The Award Traveler’s Guide to Hilton Honors
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Update: The Hilton American Express Ascend Card is now the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card and is offering a bonus of 150,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in purchases on the Card within your first 3 months of Card Membership plus, a $100 Statement Credit after your first purchase on the Card within your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 12/31/2019.
With more than 5,600 hotels in over 100 different countries, Hilton likely has a property at your destination of choice. With the introduction of its new portfolio of cards with American Express and the expansion of their brand with hotels such as Signia and LXR, Hilton Honors is making a strong case for being the best hotel rewards program out there.
Here is an in-depth look into the Hilton Honors program, and what each status will award you.
Hilton offers four levels within the Honors program. You’ll become a member just for signing up for the program, and then there are three elite status tiers: Silver, Gold and Diamond.
Base membership is given to anyone who signs up for the Honors program. For being a completely free status, it actually offers a couple of decent benefits. You get free standard internet in your room and the lobby; can request late checkouts; and a second guest can stay in your room for free at hotels that charge extra for adding guests. In some instances, you will run into a hotel that will charge you extra for a guest, but if you take 60 seconds to sign up for Hilton Honors, you can avoid those charges completely.
Silver membership is earned after 4 stays or 10 nights in a calendar year. Silver Elite members get a 15% point bonus on qualifying spending at Hilton properties, the fifth night free on standard room award stays of five nights or more and two complimentary water bottles at most Hilton properties.
You can either earn Silver Elite membership the old fashioned way, or you can become Silver Elite by receiving the Hilton Honors American Express Card. This card currently has a bonus of 75,000 Hilton Honors points (worth $450 by TPG’s most recent valuations) after you spend $1,000 in purchases on the card within your first three months of card membership.
We value Silver membership at $55.
Gold membership is earned after 20 stays, 40 nights or 75,000 base points earned in a calendar year. In addition to Silver benefits, Gold members receive a 25% point bonus on qualifying spending and a choice of hotel benefits. Depending on the Hilton brand, options include a room upgrade, bonus points, continental breakfast, snack or non-alcoholic beverage.
You can either earn Gold membership the old fashioned way, or you can become Gold by opening the Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card. This card currently has a welcome bonus of 125,000 Hilton Honors points (worth $750 by TPG’s valuations) after you spend $2,000 in purchases on the card within your first three months of card membership. Note that Gold status is also a perk of The Platinum Card® from American Express, yet another reason to add that premium card to your wallet.
We value Gold membership at $1,260.
Diamond membership is earned after 30 stays, 60 nights or 120,000 base points earned in a calendar year. In addition to Gold benefits, Diamond members receive a 50% point bonus on qualifying spending and a guaranteed room when making a reservation 48 hours in advance. All Diamond members and one additional registered guest receive Executive Lounge access at Hilton, Conrad and DoubleTree properties. These lounges are extremely useful as there is food provided, which can save you even more money during your travels.
You can either earn Diamond membership the old fashioned way, or you can become Diamond by receiving the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card. This card currently has a welcome bonus of 150,000 Hilton Honors points (worth $900 by TPG’s valuations) after you spend $4,000 in purchases on the card within your first 3 months of card membership. It also includes an array of perks like up to a $250 annual Hilton resort credit and free weekend night certificate on your account anniversary.
We value Diamond membership at $3,025.
Hilton Honors is not much different than your standard hotel loyalty program. While there are many ways to earn Hilton points through non-hotel activity, you earn most of them by staying at Hilton properties or through credit card spending. You can then redeem those points for free hotel nights, with awards priced according to the desirability of a specific hotel property.
Here’s a quick overview of some popular ways to earn Hilton points:
Hotel Stays— You will earn 10 Honors base points for every dollar you spend, including any charges you make to your room bill. Some exceptions include earning 10 points per dollar on room rates only (not other charges) at Hampton Inns and Homewood Suites. At Home2 Suites and Tru by Hilton, you’ll only earn 5 base points per dollar spent. Elite members earn their respective 15%, 25% or 50% bonuses, and be sure to check your account online to see what promotions are currently available.
Credit Card Spending — This will likely be your best bet to earning a large sum of Hilton Honors points. I was lucky enough to be approved for three different Hilton Amex cards and have been able to earn hundreds of thousands of points in welcome bonuses along with a large number of bonus points through everyday spending.
For example, the Hilton Amex Ascend card earns 12x points on Hilton spend; 6x points at US restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations; and 3x points on all other spending. The card also gives you Gold status with the ability to upgrade to Diamond status after spending $40,000 on the card in a year. You will also receive a complimentary weekend night reward when you spend $15,000 in a calendar year. You will also receive airport lounge access with Priority Pass Select membership. The card carries a $95 annual fee (see Rates and Fees).
While the Ascend is arguably the “best bang for your buck”, be sure to look at the full portfolio of cards to see which card works best for you.
You can also use transferable points, as American Express Membership Rewards transfer to Hilton Honors at a 1:2 ratio. The program does run transfer bonuses from time to time, but since TPG values Amex points at 2 cents per point and Hilton Honors points at 0.6 cents per point, even transferring during a bonus period likely won’t make sense.
Travel Partners — Earn points on car rentals, cruises, Priority Pass Airline lounge membership and international mobile phone service. With major rental car companies like Budget, Avis, National and Alamo, you earn between 250-1,500 Honors points per rental. You can earn 4,000-10,000 points when signing up for one of three different Priority Pass airport lounge access memberships; 6,000-50,000 points when booking a cruise from CruisesOnly.com; and 1-10 points per minute on international cell service companies OneSimCard and Traveling Connect. Confirm all the details of earning with travel partners at the Honors site.
Shopping and Dining— By creating an account and linking a credit card to Hilton Honors Dining, you can earn up to 8 points per dollar at participating restaurants. There’s currently a 1,000-point welcome bonus after dining once with a bill over $25.
Buy/Receive Points— Hilton sells points for 1 cent each and you can buy a maximum of 80,000 points a year. However, be sure to keep your eyes out for bonuses, as these points can drop as low as 0.5 cents apiece.
Award Chart and Redemption Options
Generally speaking, the best way to redeem hotel points is for free nights at the program’s participating properties, and that’s certainly true when you go to redeem your Hilton Honors points. Hilton divides its worldwide properties into categories, each requiring an increasing amount of points. While it doesn’t have published award charts anymore, it did recently launch a Points Explorer tool so you can get an idea of how expensive a particular property is. Since Hilton points aren’t as valuable as other hotel currencies, it’s incredibly important to use your points wisely.
For example, let’s take the Hilton in Salt Lake City, Utah. On a random date I checked, the rate is $210.82 for one night, or 40,000 Hilton Honors points. The value presented here is just over half of one cent per point. This isn’t a horrible value.
However, there are many instances where Hilton can be egregious with how many points they are asking for. For example, the Parc 55 in San Francisco is asking roughly $216 for a room on that same date. However, they want 53,000 points for that exact room, giving a redemption value of just 0.4 cents per point. That is incredibly low and likely not worth your hard earned points.
Note that you also have the ability to redeem your points for upgraded accommodations. You’ll notice which rooms are classified above the standard level by the designation “Premium Room Reward” in the search results. While these may not represent the best value, it can be nice for families in need of a larger room.
Points & Money Rewards — This way of redeeming points can help you control the value of your points. Instead of paying all points for a free night, you can use a combination of cash and points. Unlike other programs, you can even adjust the ratio in increments of 1,000 points using a sliding tool.
On-property Rewards — Instead of free nights, you can use your Hilton points for property amenities like all-inclusive packages at certain properties, golf tee times and carts (a free combo of both will cost you 25,000 or 35,000 points depending on the time of year) and Hilton Hawaii dollars (25,000 points can become $50 to use in Oahu or on the Big Island). For more specific information on points needed, check out their breakdowns.
Travel Rewards — All of Honors’ travel rewards options should be avoided. You can transfer your points into Amtrak Rewards, airline miles with more than 40 different carriers, free car rentals or upgrades and cruise discounts. Typically, the transfer ratios are not very good, and the values for cars and cruises are typically poor.
For instance, one-day car rentals will cost an average of 15,000 points, while one-class upgrades cost 4,000 points. You can also redeem for car rental gift certificates worth $25, $50, $100 or $200. These rental options require far too many points and don’t represent a good value.
Likewise, redeeming points for cruise discounts via CruisesOnly.com will only give you 0.2 cents per point in value; for example, $250 off a cruise costs a whopping 120,000 Honors points.
Note that Honors points transfers are said to take about 30 days, unless you pay $25 to have the miles show up in 10 days, but since these are such poor value propositions, I’d recommend skipping them entirely.
Redemption Experiences — If you’re looking for a non-hotel award with potentially solid value, you can now redeem points for music concert tickets and cultural events through the Hilton Honors Experiences website. The options and types of experience vary greatly from music, sports, culture, or food, there is something for everyone. Anything from experiencing the Indianapolis 500 to seeing a movie with 99 of your closest friends.
However, I was able to redeem Hilton Honors points for a country music concert here in Salt Lake City, Utah. This redemption gave me a value of almost 1 cent per point, so it was a great award and a fun evening with no cash out of pocket!
Donate — Finally, you can elect to send your points to a charity using PointWorthy.com. 4,000 points will get you a $10 donation to a cause of your choice from thousands on the site.
Booking free nights through the Honors website is easy. From the homepage, simply check the Use Points box and the award rates for your date(s) will appear in the search results. Note that Hilton allows you to see award rates and multiple other rates for a given room at the same time, so you can quickly decide if it’s worth redeeming points.
You can also use the flexible date search to easily view two weeks at a time.
Once you click the flexible dates box, you will be presented with your list of hotels. Click “view available dates” on your preferred hotel, and you will then see your dates and points options.
Generally speaking, you should aim for an award where the rate is the max listed on the program’s Points Explorer page. Anything below that would likely provide a suboptimal redemption value lower than TPG’s most recent valuations.
Finally, a little tip if you’re redeeming your points for awards other than hotel stays. Many of the non-free night awards have award codes next to them on the Hilton Honors website. It’s handy to write these down and then tell the phone agent the award code; it will quickly point them in the right direction and ensure you get what you want.
While loyalty programs continue to be aggressively devalued, I’ve been able to find great value with my Hilton points. I’ve been able to tap into the value of the Hilton Honors program extensively with recent trips to Puerto Rico and Australia. Both of these adventures were completely paid with Hilton Honors points. With my Diamond status to boot, I was able to save thousands of dollars in room costs and food.
With all of the issues that Marriott has had in recent months, I would strongly recommend considering Hilton as your next hotel loyalty program, and hopefully this guide has demonstrated how to make the most of it.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Amex Ascend, please click here.
Featured photo courtesy of Hilton