There’s a particular challenge to collecting hotel points for us cheapskates out there. See, when the wanderlust builds, and I get the urge travel somewhere new and exciting in a flying metal tube filled with colicky babies, it’s extremely unlikely that I’ll have to buy a full-fare economy ticket. And no matter how cheap it is, I’ll collect frequent flyer miles. However, when it comes to picking a place to sleep and shower, I almost never book a fully refundable rate. No, when I need a hotel, I turn to my good friend, William Shatner. Like many cost-conscious (cough, cheap, cough) travelers, I make heavy use of discount services such as Priceline, Hotwire, and increasingly, Groupon Getaways and LivingSocial Escapes. I routinely pay half price, or less, of what I’d pay if I had booked directly with the hotel. But I don’t earn half the hotel points. Nope. I earn bupkiss. And the nights don’t count towards qualifying for elite status.
And elite hotel status can be beneficial, even to the casual traveler. Everyone can benefit from things like complimentary in-room Internet (I once paid almost thirty bucks for twenty-four hours of WiFi in a London hotel – ack). Late check-out can mean an extra morning and afternoon to enjoy your vacation, instead of racing out of the hotel and spending hours killing time in an overcrowded airport terminal. Then, there’s the upgrades. Sure, it’s great to be in any room that’s just fifty yards from Miami Beach, but wouldn’t it be nicer to relax in a suite with a sofa and a full bathroom, instead of a tiny Economy Twin that would make a submarine crew claustrophobic? So isn’t it worth it to go for elite status?
Alas, as with everything in life, the answer is – it depends.
It’s simpler if you’re a business traveler: somebody else is footing the bill. For the rest of us ordinary Joes, we’ll have to perform a cost-benefit analysis.
Let’s look at Starwood hotels. Starwood points are generally considered to be the most valuable points out there, and everybody wishes they had more of them. A Saturday night at the Westin New York Times Square will cost you around $579 (coincidentally, also the cost of a tank of gas in New York). If you pay for the room with your SPG American Express card, you’ll earn 4 SPG points per dollar. Okay, let’s say that SPG points are worth 2.5 cents apiece, a conservative valuation. That means that the total value of the reward you’re earning from Starwood – (579 x 4 x 0.025) – is $57.90.
But now let’s check a couple of discount sites, like Priceline and Hotwire. We can also check additional sites like HotwireRevealed.com, and BiddingTraveler.com, that work like “deal intelligence agencies” to give us a pretty good idea of the best price we can hope to negotiate for ourselves. If we go with a pre-negotiated rate on Hotwire, we can get a luxury Times Square hotel for $425. If we’re willing to invest some time cyber-haggling on Priceline, we stand a decent chance of driving that price lower – perhaps much lower, even below $300 a night. That’s a savings of $279 – over 48 percent! Well, that was pretty anti-climactic. Okay, Mr. Sulu, set phasers to negotiate and lay in a course to Planet Priceline, warp factor six …
Hold your toupees there, partner. We’re forgetting something. We’re not just getting SPG points back from Starwood when we book a fully refundable rate. We’re also moving one more step towards Gold or Platinum status. And how much is that worth? Well, we need to come up with a dollar value for elite status, and that’s going to be a very individualized number. For the sake of argument, let’s say that Starwood Gold status is worth $1,000 to you. You reach gold status after ten stays. Now that Saturday night in New York is also getting you one-tenth of the way to elite status, which is worth $1,000 / 10 = $100. All of the sudden, the bargain isn’t quite as slam-dunk as it was before. It could be worse – or better! – depending on that very subjective value that you come up with for Elite Status Value. That’s something that’s important enough for a post or two of its own in the future.
And yes, I realize that I’m ignoring several other factors. Priceline and Hotwire bargain rates are prepaid and non-refundable. If your young’un brings the latest flavor of flu virus home from school three days before your weekend in Vegas, well, tough cookies. How much is flexibility worth to you? How important is it that you know, exactly, which hotel you’ll be staying at, rather than just a “4-star in the River North area of downtown Chicago”? And just to toss yet another curveball at you, we may be able to eliminate the value of status qualification from this equation altogether. If you’ve got a credit card that gives you elite status automatically, like a Platinum American Express, Hyatt Chase Visa, or a Citi Hilton Hhonors Reserve, then maybe you don’t even need to worry about status.
Nothing can ever be simple, can it?