Study: Hotel Credit Cards for Free Nights
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In the minds of many travelers, hotel rewards often take a backseat to airline perks.
This is unfortunate because, in many cases, hotel loyalty programs can get you a much better return on your rewards. Which one sounds better: a free 2-hour flight or a free 2-night stay? Unless the hotel is named Bates, I think most travelers would take the free stay.
Credit Cards with Free Hotel Stays: One of the easiest way to nab that free stay is to use a hotel-branded credit card. These cards offer big sign up bonuses that can save you hundreds of dollars on your next booking. In some cases, hotel cards will give you a free night just for signing up and spending a minimum amount within a specific timeframe (assuming you’re also packing good enough credit, of course).
But the hotel credit card market is a crowded field, and some cards are worth significantly less than others. There is no standard for what “1 point” equals, and the real value can range anywhere from less than 1 cent to several cents depending on where and how you redeem them. That might seem like the difference of just a few pennies (because it is), but when you start talking about more than 10,000 points, the difference in redemption values can be hundreds of dollars.
One size does not fit all. The best hotel credit card is different for everyone. You might frequently visit a city where the closest Hyatt is 100 miles away. Or you might be using your hotel credit card as an indirect way to earn frequent flyer miles by transferring them to an airline transfer partner.
To help you figure out which hotel credit card is right for you, CreditDonkey has put together a comparison of popular options, including promotions from our partners.
Checking In: The Basics
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First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: if you don’t like to stay in hotels (even free ones), you have no business signing up for a hotel-branded card. While the benefits of these cards are many, they are rendered worthless if you never step foot on a hotel property. In this case, you’d be better signing up for a general travel rewards card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred card or the Barclaycard Arrival Plus.
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To get the most out of hotel credit cards, you’ll not only want to stay at hotels, but you’ll want to stay at the same hotel chain. You’ll get a bigger rewards boost that way, meaning you’ll get that much faster to your free-nights goal.
Hotel Points Program: Major hotel chains have loyalty programs tied to each card, and some cover a large variety of properties worldwide. Consider which ones you’ll frequent or will want to go to when you’ve racked up enough rewards.
Having said that, you’ll also want a card that gets you closer to free nights no matter where you are. You should be able to earn rewards for regular purchases like food, gas, and online shopping. Remember, a credit card with a rewards program that’s useless 99% of the time doesn’t really belong in your wallet.
Hotel credit cards are meant to help get you free nights, but you may have to pay up front to get that privilege. Like most travel rewards credit cards, hotel-branded credit cards often have annual fees. Some might waive the fee for the first year, but you still need to factor this extra cost into your decision and estimate whether you’ll get enough in rewards year over year to make up for it.
Related: Airline Credit Cards
These guidelines are meant to help you decide which card works best for you, because there is no universal winner. Hotel stays have so many variables that it’s impossible to determine one card that’s perfect for every budget, every lifestyle, and every location.
Here’s a list of CreditDonkey’s featured hotel credit cards:
Hotel Credit Card Bonus: Return on Rewards
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- Annual Fee: $95 ($0 intro annual fee for the first year)
- Signup Bonus: Earn 25,000 bonus Starpoints after you use your new Card to make $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months.
- Rewards: Up to 5 Starpoints per dollar spent at participating SPG locations (explained below), 1 Starpoint everywhere else
- Benefits: 5,000 bonus when you transfer 20,000 Starpoints to an SPG partner airline's frequent flyer program
Regular Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) members earn 4 Starpoints per dollar spent at Starwood hotels (2 Starpoints® for each dollar of eligible purchases spent on the Card at participating SPG® hotels, in addition to the 2 Starpoints you can get as a SPG member). Gold and Platinum Starwood hotel members earn 5 Starpoints (an additional 1 point for being SPG Gold or Platinum).
What you can get with Starpoints varies with the hotel level (usually referred to as “categories”). For example, I’m looking at booking options for a weekend in Las Vegas. I can make a reservation at the Westin (category 5) for $129 a night, or I could redeem 12,000 Starpoints a night to get the room for free. In this scenario, my Starpoint value is just around 1 cent. However, if I move more off the Strip and drop a few categories, I can stay at the Four Points by Sheraton (category 2) for $129 a night or just 3,000 Starpoints. Now my points are worth around 4 cents each. As you can see, generally speaking, there’s more value in the low to middle range of categories.
Hotel Credit Cards for Airline Miles: The SPG credit card also lets you transfer your rewards (typically at full value) to as many as 30 airlines. Transfer 20,000 points and you’ll get an additional 5,000 Starpoints as a bonus. If you value airline miles, that flexibility puts the SPG card at the high end for your consideration.
Want to learn more about the SPG credit card? Read our AMEX Starwood Review.
Hotel Credit Cards with No Annual Fee
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Hotel Credit Card for Rewards: Annual Benefits
Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card
- Annual Fee: $85 annual fee
- Signup Bonus: Earn 80,000 Bonus Points after spending $3,000 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening.
- Rewards: Earn 5 points for every $1 spent at over 5,700 participating Marriott Rewards and SPG hotels, 2 points for every $1 spent on airline tickets purchased directly with the airlines, at car rental agencies & restaurants and 1 point everywhere else.
- Benefits: Receive a free 1 night stay in a category 1-5 hotel each year after your account anniversary date
When it comes to getting a free night in a hotel, few cards make it easier than the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card. Marriott will give you a free night at up to a category 5 hotel for each year you renew your membership. That’s basically paying $85 for a room for one night. For example, you could get a free night at the Courtyard Paris Arcueil, which currently goes for $130. That’s a savings of $45, more than half of the annual fee.
However, be prepared to make some travel compromises; it’s likely that your ideal destination is in a higher hotel category. Unfortunately, most major destinations are at least a category 6, so you’ll need more points to play. That includes popular destinations like Hawaii, downtown Los Angeles, Manhattan, or Boston.
Still, with an estimated 4,000 properties worldwide, Marriott offers enough locations to make the card worth your while.
Marriott: Pricing information from published website as of 2/10/2016.
Other Cards to Consider
Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Credit Card
- Earn 2 weekend night certificates after you spend $2,500 in purchases during the first 4 months. Each certificate is good for a standard room, double occupancy weekend night.
- Automatic HHonors Gold status.
- $95 annual fee.
Why We Like It
The two weekend night certificates will get you a free stay at most of Hilton’s 4,100+ properties. Additionally, you can secure an anniversary bonus of one weekend night if you spend at least $10,000 annually (starting from your annual fee date and as long as you remain a cardmember).
However, the real gem of this card is the automatic Gold status, which gets you a lot of perks every time you check in. Gold status means goodies like late checkout, free WiFi, and free access to select fitness centers. But one of our favorite perk is getting the 5th night free for any eligible stays of 5 nights or more.
Why We Don’t
While the list of hotels excluded from the free weekend night certificates is short, it’s still a bummer that you don’t have full access to the worldwide portfolio. Also, the card doesn’t waive the first year’s annual fee, so you’ll be down $95 the moment you sign up.
Hilton: Pricing information from published website as of 6/22/2015.
Hyatt Credit Card
|Hyatt Hotel - zoom ins © Elliott Brown (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr|
- Receive 2 free nights after you make $1,000 in purchases during the first 3 months. (This offer is available as long as you haven’t received a new cardmember bonus for this product in the past 24 months.)
- Free night every year after your cardmember anniversary (at a category 1 to 4 property).
- Hyatt Gold Passport Platinum Membership.
- $75 annual fee ($0 intro annual fee for first year).
Why We Like It
Hyatt wins the free night bonus category by letting you redeem at any location worldwide, which means the value is limited only by your imagination (and how much you want to spend getting there, of course). You’ll get another free night each year as an anniversary gift that’s good at Hyatt locations up to a category 4. And as a frequent stayer at a category 4 Hyatt, I can assure you that there are still benefits to be had (I’m looking at you, giant bathtub).
The card also comes with Hyatt Gold Passport Platinum Membership, which gets you perks like free Internet, late checkout, and a 15% point bonus.
Why We Don’t
Hyatt has 587 locations in 50 countries, which sounds like a lot until you compare it with the 4,000+ offered by other major chains.
Hyatt: Pricing information from published website as of 6/22/2015.
Wyndham Rewards Visa Signature Card
- Earn 15,000 bonus points after your first purchase.
- Earn additional 15,000 points after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days.
- Earn miles at partner airlines.
- $0 annual fee.
Why We Like It
Wyndham has more than 7,000 locations worldwide with familiar roadside names such as Super 8, Ramada, and Travelodge. The hotel chain makes getting free nights simple: 15,000 points will get you a free night. That makes the 30,000-point signup bonus worth a 2-night stay, all for no annual fee.
The hotel also makes it easy for loyal travelers to earn points by offering at least 1,000 points per stay, even if your room costs less. So, you could stay at a budget location 15 times and earn enough points for a free night at any luxury Wyndham in the world.
The Wyndham is also one of the few hotel cards that let you earn miles from airline partners instead of points. If you’d rather work toward a free flight on United than a free stay at the Howard Johnson, then Wyndham gives you that choice.
Why We Don’t
The flat 15,000 points works great for upper tier properties that were once valued at 30,000+ points a night, but not so much for the lower tier hotels that used to go for 5,500 points a night.
Wyndham: Pricing information from published website as of 6/22/2015.
While I’m confident that all of these cards would be a solid pick, your particular travel tastes might be better suited by another option. If you have a favorite hotel not mentioned here, more than likely there’s a credit card with its name on it.
Ross Frasier is a research analyst at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison and financial education website. Write to Ross Frasier at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our data-driven analysis has been recognized by major news outlets across the country and has helped travelers make savvy financial and lifestyle decisions.
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author's alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer. This site may be compensated through the Advertiser's affiliate programs.