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Since I like to track my travels, I keep a Google Map of all my hotel stays since 2012. It has been cool to see everywhere we’ve gone over the past few years. The last time I looked at the map, however, I realized I’d spent at least 1 night at 30 different IHG hotels. Thirty. I knew I’d had a good number of stays, but I didn’t realize the number was quite that high.
This made think about how different IHG Rewards Club is from when I really jumped into the award travel game. Here are 5 things that I’ve learned along the way.
IHG Rewards Club is no longer the bee’s knees
I view IHG Rewards Club very differently than I did 3 years ago when I first took a serious dive into the award travel game. In my early days, I was entranced by how Drew Macomber of Travel is Free was able to leverage so many deals with them for free nights (and also by his exploitation of United’s insane routing rules at the time). He and his wife were nomads for a few years, yet they were able to spend less than $600 per month on lodging much of the time, while averaging stays in 4-star hotels. It was mind-boggling. IHG Rewards Club was a large part of their success.
Since then, IHG has lost some of its value as a program, and I view it very differently. Prices have gone up significantly for some hotels, making what Drew did then much harder now. Point Breaks, one of the main ways he and Carrie burned their points, has even devalued [SEE: Analyzing the IHG Point Breaks preview (is it as bad as it looks?)]. Now, instead of 5,000 points for all participating hotels, many require 10,000 of 15,000 points. While this may allow for better hotels in theory (i.e. Intercontinental hotels may actually make the list at 15,000 points each), it is really a 100-200% devaluation in a different way. All of this, along with the lack of a real elite program (more on that later), has driven me away from IHG.
So…while it was my favorite program when I initially started leveraging points and miles for free travel, I’ve really outgrown IHG. Sure, I’ll use their promotions to earn points. And I’ll burn them as needed. But they aren’t the first place I look anymore.
Earn and burn is extra critical
As I just mentioned, IHG Rewards Club has seen some serious devaluations over the past couple years. Over 2016 and 2017, some top-tier properties saw a 40% or more increase in the points required for a free night. Many of the top tier properties that were once decent redemption options at 50,000 points now require 70,000. Likewise, properties that were fairly run-of-the-mill have seen ridiculous increases as well. The Holiday Inn Sydney Waterfront, where my wife and I stayed during our adventure through the Canadian Maritime provinces in 2015, has seen a 150% increase. We booked a night for 10,000 points. It is now 25,000 points per night.
All this makes the “earn and burn” mentality that much more critical with IHG. Given the lucrative Accelerate promotions that almost continuously are running, it’s often easy to earn a substantial number of IHG points quickly and on relatively few dollars. But don’t hold onto them. Spend them for decent value before you get hit again. I sat on over 150,000 IHG points for over a year, and it was sad to see them lose a chunk of their value.
Holiday Inns are a fickle bunch
Of all the brands in the IHG family, Holiday Inn needs the most attention. There is too much variation in the quality of hotels within the brand. Sometimes, you get a fairly nice hotel that has the upper-midscale feel they are going for. Other times, you pretty much get a dump. It would be nice to see some more standardization, even if that means cutting some hotels from the brand. Generally, I’d rather pick a Holiday Inn Express than a Holiday Inn, as I have a better idea of what I’m getting (SEE: Holiday Inn North Phoenix Review: Why I hate Holiday Inns).
The closest analog for me in another hotel family is Sheraton brand. I’ve stayed at some very nice Sheratons, and I’ve stayed at a couple in need of a serious face lift. Luckily, it sounds like Marriott is going to refresh the brand. IHG really needs to make similar plans for Holiday Inn.
Staybridge Suites is the best IHG brand
Maybe its because I’ve only stayed at two Intercontinental hotels, but I’m not really a big fan. Since no IHG status gives breakfast, it’s really just a free night in a super nice room (SEE: Intercontinental Carlton Cannes: A Review). But now I find I would much rather skip the fanciness in exchange for some of the more standard amenities available at a mid-range hotel. Staybridge offers the perfect mix of quality, functionality and other amenities. Space? Check. Kitchen? Check. Free breakfast? Also, check. Potentially separate bedroom from the kids’ sleeping area? Count me in.
I really don’t care that there are some great Intercontinental hotels out there. Staybridge checks all the boxes for us, so they are at the top of my list (SEE: Staybridge Suites San Francisco Airport review). They even offer free dinner most of the week (SEE: Which hotels give dinner for free?). What more could you ask for?
Don’t waste any time on their elite program
When I first got the IHG Rewards Club credit card, it was the first time I had any sort of real hotel status. I was excited. I figured this would get us into nicer rooms and more perks at most hotels as we started traveling more.
But I was wrong. Being a Platinum elite via the credit card doesn’t really get you much. I’ve seen very few appreciable benefits from holding the status. About the only helpful things are the extra points accrual, from both check-in and paid stays. There is literally nothing else useful that the status gives you. I was even Spire elite for a year, and this got us one nice upgrade when we didn’t really care or need it (SEE: That Time IHG Spire Elite Status got us a Two Bedroom Suite). All the “perks” are a whole lot of fluff. Every useful perk seems to be subject to some term or condition that lessens its value, which makes them inconsistent at best. Upgrades on award stays are not guaranteed (actually, no upgrades are guaranteed since they are “subject to availability”), and no status level gives you breakfast.
It gets even more confusing when you recall that IHG has its own “elite” program for strictly Intercontinental hotels, which is the Intercontinental Ambassador and Royal Ambassador status. Unlike other programs, you can purchase Intercontinental Ambassador outright, which gives you perks at just this brand. The cost is $200, and the perks include a “free” weekend night (as a second night on a paid stay), late check out, a welcome gift and a guaranteed upgrade. Even upgrades for Spire Elite members are “subject to availability”. This lets the hotel spin this however they want. I asked for a room type change on a recent stay, and it was denied (SEE: Crowne Plaza San Francisco Airport Review). Given the low rate, I really doubt the hotel was full.
What the IHG elite program really needs: breakfast for Spire members (at minimum), early check-in/late check-out without the nebulous “subject to availability” qualifier, and a better upgrade policy in practice. Maybe even Intercontinental Ambassador for Spire elites. Then IHG elite status might be worth something.
So, four years and 30 hotels later, my perception of IHG has changed substantially. I find they are a great program for maximizing my work stays, when I can match these with the Accelerate promotion. But I’m now trying to burn their points as fast as I earn them, since they’ve devalued so badly. Now I’ll happily settle for a free Holiday Inn Express somewhere we are going rather than holding out for an aspirational Intercontinental redemption.