Hilton, Marriott

Why Marriott Points Still Beat Hilton Points by a Landslide – and the State of Loyalty Program Trust

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There’s been a lot of discussion lately in miles and points land about the Marriott Bonvoy program ever since it launched last August.

The integration with SPG hasn’t gone well by anyone’s imagination (except for Marriott execs that label the now almost year of problems as “noise around the edges.“)

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The problems are extensive, for sure. When things go really wrong, it can be painfully impossible to find someone will or able to get things made right. And there’s no question that customer service pales in comparison to what existed under SPG.

But when the rallying cries go out to “switch to Hilton,” there remains one big problem.

Hilton Honors is becoming the Delta SkyMiles of hotel points.

There. I said it. And it feels good.

Different people value different things in a loyalty program. You may care most about your on-property benefits, like free breakfasts and suite upgrades, or you may care more about how you’ll spend your hard earned points later for a vacation.

The Delta Experience vs. Delta SkyMiles

Regarding Delta, it’s been obvious for some time that they want to remove any transparency in how you can redeem your hard earned miles for, well, anything. There will be cheap flights for very few SkyMiles and there will be expensive flights for a lot of SkyMiles. You can’t plan on saving up for anything, because the price is a moving target. Flights on Virgin Atlantic to London were 50,000 miles each way in Upper Class just a few years ago. Now they are 130,000 miles each way. For now. 

But onboard at Delta, they most certainly seem to consistently have the best product of the big three domestic carriers. Their planes tend, on balance, to be more comfortable and better maintained than over at American Airlines or United. and Medallion Members, their frequent flyers, are generally very happy with their experience. As long as they don’t care about spending their miles later. Delta management has made the decision, in a way, that they will focus on the experience and not use miles as a way to incentivize behavior. My personal take is that is fine and good while the economy remains strong – but it will bite them later when they can’t “bribe” members with Skymiles to book flights, because nobody cares one bit about earning or having them as they get no real joy from spending them.

What aggravates me the most about Delta SkyMiles is the lack of transparency. The price now is the price now. The price later is whatever the price later is. And when you think you know what something costs and they change it with no notice, they say you can’t complain because they never wanted you to know anything in the first place.

Hilton Honors is imitating the worst part of Delta

This week Hilton raised the maximum prices for awards at many of their hotels. I can’t tell you all of them because Hilton won’t say. This thread on FlyerTalk has a bunch of them. Plenty of hotels moving up by 5,000 or 10,000 points from their old maximum.

Recall that Hilton used to have fixed award charts but some years ago they moved to a dynamic model based on room price. One tends to get around a half cent per point in value, but when you book a hotel at the top of its category range, and for 5 nights, you can get what I call an aspirational award. Somewhere fancy that you wouldn’t have otherwise paid for – perhaps the Waldorf Astoria Maldives.

Waldorf Astoria Maldives

Waldorf Astoria Maldives

At least, for the most part, Hilton has communicated major changes.

The End of Transparency at Hilton?

But today, Hilton confirmed to Gary Leff at View from the Wing that they intentionally did not let anybody know about this devaluation because they no longer want to announce devaluations. They just want to adjust pricing of awards as they go now.

I’m quoting the below from Gary’s post. This is his posted statement via Hilton Honors. 

Since the launch of Points & Money two years ago, our team regularly monitors the performance of the program and makes necessary tweaks along the way. Points & Money is performing very well and we’re thrilled so many members are taking advantage of it.

A few days ago we made a slight shift in the program and as we previously shared, while we won’t be sending updates for each and every shift, we are fully committed to delivering the best value to our members, and will carefully consider any adjustments for Hilton Honors properties.

As Points can flex depending on the hotel and date, visit https://pointsexplorer.hiltonhonors.com/ to search desired hotels, destinations and preferred dates to book your next stay at over 5,000 Hilton hotels. Hilton Honors is the only program that allows members to make use of ANY combination of Points and money starting at just 5,000 points to redeem at one of our properties.

You see how much they are touting the points and money? When Cash and Points was an active feature of Hilton HHonors, it was tied to a fixed award category. Points and Money, on the other hand, simply lets you redeem your Hilton points as cash – at about half a cent per point.

Exciting, right?

You too can redeem your points as cash off the real time revenue based cost of a room. Just like you can expect to get about 1.1 – 1.3 cents a point for your Delta miles, no matter how you try to use them.

And over time, based on how Hilton is officially positioning the program, I think its fair to say you can expect a lower and lower return on your Hilton points.

So, you may choose Hilton because you enjoy their customer service (frankly I find customer service at both Hilton and Marriott lacking) or their benefits, but for the points?

Here’s Where Marriott Wins Hands Down

Gritti Palace, Venice

Gritti Palace, Venice – a Marriott Bonvoy hotel

First, I won’t deny for a second that Marriott points are less worth than they used to be. I lowered my own valuation of them from 0.8 cents to 0.7 cents and may knock another tenth of a cent off when peak pricing finally kicks in, raising top end properties to 100,000 points. And many top properties already play games with inventory, trying to reduce the number of standard rooms available and force you into their own points + cash booking type (which are rarely worthwhile).

The website can be tough to search as well, especially with the app and website showing different inventory by default for some properties (where cash upgrades are prevalent).

But for now, I think that tiered award levels are safe at Marriott Bonvoy.

When I was at the Bonvoy launch event in New York City last year, I had the great pleasure of speaking one on one with Karin Timpone, CMO of Marriott. I asked very specifically about any intentions to move away from award charts – especially in light of the reduced earnings on the co-branded credit cards.

She indicated to me that while they were working hard to offer Marriott Bonvoy members more and more ways to spend Bonvoy points, like Marriott Moments and Marriott Homes and Villas, there had been no discussion about removing award charts.  (Granted, this conversation was last August, so I can’t guarantee no conversations have started since then over at Marriott, but I’m assuming things to be status quo).

This is what I wanted to hear. 

W Maldives

W Maldives

I know that, in the years to come, Marriott will increase hotel categories again. Maybe they’ll introduce a new level. But at least they seem committed to letting their members save up Bonvoy points for hotel stays at award rates we can plan ahead for. That means that when you stay 50 nights at Marriott for work, you can plan on how many points to save up to take your family on vacation – whether that’s to Orlando, Florida or the Gritti Palace in Venice, Italy.

Beyond that, Marriott, through its purchase of SPG, now has tons of hotels that I love to or desire to stay at. My stay at the W Maldives was made possible with Bonvoy points and is my best hotel experience to date. Most important, I can set a goal. If I want two nights at the Gritti Palace, it’s 170,000 points right now. That’s the price. Not maybe 100,000 and maybe 1,000,000.

Redemptions Matter

There’s a concept in loyalty marketing that speaks to the power of aspirational awards. Simply, when your customers have a great experience, they shout it from the rooftops. When they redeem points for a penny each or a half penny each on a Courtyard or a short coach flight, they tell nobody. So while that resort room or first class flight costs the program real money, they get an intangible but real return from it.

Hyatt and IHG

Of the full service chains we have to choose form domestically, Hyatt and IHG remain as your other primary options. IHG has indicated a desire to move towards dynamic pricing. That has me avoiding IHG.

Hyatt seems committed to award charts. Hopefully that doesn’t change. Hyatt seems to really get loyalty so I think it’s safe for now.

Bottom Line

Loyalty programs remain tools to incentivize behavior. This is what they have always been. While flights and rooms have been more full during the economic expansion of the last decade, loyalty programs have begun following each other, one by one, away from rewards that provide real, tangible, “shoutable from the rooftops” kind of loyalty.

If you care only about the in-flight or in-hotel product, make your choices accordingly.

If you don’t, vote with your wallet.

Your Best Credit CardsHow do you feel about this trend in award redemptions?

Do you care about the rewards you get from your miles and points? Do you value transparency from the loyalty programs?

Let me know here, on Twitter, or in the private MilesTalk Facebook group.

New to all of this? My “introduction to miles and points” book, MilesTalk: Live Your Wildest Travel Dreams Using Miles and Points is available on Amazon and at major booksellers.