Like airlines, it's heavily dependent on what you want out of your effort. Do you want to save up for a swanky night at a high-end hotel with high thread count sheets like Tom Haverford or do you just want free nights when you have a wedding to attend?
Tom Haverford likes the luxury lifestyle. You should too.
Each program has it's benefits actually. Hotels are also where you will have the most success hacking your way to status as many cards include low to mid-tier status at hotel chains.
Let's jog through the big ones:
Hilton is one of the largest hotel chains in the world (pending the outcome of the Marriott-Starwood merger-- more on that later). It's easy to rack up and use points since there will almost always be a Hilton where you need one. I think that's where Aria stayed on her travels.
Aria grabbing her sword on the way to check in.
Hilton has a great portfolio of low to mid-tier properties with their Doubletree and Hilton Garden Inn brands, many of which include free breakfast or a "Manager's Reception" with free wine at night. They've done a good job updating their offerings at these brands, but still have some work to do in their Hilton Hotel properties as they tend to be outdated.
Their top of the line brand, Waldorf-Astoria, is losing its famous New York City location, but they just opened in Chicago and also have the Conrad brand that has a strong international presence for a luxury location.
Beware that their points are worth significantly less than others so, like Marriott, when you see 50,000 points don't get too excited.
If you are just looking to always have a location you can use your points, Hilton is a great bet.
Associated Cards: Citi HHonors Visa Signature, Citi HHonors Reserve, Amex HHonors Surpass, Amex HHonors Card
The best thing going for Marriott loyalists right now, aside from their large portfolio, is the pending merger with Starwood. There is some contention as to whether the Chinese government will "OK" the deal, and there is also some reported hesitancy by Marriott officials about the purchase. I'm hoping it doesn't pass as Starwood is currently the best program out there.
Marriott is similar to Hilton in size, so generally you'll have a Marriott property wherever you are. Marriott loses out to Hilton when it comes to the lower mid-tier (Doubletree vs. Courtyard) but Marriott's J.W. Marriott brand is much better than Hilton Hotels.
Where Marriott really shines is the Ritz-Carlton wing of the program, as you can earn points and elite nights at both properties. The only downside is you cannot have accounts at both. In practice it doesn't really matter, but you need to decide which program you want to "belong to" and only use that number.
Ritz-Carlton is hands down one of the most renowned chains in the world. If you haven't stayed there, it's the hotel version of Harvey Specter:
Their properties are pristine, manicured and the service is impeccable.
Marriott is unique that it affords you the flexibility to save money on cheap stays but also build towards something special.
IHG is most well-known for their Holiday Inn chain, which has come a long way and has value for its free hot breakfast if you don't have status. The properties are fine, but I wouldn't recommend the IHG brand because at best you can build towards a stay at a Hotel Intercontinental which are good properties, but it doesn't deliver the kind of mid-range value that you get at a Doubletree or Marriott property. Limited flexiblity is never a good thing.
One nice perk of IHG, however, is their co-branded credit card which for a $49 annual fee gives you a free night each year which at the very least should deliver upwards of $150-$200 in value, in addition to automatic Platinum Select status. It actually makes sense to get that card even if you don't want to stay at IHG hotels but have a nice Intercontinental near you for a staycation.
Associated Credit Cards: Chase IHG Rewards Card
Starwood Preferred Guest
Before I get the gravy train going I do have to remind you that they're in the process of getting purchased by Marriott which could drive the entire program into the ground.
Until then this program is the heat.
Aside from the fact that Starwood hotels are fantastic at all levels with Sheraton, Westin, ALOFT, W Hotels and the St. Regis brand, their currency is easily the most valuable of all hotel points. Think of Starpoints like wildfire. If you have a large cache of them, you can take over the world.
My main drawback with SPG is that their hotels tend to be a little higher priced than its Hilton/Marriott counterparts. Sure, W Hotels are sexy, but a lot of times their service sucks and the rooms are small and the bathrooms are small and you overpay. I'd rather snag a Westin any day.
The real value in SPG is their points. You can transfer SPG points to almost very airline in the world at a 1:1 ratio and the kicker is you get a 5,000 point bonus when you transfer 20,000 points. That gives you an earn rate of 1.25 points per dollar spent. Epic.
SPG status isn't the easiest to attain because it's relatively small in its footprint, but if you travel often and SPG has a presence, I would definitely opt for that (especially if it's not on your dime and you can ball out on someone else's budget). Because, again, a traveler armed with Starpoints be like:
Associated Credit Cards: SPG Amex
Yes, there are some that I left off like Choice and Accor and Wyndham, but those just don't have the best selection for what we're trying to do here. We're aiming higher here.
Now that we have our airline loyalty and our hotel loyalty, we can now formulate a credit card strategy.