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Somewhere just below planning my travel and actually traveling is mapping my travels. It’s something I started last year, with my flights mapped in OpenFlights and my hotel stays logged in a dedicated Google Map (SEE: Map of all my hotel stays). During a work trip this past year, I realized I hit a milestone: my 150th unique hotel. I’ve stayed in a few more than that, but I drew the start of the timeline at 2012, when I got married.
I wish I could say my 150th hotel was in exotic location across the globe, but no. The stay was as mundane as they come. I spent a single night at the Comfort Inn Troutville, just north of Roanoke, Virginia. A few nights prior to that I’d stayed at another Comfort Inn in Charlottesville (SEE: Comfort Inn Monticello Review).
The raw statistics
Whenever I hit a milestone, I like to reflect on my past travels and how things have evolved over time. I recently penned my musings on how much my views of IHG Rewards Club have changed over the past few years (SEE: 5 takeaways after staying at 30 IHG hotels). Now I have some thoughts on all brands and how my strategies for leveraging hotel status and award travel has improved. But first, the statistics of my stays:
Hotels by brand:
- Best Western – 9
- Choice – 10
- Club Carlson – 2
- Hilton – 16
- Hyatt – 9
- IHG – 30
- Marriott – 16
- SPG – 21
- Wyndham – 11
- Other – 26
Hotels by location:
- California (home state) – 54
- Other United States – 60
- International – 36
My guess is that the majority of many people’s stays would *not* be in their home state. But given how large California is and that we live in one remote corner, I’ve had many, many stays in the middle (yes, the SF Bay is the middle) and southern parts of the state. Now on to the broader takeaways from all my stays.
Mid-range hotels edge out high end properties
When I was new to the travel hacking hobby, hotel loyalty programs weren’t even on my radar. Economy flights were expensive enough for a young couple with one of us still in school, and I was entirely focused in finding ways to accrue enough miles for these. During our honeymoon, my wife and I stayed at the most budget place in midtown Manhattan. Yeah. Wish I would have been more into this hobby back then. But we did get $3,000+ of free Amtrak travel on that trip!
But I digress. Back to hotels. Things changed after a couple years as I picked up the Chase Hyatt Visa, the IHG Mastercard, and the Starwood Preferred Guest Amex. I began to see the value of hotel points, and inevitably found myself drawn to upscale places. We ended up staying at places like the Westin Harbour Castle in Toronto, the Park Hyatt Milan, and the Intercontinental Carlton Cannes. I’ve even had a paid night at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins in ludicrously expensive San Francisco (turns out basically nothing is going on Thanksgiving week and rates are dirt cheap).
All these stays slowly proved to me that a consistent mid-range hotel is the perfect stay. So-called “luxury” hotels often nickel and dime you for everything. Sure, the property might be nice, but I found that short of having top-tier elite status, the luxury properties don’t offer much more than room. Sure, the shower at the Park Hyatt Milan is the most amazing I’ve ever experienced. But it is worth 30,000 Hyatt points per night?
My favorite brands are Hyatt Place, Hyatt House, Residence Inn by Marriott, and Staybridge Suites. I’m also partial to Doubletree, Hilton Garden Inn and Holiday Inn Express. Why? They all offer comfortable rooms, typically have a pool, and nearly all offer free breakfast (with a single credit card, the Hilton brands do, too). In short, they are great family brands (SEE: “All I want is a swimming pool and a waffle maker”).
While there is part of me that enjoys a high-end place from time to time, they usually just aren’t that practical. So while the Park Hyatt Paris Vendome looks nice, it simply doesn’t pencil for 30,000 points per night.
Resort and parking fees are the worst
I remember the first time I was bitten by a resort fee. I didn’t even know such a thing existed. But soon I knew that I needed to look for them whenever I’m considering booking a resort-style property. And sometimes even when booking a generic property. The resort fee has evolved into the “destination fee” which is being charged by even airport hotels, something I found out when I visited Charleston, SC in December. What is the point of a free stay if you still have to pay $20-$40 for a resort fee that covers things like pool access, a daily bottle of water and free local faxes?! Even if you don’t use anything covered by the fee, they are still mandatory. KILL RESORT FEES!
Sure, it may not be fair to lump parking fees in with the obscene thing known as the resort or destination fee, but they are nearly as annoying. I know that some hotels contract with third-party parking garages in many cities, and the fee is obviously necessary. But it still hurts to pay quite a bit just to park a car. Granted, I live in an area where there are very few places that charge for parking, so this is outside my definition of normal. Normal is leaving the car at home and walking two blocks to work in a town of 1,500 people. 🙂
Back to resort fees. I actively go out of my way to avoid hotels with resort fees. One of my favorite features of Hilton award stays is that resort fees are waived. It’s amazing. You actually get to enjoy your stay for $0, or pretty close to it. Hyatt also waives resort fees on free night awards for all members. Maybe there is some hope that this frustrating industry policy will eventually be reversed.
Budget places are fine from time to time
In general I try to book solid mid-scale brands using either points or cash, but sometimes I’ll set aside the points and book a budget motel. This happens mostly when we road trip and can score a night for $60 or less in some rural location. Spending a night at an Econolodge or Super 8 is not beneath me.
It not be the most comfortable stay, but I can usually still sleep well enough (the kids always do), and the savings is very much worth it.
I’m also okay booking a budget stay if it presents an opportunity to earn points through a promotion. I’ve used the Wyndham Masterpass promotions to earn a couple free nights. I chose to stay at a Super 8 instead of the Sheraton one night during a work trip to earn 7,500 Wyndham points. Likewise, the Choice hotels promotions where you could earn 8,000 points from two stays have been valuable. Sometimes a promotion plus a super cheap rate tips the scale toward a budget hotel as the best choice.
Hotel status is worth acquiring, but not via “mattress running”
The benefits of elite status differ widely across hotel chains, but some are very much worth acquiring. In particular, Hilton, Hyatt, and Marriott status can all provide excellent benefits if you have the means to be loyal to a specific chain. Earning mid-range Hilton status is incredibly easy, as you can enjoy Gold benefits simply by holding the American Express Hilton Ascend card. The premium Hilton Aspire card is even better for the frequent Hilton guest, as it offers complimentary Diamond status.
Generally, top-tier status is the one worth the most, but it might require the most out of pocket to acquire. I’m not a fan of so-called “mattress running” for status if it means shelling out a bunch of money needlessly. But if it means spending a bit more to stay loyal to a particular chain in order to enjoy perks like free breakfast and excellent room upgrades, it is arguably worth it. I’ve bounced around so far, leveraging status matches and challenges to always have top-tier status with at least one chain each year. However, I’m making 2019 the year of Globalist, selectively planning trips where I can leverage cheap Hyatt hotels (usually awards) to rack up the elite nights. The new World of Hyatt Visa is also a game-changer.
At this point I’m pretty settled on my hotel loyalty strategy. Luxury stays no longer hold the sensational appeal they did just a few years ago when I was fairly new to this hobby. Mid-range places are now the typical stay, since they typically offer free breakfast, plenty of room, and few (if any) added fees. What are your thoughts after your own hotel stays? Let me know in the comments.
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