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Which Are The Best Hotel Credit Cards For Free Nights?

by on July 30, 2014 · 32 comments

in Carlson, Hilton, Hyatt, IHG Rewards, Marriott, Marriott Card, Starwood, TPG Contributors

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Today, TPG Contributor Jason Steele analyzes current credit card offers to see which ones can get you free hotel nights fastest among the top brands.

Hotel awards can can be underrated. Unlike most airline frequent flier programs, many hotel loyalty programs offer awards with no blackout dates or capacity controls. Furthermore, most hotel award nights are truly free, with no taxes or surcharges. Even when hotels impose a “resort fee” on award nights, these charges are far more affordable than the typical airline fuel surcharges.

Many reward travel enthusiasts, like myself, earn most of their hotel loyalty points through credit card spending, and only a minority through paid stays. So it seemed like a good idea to analyze which credit cards offer the fastest free nights for general spending outside of hotel stays or other bonus categories. This seems especially useful since different hotel credit cards offer different numbers of points per dollar spent, and their free night award charts vary wildly compared to frequent flier awards, which still have some lingering standards.

How fast you earn a free night depends on the number of points per dollar you earn, and the award chart. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

How fast you earn a free night depends on the number of points per dollar you earn, and the award chart in question. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

How the top hotel credit cards compare

I looked at the credit cards offered by the leading hotel brands including Hyatt, Marriott/Ritz-Carlton, IHG Rewards (formerly Priority Club), Hilton, Starwood, and Club Carlson. As a reminder, the chart below shows TPG’s latest valuations (in cents per point) of points in the major hotel loyalty programs. Note that for Starwood I used valuations from June, since the July values are inflated due to the current American Airlines and US Airways transfer bonuses.

Hyatt Marriott & Ritz IHG Hilton SPG Club Carlson
1.8 0.7 0.7 0.5 2.3 0.6

Using these point values, I calculated which hotel branded credit cards provide the greatest value per dollar of base spend. I then looked at the least and most expensive standard room awards, not counting any limited time promotions, and the spending requirements to reach those respective awards. The chart below shows my results.

Card Base Earning Value / $ spent Base award Spend for base award Top Award Spend for top award
Hyatt 1 1.8 5,000 $5,000 30,000 $30,000
Chase Marriott Rewards 1 0.7 7,500 $7,500 70,000 $70,000
Ritz-Carlton Rewards 1 0.7 7,500 $7,500 70,000 $70,000
IHG Rewards 1 0.7 10,000 $10,000 50,000 $50,000
Citi HHonors 2 1 5,000 $2,500 95,000 $47,500
Citi HHonors  Reserve 3 1.5 5,000 $1,667 95,000 $31,667
Amex HHonors 3 1.5 5,000 $1,667 95,000 $31,667
Amex HHonors Surpass 3 1.5 5,000 $1,667 95,000 $31,667
Amex SPG 1 2.3 2,000 $2,000 35,000 $35,000
Club Carlson Prem./Biz 5 3 9,000 $1,800 70,000 $14,000
Club Carlson Rewards 3 1.8 9,000 $3,000 70,000 $23,333

Analysis and Limitations

My analysis provided both some expected and unexpected results. This comparison doesn’t consider the annual fees and extra benefits of the various credit cards being discussed, nor does it factor in the availability of low and high end rewards in each program. Thus, this isn’t a complete picture of how much value the cards offer. Still, there’s insight to be gained by comparing what they offer just through basic spending. Here’s what my results tell me about each of the hotel branded loyalty cards listed above.

Hyatt – The Hyatt Credit Card from Chase
The Hyatt card offers just one point per dollar on base spend, but even the high end 7th tier Hyatt recently added to just a few properties are reasonably priced at 30,000 points a night. Most of their luxury properties are a more affordable 18,000 – 25,000 points per night, including their new all inclusive resorts at 20,000 points per night. Base awards starting at just 5,000 points per night are accessible, and while the category 1 hotels aren’t in desirable locations, at least there’s a decent number of them.

Hyatt offers great value on mid to high end awards.

Marriott – Marriott Rewards Premier Visa Signature
This program did reasonably well at the low end with just $5,000 of spending required for a free night at their budget properties. Nevertheless, there’s a reason why TPG values these points at only 0.7 cents apiece, as their high end Ritz-Carlton properties can require an astronomical 70,000 points per night. Other top tier properties in the Marriott family require as much as 45,000 points in their 9-tier award chart.  Another reason for the low value of Marriott points is that awards are subject to capacity controls, just like airline awards. To the program’s credit, it is very generous when it comes to awarding points for paid stays at 10 points per dollar, so it appeals more to actual business travelers than those who just use their credit cards to earn award nights.

IHG (Priority Club) – IHG Rewards Visa
Awards with this program, which include brands such as Intercontinental and Holiday Inn, start at a rather high 10,000 points per night. Considering that their credit card only offers one point per dollar spent, and these low end properties are typically part of their Candlewood and Staybridge Suites brands, this is especially disconcerting. On the high end, IHG award nights top out at 50,000 points, which means spending $50,000 on their credit card. That’s toward the high end compared to the other cards discussed here.

Hilton - Citi Hilton HHonors Visa SignatureHilton HHonors American ExpressCiti Hilton Reserve Card, and Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express
Hilton does pretty well in this comparison, mostly because three of its four co-branded credit cards offer three points per dollar spent. On the low end, awards can start at just 5,000 points, or $1,667 of spending, but these are really low end hotels. Basic Hampton Inns and Hilton Garden Inns are much more likely to require 20,000 to 30,000 points, which is not too bad when you are earning three points per dollar spent. The problem is that many of the high end hotels have recently gone up in price, and now require as many as 95,000 points per night.

If your goal is to get a free night stay using your credit card, here is what you need to know. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

If your goal is to get a free night stay using your credit card, here is what you need to know. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Starwood – Starwood Preferred Guest Card From American Express
When I looked recently at How to Get the Best Value for Starwood Hotel Redemptions, I found that some of the best values were in the mid to low range properties that required just 4,000 – 10,000 points. Certainly, there are some great values at the low end, where rooms start at just 2,000 points per night, or $2,000 of spending on the Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express. Nevertheless, there aren’t too many properties at that first tier. On the high end, award nights require as many as 35,000 points, which is steep when the card earns only one point per dollar, but better than man of the other cards considered here.

Club Carlson - Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature, Club Carlson Business Rewards Visa, and Club Carlson Business Rewards Visa Signature
Those who are familiar with this program won’t be surprised to learn that the Club Carlson credit cards did very well in this comparison. The Club Carlson Premier and Business cards offer an outstanding five points per dollar spent on all purchases, which equates to just $1,800 of spending for a 9,000 point award on the low end of their award chart. Even on the high end, their top properties are 70,000 points, which is just $14,000 in spending at 5x per dollar. In contrast, the same amount of spending barely gets you into the local Holiday Inn Express by the highway using the IHG Priority Club card.

Furthermore, these calculations underestimate the value of Club Carlson points, since credit card holders receive a free last night stay with all award redemptions. So these amounts of spending can actually be cut in half for two night stays, or by a third for three night stays. If only Club Carlson had more high end properties in the United States, it would represent an unbeatable proposition.

Radisson Blu is part of Club Carlson. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Radisson Blu is part of Club Carlson. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Conclusions
For those who travel mostly on award bookings, the Hyatt, Starwood, and Club Carlson programs offer the best value for the least amount of credit cards spending. Credit cards from IHG, Hilton, and Marriott appeal most to those who are loyal to those brand and frequently stay using cash. By considering the best hotel loyalty programs for earning free nights through credit card spending, travelers can choose the best cards for their individual needs.

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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  • PatMcPSU

    The IHG Credit Card is the best one to *have* and the worst one to *use*.

  • RakSiam

    The IHG and Hyatt cards at least give you 1 free night every year in exchange for the annual fee.

  • Redpanda

    Agreed, the free night easily offsets the $49 annual fee.

  • Jason

    Nice analysis! I researched a while and I just got the Club Carlson Premier and I love it! The free night is amazing and I just booked the Radisson Blu in Dubrovnik using a total of 50k points for 2 nights that would normally cost about $400 per night. Not to mention that every year you renew you get the 40k renewal points, which easily makes up for at least 5x the annual fee. This is definitely the best program IMO if you are travelling abroad to somewhere that American’s don’t frequent as much.

  • Aris

    I do not like most of Jason’s articles. Textbook like while not well written articles are not practical at all. I’d rather browse titles in boardingarea.com or prior2boarding.com…

  • Helene

    The IHG card gives 2 points for supermarket and restaurant spend not just 1 point per spend as mentioned in the article.

  • volfan

    I certainly would have been interested to see how Choice Privileges rates in this analysis. Two points per dollar earned on their credit card and quite a few hotels that charge 7000 per night. I am staying in Stockholm next month for 6000 points per night!

  • http://about.me/andrewglazier Andrew Glazier

    Articles like this are exactly why I read TPG! Thanks Jason!

  • GWB07

    I’m happy to see an article that targets my situation as someone who is not a frequent traveler juggling multiple elite statuses, not a churner, likes to stay at nice properties in the US and abroad when he can, and gets nearly all of his hotel rewards via hotel credit card spend. Forget airline rewards cards… the value isn’t nearly good enough unless I could fly enough on one airline to reach elite status.

    My card of choice is the SPG Amex. I recognize that my net wealth might be slightly higher if I used cash back cards or collected UR and shopped for the cheapest rate wherever I went. However, I enjoy the general quality and consistency of SPG properties.

    TPG lists SPG as 2.3 cents/point; I can goose that number higher by finding cash and points redemptions. This number can get up to 6 cents/point if you have to book during tourist season somewhere, but even in the off season it isn’t terribly hard to find redemptions in the 3-4 cent range. This redemption value makes the SPG card even better than most cards with 2x or 3x bonus categories, so I don’t have a negative opportunity cost when using it on dinner or even on airlines or other hotels (unless I have the card for that brand), even after considering the annual fee. Free night incentives for other cards may be difficult to use and just expire, even if they do cover the annual fee. Reaching gold status or lifetime gold status doesn’t hurt the value, either.

    Of course, if you make poor redemption choices, the value is lost. I hedge a little bit with cash back cards that offer fixed redemption values for things like gas and groceries. Also have the no annual fee Hilton Amex because why not?

    Just my 2.3 cents

  • Points Gal

    “Credit cards from IHG, Hilton, and Marriott appeal most to those who are loyal to those brand and frequently stay using cash.”

    Realistically, WHO stays at a hotel using cash these days?

  • Jerome Zagala

    I’m confused. Is the IHG credit card still available as a Visa Signature card or is it only available as a Mastercard. Sorry if this is off topic.

  • FredCCoggins

    Even when hotels impose a “resort fee” on award nights, these charges are far more affordable than the typical airline fuel surcharges. http://ur1.ca/hvhaa

  • Anthony

    Marriott is the best – I’ve earned 40,000 points on just a few paid business trips this year and will probably earn 20,000 more this year. The card augments it nicely. You can pay for a vacation or two a year. I’ve been unimpressed with earning rates on SPG stays (the card is awesome)

  • http://batman-news.com Fattyfatman

    This is a great blog. You guys are awesome.

  • taryn

    That free last night from Club Carlson is great. I’m getting 3 nights for 2 nights’ worth of points. I’m also impressed with the award room selection, not sure if this is typical but at the hotel I’m going to stay in I was able to get the best non-suite room with points. I think they also offer cash + points.

  • taryn

    Is there a limit of the category of hotel? Marriott card also offers 1 free night but not top-end properties.

  • Brian C. Lee

    I do.

  • Redpanda

    This article is only considering base earning or not bonus catagories

  • Redpanda

    Great article Jason. I tend to stick with cards that give me a decent earn rate and elite status. That’s why I go for the IHG, Hilton and hyatt card. These cards also offer a free night which make up for the annual fee. I keep the spg card around because of the diversity of the whole program and the overall quality of their properties.

  • K Johnson

    There’s a limit on the Hyatt card (category 1-4) but no limit on the IHG card

  • K Johnson

    It’s only MasterCard now; existing Visas were converted earlier this year.

  • GMAT

    does this mean you can stay at the indigo hotel opera in paris, france – 315euro/night for $49 annual fee. thats pretty nice if thats the case.

  • JC

    He meant cash in the sense of paying for stays with dollars, not points.

  • Brian

    I think the Hilton card is very undervalued in this. You say the SPG card is better but at both the low end and high end it requires more spend to get free nights compared to Hilton. Also, unlike both the Marriott and SPG cards, the Hilton cards all have bonus earning categories (the AMEX cards both have bonuses in grocery, gas, and restaurants… generally big spending categories).

    I know many people don’t like Hilton (especially after some big devaluations), but even with these devaluations I think that the fact that you earn more HHonors points per $ on CC and per stay makes up for most of the downside….. Just my 2 cents.

  • Darren

    I agree, the conclusion does not seem to follow from the data. There appears to be some bias showing here. Strictly from the data shown, the Hilton cards should be rated ahead of both the SPG and Hyatt cards.

  • lettcco

    Great article! Can you do something similar for airline credit card please?

  • artist

    I would also like a review of the choice card

  • We Fly

    Yes, I have been using this card ONLY for the free night per year in exchange of paying the $49 annual fee. It is just GREAT!

  • Kimberly Rotter

    This post is helpful. HHonors looks good, but as you say, we can’t really bank on the minimum points awards. Category 1 hotels are as rare as 3-headed squirrels. Same with Club Carlson. So the sales pitch for those programs is somewhat deceitful. Most people simply can’t benefit from the lowest level awards.
    So…. do you have an opinion on the best hotel rewards value for someone looking for an actual, usable list of category 1 or 2 hotels to choose from? Or does it pretty much depend on exactly where the card holder plans to travel? (For me, NY, Albuquerque, Virginia Beach, Savannah, Boston, Portland OR. These places just don’t come up on low level category location lists.)

  • LMP

    I just signed up for the Chase IHG MasterCard and confiemd that after $1,000 in spend in first 3 months I receive 80k points. The public offer shows 60k points, but the flyter talk thread has a link that doesn’t contain the details, btu once used qualifies you for the 80k. I signed up and then sent a secure message to chase confirming the bonus of 80k which they messaged back a confirmation for. Here is the flyer talk thread. It is the second paragraph:

    There is a new Mastercard application (per post #1615) for 80K. This application page provides pricing info but no bonus details. However, FTers have reported that after applying through this link & being approved, they have received the 80K bonus after meeting the spend amount.

    http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/chase-ultimate-rewards/1282804-80k-points-no-fee-1st-yr-ihg-rewards-priority-club-visa-mc-84.html

  • http://aaadventurephoto.com/ Alan

    Do you put any spend on the card to keep it active or do you generally maintain a zero balance? I’m interested in doing just this, but I don’t want it to get cancelled on me due to inactivity.

  • We Fly

    I have zero activity with zero balance. It has been two years and I only pay the annual fee to enjoy the one free night as a Platinum Elite member. So far, so good. But YMMV…

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