Another calendar year traveling the world, and living in hotels, to add up all of our stats to see exactly what programs were the best for us.
This is our breakdown of how every night, every point, and every dollar was spent. (I was going to do this earlier, but became sick (bronchitis)).
- Total points = 2,210,000
- Total cash = $6,678.66
- $556.55 a month
- $23.76 /night (when you exclude nights with family)
- Free nights = 184
But if you want to see some of the hotels we’ve stayed in, check out our top hotels of 2015. Which is to say, we spent two weeks in InterContinental hotels in French Polynesia, to African safari lodges… but we have not stayed in hostels and 1 star hotels. (Except helping with Carrie’s sister’s adoption in Ukraine).
I should note that I’m not above 1 and 2 star hotels, but we live out of hotels and this is what our money gets us. Our average night comes out to$23.76, and that gets us 4/5 star hotels. This can only be done with miles and points.
The large majority of nights come from paid stays during promotions that earn tons of hotel points. Those hotel points are then used for as many free nights as possible.
Since we live out of hotels, we really focus on strategies that can be scaled above a few nights. Earning a 5,000 point bonus from one night, is not only below our average return from a paid stay, it doesn’t help us earn enough points. The majority of our nights are free nights from hotel points. Our paid nights actually get us closer to that goal – of more points nights than paid nights.
This is the first year where IHG is not the dominant hotel chain.
Honestly the biggest reason Club Carlson ended up being over 100 nights, is seizing a now dead opportunity of using points under the old (BOGO) buy-one-get-one free. Why not just burn all of our points?
- IHG = 60 (63 including conferences)
- Club Carlson = 114
- Hilton = 30
- Airbnb = 9
- Orbitz = 16
- Hyatt = 2 (6 including conferences)
- SPG = 2
- Marriott = 1
- Flight = 9
- Non-chain hotels = 35
- Family & Friends= 80
Dollars per Night
It’s not worth breaking down dollars per night on my 1 Marriott night, or 2 SPG nights. But of the places we spent at least 9 nights, how frugal was each program?
Let’s break it down in dollars per night:
- IHG = $26.30 /night
- Orbitz = $27.25 /night
- Airbnb = $30.49 /night
- Misc = $47.00 /night
- Club Carlson = $23.73 /night
I didn’t do Hilton because none of the points were earned through paid stays, and my use was somewhat outlier.
Points per night
This number is confusing because in fact, 45 of the 60 nights with IHG were free/redeemed nights. However, 12 were free night certificates, and don’t accurately represent the average number of points redeemed.
- IHG = 11,666 /night
- Hilton = 8,653 /night
- Club Carlson = 14,154 /night
Average redemptions were very low, but of course, one long stay at 5,000 points brings down the average a lot, compared to one night at 50,000 points. Plus, this basically does calculate the IHG 10% rebate.
What this all means
If I can get IHG hotels for $26.30 a night, why stay anywhere else? Same with Orbitz?
Well, we did spend over 100 nights last year with IHG and 60 is still a lot this year.
The answer is complicated.
First, “miscellaneous” is any non chain-hotel, and when we still didn’t use Orbitz or something. This includes our time in Ukraine helping with the adoption (where one stay was $15 a night for 12 nights). This includes a random night in Trebenje, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
It also includes our lodge in Maasai Mara, Kenya, which I did use a promo via Amex to get the third night free.
For the most part, the only time I’m not using a chain hotel is when I’m someplace relatively cheap that wouldn’t have a chain hotel. – i.e. middle of nowhere Ukraine or Bosnia. These are usually not 4 star hotels.
Despite that, non-chain hotels is the most expensive category. $47 a night.
IHG (InterContinental Hotel Group)
If you’ve followed this blog for a while, then you are surely familiar with the IHG promotions. Earlier this year we had the ability to earn 40,000 and two free night certificates for three paid stays. Those free nights were used for overwater bungalows in Bora Bora.
When I spend a dollar with IHG, chances are I’ve done the math, and I’m getting two dollars back.
And the reason I’ve been IHG crazy is because it’s been this way for years. I’d jump on any opportunity slightly better, and yet IHG continues to have insane promotions. Not all promotions are great, or rather, because they are targeted/individualized, they aren’t right for me. But I’ve increased my odds a fair amount over the years.
Promotions, deals, promotions.
For me this is the most scalable opportunity.
This is also the area we have the most data on. For over two years of keeping track of stats and IHG, $20 a night has become a sustainable goal with IHG. Yes, we have spent $300 for an InterContinental (with a BOGO, so for two nights), but it always averages down if we have the right promotions.
The crazy thing about IHG this year, is that out of 60 nights, 45 were free nights. That’s insane. 75% of our IHG nights were free.
In other words, for every paid night we did, we got 3 free nights back!
How is this possible? The real reason is that we were earning free night certificates and lots of points early this year, and we went big on that promotion. The free nights went to a single free night, but a small part of the points went to a couple stays on PointBreaks or for a category 1.
For example, we spent 11 nights at a hotel that cost us 55,000 points (plus we got 10% back from the credit card) due to the “PointBreaks” sale where they list hotels for 5,000 points a night. Another is the Holiday Inn Kiev, which is a nice hotel that was 10,000 points a night. We spent 10 nights there during the adoption for 100,000 points (plus 10% of the points back). These long free stays helps our average.
But the odd thing is again, these price per night averages happen year after year.
I wrote about Hilton extensively along with our Egypt trip. Many hotels in Egypt are category 1 hotels, meaning the hotels cost the fewest amount of points. With Hilton, the spread is huge. The top Hilton is 95,000 points, but the hotels in Egypt are 5,000 a night.
With the 4th night free feature, 5 nights at the Hilton Waterfalls in Sharm was 20,000 Hilton points!
To put that in context, we both got a Hilton credit card that gave 80,000 Hilton points. In other words, we had enough for 40 nights at that hotel from two credit cards.
That is not normal. Well, earning that many Hilton points is normal. They have 4 overly generous credit cards (especially the no annual fee Citi card which we keep enjoying).
So, unusually high earning with the Hilton cards. That combined with the unusual spread between the low and high cost of points hotels. What’s clear to me is that you should use your Hilton points for the lowest category possible. “Possible” meaning, the lowest category you’ll come across. Since I’ve been wanting to go to Egypt, that seemed to make a lot of sense.
However, this strategy is not sustainable everywhere. If a hotel were 30,000 points, that means the two cards would have gotten us 4 nights instead of 40! Huge, huge, huge difference. And most hotels worth staying at are going to be 30,000.
Check out Best Hilton category 1 & 2.
I like airbnb because it’s everywhere. For Trebinje, Bosnia and Herzegovina, there are no chain hotels. And yet, there are currently 41 airbnb’s listed! And most of them are entire places, and not shared places. Also, a 2 bedroom for four people can be had for $34. That’s incredible.
Also, it’s just plain cheaper for long stays. I know Scott from MileValue said that he’ll often go someplace for a month or more and get an airbnb. Even with the best hotel promotion, on a month stay, you can’t beat airbnb. And even if you could it would mean jumping around every single night – which I hate.
How did we stay for $30 a night, even in Sydney?
Well, airbnb is great when you start out. I’ve written about how you can sign up and get $20 off, and then refer other people.
Also, Amex ran a promotion to get $50 off, and they also ran a promotion with paypal.
Airbnb was great for the first few stays, and now I’m out of tricks. Luckily it’s cheap enough to be worth it on its own.
As I explained, spending Club Carlson points before May meant that all my points were worth twice as much. So I tried to redeem all of them. And via 5x on the credit card, bonuses, promotions, and other opportunities… somehow we had millions of points all to get used.
In theory, you could do half as well, now with the bogo gone. However, the program also devalued its points.
However, if you have an ability to earn… just do the math. If it’s with the credit card, and you earn 5x on all purchases, how much do you have to spend to get 1 night at a 50,000 point hotel? $10,000. How much does that cost you? It likely used to be worth it, and now it’s not. I’m done with Club Carlson.
The Orbitz Best Rate Guarantee was giving $200! Now it gives a normal $50. That was something awesome while it lasted. But it’s dead now.
I will mention that at the end of 2014 Orbitz put out promo codes for $100 off a hotel, and we sure jumped on that. We found hotels that were close to $100 in Prague and other parts of Europe, and we booked multiple stays using the same code. Our hotels were like $10 a night.
Where is Hyatt, Marriott and SPG?
I love Hyatt hotels. However, it is not a scalable strategy for free nights. Earning Hyatt points via the credit card would be slow, and transferring from Chase is too slow and costly for me. Even if I had triple the Chase UR points, I wouldn’t transfer to Hyatt except on rare occasions.
Yet, of Hyatt, Marriott, and SPG, Hyatt is the best option. The hotels are reasonable on points, and they actually have a decent credit card.
Still, what is clear to me, is there is no way to pay for stays at any of these chains and get equal value back towards free nights.
If you have some really odd view of “value” as things like upgrades, then we aren’t valuing dollars. It’s a trade off. My value is dollars per night. If your value is elsewhere, you really don’t need a rewards program, and I highly doubt you’re getting more value than you put in. In other words, you are paying for those “free” upgrades.
But again, my metric is free nights, and these rewards programs don’t compare. Check out our infographic: Best Hotel Rewards Program, and that’s before promotions, which these programs lack.
Observations & Conclusions
- All BRGs were in Europe (and Nairobi).
- BRGs are a small strategy for us, because it’s not as scalable.
- Almost all free night certs were used in Bora Bora. Use the free nights for the most expensive hotel.
- IHG is still the most bang for buck – somehow we averaged $26.30 a night (even considering the free nights were used in Bora Bora!)
- Hilton stats are beefy because of Egypt
- RIP Orbitz
- Club Carlson value was better with BOGO. But still easy to calculate with MS and 5x
- There is no possible way I could do $30 a night with SPG, Marriott, Hyatt… Although I have an irrational love for Hyatt hotels.
- We really do save a ton of money on points hotels.
- Therefore, Africa (not including Egypt and South Africa) is often comparatively really expensive… ironically.
I honestly wouldn’t have a clue whether or not doing all these promotions for hotel points is worth it, if it weren’t for Caroline keeping track of all our stats. And when you see $23 a day, you know.
Think about it. We spent $6.6k for the entire year, yet, we spent one entire week at the InterContinental Bora Bora. Our room there was over $1,000 a night. Seriously, that stay alone would’ve cost more than a year living in hotels. Yet, it was free, mostly from free nights earned in January.
That. Is. Incredible.
And the great thing about miles and points is that you can accurately predict your costs. Years ago I guestimated that we could spend $7,000 a year on hotels and stay in nicer places. I was right.
You can look at a promotion and calculate exactly what it will cost you based on when and where you want to travel. Then you can accurately figure out how much a promotion will earn you in points. The biggest variable is what you’ll actually do with the points. And at this point we can figure that out.
That’s an important thing to include because most great tactics die eventually. And most great deals are opportunistic (are short lived opportunities that pop up during a short promotion).
Yet, you have all the tools needed to evaluate whether or not the promotion has you coming out ahead. If you know the number of nights you’ll need that year, and what percent you can cover with points… what’s the cheapest way to fill in the rest?
My goal is to come under $25 a night, which was a huge success again. You can borrow that benchmark to evaluate a promotion. Or if you know how much you would be spending on hotels a night, you just have to beat that number.
It is possible to live out of hotels and still get enough points to average $25 a night. And amazingly, hotel credit cards is a very small part of our strategy. Credit card bonuses mostly go to miles and flights.
Even so, we still managed to spend less than $600 a month on hotels, via 2 million hotel points.