Which Hilton HHonors Credit Card Is Best For You?

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Today TPG Contributor Nick Ewen compares the benefits of all four credit cards in the Hilton HHonors family, and analyzes which ones should be in your wallet.

Last week I highlighted one of the key benefits of the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve card: the free night certificates that come with the initial sign-up bonus and after spending $10,000 in a calendar year. However, this card is just one of the options out there for accruing Hilton HHonors points, and it may make sense for you to expand your credit card portfolio to take advantage of these other offerings as well. In this post I’ll highlight the differences between the four cards currently on the market, and provide some advice on when it might be a good idea to have more than one of them in your wallet.

Hilton HHonors logo banner

Let’s start with a quick overview of the four cards. Most of the other hotel chains work with only one credit card issuer: Marriott & Hyatt use Chase, and Starwood Preferred Guest uses American Express. However, Hilton HHonors partners with both Citibank and American Express to offer different co-branded credit cards. Each issuer provides one card with an annual fee and one without. For comparison’s sake, it makes sense to compare the cards within these categories, since (obviously) the no-fee cards are more similar to each other, as are the ones with the annual fee.

The Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature is one of the fee-free options available.
The Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature is one of the no-fee options available.

No-fee options:

Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature: This card usually offers a sign-up bonus of 40,000 Hilton HHonors points after spending $1,000 within the first four months of account opening. You can earn 6 points/$ at Hilton properties, 3 points/$ at supermarkets, gas stations, and drugstores, and 2 points/$ on all other purchases. Cardholders receive automatic Silver status, and if you complete four stays within the first 90 days of cardmembership, you receive Gold status for the rest of the year and the following year (though you’d need to earn that status the “hard way” thereafter).

Note that there is currently a better offer for 60,000 points with the same spending requirement and earning potential, which also comes with a $25 statement credit after spending $200 at select US car rental locations within  the first four months. This offer is good through August 31, 2014. I used the standard offer in this analysis, but if you’re planning on getting this card in the next month, definitely go for the increased bonus.

Hilton HHonors American Express: Like the Citi card, the no annual fee American Express also offers 40,000 bonus points as a sign-up bonus, but you only need to spend $750 in the first four months of cardmembership. The card provides 7 points/$ at Hilton properties, 5 points/$ at restaurants, supermarkets, and gas stations, and 3 points/$ on all other purchases. This card also offers complimentary Silver status in Hilton HHonors, and cardmembers can earn Gold status when they spend $20,000 in a calendar year.

New Citi Hilton Reserve cardholders can earn two free weekend nights at almost any Hilton property worldwide.
New Citi Hilton Reserve cardholders can earn two free weekend nights at almost any Hilton property worldwide.

Annual fee options:

Citi Hilton Reserve Card: As discussed in last week’s post, the current sign-up bonus for this card is 2 weekend free night certificates in almost any Hilton property worldwide after spending $2,500 within the first four months of account opening. You can also earn an anniversary free weekend night certificate every year of cardmembership when your spending hits $10,000 (again, that’s in a cardmember year, not a calendar year). Cardholders earn 10 points/$ on Hilton stays, 5 points/$ on airline and car rental purchases, and 3 points/$ everywhere else. The card comes with automatic Gold status in the Hilton HHonors program, and you can earn Diamond status with $40,000 in eligible spend in a calendar year. There are no foreign transaction fees, and the card is also equipped with chip technology. The annual fee is $95.

Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express: Currently, new cardholders can earn a sign-up bonus of 60,000 Hilton HHonors points with $3,000 in purchases during the first three months of cardmembership. The card offers 12 points/$ at Hilton properties, 6 points/$ at restaurants, supermarkets, and gas stations, and 3 points/$ on all other purchases. Like the Reserve card, the Surpass card includes automatic Gold status and an upgrade to Diamond status with $40,000 in spend in a calendar year. It also provides complimentary Priority Pass membership (a $99 value) to access over 700 airport lounges worldwide, though you still must pay $27 per visit. The annual fee is $75.

The Hilton HHonors American Express is the clear winner in the fee-free category.
The Hilton HHonors American Express is the clear winner in the no-fee category.

Let’s compare the potential earnings on these cards. For the no annual fee cards, there’s a distinct winner, as the American Express clearly outshines the Citi Visa Signature card in virtually all categories. The Amex offers the same sign-up bonus with $250 less in initial spend, more points/$ at Hilton properties, restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, and on everyday (non-bonus category) purchases. Both cards provide complimentary Silver status, and the only (slight) advantage of the Citi card is the potential to earn Gold status with four Hilton stays in the first 90 days of cardmembership (as opposed to the $20,000 in yearly spend needed to earn Gold status on the American Express). Still, the additional point earnings make the American Express HHonors card a clear winner.

The annual fee category is a little murkier. The table below breaks down different elements of the two cards, and the “winner” in each one:

 

Citi Hilton Reserve

Surpass American Express

Winner?

Sign-up bonus

2 weekend nights with $2,500 spend in four months

60,000 points with $3,000 spend in three months

Citi Reserve

Hilton purchases

10 points/$

12 points/$

Amex Surpass

Restaurants, gas, & supermarkets

3 points/$

6 points/$

Amex Surpass

Hotels & car rentals

5 points/$

3 points/$

Citi Reserve

Everyday purchases

3 points/$

3 points/$

Tie

Status

Gold, Diamond with $40,000 in annual spend

Gold, Diamond with $40,000 in annual spend

Tie

Foreign transaction fees

None

2.7%

Citi Reserve

Annual Fee

$95

$75

Amex Surpass

Anniversary benefit

Free weekend night with $10,000 spend

None

Citi Reserve

Other benefits

Visa Signature benefits

Priority Pass membership

Tie

As you can see, this is a much closer race. Within these 10 categories, the Citi Hilton Reserve card wins four, the Surpass wins three, and three are tied. However, among the most important benefits (the sign-up bonus and anniversary bonus), the Citi card has the clear edge. Over time, the additional bonus points that the Surpass offers at Hilton properties, supermarkets, drugstores, and gas stations may add up, but not enough to cancel out the fact that the sign-up bonus on the Citi Hilton Reserve could be worth up to 190,000 points (two nights in a Category 10 property like the Conrad Maldives). Add in the potential for another 95,000 points/year with the anniversary weekend night certificate, and the Citi Hilton Reserve Visa takes the contest.

Your two free nights certificates could be worth 190,000 points at the Conrad Maldives, allowing to enjoy a meal in their underwater restaurant!
Your two free nights certificates could be worth 190,000 points at the Conrad Maldives!

To look at this another way, lets say that you opened both cards and spent exactly $10,000 on each in the first year of cardmembership (and your initial spend on each was enough to earn the sign-up bonus). Furthermore, for argument’s sake, let’s say that every dollar you spend on the Surpass was at Hilton properties, while every dollar spent on the Citi Hilton Reserve was in a non-bonus category (I know that’s completely unrealistic, but bear with me). Here are your point earnings:

  • Citi Hilton Reserve: $10,000 x 3 points/$ = 30,000 Hilton HHonors points
  • American Express Surpass : ($10,000 x 12 points/$) + 60,000 bonus points = 180,000 Hilton HHonors points
  • DIFFERENCE: 150,000 points

Remember that your $10,000 in spend on the Citi Hilton Reserve card will get you a total of three weekend night certificates (two from the sign-up bonus and one from the anniversary bonus). Those certificates will make up the 150,000-point difference if they are redeemed at 50,000 point/night properties. Anything above that will puts the Citi Hilton Reserve card on top.

This spending scenario is purely an exercise and doesn’t really compare apples to apples. Let’s take a look at year two of cardmembership with more realistic expenditures, this time totaling $20,000 in the year: $10,000 at Hilton properties, $5,000 at supermarkets/gas stations/drugstores, $2,500 at hotels/car rental agencies, and $2,500 on everyday purchases. Point earnings are as follows:

  • American Express Surpass: ($10,000 x 12) + ($5,000 x 6) + ($5,000 x 3) = 165,000 points
  • Citi Hilton Reserve: ($10,000 x 10) + ($2,500 x 5) + ($7,500 x 3) = 135,000 points

In this scenario, redeeming the free weekend night certificate from the Citi Hilton Reserve card only needs to compensate for a shortfall of 30,000 points, which could be as low as a Category 4 property. Again, the Citi card is the clear winner.

Your Citi Hilton Reserve card would earn you 10 points/$ with no foreign transaction fees at resorts like the Hilton Moorea.
Your Citi Hilton Reserve card earns you 10 points/$ with no foreign transaction fees at resorts like the Hilton Moorea.

Getting multiple cards

Here’s where you can really get creative with these cards. As outlined above, the regular Hilton HHonors American Express card is the best no-fee option, and the Citi Hilton Reserve Visa is the best annual fee card. Well…why not get both? If you opened both of these cards and met the minimum spend on each, you would walk away with a 40,000-point sign-up bonus plus two free weekend nights at almost any Hilton property worldwide. Even more importantly, you would have no overlapping bonus categories:

  • 10 points/$ at Hilton properties with no foreign transaction fees (Citi Reserve Visa)
  • 5 points/$ at restaurants, supermarkets, and gas stations (American Express)
  • 5 points/$ at hotels and on car rentals (Citi Reserve Visa)
  • 3 points/$ on everyday spend (either card)

You would also have automatic Gold status without any spending requirements, and with the Citi Hilton Reserve card, you’d avoid all foreign transaction fees. This happens to be the current combination of cards in my wallet, and it offers me great flexibility with making purchases and maximizing my Hilton HHonors earnings.

Your 40,000-point sign-up bonus from the regular Citi Visa Signature card would be enough for an off-season night at the Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik.
Your 40,000-point sign-up bonus from the regular Citi Visa Signature card would be enough for an off-season night at the Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik.

Additional thoughts:

While the above information captures the main considerations of choosing the right Hilton card, there are a few additional notes of importance:

1)   The regular Citi Visa Signature card shouldn’t be ignored. Yes, the no-fee American Express is a clearly superior card. However, the sign-up bonus of 40,000 Hilton HHonors points is no laughing matter, as that would get you a free night in up to a Category 8 hotel. Even better, with no annual fee, keeping the card open won’t cost you anything. In fact, given how your credit score is calculated, it may actually help you in the long run. Having a long-standing credit card helps the average length of accounts, and the available balance on the card (of which you would use little to none) helps your credit utilization ratio. As Jason Steele reminded us a couple of weeks ago, that can make up almost half of your overall credit score.

In addition, opening this account for the sign-up bonus and keeping it open could then become a bargaining chip if you go for another Citi credit card down the road and need to move balances around in order to get approved. This is especially important given last week’s changes to Citi ThankYou Rewards, which make the Citi PrestigeCiti ThankYou Premier and Citi ThankYou Preferred much more attractive.

Even though I took advantage of a similar offer just a couple of years ago, I am apparently still pre-approved to upgrade my regular Hilton American Express to the Surpass!
Even though I took advantage of a similar offer just a couple of years ago, I am apparently still pre-approved to upgrade my regular Hilton American Express to the Surpass!

2)   The regular American Express can always be upgraded to the Surpass. Don’t think that you’re forgoing the sign-up bonus on the Surpass by applying for the regular American Express. Start with the no-fee version and keep your eyes peeled for upgrade offers once you’ve earned the 40,000-point sign-up bonus! A couple of years ago I decided to temporarily upgrade my regular card to the Surpass card based on an offer I received in the mail: 50,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 in 3 months.

3)   Even if you refuse to pay an annual fee, sign up for one of the no-fee cards! I have said this before and I will say it again: you should definitely have one of these cards, if for no other reason than the status it provides. Sure, Silver status in the Hilton HHonors program won’t get you upgrades or free breakfast. However, only elite members are able to get the fifth night free on redemptions, so why not apply for a card and at least have this as an option?

What are your experiences with one (or more) of these cards? Please share your comments below!

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