a bottom-tier Choice Privileges property costs 6,000 points, or $3,000 in unbonused spend, while a bottom-tier Hilton property costs 10,000 points ($3,333 in unbonused spend) and a bottom-tier Marriott property costs 7,500 points ($3,750 in unbonused spend).
  • a top-tier standard Choice property, which I consider the equivalent of a mid-tier Hilton or Marriott property, costs 35,000 points, or $17,500 in unbonused spend, while a mid-tier Hilton property costs 40,000-60,000 points ($13,333-$20,000 in spend) and a mid-tier Marriott property costs roughly 30,000 points ($15,000 in spend).
  • the most expensive Preferred Hotels & Resorts properties cost 55,000 Choice Privileges points ($27,500 in spend), while top-tier Hilton properties cost 95,000 points ($31,667 in spend) and peak top-tier Marriott properties will eventually cost 100,000 points ($50,000 in spend).

I want to note that in this analysis I'm actually tilting the playing field slightly away from Choice. There are New York City properties (in Brooklyn, not New Jersey) that are bookable today for 6,000 Choice Privileges points per night, and in Manhattan for as little as 12,000 points per night. Neither Marriott nor Hilton offer anything like those rates, with Marriott starting at 35,000 and Hilton starting at 70,000 points per night.

Earnings on paid stays are relatively weak

The Barclays Choice Privileges Visa earns 5 points per dollar spent at Choice Privileges properties, or 2.5 times the unbonused earning rate. Compare that to:

  • 4 points per dollar spent at Hyatt properties with the Chase World of Hyatt credit card (4 times the unbonused rate);
  • 12 points per dollar spent at Hilton properties with the American Express Hilton Honors Ascend card (4 times the unbonused rate);
  • 6 points per dollar spent at Marriott properties with the Marriott Rewards Premier Plus and Starwood Preferred Guest credit cards (3 times the unbonused rate).

Unless you're fully committed to Choice Privileges as your primary hotel program, you're almost certainly better off putting paid stays on a more valuable card like a Chase Ink Plus that earns 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on hotel stays, or charging your paid stays to a cashback card like the Bank of America Travel Rewards card with Platinum Honors Preferred Rewards status.

Choice is currently running a timeshare scam you might want to get in on

Like many hotel chains, Choice operates a "vacation ownership" (timeshare) company as well, and you can redeem your Choice Privileges points at those properties. They're currently running a promotion at 6 of those properties where you can redeem 16,000 points for a two-night stay (which would otherwise cost 32,000 points) and receive a $50 MasterCard gift card, in exchange for sitting through a 2-hour sales pitch and going on a tour.

I don't see any limitations on participation (as long as you're 25 years old), so I think you could theoretically visit all 6 properties at the discounted rate and earn $300 in gift cards for your trouble.


Choice Privileges is the first program I've considered adding to my travel hacking practice in a long time. I've mostly been happy using a combination of Chase Ultimate Rewards, US Bank Flexpoints, and Hilton Honors for virtually all of my travel. However, I think adding Choice Privileges to my arsenal will help fill in the gaps where Hyatt properties aren't available and Hilton offers only their standard 0.5 cent per point redemptions, allowing me to save those points for higher-value luxury redemptions.

I'm not terribly impressed with most of Choice's brands, but even focusing exclusively on their Ascend and Cambria hotels, putting $10,000 or so per month of spend on their no-annual-fee co-branded credit card will open up access to a vast number of properties offering outstanding imputed redemption values. Fortunately, I've always had a good relationship with Barclays, so I'm optimistic I won't have any trouble getting approved with a decent credit line.

A positive change to Choice Privileges

A few years back I went on a bit of a kick about Choice Privileges, the loyalty program of Choice Hotels International. My conclusion was that while the program wasn't for me, its very low starting redemptions (just 6,000 points per night) and decent earning potential on the Barclaycard Choice Privileges Visa made it a decent option for some folks under some circumstances.

One of the key problems with the program was their terrible award availability, since they allowed non-elite members to book award nights just 30 days in advance, which basically required non-elite members to book backup reservations at other properties in the hopes award space would still be available when the 30-day mark came around.

The other day, reader rap commented that Choice had changed their award booking policy: now, all members have access to the same 100-day award window.

And it turns out, rap was right! I've been plugging in award searches for late November (100 days from now) and have found award night availability in destinations like London, Paris, San Francisco, Tokyo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, and so on at virtually every Choice Hotels property in each city, with just a few claiming they're already "sold out."

I haven't found a single property charging more than 35,000 points per night, a $350 imputed redemption value if you're earning Choice Privileges points on unbonused spend with their co-branded Barclaycard credit card, which earns 2 points per dollar everywhere.

In principle their terms still say properties in Australasia can cost up to 75,000 points per night but I'm not sure which property or properties that is supposed to apply to. I wasn't able to find any such properties in Australia or New Zealand.


The most stunning thing about Choice Hotels International is still their comprehensive footprint — they're everywhere. Good award availability and a global footprint makes them worth thinking about for folks who rely on unbonused manufactured spend and don't worry about the perks of elite status (many Choice Hotels seem to include breakfast for all guests anyway, and you can always ask for late checkout).

As long as you're willing to speculatively book awards exactly 100 days in advance, I think Choice Privileges has been upgraded from a solid to a great choice for no-frills hotel stays in every corner of the globe.

Don't retire to hotels, live in them!

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, 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:

  1. I used the actual municipality given by CBS News/, 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);
  2. 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.
  3. 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;
  4. 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.

One-time opportunity to buy 450,000 Choice Privileges points for $1,600

Via Drew at Travel is Free, until December 8, 2015, there's a one-time opportunity to buy 450,000 Choice Privileges points for $1,600. That's not exactly how Drew framed it, so I'll walk through the essential elements of the deal.

Chase Ultimate Rewards transfers to Amtrak end December 8, 2015

Through December 7, 2015, it is possible to buy Amtrak Guest Rewards points for 1 cent each by transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards points (worth 1 cent each when redeemed for cash) to Amtrak Guest Rewards.

Amtrak Guest Rewards Select and Select Plus elites can transfer up to 50,000 points to Choice Privileges per calendar year

One Amtrak Guest Rewards point can be exchanged for 3 Choice Privileges points, but only if you have elite status with Amtrak Guest Rewards, which starts at 5,000 Tier Qualifying Points.

The Bank of America Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard earns both Amtrak Guest Rewards points and Tier Qualifying Points

The $79-annual-fee Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard earns 20,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points after spending $1,000 within 90 days of account opening.

It also earns 1,000 Tier Qualifying Points each time you spend $5,000 with the card, up to 4,000 Tier Qualifying Points per calendar year.

Finally, it earns 1 Amtrak Guest Rewards point per dollar spent.

Buy 450,000 Choice Privileges points for $1,600

Here's how this one-time opportunity works:

  1. Transfer 110,000 Ultimate Rewards points to Amtrak Guest Rewards ($1,100 cash value);
  2. Sign up for the Bank of America Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard ($79 annual fee);
  3. Spend $20,000 with the MasterCard ($421 opportunity cost compared to 2.105% cash back on unbonused spend);
  4. Earn an additional 1,000 Tier Qualifying Points;
  5. Transfer 50,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points to Choice Privileges in each of 2015, 2016, and 2017 (before your elite status expires on February 28, 2017).

You'll end up with 450,000 Choice Privileges points (well, hopefully you'll be redeeming them as you go, since Choice Privileges points do expire) after having paid $1,600 in fees and foregone cash back.

Should you do this?

I went on something of a Choice Privileges tear back in July, and had a lot of fun researching and writing about the program. The key thing I learned was that there are a lot of Choice Privileges properties in the world.

The second thing I learned was that properties start at 6,000 Choice Privileges points per night.

In other words, for your $1,600 you could buy 75 nights at a 6,000-point property ($21 per night) or 56 nights at an 8,000-point property ($29 per night).

Alternatively, you could buy 7 nights at a 60,000-point Preferred Hotels & Resorts property, paying $228 per night for a property like the Hotel Monaco & Grand Canal in Venice, which retails for over 350 Euros per night in June.

Just keep in mind you won't have the final 150,000 Choice Privileges points until January, 2017, which makes this what we call a "long con."


I'm normally pretty blasé about deals like this which require large up-front cash investments and only speculative returns later on.

But this is a deal I'm actually tempted to jump on! Keep in mind that the only truly time-sensitive part of the deal is the transfer to Amtrak Guest Rewards by December 7, 2015. You can transfer any number of points speculatively now, and then follow steps 2-5 of the technique next year, allowing you to make transfers in 2016, 2017, and early 2018.

Of course, if you naturally earn Amtrak Guest Rewards points and elite status through your travel, the deal is even sweeter, allowing you to transfer just enough Ultimate Rewards points to allow you to maximize the next three years' Choice Privileges transfer limits.

Finally, remember to redeem the points you earn! If you commit to this technique and end up with hundreds of thousands of Choice Privileges points, don't let yourself be stingy with them while you wait for the perfect redemption to come along — stay at Choice Hotels properties!

Retiring to hotels: good idea, or great idea?

After a prominent miles-and-points blogger cast off the chains of the rental housing market I wrote a light-hearted piece about manufacturing enough spend to, with the help of the Club Carlson last-night-free benefit, spend 30 days in one of their Category 1 properties.

Since that benefit can no longer be used on new reservations, I thought I'd revisit the topic, but cast a wider net this time: how many points would be needed to live in each chain's cheapest properties year-round? In other words, should you retire to hotels?

Starwood Preferred Guest

As a rule I don't find Starwood Preferred Guest's co-branded American Express card to be a great way to manufacture points for hotel stays (it's great for manufacturing Alaska Mileage Plan and American AAdvantage miles). The exception is Category 1 and 2 hotels, where weekday nights cost 3,000 and 4,000 Starpoints and weekend nights cost 2,000 and 3,000 Starpoints, respectively.

That puts the weekly cost of a Category 1 stay at 19,000 Starpoints. Manufacturing those Starpoints has an opportunity cost of $380 — that's how much you'd earn using a 2% cash back card, instead. So what can we get for a little over $1,520 in monthly rent?

Well, there are a lot of Category 1 properties in China and India. Since we're retiring, beaches should be considered, like the Four Points by Sheraton Puntacana Village in the Dominican Republic, where $1,520 is little over a 50% discount for the dates I checked in September. The Sheraton Ambassador Hotel in Monterrey is "within walking distance of the city center." But the winner for me is the Sheraton Catania Hotel & Conference Center in Sicily, which actually looks extremely comfortable. It's a bit of a hike to the city center, but it's important to stay active in retirement.

Retirement savings: 912,000 Starpoints annually ($18,240 in imputed redemption value).

Hilton HHonors

Unlike Starwood Preferred Guest, Hilton HHonors their elites the fifth night free on all award stays — including Category 1 stays. That makes five-night stays at Category 1 properties cost just 20,000 HHonors points, or $3,333 in manufactured spend at gas stations or grocery stores.

With 5-night Category 1 redemptions having an imputed redemption value of $66, our monthly rent will be 120,000 HHonors points or $400 in foregone cash back. But what does that get us?

Hilton's Category 1 properties actually include a few Hiltons, like the Hilton Alexandria King's Ranch and Hilton Hurghada Resort, so if you're really committed to Peter Thomas Roth bath products those are options. In Poland you have your choice of the Hampton by Hilton Krakow and Hilton Garden Inn Rzeszow, while over the border in Russia you can stay at the Hilton Garden Inn Ufa Riverside or Hampton by Hilton Samara. Personally, I'm leaning towards the Hampton by Hilton Panama, which seems to have a pretty good location in downtown Panama City. $400 per month is a roughly 85% discount off retail for the dates I checked, and in fact on the dates I checked HHonors redemptions gave an astonishing 2.17 cents per HHonors point.

Retirement savings: 1,440,000 HHonors points annually ($4,800 in imputed redemption value).

Marriott Rewards

Marriott offers the fifth night free on all redemptions, even for non-elites, so five-night Category 1 stays cost 30,000 Marriott Rewards points.

Since Marriott Rewards points cost one cent each when purchased with flexible Ultimate Rewards points, but 2 cents each in foregone cash back when manufactured using a Marriott Rewards co-branded credit card, we're realistically looking at 180,000 Ultimate Rewards points per month, or $1,800 in monthly rent. Are there any properties that would make that redemption worthwhile?

The Courtyard Kazan Kremlin has a nice location right on Karl Marx Street, but $1,800 will rent you a lot of house in Kazan, and I suspect that's true of most of Marriott's Category 1 properties.

Retirement savings: 2,160,000 Marriott Rewards points annually ($21,600 in Ultimate Rewards points).

Hyatt Gold Passport

While Hyatt redemptions start at 5,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points, they don't offer a fifth night free, so it'll cost us 150,000 Ultimate Rewards points per month to live in a Category 1 property — a $1,500 value.

The Hyatt Regency Kuantan Resort in Malaysia looks superb, as does the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu, and neither is so isolated that you'd be stuck buying food in the hotel, plus Hyatt Diamond elites would receive free breakfast at either property. The Hyatt Regency Bali is currently being renovated, but when it reopens it should be beautiful — if it's still a Category 1 property!

Retirement savings: 1,800,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points annually ($18,000 in Ultimate Rewards points).

IHG Rewards

Here the situation is even bleaker, since Category 1 properties cost 10,000 IHG Rewards points per night, and there's no fifth night free benefit. Instead you can chase the 5,000-point PointsBreaks list around the world, in which case the math is the same as above, since IHG Rewards is also a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards.

The current PointsBreaks list includes gems like the Holiday Inn Andorra and Holiday Inn Trnava, in Slovakia.

Retirement savings: 3,600,000/1,800,000 IHG Rewards points annually ($36,000/$18,000 in Ultimate Rewards points).

Club Carlson

Category 1 Club Carlson nights cost 9,000 Gold Points, or $1,800 in manufactured spend per night. At a $36 nightly imputed redemption value, our monthly rent will be a little over $1,000. Not as bad as Marriott, Hyatt, or IHG, but also not great.

The Park Inn by Radisson Budapest (where I have a reservation next June) has a great location, and I've enjoyed all the Park Inns I've stayed at so far. There are two Radisson Blu properties, the Radisson Blu Resort, El Quseir in Egypt and Radisson Blu Hotel, Mersin in Turkey. Both are great deals at $36 per night. I like the Country Inn & Suites By Carlson, San Jose, Costa Rica, since it includes breakfast, but it's not terribly close to downtown San Jose.

Retirement savings: 3,240,000 Gold Points annually ($12,960 in imputed redemption value).

Choice Privileges

Choice Privileges hotels start at 6,000 points, which can theoretically be earned for as little as 2,000 Ultimate Rewards points if you're able to transfer Amtrak Guest Rewards points to Choice Privileges. At $20 per night we can figure $600 in monthly rent, the second-lowest value so far, after Hilton HHonors. To get that value month after month, however, you'd need to first rail run your Amtrak elite status up to Select Executive status, which allows you to transfer an unlimited number of Amtrak Guest Rewards points to their hotel partners.

Choice Privileges doesn't share a consolidated list of their properties by point cost, so it takes a little bit of work on AwardMapper to find 6000-point properties.

In Sweden, the Quality Inn Hotel Prince Philip offers a free buffet breakfast, and $600 is a steal in famously-expensive Scandinavia. The Clarion Suites Roatan at Pineapple Villas seems like a lovely resort in Honduras, although close-in availability was spotty for the dates I checked. Personally, I'd probably splurge the extra $200 monthly and move into the Clarion Congress Hotel Prague, an 8,000-point property.

Retirement savings: 2,160,000 Choice Privileges points ($7,200 in Ultimate Rewards points, with Amtrak Select Executive status).


This was a fun exercise, but there are a few problems which make it impractical to permanently retire to hotels, as opposed to moving into one for a month or two. First, you face the problem of award availability: at chains that don't guarantee standard room availability, you might be stuck paying cash for a hotel room if award availability suddenly dries up. Second, over the longer term you face the risk of devaluations: properties themselves can move up or down in award categories and new categories can be introduced, but rewards programs also sometimes go through wholesale devaluations, for example shifting to a revenue-based redemption model that would leave you stuck with much less valuable points.

Still, if I ever need to spend a month in Krakow, I know where I'll be spending it!

Let's go rail running!

Earlier this year, Frequent Miler wrote about the possibility of achieving Amtrak elite status through "rail running:" boarding trains for the sole purpose of earning enough Tier Qualifying Points with Amtrak Guest Rewards to achieve "Select" status, which allows the transfer of up to 50,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points to their hotel partners, Choice Privileges and Hilton HHonors.

Being based in Ann Arbor, Frequent Miler couldn't make the numbers work out for himself, but after writing about Choice Hotels a few times recently, I wondered under what circumstances rail running could make sense.

Making rail running work

Here are the basics of rail running for Amtrak elite status:

  • 5,000 Tier Qualifying Points are required to earn Amtrak Guest Rewards Select status;
  • 2 Tier Qualifying Points are earned per dollar spent on Amtrak fares, except;
  • each one-way trip earns a minimum of 100 Tier Qualifying Points, but;
  • a maximum of 4 one-way trips per calendar day are eligible for the 100-Tier-Qualifying-Point minimum.

The ideal rail run, then, is two one-way tickets in one direction, followed immediately by two one-way tickets back to your starting location. That means you need to find three stations which are close to each other in one direction and a train schedule that keeps you from having to wait very long at the second station you arrive at.

Do such stations and such a schedule, along with cheap enough prices to justify rail running, exist?

A few promising station constellations

There are a number of promising station constellations (three stations closely packed together) on the Pacific Surfliner route in California. Here's one:

  • Oceanside, CA (OSD) — Carlsbad, CA - Village (CBV) — Carlsbad, CA - Poinsettia (POI)

Tickets for each leg cost $8.10 for AAA members on the random December day I checked, for a total cost of Select status of $405. Unfortunately the schedule doesn't allow for an immediate turn in either direction (although if you go northbound POI-CBV-OSD and then turn around you may be able to rely on the southbound train being delayed as it nears the end of its route — it only has to be delayed 6 minutes for you to make the connection).

Another candidate on the same Pacific Surfliner route is SNA-ANA-FUL, at the same price.

Down South, the City of New Orleans has a slightly longer, but cheaper option:

  • Hazlehurst, MS (HAZ) — Brookhaven, MS (BRH) — McComb, MS (MCB)

AAA tickets on the same random December day cost $4.95 and $7.20, for a roundtrip cost of $24.30, or $303.75 for Amtrak Select status. Same-day turns only work starting Southbound, which would give you a leisurely 3 hour lunch in McComb, Mississippi.

Here's an easy one for our brothers in Philadelphia on the Keystone Service:

  • Philadelphia, PA (PHL) — Ardmore, PA (ARD) — Paoli, PA (PAO)

Each leg costs $5.85 for AAA members, for a roundtrip cost of $23.40 and $292.50 for Amtrak Guest Rewards Select elite status. Best of all, the train operates frequently enough that you should be able to put together an easy same-day turn, for example departing Philadelphia at 4:45 PM and returning to Philadelphia at 6:25 PM.

Amtrak Guest Rewards points are valuable!

So far I haven't mentioned the fact that during the course of all this rail running, you'll also be earning redeemable Amtrak Guest Rewards points! At least 5,000 of them, in fact.

And since the point of this operation is to transfer your Amtrak Guest Rewards points to Choice Privileges, you have to assign those redeemable points at least $50 in value, since that's the cash value of the Ultimate Rewards points you'll save. In other words, to max out your annual 50,000 in Amtrak Guest Rewards points transfers to Choice Privileges, you only have to transfer 45,000 Ultimate Rewards points to Amtrak.

If you are thinking about rail running, wait until Amtrak runs a promotion

Amtrak periodically offers double points on paid travel, their so-called "Double Days" promotions. The last Double Days promotion ran from March 16 to May 16, 2015. If you wait until the next one, you'll be able to score even more redeemable points, saving yourself the corresponding number of Ultimate Rewards points when the time comes to transfer them into your Amtrak Guest Rewards account.


Researching this post was a lot of fun, but I fully understand most of my readers are not actually going to go rail running in order to achieve Amtrak elite status. Nonetheless, I think it's an idea that's more defensible than it appears at first blush, especially if you have your heart set on one of Choice Privileges' Preferred Hotels & Resorts.

If you decide to go rail running, remember: you need to book two one-ways in each direction to earn the maximum of 400 Tier Qualifying Points each day, and the goal of the game is finding the cheapest trips and shortest turnaround times possible!

Fun with Choice Privileges Preferred Hotels & Resorts

On Friday I wrote a quick rundown on the basics of redeeming Choice Privileges points at their thousands of hotels all over the world at reasonable cost, compared to the big chains I usually write about. Readers were quick to point out that I had missed a key value proposition of the Choice Privileges program, which is their Preferred Hotels & Resorts collection. So let's rectify that today.

Preferred Hotels & Resorts can be more expensive than normal Choice properties

The Preferred Hotels & resorts collection cost between 30,000 and 60,000 Choice Privileges points per night, and each property's cost does not vary by season (indeed I don't know if it varies even from year to year).

Preferred Hotels & Resorts availability can be checked online...

Just navigate to the Participating Hotels page and click on "check availability" next to the property that interests you. There are three kinds of availability: "No Availability," "Availability," and "Minimum Stay Required."

At the property I looked at (Pier 2620 Fisherman's Wharf) the minimum stay requirement for many nights was 3 nights for arrivals on the given night, while earlier arrivals could stay through the restricted nights. Those restrictions likely vary by property.

...but cannot be booked online

To book a Preferred Hotels & Resorts property, you need to call the appropriate booking phone number. For US residents, it's 888-770-6800.

How do Preferred Hotels & Resorts compare?

With that out of the way, let's see if we can get any value from this program.

There are two easy places to watch for outsized value from this program: at the low, 30,000-point-per-night level and the high, 60,000-point-per-night level.

At the low level we see an imputed redemption value of $333 per night, which is competitive with low-to-mid-tier properties in all the chains but Hilton (it's competitive with top-tier Hilton properties).

At the high level, 50,000- and 60,000-point redemptions are competitive with mid-to-top-tier properties in all the chains but Hilton (where imputed redemption values top out at $352 per night).

At the bottom end I wasn't able to find any properties that cost more than $333 per night for a random date in August I searched. That doesn't mean they don't exist, but I certainly wouldn't stockpile Choice Privileges points on the off-chance of finding one.

At the top end, Drew at Travel is Free conveniently assembled 31 Preferred Hotel & Resort properties bookable with Choice Privileges points, all of which are among the top 500 hotels in the world, apparently according to Travel and Leisure. My value added is searching for prices at all 31 properties and seeing whether any are, in fact, good deals at 50,000 or 60,000 Choice Privileges points.

These are the only two of Drew's 31 properties where I found nightly rates exceeding the properties' imputed redemption values:

  • Montage Beverly Hills – 60,000 points
  • Montage Laguna Beach – 60,000 points

That's not to say that the other properties aren't nice, or expensive. They're just not expensive enough to justify manufacturing the spend required to stay there on a Choice Privileges co-branded credit card (for the dates I searched).

Squaring the circle: the Amtrak co-branded credit card and Amtrak elite status

As Drew points out when he writes about Choice Privileges, the key to maximizing the program is not earning Choice Privileges points through hotel stays or through co-branded credit card earning. The key is transferring points from Amtrak Guest Rewards to Choice Privileges at an extremely favorable ratio: 5,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards point can be converted into 15,000 Choice Privileges points, and Amtrak Guest Rewards is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards.

In other words, it's possible to buy Choice Privileges points for a third of a cent each (rather than 1.1 cents each) by transferring your Ultimate Rewards points first to Amtrak, then to Choice Privileges.

But there a catch.

According to Amtrak's website:

"Members that are active cardholders of the Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard issued by Chase Bank with an Amtrak travel spend on the card of over $200 per calendar year may redeem up to 25,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points per calendar year for hotel points and Audience Rewards.

"Current Amtrak Guest Rewards Select or Select Plus Members...may redeem up to 50,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points per calendar year for hotel points and Audience Rewards.

"Current Amtrak Guest Rewards Select Executive Members...are not subject to point limits when redeeming for hotel points and Audience Rewards."

Since the Amtrak Guest Rewards co-branded credit card is no longer available for new applicants, unless you already have the card, you'll need Amtrak elite status in order to take advantage of Amtrak Guest Rewards points transfers to Choice Privileges.

[update 7/13/15]

Here's the actual dollar cost of Choice Privileges properties when transferring Ultimate Rewards points to Choice through Amtrak:

Choice Privileges is a weird loyalty program

On Monday I wrote for the first time about Choice Privileges, the loyalty program of Choice Hotels International. They have a seemingly generous rewards program, with their Barclaycard-issued Choice Privileges Visa Signature card earning 2 Choice Privileges points per dollar spent everywhere, and reward nights starting at just 6,000 points, but the program is weird enough to explore in depth before diving in.

Choice Privileges does not have an award chart

The range of points required for redemptions at Choice Privileges hotels is located nowhere on the Choice Privileges website.

But the points required for an award night at any given hotel is not a secret! Anyone can search for Choice Privileges hotels in a given city and select "Choice Privileges Reward Night" as the rate type. You'll see all the Choice properties in the city and their points cost (if rooms are available).

Choice Privileges reward nights cannot be booked far in advance

Choice Privileges includes in their "Rules and Regulations" the following restriction:

"Members who have not yet achieved Elite Status must make their free night reservation personally through the Program Line or through their online account no more than 30 days prior to planned arrival for stays in their country of residence. Sixty days prior to their planned arrival at all other locations worldwide."

Needless to say, this is not how most hotel loyalty programs work.

Co-branded credit cardholders do get to book nights 50 days in advance, which may allow them to steal a march on non-elite, non-cardholders.

Choice Privileges has hotels everywhere

It is genuinely weird looking at how many properties this chain I've never had any interest in has all over the world. Use Award Mapper to check out cities you're interested in and marvel at all the little orange dots.

Choice's "no blackout date" policy is meaningless

Many hotel chains have poorly-enforced or disingenuous "no blackout date" policies. Here is Choice's (although from context it apparently only applies to "Points Plus Cash" reservations):

"There are no blackout dates.  Restrictions, taxes and fees apply.  There are over 1,500 Choice hotels with reward nights available at 8,000 points or less.  Reward night locations worldwide are available from 6,000 to 35,000 points (excluding Australasia, where reward nights are available up to 75,000 points)."

There's no enforcement mechanism. There's no explanation. There's no guarantee at all. And indeed, it can be pretty tough to find award availability at some properties, especially within 30 days.

Choice Privileges could be the best loyalty program for many travelers

I don't have the same focus on luxury travel many bloggers — and, to be honest, many of my readers — do. But I also don't have the attitude of those who say "I don't care about my hotel — it's just somewhere to sleep." I care about my hotels a lot because I spend a lot of time in them! Hotels are fun! And after spending a week researching Choice properties around the world, I don't think Choice hotels are for me.

But if you're looking for a single loyalty program that will have properties virtually everywhere you go, and a credit card that doesn't require you to navigate bonus categories, you could do a lot worse than Choice Privileges and its co-branded Barclaycard-issued Visa Signature card. Here's the imputed redemption value table I posted on Monday:

Those imputed redemption values are low, and they're especially low in the context of where properties fall within the Choice Privileges category distribution. Here are some downtown properties in Sydney, Australia, according to Award Mapper:

The 16,000 point Econo Lodge (actually the Hotel Harry, an Ascend Hotel Collection member — I believe Award Mapper's Choice Privileges database is out-of-date) wins with a $178 IRV, compared to the Hilton's $222-$259 (depending on season) IRV, the Park Hyatt's $666 IRV (or $300 in Ultimate Rewards points), and the Radisson's $222 IRV.

It's easy to find cheaper hotels in Sydney in July (it's winter down there), but in the Southern summer paying $178 for what seems like a perfectly nice downtown hotel will seem like a steal — if you can find award availability at that rate!