Maximizing Citi Hilton Reserve Free Nights

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Today, TPG Contributor Nick Ewen offers insight into how (and where) to use the 2 free weekend nights that come with the Citi Hilton Reserve card. 

One of the best hotel credit cards out there right now is the Citi Hilton Reserve Visa card. I added it to my wallet just a few months after it was first released, and it has provided a number of key benefits, including automatic Gold status, no foreign transaction fees, and 10 points/$ at Hilton properties (see the above post for full details). However, the one benefit that makes this card a must-have for me is the ability to earn free night certificates.

As a new cardholder, when you spend $2500 in the first four months of cardmembership, you’ll receive two free weekend nights at almost any hotel in the Hilton HHonors portfolio. Then, any year in which you spend $10,000 on the card, you’ll earn another free weekend night upon your account anniversary. In this post I’ll provide some additional details on these certificates, including strategies that will help you get the most out of them.

The all-inclusive Hilton Rose Hall is one resort at which you cannot use your free night certificates.
The all-inclusive Hilton Rose Hall is one resort at which you cannot use your free night certificates.

For starters, it’s important to keep in mind that there are a handful of hotels where you cannot redeem these certificates. They basically include two types of properties: all-inclusive resorts, and so-called “distinctive” properties. The latter of these two are generally smaller (boutique) properties or condo-style properties, many of which are Hilton Grand Vacations locations.

For only 36 “specialty” locations to be excluded is a really small number (less than 1% of Hilton’s more than 3,900 properties worldwide). In addition, many of these locations are ones that you shouldn’t redeem certificates or points at anyways, since they aren’t overwhelmingly expensive. For example, take the all-inclusive Doubletree in Costa Rica, where rooms over Thanksgiving weekend start at just $218 or 50,000 points per night. At less than half a cent per point, this is clearly not an optimal redemption, and you could get much better value from a free night certificate elsewhere.

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Next, let’s go through some logistics of these certificates. According to Hilton, “weekend” night means these certificates are valid on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday nights. Another important detail is the actual spend. Like most credit cards, the $95 annual fee does not count towards your spending requirement, so be sure to factor that in if you’re cutting it close.

Also, for the anniversary certificate, it’s important to note that the $10,000 spend must be completed in the cardmembership year (as opposed to the calendar year). In other words, if you open your card on August 2nd, you have until August 1st of the next year to meet the $10,000 spend threshold. (Note that the $95 annual fee again doesn’t count towards this spend.)

Probably the most important logistical question is when and how the certificates are delivered. After meeting the minimum spend, whether it’s $2500 for the two sign-up bonus nights or $10,000 for the anniversary free night, you must wait for your statement to close. In other words, if you meet the minimum spend with a purchase on September 12th and your statement doesn’t close until October 9th, you’ll have to wait at least until then to receive the certificates. This is different from other cards (like the Barclaycard Arrival) that reward the sign-up bonus as soon as the qualifying transactionposts; with this card, the statement that contains the qualifying transaction must close to trigger the free night certificates.

Free night certificates like this are e-mailed to cardholders.
Free night certificates like this are emailed to cardholders.

From there, when you actually receive the certificate varies (unfortunately). The official T&C do not give a timeline for the sign-up bonus free nights, but they do say to allow 6 to 8 weeks from the membership anniversary to receive the free night certificate:

In practice, it appears that most of the sign-up bonus free nights are delivered (via e-mail) to the cardholder approximately 2-4 weeks after the qualifying statement closes. Mine arrived approximately two weeks after the statement closed, though this may vary. Each certificate will come in a separate e-mail. The anniversary certificate, meanwhile, has some greater variation in delivery time. This thread on FlyerTalk has some reports of two weeks, others of the 6-8 weeks described in the T&C, and still others at 12 weeks or longer. So what gives?

You’re basically at the mercy of Citibank and Hilton communicating properly. The free night certificates are connected to your Hilton account, but Citibank must tell Hilton HHonors that you have spent the $10,000 needed to earn the anniversary bonus. Apparently, something gets lost during this process. Fortunately, the aforementioned thread includes posts from Hilton HHonors’ new FlyerTalk rep, Anthony (“HHonors Representative” is his handle). He indicates that Hilton is aware of these issues and is working to resolve them. He also encourages members to send him a personal message if they haven’t received their certificate within the published timeframe.

One other thing to keep in mind; I have found that the free night certificates come to the email address listed on my credit card account, not the one on my Hilton HHonors account (in case they’re different). Since I travel predominantly for work, my company email is the one I use for Hilton, whereas my personal address is on file with Citibank. Even though the certificates come from Hilton, they’re delivered using Citibank’s email, and not the one used by Hilton HHonors.

Using Free Night Certificates

Every certificate from the Hilton Reserve card has a unique certificate ID associated with it, and you’ll need these when making a reservation. The certificates are valid for one year from the date of issuance, and mine have always arrived in my inbox on the date they were issued, so (ideally) the expiration clock won’t start until then.

Even though the certificates are connected to your Hilton account, they’re not listed anywhere online, in sharp contrast to the free night certificates offered by the Hyatt Visa. However, I have found that the Hilton HHonors phone reps can see these certificates when calling to book, so while it’s always nice to have a physical copy of them, you don’t need to worry about losing them permanently if you accidentally delete the email(s).

If you wanted to redeem your certificate(s) at the Conrad Maldives, you would need to find standard room rewards.
If you wanted to redeem your certificate(s) at the Conrad Maldives, you would need to find standard room rewards.

As I mentioned earlier, the certificates are valid at any Hilton property aside from the all-inclusive and “specialty” resorts linked to above. However, they can only be redeemed when a “standard room reward” is available. As a result, the first step towards actually using them is to open up the Hilton HHonors website and make sure that your desired property has a standard room available on the dates you want to travel. For example, if you wanted to use your free night certificates at the Conrad Maldives (following TPG’s example from last year), you would need to make sure they have either a King Beach Villa or a Twin Beach Villa at 95,000 points/night. A King or Twin Deluxe Villa falls into the “Premium Room Rewards” category, and thus cannot be booked using the free night certificate.

Once you’ve chosen a hotel and dates, all you need to do is call up Hilton HHonors at 1-800-HHONORS. Unfortunately, there isn’t any way to make these reservations online.

If you’re at all worried about availability, there is a way to make a speculative booking before you actually have the certificates in hand. As long as you have the necessary number of points in your account, you can make a standard Hilton HHonors redemption at the desired property. This will immediately deduct points from your account and generate a new “certificate” for the stay. Then, when you receive the free night certificate(s), call the number above and explain to the rep that you have an existing reservation and would like to use the certificate(s) for the stay instead of points. They should be able to swap out the certificates and refund the points to your account.

My wife and I redeemed free night certificates at the stunning Waldorf Astoria in Park City, Utah.
My wife and I redeemed free night certificates at the stunning Waldorf Astoria in Park City, Utah.

My wife and I used this technique when we redeemed our two free nights for a President’s Day skiing trip to Park City, Utah, where we wanted to spend two nights at the Waldorf Astoria. Figuring that standard rooms would likely sell out, I made an advance reservation for two nights at 80,000 points/night. Then, a little more than a month ahead of our arrival date, I received the two free night certificates from the card. As expected, there were no more standard rooms available using points. However, I called the Diamond line, and the rep was able to refund the 160,000 points, apply the two free night certificates, and keep the reservation intact. This was well over a year ago, so things may have changed since then, but this could be a way to lock in a reservation and then use the certificates once you have them.

Maximizing Free Night Certificates

Now that we’ve gone through the logistics of earning and redeeming free night certificates, it’s time to take a look at the best ways to maximize them. In no particular order, here are some things to consider:

The low paid rates at the Hilton Bonnet Creek made using the certificates a less valuable proposition.
The low rates at the Hilton Bonnet Creek make using certificates a less valuable proposition.

1) Look for expensive room rates. At the end of the day, any time we can use points or certificates, we’re keeping money in our pocket. I generally find that these certificates are (or at least seem to be) much more valuable when used for more expensive rooms. For example, my wife and I recently took a one-night “staycation” to Orlando, and we were looking at both the Hilton Bonnet Creek and Waldorf Astoria. However, paid rates at the two properties were only $107 and $168, respectively. It felt like a waste to use a certificate when the paid rates were so low. We wound up booking the Hilton Bonnet Creek at the paid rate.

2) Use over special events or holidays. I’ve found that Hilton HHonors is pretty good about their no blackout dates policy. If there is a standard room available, you can use points (or certificates) to book it, and generally speaking, this should apply even during peak periods when the paid rates are exorbitant.

There are still standard rooms available in Munich for Oktoberfest!
There are still standard rooms available in Munich for Oktoberfest!

For example, take the Hilton Munich City during Oktoberfest. As a Category 8 property, redemption rates are 70,000 points/night in September, and there are actually still some dates with standard rooms available at the end of that month (Oktoberfest starts on 9/20). However, the revenue rate jumps from just  106 per night on 9/14 to  559 per night after 9/20! If you can book early enough, the free night certificates can be very valuable around special events.

As a Category 10 property, the Hilton Labriz in the Seychelles is a terrific property at which to redeem your certificates.
As a Category 10 property, the Hilton Labriz in the Seychelles is a great candidate for redeeming free night certificates.

3) Redeem at high category properties. In addition to considering the paid rate for a stay, you should also look at the redemption rate using points. Using a free night certificate will always result in out-of-pocket savings; however, it will also save you Hilton HHonors points. Some of the more popular resorts at which to use these certificates are the eight Category 10 properties:

  • Doubletree New York
  • Grand Wailea
  • Conrad Koh Samui
  • Conrad Maldives
  • Conrad Tokyo
  • Hilton Bora Bora
  • Hilton Labriz
  • Hilton Maldives

You’ll also get good bang for your buck at many Waldorf Astoria properties, like my wife and I experienced in Park City last February. I generally don’t consider using free night certificates on rooms that require fewer than 50,000 points per night, but you can determine what redemption value works for you. The Hilton HHonors website has a handy standard room pricing tool that will help you decide. Remember that many properties now offer seasonal pricing, so a Category 8 hotel may require more points than a Category 9 property at certain points during the year.

The Hilton Quebec costs more points in June than May, so I thought about using the certificate for the last (most expensive) night of our stay there.
The Hilton Quebec costs more points in June than in May, so I thought about using the certificate for the last (most expensive) night of our stay there.

4) Redeem for stays that spill over into a month with higher pricing. With the new seasonal pricing model of the program, you may find that a stay with dates in two months has a rate change in the middle. This actually happened to me earlier this year. My wife and I spent three nights  (May 30 to June 1) at the Hilton in Quebec City, which is a Category 6 property requiring 30,000 – 50,000 points/night. They charge 40,000 points per night in May, but the rate jumps to 50,000 points/night in June.

Since the last night of the stay was more pricey, I thought about redeeming 80,000 points for the first two nights and using the certificate for the last night. I wound up not going in this direction, but it was nice to have as an option. Granted, 10,000 points isn’t a huge savings, but depending on the property, the difference could be much higher. The Grand Wailea, for example, jumps from 70,000 points/night in June to 95,000 points/night in July.

5) Extend AXON or five-night stays. There’s no question that four-night AXON stays are no longer as valuable as they were in the past, and with last year’s devaluation, elite members no longer have access to GLON redemptions that offered a consistent discount for stays of six nights or longer. Instead, with the program’s new fifth night free option, five- or ten-night stays are now the sweet spot in terms of trip length. If you’re looking for a six- or seven-night vacation, book a five-night stay using points (essentially offering a 25% discount) and then use the certificates for the extra night or two instead of being forced to pay the standard points rate for those extra nights. Just remember that the fifth night free benefit only applies to elite members (though you’ll earn automatic Gold status through the Reserve card).

Everyone has their own way of valuing these certificates, and what represents an optimal redemption for one person may be a total waste to another. However, this card really is, in my opinion, a must-have, even if for the free night certificates alone.

How have you used (or how to do you plan to use) your free night certificates from the Citi Hilton Reserve? Please share your own experiences and questions in the comments below!

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