Three Credit Cards for Mid-Tier Hotel Award Nights
Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here: Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express, Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card from American Express, The Hyatt Credit Card, Citi HHonors Hilton Reserve Card, Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
One of my foremost pieces of advice to award travelers is to make sure you earn points and miles on every dollar you spend, and the best way to do that is by using the right rewards credit card, or in many cases, cards. Today TPG Senior Points and Miles Correspondent Jason Steele looks at credit card combinations tailored to offer the best return for those seeking mid-tier hotel awards.
Points and miles enthusiasts are often looking for the elusive “best credit card” for earning travel rewards, but the reality is that the combined value of several different cards is greater than the sum of each one individually, and most savvy award travelers carry more than one card. So this week, rather than look at which single card offers the greatest return, I’ll look at credit card combinations that work together to achieve particular travel goals.
Monday’s post focused on cards for domestic economy travelers, and on Wednesday I discussed cards for international first and business class travelers. Today I’ll wrap up the series with the top three credit cards for mid-range hotel awards. These are cards for award travelers who don't necessarily need access to overwater bungalows on exotic islands or prestigious properties in major cities, but want something nicer than the first motel off the highway.
As I did in the first two installments, I’ll analyze three combinations of three cards, discuss the merits and drawbacks of each (including sign-up bonuses and ongoing benefits), and pick a winning combination of the cards that best complement each other.
Today's Focus: Mid-Range Hotel Award Nights
The first thing reward credit card users should look for is how much value they can get from a card per dollar spent. Earlier this year I crunched numbers to see which hotel credit cards offer the most value for spending, which is a great place to start.
Obviously, new card applicants are also going to strongly consider sign-up bonuses. The next most important factor is which chains offer the greatest award availability. For example, some programs restrict awards by using blackout dates (which limit awards for peak periods) or capacity controls (which limit the number of rooms available for awards). Furthermore, even chains that boast no blackout dates or capacity controls on "standard rooms" can have properties that list most rooms as non-standard due to some minor upgrade like "city views."
Other factors worth considering include whether you can earn bonus points for spending, or gain elite status from the card. Finally, annual fees are a factor, especially for those strategically holding multiple cards.
Without further ado, here are today's card combos:
Starwood Selection - The Starwood Preferred Guest program has a cult-like following among travel rewards enthusiasts, since their points are extremely valuable for both hotel awards and airline mileage transfers. So for this combination, I would start with the Starwood Preferred Guest card and Starwood Preferred Guest Business card from American Express, which will offer double the sign-up bonus and two times the night and stay credits toward the next level of elite status.
For a third card to complement the Starwood pair, I would go out on a limb a little and recommend the new Diners Club Card Elite, which earns points that can be transferred to Starwood, as well as several other hotel programs for additional opportunities. This can be used as an alternative wherever American Express is not accepted, and offers cardholders an option with no foreign transaction fees when traveling abroad.
Hyatt Hand - This card combination starts off with the Hyatt Credit Card from Chase, and adds the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Ink Plus cards, which both offer Ultimate Rewards points (and generous sign-up bonuses) that can be instantly transferred to Hyatt.
Traveler's Choice - I'm going for something a little more complicated here, so bear with me. First, start with the Choice Privileges Visa from Barclaycard, since Choice offers some great values on mid-range hotels in Europe and elsewhere. Add the Diners Club Card Elite, which offers 3x bonus categories and points that can be transferred to Choice hotels at a ratio of nearly 1:2. Finally, add the Amtrak Guest Rewards Mastercard from Chase.
Yes, you read that correctly. Amtrak offers transfers to Choice points at an amazing 1:3 ratio, but only for elite members of the Guest Rewards program, or those who have this credit card and spend at least $200 a year on Amtrak. So just by having this card (and meeting the ticket purchase requirement), you can earn triple Choice Privileges points on any purchase.
Other Cards I Considered
The Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card from US Bank is an amazing deal, and has one of the most valuable hotel benefits out there with the last night free on award redemptions of two nights or more. However, Carlson doesn't have a great selection of properties in the United States.
Hilton is a much bigger chain than Starwood and Hyatt, and the Citi Hilton Reserve card comes close to making the list, earning at least three points per dollar spent on all purchases, and Gold status from the start. The problem I have is that the Hilton award chart is so devalued that free nights at their budget brands (like Hampton Inn) often require 30,000 - 40,000 points for rooms that price at just $100 - $150. By the time you reach true mid-level Hilton properties, you're looking at 50,000 - 60,000 points per night, which just isn't competitive, even when factoring in the increased earning per dollar.
The Marriott and Ritz-Carlton Rewards programs are even bigger, but have some severe capacity controls despite the "no blackout dates" policy. In practice, I'm often unable to book awards when plenty of standard rooms are for sale. Furthermore, the Marriott award chart isn't terribly competitive even when award nights are available. While the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card has value, it didn't fit into any of my three card combinations.
Comparing Sign-up Bonuses and Annual Fees
Starwood Selection: With the personal card you'll earn 25,000 points after $3,000 spent within the first 3 months and with the business version you'll earn 10,000 Starpoints after your first purchase, and an additional 15,000 Starpoints after you make $5,000 in purchases within the first 6 months. That totals 60,000 Starpoints after spending $10,000, which is worth $1,480 according to TPG's most recent valuation of 2.3 cents per point. The Diner's Club Elite card has no sign-up bonus.
Each Starwood card has an annual fee of $65, which is waived the first year. The Diner's Club Elite card has an annual fee of $300. In total, you'll pay $300 the first year, and $430 thereafter in annual fees.
Hyatt Hand: The Hyatt card from Chase offers two free nights after spending just $1,000 in three months. However, since this benefit can be used at any Hyatt, it's most valuable when staying at high-end properties, where during the peak season you could occupy rooms that would normally go for $1,000 a night. This card has an annual fee of $75, which is waived for the first year.
The link above for the Chase Ink Plus offers 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $5,000 in the first three months, and waives the $95 annual fee for the first year. However, you can find a better offer in a Chase branch for 70,000 points after spending $5,000 within three months, though in that case the annual fee is not waived. Finally, the Sapphire Preferred offers 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 within three months of account opening. This card has a $95 annual fee that is also waived the first year.
In total, you’ll earn 2 free Hyatt nights plus 119,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after spending $10,000 in three months. Only the $95 annual fees for the Ink Plus is incurred in the first year, with a total of $265 each year thereafter.
Traveler's Choice: The Choice Privileges card offers a sign-up bonus of 8,000 points after your first purchase, and another 24,000 points after your first paid stay at a Choice Hotels property, for a total of 32,000 points. The Amtrak card offers 12,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points (worth 36,000 Choice Privileges points) after you spend $500 in the first three months, and the Diners Club Elite card has no sign-up bonus.
There's no annual fee for the Choice and Amtrak cards. Again, the Diners Club Elite has an annual fee of $300.
Comparing ongoing benefits
Starwood Selection: With all of SPG's airline transfer transfer partners, it's easy to forget that the program offers great value for mid-range hotel stays. Category 2, 3, and 4 awards are 4,000, 7,000, and 10,000 points per night, respectively, and the fifth consecutive award night is always free at properties in category 3 and above. Starwood has a policy of offering any standard room for award nights with no blackout dates or capacity controls, so these points are especially valuable. For example, a friend of mine just booked several nights at a slopeside ski resort between Christmas and New Year's Day using points for a room that was selling for $700 a night.
If you spend 30,000 a year on the Starwood Preferred Guest card (or the business version), you'll receive Gold status, which offers late checkouts, room upgrades, and a welcome gift for each stay. Cardholders also receive five nights and two stays credits per card toward elite status, for a total of 10 nights or four stays. When you factor in all of the airline transfer partner opportunities, these cards become indispensable for travel rewards enthusiasts. The only major flaw is the 2.7% foreign transaction fee, which is out of place on a card marketed to international travelers.
The Diners Club Card Elite offers triple points in the Diner's Club Rewards program for each dollar spent at gas stations, grocery stores, and drug stores. One point per dollar spent is earned on all other purchases. Since these points transfer to Starwood at a rate of 5 to 3 (16,667 Diners Club points to 10,000 Starwood points), you can earn 1.8 Starwood points per dollar for all of your spending at gas stations, grocery stores, and drug stores. Among other important benefits are airport lounge access, an EMV smart chip, no foreign transaction fees, and acceptance within the MasterCard payment network.
Hyatt Hand: Hyatt's Gold Passport program offers award nights for any standard room with no blackout dates or capacity controls, although I do find some hotels occasionally saying that the only available rooms are non-standard. Fortunately, Hyatt corporate reservations has the power to intercede and request that rooms be made available. The Hyatt card offers triple points at Hyatt properties, double points at restaurants, on airline tickets, and for car rentals, and one point per dollar on all other purchases.
With this card you'll also earn Platinum status right off the bat, which features perks such as room upgrades, free Internet, and late checkout. In some ways this card complements the Starwood cards perfectly, as it offers an EMV smart chip and no foreign transaction fees. Finally, you receive a free night stay at a category 1-4 property each year on your card anniversary.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred offers double points on all dining and travel expenses, while the Ink Plus features double points on hotels and gas, as well as 5x on office supplies and telecommunications charges (on up to $50,000 in spending for each annually). Ultimate Rewards points also transfer to 6 airline partners, 3 other hotel partners, and Amtrak Guest Rewards.
Traveler's Choice: The Choice Privileges card offers you automatic Elite Gold status, which lets you book award nights 50 days in advance (instead of the regular 30 days), and gives you a 10% points bonus for eligible stays. Cardholders earn a reasonable double points on all purchases, and an outstanding 15 points per dollar at all 4,200 Choice Hotels locations.
In addition to offering the 1:3 transfer ratio to Choice points, the Amtrak Mastercard offers transfers to Hilton and award nights at Starwood properties (but not Starwood points). Finally, the Diner's Club Elite card again offers triple points at gas stations, grocery stores, and drug stores, which translates to 5.75 Choice points per dollar spent. It also has the previously mentioned airport lounge access, EMV smart chip, and no foreign transaction fees.
Picking an Overall Winner
Hotel awards are so much easier to book than airline awards, and the best hotel credit cards rival the value of most airline cards. The Traveler's Choice selection is attractive for those who frequent Choice Hotels locations and can seek out its incredible values, like I was able to this summer in Rome. On that stay I got 4.5 cents apiece from my Choice Privileges points, and this card combination allows you to never earn fewer than three points per dollar. Nevertheless, its sign-up bonuses are weak.
The Starwood Selection is compelling since Starpoints are so valuable, but ultimately the brand is still fairly small, and the high cost of the Diners Club Elite card makes it expensive to earn more than one Starpoint per dollar.
That leaves the Hyatt Hand as my choice, but only by a slim margin. Two of the three annual fees are waived the first year, and the total is still the most affordable after that. For that price you get three cards, each with an EMV chip and no foreign transaction fees, along with mid-tier status from day one. Throw in large sign-up bonuses from very flexible Ultimate Rewards points, and its hard to beat this three card combination for value in mid-range hotel awards.