Free wine, free cheese. Sleep in for as long as you please. Over the next few weeks, I’ll take a closer look at how to score just enough freebies to make higher rates at luxury hotels that much more palatable.
I’ll dedicate a post to each of the major booking portals and walk through the pros and cons of each. At the end, we’ll compare all these portals at a select group of cities around the world in case you find yourself looking for a great deal for your next five-star stay.
But before I get ahead of myself, let’s start with what’s first:
American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts
Who can book: American Express Platinum and Centurion cardholders
Where to book: Online or over the phone with no fee
Why it’s great: Easy to book, guaranteed late 4pm check-out, fully refundable rate, complimentary nights on longer stays
Why it’s not: Requires a card with an annual fee of $450, properties are generally limited to higher-end chains (i.e., great deals and boutique hotels are hard to find), consistent – albeit corporate cookie-cutter – service
Easy to search, book, and cancel
In many ways, American Express’s Fine Hotel & Resorts (FHR) program comes first for no reason other than convenience. Available to Platinum and Centurion charge cardmembers, FHR is my go-to choice for finding a nice hotel because it’s easy to use, perfect for lazy people like me.
American Express recently revamped its 90s-era public library inspired website to the comparatively slick interface you see here. And most significantly, they allow you to plug-in dates and compare prices from all FHR properties in a given area:
Since I only book through FHR when I can find a below-market rate, this is a godsend. I used to have to individually click through every hotel to find the lowest available rate, which was a nightmare for larger cities with dozens of participating hotels.
American Express also started publishing its FHR directory online at fhrdigitaldirectory.com. You don’t have to have a Platinum or Centurion card to browse the site, so anyone can plug-in a destination and see which hotel is part of the network. If you’re the type to think that a glossy booklet of fancy hotels would make a good addition to your (mahogany!) coffee table, you can request a hard-copy of the directory by calling the number on the back of your Platinum or Centurion card.
Most importantly, FHR rates align very closely with the lowest refundable rate offered by the hotel. So while sometimes you might be able to get a significantly cheaper rate through Hotwire or Kayak, those bargain rates are almost always non-refundable (and don’t come with any benefits). It’s nice to have the flexibility to call in the afternoon before check-in and cancel your reservation should your heart so desire.
Guaranteed 4pm check-out, free food, and other niceties
American Express FHR offers a fine set of benefits, but as a whole, they’re comparable to what you might find on similar booking portals (namely Virtuoso). But let’s quickly run through them anyways for good measure:
Noon (or early) check-in: This is technically subject to availability, but I’ve never been turned away. I’ve checked-in as early as 7am after a nightmare overnight bus-ride, and that was especially appreciated. To maximize your chances of an early check-in time, check to see if the hotel is fully booked the night before. If the night prior to your stay shows some availability, call the hotel directly to let them know you’ll be stopping by earlier than expected.
Room upgrade: This is also technically subject to availability at check-in time, but it’s reliably a one-category bump. About a third of the time I’ve been bumped up several categories to a suite or club-level room, and that was also much appreciated. It never hurts to ask to inquire about the availability of a specific room type if you’re really keen on the extra square footage.
Daily breakfast for two people: If the hotel offers a buffet, this usually counts towards the continental/cold/European option with an optional surcharge for the full/hot/American/fatty option. Some hotels let you go all out with no surcharge. If the hotel doesn’t offer a buffet, they’ll probably offer you a breakfast credit for about $68-80. When I’m travelling alone, I usually order the second breakfast to-go and have it for lunch since the credit should apply to all breakfast charges at check-out.
Free in-room wifi: It’s usually good for the “premium” “not-slow-as-snails” version, but ask the front desk to be sure.
“Unique” property benefit per stay, which is almost always one of these:
- $100 property credit (the most flexible, applicable to anything from the spa to dining)
- $100 food and beverage credit (including tax, gratuities, and alcohol)
- $100 food and beverage credit (excluding one or some combination of the inclusions above)
- Compimentary lunch or dinner for two (almost always excluding taxes, gratuities, and alcohol)
- $100 spa credit (keep in mind that these hotels charge upwards $135 for an hour massage, before tips)
- Complimentary massage for two
As an aside, you should receive a letter or pamphlet during check-in that specifies which property benefit applies. Make sure to ask about any exclusions to avoid any surprises over your alcohol-induced rager the next morning – not that I would know anything about that.
Guaranteed 4pm late check-out: As far as I know, FHR is one of few booking portals that guarantee late check-out and not have it based on availability. An extra four hours might not sound like much, but it’s just enough to mitigate the frantic late-morning scramble when you have to be out by noon.
Complimentary nights for longer stays
Besides the benefits that automatically add-on to every booking, American Express has a wide selection of hotels that’ll offer a complimentary 3rd, 4th, or 5th night at certain times around the year.
I like to burn through my “unique property benefit” in one go, so I rarely stay at the same nice hotel for two nights in a row. I’d much rather bounce around from hotel to hotel since the property benefit applies to the entire duration of the stay – and not on a daily basis like the breakfast does.
But for all of you who like a bit more stability in life, these free nights could effectively reduce the average nightly rate by up to a third. It’s an added bonus if you can apply a free night to a hotel in some remote corner of the world with surprisingly reasonable nightly rates in the first place.
Theory: Booking through FHR makes AMEX like you more
It’s not exactly the most groundbreaking hypothesis, but I suspect that booking frequent FHR stays makes you a much more valuable customer in the eyes of American Express. Why should you care, you ask?
When it’s time to pay that hefty annual fee, being perceived as a “more valuable”customer might make you eligible for a better retention offer. While there’s really no way to definitely prove it, I wouldn’t be surprised if spending top dollar at luxury hotels booked through Amex hits a few algorithmic sweet spots to bump your retention offer to the next level.
Admittedly this is all wild speculation on my part, so don’t read too much into this.
What we do have more evidence for, however, is that an invitation to get the notorious Centurion black card usually requires consistently astronomical spending on first class tickets, expensive accommodations, and the like. It seems like it’s not enough to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in reimbursed work-related expenses at your local Sam’s Club anymore. You can follow this thread on FlyerTalk to read (unsubstantiated) commentary on what it takes to have a chunk of titanium weighing down your wallet.
Speaking of comparing Platinum versus Centurion FHR benefits, what do you get for an additional $2,050 a year with the fancy black card? Well, as it turns out, not that much anymore. It seems like Centurion cardholders used to get 2 nights for the price of one at any Mandarin Oriental and generous upgrades to club-level rooms at the Ritz-Carlton, but American Express seems to have dialed these benefits back over the past few years. Oh the horror, I know.
Solid benefits, consistent service – but at what cost?
American Express is a solid place to start your fancy hotel search. Free breakfast for two and other property credits could easily make a below-market FHR rate comparable to what you’d pay at a mid-range hotel.
These benefits come at a cost though – and not an insignificant one at that. The cheapest way to get your foot in the FHR door is to shell over $450 a year in credit card fees with the American Express Platinum charge card. But the Platinum card comes with a slew of other benefits (like a $200 annual airline fee reimbursement and generous purchase protection benefits), so these hotel freebies might just be icing on the cake depending on how you like to travel.
Besides the convenience of being able to book and compare prices online, I’ve always found FHR service to be consistent. I’ve never had any issues with receiving any of the stated benefits, and hotels generally make the extra effort to make my stay a comfortable one. It’s relatively easy to book over the phone as well, since you won’t be charged a phone booking fee as you would with other Amex-coordinated travel arrangements. In other words, you know what you’re going to get, and you usually get it.
But if you value the personalized service from a dedicated travel agent, you might find better options elsewhere. Being able to call or email someone who’s familiar with your travel patterns could be useful if you stay in luxury properties on a regular basis. A commissioned agent is more likely to go the extra mile in securing a suite upgrade and communicating other special requests than the army of FHR agents that Amex employs.
I don’t stay in luxury hotels that often, so American Express Fine Hotel & Resorts is good enough for me. But stay tuned for alternative options that could be easier on your wallet – and offer a wider selection beyond the FHR network.