Based on “fuzzy” math and very bad assumptions, self-anointed ‘thought leader in travel’, Gary Leff, has repeatedly claimed that “the base earning for Hilton Honors is less rewarding than at other major chains”. However, just simple common sense would easily show the claim to be without merit. More rigorously, there are at least a couple of deficiencies with his underlying arguments: (a) the claim is based on his own subjective valuation of hotel points currencies, meaning that the claim’s merit depends on whose valuations one trusts; and (b) undoubtedly to enable him to reach his pre-ordained conclusion, Leff did not include in his estimates of base earnings bonus points from each program’s top-earning co-branded credit card. In short, for Leff’s claim to have any merit, one has to (a) subscribe to his subjective valuation of points currencies, and (b) be stupid enough to pay cash for revenue stays, instead of using a co-branded credit card to maximize one’s earning. The likelihood that either (a) or (b) or both is true is close to nil.
Fortunately, there is an infinitely better way to estimate and compare different hotel loyalty programs’ base earnings that does not rely on any assumptions or on subjective valuations of points currencies. It is based on estimating the size of the “rebate” for future free stays that one gets for spending real money.
So, here we go. The modeling will be done only for top elites and the most expensive (i.e., “aspirational”) awards in each program because that is where there is clear differentiation among programs. However, the results do generally scale pretty well up and down the award charts and with elite level.
Class is now in session for some easy math…
First, The Real Data
1. On-property base earn rates for top BONVoY, HHonors and WoH elites, excluding co-branded CC bonus points:
Marriott: 17.5 pts/$
Hilton: 20 pts/$
Hyatt: 6.5 pts/$
2. Award costs in points for top Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt properties:
Marriott: 85K (before it goes up seasonally to 100K/night)
Hilton: 95K (one property, WA Maldives, now costs 120K/night)
Hyatt: 30K (many properties now cost 40K/night)
Second, The Easy Math
Let’s calculate the spend in hard currency required to afford 1 standard award night in each program’s most expensive standard room, i.e., let’s calculate the Spend Per Free Night (SPFN), which is the closest thing to the monetary cost of the award night:
- Marriott: 85,000 pts/(17.5pts/$) = $4,857
- Hilton: 95,000 pts/(20pts/$) = $4,750
- Hyatt: 30,000 pts/(6.5pts) = $4,615
Third, Lesson #1
The preceding result shows what I’ve shown many times before: Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt awards cost almost exactly the same when one does not include any additional sources of points (e.g., bonus points from co-branded credit cards). Without making any assumptions, we have already debunked one of Leff’s points: top elites in all three programs need to spend about the same amount of money in hard currency to be able to earn enough points to afford a standard award night at each program’s top properties. By contrast, top SPG awards were almost one order of magnitude more expensive (no wonder the program went belly-up), while IHG and Radisson awards are the cheapest any way one looks at them, although IHG’s increased somewhat recently.
Fourth, Let’s Estimate the Size of the “Rebate” or “Base Earning”
Since without including any other sources of points, the “base earnings” for top elites in the three programs are virtually identical, we now need to include what is a constant source of additional points in each program: their co-branded credit cards, which no one should leave home for a revenue stay without!
The best earning co-branded credit cards for BONVoY, HHonors and WoH award 6x, 14x, and 4x, respectively, for in-hotel spend, so that the earn rates for top elites in each program, including CC spend, are:
- Marriott: 17.5pts/$ + 6pts/$ = 23.5pts/$
- Hilton: 20pts/$ + 14pts/$ = 34pts/$
- Hyatt: 6.5pts/$ + 4pts/$ = 10.5pts/$
To afford 1 award night at a 85K/night, 95K/night or 30K/night, a top BONVoY, HHonors, or WoH elite, respectively, must spend:
- Marriott: 85,000pts/(23.5pts/$) = $3,617
- Hilton: 95,000pts/(34pts/$)= $2,794
- Hyatt: 30,000pts/(10.5pts/$)= $2,857.
Fifth, The Bottom Line
Now, let’s paint the big picture. For each program, we’ll provide the Spend per Free Night (SPFN, i.e., the cost of an award in cash), without and with CC spend, to estimate the ‘rebate’ due to having a co-branded CC, as the difference between the two earnings:
|Program Name||SPFN w/o CC||SPFN W/CC||Size of Rebate|
|World of Hyatt||$4,615||$2,857||$1,758|
See the picture? Notice the relative sizes of the “rebates” for on-property spend. Rather than ranking last, as claimed by Leff, Hilton ranks tops:
That is why one should never leave home for a revenue stay without one’s co-branded CC, and why Leff cannot simply leave CC earnings out in estimating his so-called “base earning” and then turn around and claim that his fuzzy math shows Hilton’s “base earning” to be the least rewarding! He got it exactly backwards! Also, rather than requiring more than $4.5K to earn enough points to afford a SINGLE award night at a top-tier hotel, top Hilton and Hyatt elites equipped with their respective program’s best co-branded card would require just over $2.5K, while top BONVoY elites would require over $3.5K, making the latter currently the most expensive program.
The Clear Lessons
- A co-branded CC is a MUST if one is to play the hotel loyalty game in a way that makes sense, i.e., with a “full deck”. Period. It would be utter stupidity to play without it.
- The top HHonors credit card (AMEX Aspire) provides the biggest bang for the buck (a rebate of nearly $2K), followed closely by the WoH card. BONVoY’s best card’s rebate lags far behind.
- Of the three programs, Hilton and Hyatt awards cost about the same (HH’s a bit cheaper) and both are much cheaper than BONVoY’s. However, Hyatt now has a category of hotels, especially in Europe, that costs 40K/night, and BONVoY’s top seasonal rate of 100K/night will kick in some time this year. That would leave HHonors as the least expensive and more rewarding of the 3 programs.
- Lastly, because the effect of promos is to decrease the Spend Per Free Night (i.e., promos decrease award costs or increase the size of the ‘rebate’), programs that consistently run promos are generally more rewarding than those that offer them sparingly, and we know which program has offered promos nonstop over the past several years!
The preceding trivial math should once and for all establish just how ludicrous is the claim that “the base earning for Hilton Honors is less rewarding than at other major chains…”. You would notice that no assumptions were necessary in deriving each program’s ‘rebate’. All the input data are publicly available, and there were no subjective values of points currencies to manipulate to support biased views. It is just simple math using objective data.