Among the major global hotel chains, Marriott and Hilton are probably the two most compelling brands for Canadian travellers looking to maximize their gains through loyalty programs.
Both have impressive footprints around the world, and their respective loyalty programs allow you to earn points relatively easily without necessarily having to spend a lot of money out-of-pocket, while also providing users with compelling redemption sweet spots.
So how do they stack up against each other? Is Marriott Bonvoy’s reputation as the best hotel loyalty program for Canadians justified, or are there areas in which Hilton Honors is in fact more advantageous?
The Value of a Point
Whenever we compare different loyalty programs, it’s useful to establish the relative value between a single point in each program. In this case, I generally value Marriott Bonvoy points at 1 cent per point and Hilton Honors points at 0.7 cents per point (figures are in Canadian dollars), so we’ll refer to these a priori valuations throughout the head-to-head comparison.
It may be tempting to conclude immediately from these valuations that Marriott Bonvoy is the more valuable program, but that’s not necessarily the case for every type of traveller, as we shall see.
The more avenues a loyalty program offers to accumulate respectable quantities of points, the easier it is for us to engage with it and derive benefits from the program. Both Marriott Bonvoy and Hilton Honors offer a variety of ways to earn points, so let’s look at each one in turn.
Credit Card Signup Bonuses
Marriott Bonvoy has two co-branded credit cards in Canada: the American Express Marriott Bonvoy Card and the American Express Marriott Bonvoy Business Card, each offering 50,000 Bonvoy points as a signup bonus. While the bonuses on these cards aren’t as strong as in the old days of Starwood Preferred Guest, they’re still mainstays in the wallets of anyone who takes their hotel points seriously.
Dipping into the US credit card market opens up even more possibilities for Bonvoy loyalists. Both the Amex US Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant Card and the Amex US Marriott Bonvoy Business Card are offering 75,000 Bonvoy points as a signup bonus; even more generous offers (of up to 100,000 points) have been witnessed in the past and could return at some point in the future.
Meanwhile, Hilton Honors does not have a co-branded product in the Canadian market; instead, any available credit card offers can only be accessed through the US credit card market. The good news is that Canadians can easily initiate an American Express Global Transfer to one of Hilton’s Amex US products: the Hilton Honors Card (75,000–95,000 points), the Hilton Honors Surpass Card (130,000 points), or the Hilton Honors Aspire Card (150,000 points).
Verdict: Marriott is the winner here, since they make it easier for Canadians to earn points through credit card welcome bonuses without having to dabble with US credit cards. However, the impressive quantity of Hilton Honors points offered on the US-issued Amex cards (150,000 points is nothing to scoff at) make them worth the trouble of going through Amex Global Transfer.
Credit Card SpendING
The most powerful points earning rate on a Bonvoy-branded credit card is probably the “5-3-2” structure on the Amex Business Bonvoy. Indeed, there have even been data points of certain purchases coding as 3x on this card even though they aren’t classified as gas or groceries, which could represent an underrated opportunity to accumulate Bonvoy points!
The US-issued Hilton cards offer a high rate of return when staying at Hilton hotels, although the base earning rate is a uniform 3x on general purchases. When making purchases outside of bonus categories, I’d definitely choose to use the Canadian-issued Bonvoy cards and earn 2 Bonvoy points per Canadian dollar spent (which I’d value at around a 2% return), instead of 3 Hilton points per USD spent on any of the Hilton cards (which I’d value at around a 1.6% return, taking into account the FX difference).
Verdict: In general, Marriott Bonvoy’s co-branded credit cards offer a stronger return on spending, with the exception of the 7–14x earnings you’d get on actually staying at Hilton hotels with one of the Hilton cards.
Transferring from Other Programs
Both Marriott Bonvoy and Hilton Honors are transfer partners from American Express Membership Rewards, with transfer ratios of 1:1.2 and 1:1 respectively. Note that until August 31, 2019, Amex Canada is offering a 50% bonus on Hilton Honors transfers, effectively making it a 1:1.5 transfer ratio.
There’s very limited value in converting your regular Membership Rewards points to either hotel program, since they can be much more effectively redeemed for airline rewards. On the other hand, Membership Rewards Select points from the Amex Cobalt Card are often used to fund hotel programs, with Marriott Bonvoy being the most popular use case.
Let’s consider the signup bonus on the Cobalt Card of 30,000 MR Select points. That’s equal to either 36,000 Marriott Bonvoy points (which I’d value at $360) or 45,000 Hilton Honors points (which I’d value at $315) under the 50% bonus.
Meanwhile, without the 50% bonus, you’d only get a measly 30,000 Hilton Honors points (which I’d value at $210). Needless to say, in this case, you’re much better off redeeming your MR Select points at 1cpp directly.
Verdict: Although both programs allow transfers from Amex MR points, Marriott Bonvoy is clearly the more compelling option. You should only ever consider transferring MR points to Hilton Honors during a 50% conversion bonus – and who knows if that’ll happen again after August!
Ignoring elite bonuses (we’ll get to that later), both Marriott Bonvoy and Hilton Honors give users 10 points per US dollar spent at full-service properties and 5 points per US dollar spent at limited-service properties. Both programs also routinely put on promotions for users to earn additional points from their stays, such as a window of opportunity to earn double points on every stay.
Verdict: Bonvoy and Honors both follow the same industry standard here, but Marriott Bonvoy comes out ahead if we compare the relative values of the two points currencies you’re earning.
Purchasing points outright is never the first-choice option for padding your balances, but it can always be useful if you need a handful of extra points in a pinch.
Marriott and Hilton both allow you to buy points, at usual rates of 1.25 US cents per point and 1 US cent per point, respectively. Neither of these options are particularly compelling, and should only be used if you desperately need to top-up your account for an upcoming redemption.
However, both programs often put on promotions allowing users to buy points at a discount. Marriott Bonvoy’s most generous promotion so far has been a 25% discount, reducing the purchase price to 0.94 US cents per point.
Meanwhile, Hilton often puts on generous 100% bonuses when buying points, which is equivalent to a 50% discount! This lowers the purchase price to 0.5 US cents per point, which is an offer I’d take up well before Marriott’s discounted offer, especially if I’m looking at booking some aspirational Hilton hotel stays.
Verdict: Hilton’s 100% bonus events on points purchases make it the winner in this category. If you’re looking for opportunities to strategically buy points to get a discount on high-value hotel stays, you’d be much better served with Hilton than with Marriott.
Redemption Sweet Spots
It’s only meaningful to talk about points earning opportunities if we also consider what you can redeem those points for. On balance, how many free nights at a hotel can you unlock using the credit card signup bonuses (and other earning opportunities we covered above) from each program?
Again, this question can be broken down into several different considerations:
Low-End / Mid-Range Hotels
Some travellers prefer to use their hotel points to cover as many free hotel nights as possible, with little regard for the luxury factor that might come with higher-tier hotels within a program.
Marriott Bonvoy has a clearly defined reward chart for how many points a free night. Looking at this chart, we see that a Category 2 hotel costs 12,500 points per night, so the signup bonus of 50,000 Bonvoy points on one of the Amex Bonvoy cards would be enough for five nights, taking into account the Fifth Night Free.
If you’re visiting a more popular destination, you’ll be lucky to find a Category 4 hotel that’s not located deep in the suburbia. For these hotels, at 25,000 points per night, the welcome bonus would only be enough to cover two nights.
The fundamental downside to the Hilton Honors program is the lack of transparency: instead of a fixed reward chart, Hilton Honors prices their hotels dynamically, meaning that the award cost varies based on many different factors.
You’ll therefore have to look up your specific hotel to figure out its exact award cost, and we can only make rough judgments on how many free hotel nights you might get with a certain number of Hilton points.
While a select few Hilton properties around the world are priced as low as 5,000 points per night, most mid-range hotels in semi-popular destinations around the world are priced at 20,000–40,000 points per night.
Therefore, similar to Marriott Bonvoy, your welcome bonus will be good for around two to five nights at a non-luxury property (taking into account the Fifth Night Free, which Hilton also offers).
Of course, this was only the base-level Hilton credit card; the higher-end cards from Amex US can certainly be used to cover even more hotel nights on your trip.
Verdict: On balance, I’d put Marriott and Hilton roughly on par in terms of redeeming free nights at low-end or mid-range hotels. But Marriott Bonvoy wins by virtue of its transparency: its openly published award chart makes it much easier for you to plan ahead and know exactly how many points you’ll need at a certain hotel.
In contrast, other travellers prefer to redeem their points for special stays at aspirational hotels, and are happy to redeem a larger chunk of points for a luxury experience that would otherwise cost them an even larger chunk of cash.
Category 8 hotels within Marriott Bonvoy are priced at 85,000 Bonvoy points per night, which is frankly a downright ridiculous amount to be paying for one hotel night. I’d value that at $850, so you’d better be sure the retail rate is higher than that before even considering splashing that amount of points on a hotel stay.
On the other hand, Hilton Honors’s top-tier properties are priced at around 80,000–95,000 Hilton Honors points per night at most (again, the pricing varies throughout the year), but I’d only value that at around $560–665.
(The one exception is the stunning Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi, which goes for 120,000 Hilton Honors points, and even that still clocks in at a lower value of $840 compared to Marriott’s top-tier pricing.)
Let’s put it this way: if given the choice between staying at the St. Regis Bora Bora for 85,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night and the Conrad Bora Bora for 85,000 Hilton Honors points per night, I’d pick the latter without a moment’s hesitation. I know that one Hilton point would, on average, attain less value than one Marriott point, so I’m more willing to part ways with an equal sum of the former than the latter.
This also ties into what I had discussed above about transferring Amex MR Select points: with a 50% bonus in play, you’d unlock top-tier Hilton properties with significantly fewer MR Select points than you would for top-tier Marriott properties.
Verdict: On the luxury end of the spectrum, the relatively lower value of a single Hilton Honors point actually works in its favour! Both programs cap their most aspirational properties at the region of 80,000–95,000 points, but since an equal amount of Hilton points would fetch less if redeemed elsewhere, it’s a better deal to drop an obscene sum of Hilton points than an equally obscene sum of Marriott for a luxury stay.
Quality & Footprint
Marriott is the world’s largest hotel chain with over 7,000 properties, while Hilton only has about 5,600 hotels within its portfolio.
But the difference shouldn’t mean too much in practice, because they’re both extremely comprehensive global footprints, and most destinations around the world will have at least one Marriott or Hilton option for you to redeem your points. In fact, there are even several notable regions around the world in which Hilton hotels greatly outnumber Marriott’s – Latin America and New Zealand come to mind.
Both chains are well-regarded for the quality of their hotels. Courtyards and SpringHill Suites are roughly comparable to Hilton Garden Inns and Hamptons, while full-service Marriott hotels are pretty much on par with full-service Hiltons. As with most low-end and mid-range chain hotels around the world, you pretty much know exactly what you’re getting out of your stay.
On the luxury end, my feeling is that Hilton’s Waldorf Astoria surpasses Marriott’s St. Regis and Ritz-Carlton, which in turn is a step above Hilton’s Conrad brand, although I haven’t personally stayed at enough Hilton hotels to comment with confidence.
Another thing I like about Marriott’s luxury portfolio is the abundance of distinctive Luxury Collection properties, which significantly outnumber those in Hilton’s equivalent Curio Collection.
Verdict: It’s mostly neck-to-neck between the world’s two leading hotel chains in number of properties. I’d probably give Marriott the edge if I had to choose a winner, but the difference is unlikely to be meaningful.
Lastly, a huge part of what builds loyalty to a certain hotel chain is the elite benefits you get in return for giving the chain most of your business. How do Marriott Bonvoy and Hilton Honors’s elite benefits compare? We’ll take a quick look at two areas here: how easy it is to earn status, and what that status actually gets you.
Ease of Earning Status
It’s effortless to earn up to Marriott Gold Elite status by virtue of simply holding either the Amex Platinum Card or the Business Platinum Card. But the next tier, Platinum Elite, is where the real benefits start to kick in, like free breakfast, lounge access, complimentary suite upgrades, and guaranteed 4pm checkout.
Unfortunately, any path to Platinum Elite status (which requires 50 elite qualifying nights) will require a fair bit of legwork on your part. You can read this post for all the strategies, but essentially, you’ll likely need to spend at least 25 nights at Marriott hotels to attain Platinum, on top of the elite nights you earn from credit cards and booking a meeting.
Alternatively, if you’re booking some paid hotel stays in the near future, you can also request a Platinum Challenge to get there with 16 paid stays within 90 days.
On the other hand, Hilton Honors is much more generous about doling out its higher elite status memberships. Indeed, you can earn top-tier Hilton Diamond status simply by having the Amex US Hilton Honors Aspire Card! It’s arguably the most generous elite qualifying requirement out of all the major hotel chains’ top-tier status levels.
Verdict: Breakfast, lounge access, and suite upgrades can radically transform your hotel experience for the better. Hilton is the clear winner in this regard: its top-tier Diamond status can be acquired from having a single credit card, whereas Marriott Bonvoy’s mid-tier Platinum Elite status already requires a fair bit of effort to achieve.
The benefits associated with Marriott Platinum Elite status (and above) are mostly on par with those of Hilton Diamond. In both cases, you’ll be treated to free breakfast and lounge access (if available), as well as suite upgrades subject to availability.
There are, however, a few key differences. Marriott Platinum Elite unlocks guaranteed 4pm late checkout, whereas Hilton only offers members the vague benefit of “late checkout”, which in practice is very much up in the air and subject to the whims of each individual hotels.
In addition, Marriott Bonvoy members who achieve Platinum and Titanium status can choose five Suite Night Awards as a reward for doing so, which can be used to confirm suite upgrades up to five days in advance of a hotel stay.
Meanwhile, Hilton doesn’t offer its members any way to confirm suite upgrades prior to check-in; taken together with how easy it is for anyone to earn top-tier Diamond status through a single credit card, and I suspect that, on average, you’ll get better suite upgrades as an elite member with Marriott Bonvoy than with Hilton Honors, especially if you ask the hotel nicely through live chat ahead of time.
Verdict: There’s slightly more value in Marriott’s elite program than Hilton’s. While Hilton does offer its Diamond member a 100% bonus on points earnings for every stay (compared to Marriott Platinum’s 50% bonus), I don’t think that’s enough to outweigh Marriott’s guaranteed 4pm late checkout and Suite Night Awards.
While the value proposition of Marriott Bonvoy has diminished somewhat since its zenith in 2017–18, it remains the most accessible hotel loyalty program among Canadian travellers. Having said that, as we’ve demonstrated, there are many regards in which Hilton Honors does an equal if not better job at meeting your travel needs, such as offering compelling deals to buy points for discounted stays and providing more favourable opportunities for using points on top-tier luxury properties.
For Canadians looking to leverage hotel programs to cover accommodations along their travels while minimizing their cost, I’d recommend focusing on Marriott Bonvoy as your top priority, and then, once you’ve gotten comfortable on the Bonvoy side, diversifying into Hilton Honors with a quick Amex Global Transfer to unlock even more possibilities for free hotel nights.