How to get elite status at hotels
Even relatively infrequent travlers can benefit from loyalty programs at top hotel chains.
The New York Times
Hotel chains have been loading on the perks for their most loyal customers recently.
Earlier this month Starwood Hotels & Resorts announced new benefits that go into effect March 1, including rolling 24-hour check-in for those who stay at least 75 nights a year and personal travel assistants, called Ambassadors, for guests who stay 100 nights. Hilton Worldwide recently began allowing its top-tier guests who stay at least 36 nights to get automatic room upgrades, free breakfasts and other perks. And Global Hotel Alliance, a collection of 14 luxury brands with more than 300 hotels, rewards its top customers with access to insider experiences like a private tour of the stables and stud farm of the Sheikh of Ajman, in the United Arab Emirates.
But let's face it: Unless you are practically living in hotels, you are not going to see any of those benefits. Just 2 percent of travelers drive 30 percent of Starwood's profits, Frits van Paasschen, chief executive of the company, pointed out when announcing its new loyalty perks.
Still, that doesn't mean you're out of the game. Travelers who stay at a hotel chain only four times a year still have a shot at the lowest level of elite status, which doesn't include lavish benefits like personal travel assistants and insider tours, but still allows you to earn loyalty points and offers valuable perks like upgrades or complimentary Internet access.
So how do you get there? Each hotel program has a slightly different threshold for attaining elite loyalty status; which program is best for you depends largely on your travel patterns and preferences. While there is no minimum-night-stay requirement for the non-elite entry-level tier of most hotel loyalty programs, elite status does require that you either spend several nights at the chain or get the right credit card.
One thing to consider is the size of the hotel company.
"If you want to get to elite," said Joe Brancatelli, publisher of the website JoeSentMe.com, which focuses on business travelers, "having a hotel anywhere you go makes it easier."
With that in mind, here is a rundown on how to attain elite loyalty status at several hotel chains, and the perks that come with it.
Hotels worldwide: About 3,800 in 88 countries.
Lowest elite level: Silver.
What you get: Early check-in and late checkout; free use of the fitness center; a 15 percent point bonus for hotel stays; discounts on award nights; and two bottles of water per stay, depending on the hotel.
To qualify: Four visits a year (even if just for one night at a time) or 10 nights total.
Credit card option: The no-fee Hilton HHonors card from American Express comes with Silver status, and offers up to six points for every dollar spent and 40,000 bonus points if you charge $750 in the first three months. Cardholders who spend $20,000 a year or more get automatic Gold status.
Bottom line: With a low nightly threshold to qualify and a no-fee credit card that automatically makes you elite, Hilton HHonors Silver is "the easiest elite status to achieve," said Jacob Gibson, a founder of NerdWallet.com, which evaluates credit cards, loyalty programs and other personal finance topics.
But unless you're a gym rat who can appreciate the perk of waived fitness center fees, the benefits aren't that significant.
"Anytime I've called the front desk at any hotel chain, I've gotten a late checkout without having elite status," Gibson said.
Hyatt Gold Passport
Hotels worldwide: 478 in 45 countries.
Lowest elite level: Platinum.
What you get: Better rooms (on higher floors or larger rooms) when available; free Internet; a dedicated check-in counter; late checkout (until 2 p.m.); a dedicated Platinum reservation line; and a 15 percent point bonus for each stay.
To qualify: Five visits or 15 nights a year.
Credit card option: The Chase Hyatt Visa, with a $75 annual fee, automatically bumps you up to Platinum status and comes with two free nights at sign-up and one free night a year thereafter.
Bottom line: Solid perks, including free room upgrades and Internet access, make elite status worth reaching for — if you can use it. Significantly fewer hotels around the world than bigger chains may mean you won't always find a Hyatt where you can take advantage of that status.
Hotels worldwide: 3,600 in 70 countries.
Lowest elite level: Silver.
What you get: Late checkout; a dedicated phone line for questions and reservations; 10 percent discounts at the hotel gift shop; a 20 percent point bonus; 10 percent off Friday and Saturday night rates on a regular room at Courtyard and SpringHill Suites hotels; and customized rewards like free tickets to your favorite Broadway show.
To qualify: Ten nights a year. (Extra nights are rolled over to the following year — for example, if you stayed 12 nights in 2011, the extra two nights will be counted toward elite status this year.)
Credit card option: Marriott Rewards card from Chase, which has a $45 annual fee, offers automatic Silver status and one elite night credit for every $3,000 spent.
Bottom line: Status is fairly easy to attain, and perks, which don't include room upgrades, are fairly standard.
Starwood Preferred Guest
Hotels worldwide: About 1,100 in 100 countries.
Lowest elite level: Gold.
What you get: Better rooms (on higher floors or newly renovated rooms), if available; a choice of either free Internet, a free drink or bonus points upon check-in; late checkout (until 4 p.m.); a dedicated customer service line; and three points per dollar spent at the hotel.
To qualify: 10 visits or 25 nights a year.
Credit card option: "Most people don't realize that if you have an American Express Platinum card, you automatically get Starwood Gold Status," said Brian Kelly, who runs ThePointsGuy.com, a blog dedicated to maximizing loyalty program and credit card points. All you have to do is call the number on the back of your card, which has a $450 annual fee and includes other travel perks like a $200 credit for airline fees, and they will "instantly upgrade your status," he said.
The next best route is to sign up for the Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express, which charges an annual fee of $65 and automatically gives you five nights and two stays toward elite status — cutting the number of nights you need to spend at an actual hotel to attain status from 25 to 20, or from 10 visits to 8. Big spenders who charge $30,000 or more on the card automatically qualify for Gold.
Bottom line: The most robust perks. But aspiring Gold members must either pay a hefty credit card fee or stay a significant number of nights to become elite.