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Choosing The Right Hilton Credit Card

by on June 19, 2012 · 32 comments

in American Express, Citi, Credit Cards, Hilton, TPG Contributors

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After his first post about the basics of double-dipping with Hilton HHonors, TPG contributor Nick gives us the breakdown of the three Hilton credit cards on the market and which one might be right for you and your needs (just in case you have trouble deciding, there’s another one of his famous Excel spreadsheets to help you figure it out).

In the past couple years Hilton has devalued their program several times, but there’s still tremendous value to be had if you maximize your earning and redeeming of Hilton points. While redemption levels seem high (50,000 points for a top tier hotel) the base earning of Hilton points is higher than most other programs at 15 HHonors points per $1 you spend at Hilton as opposed to just 2 Starpoints per $1 at Starwood. Points earning increases exponentially when you take advantage of Hilton’s co-branded credit cards.

Currently, there are three different Hilton cards out there:
-Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature
-Hilton HHonors American Express: The current sign up offer for the American Express Hilton HHonors card is 50,000 points when you spend $750 in the first 3 months.
-Hilton HHonors Surpass Card from American Express

Benefits Breakdown

Citi Visa Signature

American Express

Surpass

Current bonus point offer

40,000 points after $1000 spend in first 4 months

40,000 points after $750 spend in first 3 months

40,000 points after first purchase, additional 20,000 points after $3000 spend in first 3 months

Annual Fee

None

None

$75

Earning Power

Hilton Properties

6 points/$1

6 points/$1

9 points/$1

Supermarkets, gas stations, drugstores

3 points/$1

6 points/$1

6 points/$1

Phone, cable, satellite, and internet bills

2 points/$1

6 points/$1

6 points/$1

Everything else

2 points/$1

3 points/$1

3 points/$1

Automatic Complimentary Status

Silver

Silver

Gold for first year, Silver thereafter

Status with Annual Spend

None

Gold after $20,000

Gold after $20,000

Diamond after $40,000

Spending Comparison

So what does this look like in action? Let’s look at a hypothetical situation of someone who spends $1650 a month on the card:

$400/month at Hilton properties
$200/month on gas
$600/month on groceries
$50/month on pharmacy purchases
$200/month on phone/cable/satellite/internet bills
$200/month on other purchases

After a year of these spending habits, here is the earning potential:

Citi Visa Signature

American Express

Surpass

Max sign-up bonus

40,000 points

40,000 points

60,000 points

Hilton properties

28,800 points

28,800 points

43,200 points

Gas

7200 points

14,400 points

14,400 points

Groceries

21,600 points

43,200 points

43,200 points

Pharmacy

1800 points

3600 points

3600 points

Bills

4800 points

14,400 points

14,400 points

Other

4800 points

7200 points

7200 points

TOTAL POINTS IN FIRST YEAR

109,000 points

151,600 points

186,000 points

You can see how the bonus categories can significantly change your earning potential, depending on which card you carry.

The Surpass Card obviously excels in the spend bonus on dollars spent at Hilton properties and the sign-up bonus even though you have to spend four times as much as on the regular Hilton Amex to get those extra 20,000 points. Otherwise the two Amex cards are neck and neck, while the Citi Visa Signature lags in the category bonuses, though the 40,000-point sign-up bonus is just as big as the regular Hilton Amex.

Rewards
Free nights begin at 7,500 points for a Category 1 hotel (like the Hampton Inn Enterprise, AL) and go up to 80,000 for certain Waldorf Astoria properties during high season (like the Grand Wailea Resort). This means that if you sign up today for the Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express and spend $1650/month as outlined above, you will have enough points for two free nights at Grand Wailea or 24 free nights at the Hampton Inn in Enterprise after one year, so the spending bonuses really do add up. Whereas if you spent the same monthly amount with the Citi Hilton card, you’d have enough for 14 nights at the Hampton Inn, and just one night at the Grand Wailea in high season.

Cardmember Redemption Benefits
There are two ways to book discounted reward stays at Hilton properties, however, and this is where being a cardholder really pays off.

VIP-only rewards (also known as GLON):
Regardless of the card you choose and the amount you spend, you will automatically have Silver status with Hilton HHonors. This means that you have access to discounted redemption rates for stays of four nights or longer at Category 3 or higher hotels. The discounts are as follows:

-Four-night stay: 15% off standard reward rate
-Five-night stay: 20% off standard reward rate
-Six-night stay or longer: 25% off standard reward rate

As a Hilton HHonors Diamond member you can book a six-night stay at the Conrad Bali that would cost the general member 210,000 points (35,000 points/night), whereas a Diamond member could get it for 157,500 points (26,250 points/night).

Amex-only rewards (also known as AXON): If you choose either one of the American Express options, another discounted redemption opportunity exists specifically for cardholders. This allows you to book four-night stays at specific rates that (in many cases) are discounted even more than the VIP-only rewards.

Here’s how it works:

-Category 5/6 hotels (AXON5/AXON 6): 125,000 points for a four-night stay (instead of the usual 140,000 for Category 5 and 160,000 for Category 6)
-Category 7 hotels (AXON7): 145,000 points for a four-night stay (instead of the usual 200,000)

Surprisingly enough, the AXON5 rate of 125,000 points is actually higher than the GLON rate of 119,000 points, so if you are planning a four-night stay at a Category 5 hotel, you’re better off booking the GLON rate. However, the other two AXON rates do offer significant savings compared to the GLON rate at Category 6 and 7 properties. You’d save 11,000 points for a four-night stay at a Category 6 property (125k compared to 136k) or 25,000 points for a four-night stay at a Category 7 property (145k compared to 170k).

Confused yet? Don’t worry. I’ll be writing a future post demystifying GLON and AXON awards that will cover these options in greater depth, including a comparison between when you should use GLON and when it’s better to use AXON if you’re a cardholder.

Which Card Is Best?
So what does this all mean for you? When push comes to shove, the Hilton HHonors American Express clearly outshines the Visa Signature, which makes it a no brainer to me. It offers better category bonuses and access to both the discounted redemption rates discussed above while still avoiding an annual fee. It can also be a great card for those new to the points game that may not want to mess with the likes of the American Express Platinum.

The Surpass card, on the other hand, is a no brainer if you can get Diamond status via the $40,000 in spend and it may be a better choice for those with significant spending at Hilton properties each year. Since most of my paid Hilton stays are charged to my company, the $75 annual fee isn’t worth it for me. Unless you really need the extra 20,000 bonus points right off the bat, it may be worth applying for the fee-free Amex now and upgrading if/when they offer additional bonus points.

However, it is worth noting that as a fee-free cardholder, I get a solicitation about once a month to upgrade to the Surpass card. In fact, the most recent one was a few weeks ago, offering an additional 50,000 bonus points for spending $3000 in the first three months. Until they offer to waive the annual fee or until I am desperate for Hilton HHonors points, I’m not budging!

To help you determine which card is right for you, I’ve created an Excel spreadsheet where you can plug your finances in to see how many points you’d earn on each card. You can find it here: Hilton HHonors Credit Card Spending.

No matter which card you choose, there are certainly ways to maximize your points earning and redeem for the hotel awards you want. Feel free to leave your comments and questions below on which card might be best for you and why.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Steve

    I have a question, What exactly does GLON stand for? Or is it even a defined acronym? I did a google search, which led me to a few FT threads.
    A few times people ask “What does GLON stand for?” Or “what’s the acronym?”
    the best response I found to those questions was a snippy “Goto the AXON Hilton HHonors Award Questions and Information: The Definitive Thread”
    When I goto that thread, and search GLON, no one ever says what the acronym stands for. I understand it’s an elite dicount, but how does Hilton get GLON out of “elite reward redemption discount”?

    Great info btw, thanks for the post!

  • PSL

    As a longtime regular HH Amex cardholder who has also resisted the Surpass upgrade solicitations, I agree completely with your analysis. Unless someone is planning to spend $40,000 for Diamond status, why pay $75?

  • Jkrothstein

    This is a great post. I’m getting married at a Hilton in the fall and have been wondering how to maximize my points. Anyone have ideas about fabulous Hilton properties we should check out for our honeymoon?

  • harvson3

    Per the Flyertalk thread below, there’s a 50K sign-up for the Citi Hilton. You might also mention that you can use the two-browser trick to get two cards at once. I got two 50K cards together in May, met the minimum requirements, and we’re going to the Hilton Cartagena soon.

    http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/milesbuzz/1219687-50-000-citi-hilton-hhonors-visa.html

  • Lazer

    You can open a virgin Atlantic chase card get 50k miles which is transferable to Hilton on a 1/2 basis equaling too 100k Hilton points.

  • oneeyejack
  • Asuruma

    I got the Surpass card mainly because I’m heading to Europe and want to amass as many Hilton points as possible before I go. Room rates over there are in the 400-600 dollar range for Paris and London, so paying the extra $75 for 20k extra points was a no brainer for me.

  • MarkJ

    I am Starwood Platinum and wanted to add another top tier elite status without having to do a ton of nights. I had a big tax bill and paid the convenience fee on $40,000 to qualify for Diamond using the Surpass Card. The tax bill payment netted 120,000 points which I redeemed on a stay that more than paid for the convenience fee. In essence Diamond for free. So far…so good.

  • BigTex

    How frequently can one re-apply for the AMEX Hilton card and get the bonus after being approved — I believe the app said the bonus is only available every 12 months? Do you need to cancel the existing card?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_JNFSXN4ANC7RH5VQCOEJGFUJZQ Nick

    I would definitely recommend checking out the Hiltons in Tahiti. I stayed at the one in Moorea and had a fantastic time, and the one in Bora Bora is also supposed to be great (albeit a little more challenging to get to). I also loved the Conrad Bali (as I mention above).

    There’s actually a great thread on FlyerTalk right now that addresses your exact question with a LOT of people weighing in. Here’s the link:

    http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/hilton-hhonors/124737-honeymoon-thread-hilton-hhonors-properties-where.html

    Good luck planning, and congrats!!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_JNFSXN4ANC7RH5VQCOEJGFUJZQ Nick

    I believe that you would need to cancel the card and wait another 12 months before reapplying and getting another bonus. The T&C on the offer I’m looking at say:

    “Welcome bonus offer not available to applicants who have had this product within the last 12 months or any other Consumer Hilton HHonors® Credit Card account within the last 90 days.”

    I take that to mean that you can just reapply for another one every 12 months.

    Hope this helps!

  • Sheryl

    Thanks for this. I’ve had the Hilton Visa for years, and only in the past year have gotten the Amex. I quickly realized how many more points I was earning with the Amex compared to the Visa. Wish I had figured that out years ago. Good post!

  • thepointsguy

    LT has great info, but that post doesn’t have charts of the credit card earning vs the 3 main Hilton cards, which is the primary focus of this post.

  • toomanybooks

    1. Immediate Gold status for the first year with Surpass.
    2. 9 points per dollar on Hilton spend vs. 6.

    Certainly not worth it for everyone.

  • toomanybooks

    Make sure you get a Surpass card and charge everything for your wedding at Hilton that you can. 9 points per dollar is significant.

  • http://twitter.com/Goldeneyeuro Alex

    The Surpass version of the AMEX also includes a free Priority Pass membership ($99 yearly), so I’m guessing this is the key differentiater between the Surpass and its lesser no-fee brethren. Though you’re still having to pay $27 per person for access to participating lounges…

    As for me, I thought about getting the Surpass but I can’t really justify the extras I’m getting at being worth $75 more than the no-fee AMEX. On paper it sounds good, but the only way it will put you ahead is if you spend a lot at Hilton and stay at those lounges…

  • Brett rodriguez

    Can you combine Hilton points if say husband and wife get 2 diff cards?

  • docomo

    Hi harvson3, from the flyertalk thread, it only mentioned there’s another 40k Citi app, where do you find the 2nd 50k Citi app? Can you please forward the link? Thank you very much!

  • Mikey

    There is a CITI Hilton VISA 50,000 point signup offer available. It requires a $1,500 spend in the first 6 months.

  • JB West

    I can’t decide between the Starwood and HiltonHonors Amex…. thoughts? I heard that the only good redemption tier for hiltons was the lowest tier but I think I can rack up more hilton points than Starwood. I travel a lot for work and I figure that there will be more availability to stay in Hiltons than Starwoods. I also just received an email offer to get the Hilton CC for 50,000 starting, and I”m already a member of the regular rewards system. There is also definitely a benefit due to annual fee versus none. However, my brother swears by the Starwood CC.

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  • http://www.thesterlingtraveler.com/ TheSterlingTraveler

    Was just emailed a targeted offer for the no-fee AmEx -> 50k points for $750/3 months. Just signed up. Basically I’ll primarily use it for gas an groceries.

  • http://www.thesterlingtraveler.com/ TheSterlingTraveler

    Does the AmEx card have a foreign transaction fee when using it to book a hotel outside of the US?

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  • Cmb000

    If you already have achieved diamond status on your own as a Hilton Honors member because of annual business stays….would it be still be worth it to have the surpass over the regular AMEX card? Can the fee be justified

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  • Laura

    I was approved for the Hilton HHonors® Visa® Gold Card today. Does anyone know the benefits of the card?

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