Is it true that Gold benefits at lower end brands (Fairfield, Springhill, Residence, etc.) are relatively limited because all rooms are essentially the same size and the hotel offers free breakfast to all anyways?
With no benefits at Courtyard and many premium brands (Marriott, JW, etc.) typically overpriced, is there much of any benefit for the entire Gold status level?
The main benefits of Gold are lounge access, free breakfast and room upgrades and hence mainly apply to full service properties since, as you've identified, there are no lounges outside full service brands and breakfast is free for all at most select serve brands and for no-one at Courtyard. Hence room upgrades are all that's left. All the select serve brands do have rooms beyond the basic but not that many so upgrades at Courtyards, Springhill and Fairfield Inns are rare. However Residence Inns start at studios and go on to one and two bedroomed suites. I've only stayed at RI twice but the first one I was upgraded from studio to a one bed suite, the second I wasn't upgraded, though my travelling companion on that day, and fellow plat, bejacob was - from a studio to a one bedroomed suite.
So, no, Gold doesn't go far outside the full service brands, but it does sometimes pull an upgrade and is most likely to at the long stay brands, Residence Inn and Towneplace Suites...
brightlybob is right. Upgrades do happen at the lower end brands. My last three nights were CY, ResInn, and FFI. I got upgraded at all three. Rooms at the CY and FFI were a bit larger than the standard rooms with a separate sitting area and 2nd television. The difference was more noticeable at the ResInn where I got a 1-BR suite.
Lounge access is probably the most useful Gold benefit, though as you noted, it only available at the full service brands. Bargains can be found at such places, so I wouldn't assume most are overpriced. No doubt some are. Much depends on location and timing.
Agree with bejacob that there are bargains to be found for full-service properties, depending on location and timing. We did a $83 per night stay at Marriott Minneapolis Northwest recently. It was actually cheaper than all of the nearby FFI, SHS, CY, RI, and TPS properties, and it was a good property. I also get upgrades at the lower end properties once and awhile. Got a huge suite at FFI Temecula, CA, for example.
Houston Autograph $190
Houston Courtyard $170
EWR Renaissance $160
Richmond Marriott $150
Harlingen Residence Inn $140
Corpus Christi Springhill Suites $120
Hamilton Residence Inn $120
Gettysburg Courtyard $90
Houston North Marriott $60
As can be seen the Courtyards were both the second most expensive and second cheapest.
But it was the full service Houston North Marriott that was cheapest by a long way! And it has a pretty good exec lounge too!
PS - windycity1255, if you are in Chicago as your name implies, the JW on Adams occasionally runs fantastic weekend specials. Gold elites get CL access or free breakfast if the CL is closed at that property, and it's a gorgeous hotel with wonderful service. I've stayed there for $159 which is a super rate for a JW, and especially that particular JW. During the week it often runs $399 or higher.
windycity1255, You could generally the same comment for platinum at the lower category hotels. The platinum welcome gift is generally limited there to a market item or a couple hundred points. I tend to get upgraded at Fairfield more, both when gold and silver. At Res, upgrades are seldom much of an advantage and springhills are all the same rooms. There is a higher points multiplier for each higher category. I tend not to stay at cy.
Full service is where you benefit. Sometimes there is a full service hotel for a few dollars more, and when I always take it.
I agree with bejacob - there are deals to be found at the higher end properties, particularly at non-peak times. I've had a wide pendulum of experiences with room upgrades, from "wow!" to "really, this is an upgrade?" For me, the lounge access is typically the most valuable perk. I had an interesting experience with that this summer, though. The Metropolitan at the 9 (Autograph) in Cleveland has a "lounge," but they've labeled it as not being a concierge lounge. They offered me 750 points per day because they don't have a Gold/Platinum lounge (still waiting after multiple attempts for the customer service team at Marriott Rewards to properly credit those points, but that's another story); however, we could pay for an upgrade to a lounge level room and get access. I surely hope that this is not going to be a trend with Marriott, as it would seriously reduce the value of Gold/Platinum status, at least for me.
The other value of Gold status is the 25% point bonus for stays. I've been able to accumulate points much faster that way and use them for free nights at properties overseas where the exchange rate is less favorable, particularly in London.