Credit Card Review: Hilton Honors Surpass Card From American Express
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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available – Hilton Honors Surpass Card from American Express
In June we learned Hilton would end its partnership with Citi, making American Express the hotel chain’s exclusive credit card issuer and rewards transfer partner. Amex has since revealed its plan to overhaul Hilton’s portfolio of co-branded cards in January of 2018. Existing cards will be refreshed with new benefits, while a new business card and premium card will be launched to attract a broader spectrum of Hilton enthusiasts.
In the meantime, Amex is offering an increased bonus for the popular Hilton Honors Surpass Card, which features complimentary mid-tier elite status, several useful bonus spending categories and more. Plus, starting next year, it will become the Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card and drop foreign transaction fees while adding some new benefits. If you’re in the market for a hotel rewards card, this is a good opportunity to score a lucrative bonus and solid ongoing benefits before the changes go into effect early next year.
Who Is This Card For?
The Surpass card is naturally geared toward Hilton loyalists, but it’s an especially good fit for those who otherwise wouldn’t qualify for Gold elite status. Hilton novices can use this card to immediately score mid-tier benefits like upgrades and complimentary breakfast. Meanwhile, more established Hilton Honors members can get value out of the high points-earning rate for Hilton stays, as well as the opportunity to earn free nights and top-tier Diamond status through spending.
Even if you’ve never given Hilton much thought previously, this offer should capture your attention. Between the welcome bonus and ongoing benefits, it’s a good opportunity to dive into a hotel program with some lucrative redemption options and a strong global presence.
This card offers the opportunity to earn a bonus of up to 125,000 Honors points. You’ll earn 100,000 points after spending $3,000 in your first three months of cardmembership, and 25,000 more points when you spend an additional $1,000 in your first six months. Based on TPG’s latest valuation of 0.6 cents per point, that bonus is worth $750 if you earn the full amount.
This is the highest cumulative bonus we’ve seen available publicly for this card in terms of points, as the previous best offer was capped at 100,000 points. That offer also came with a free weekend night certificate, which is almost certain to be worth more than 25,000 points. However, the free night wasn’t available until after your first anniversary of cardmembership, whereas this bonus should reach your Hilton account soon after you meet the spending requirement. If you plan to book a major award in the next year, you’ll benefit from having those additional points at your disposal.
One final “bonus” to this offer is that accounts opened before January 18, 2018 will pay the current annual fee of $75 for the first year. That fee increases to $95 for applications received after that date, so you effectively get a $20 discount by applying now.
Keep in mind that Amex generally limits cardholders to one welcome bonus per lifetime for a given product. If you’re a current or previous Surpass cardholder, you’ll likely be considered ineligible for this offer.
The Hilton Surpass card has three earning tiers. You’ll earn 12 points for each dollar spent at Hilton properties, which works out to a total return of 7.2% based on TPG’s valuation. Despite the relatively low value of Hilton Honors points — compared to transferable points like Amex Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards — the high earning rate makes the Surpass card the best option for Hilton stays (at least until enrollment for the Hilton Honors Aspire Card opens in January).
The Surpass card also earns 6 points per dollar at restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations in the US. That’s a useful assortment of bonus categories offering an overall return of 3.6%. You can find other cards that are more rewarding for those purchases, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card for dining or the Amex EveryDay Preferred Credit Card from American Express for groceries. However, if you value Honors points highly or you prefer to use a single card for everyday spending, the Surpass card is a decent option.
Finally, you’ll earn 3 points per dollar on all other eligible purchases, which equals a return of 1.8%. You could certainly do worse, but once again you have better options. Unless you desperately need to top up your Honors account for a specific award redemption, you should avoid using the Surpass card for non-bonus purchases.
Earning the full welcome bonus would give you a minimum of 137,000 Honors points, and there are plenty of ways to put those points to good use. Hilton has less valuable rewards than Marriott, Starwood and Hyatt, but you can still get a good return by using Honors points to book rooms. For example, a standard room at the Millennium Hilton Bangkok starts at 27,000 points per night. Using the fifth night free benefit, you could book a five-night stay for 108,000 points. You could also upgrade to an Executive King suite for as low as 40,000 points per night.
You can stretch those points a bit further with Hilton’s Points & Money rewards, which sometimes offer over 1 cent per point redeemed. Other redemption options include on-property amenities and the Hilton Honors Auction Platform, which lets you bid with points on unique experiences.
The Hilton Honors Surpass Card offers a lot of value beyond the welcome bonus, including several attractive benefits for Hilton loyalists. Here are the most prominent perks, and what I think of each one:
Complimentary Hilton Honors Gold Status: Hilton offers one of the more valuable mid-tier status levels. Gold members earn a 25% points bonus on paid stays, and are eligible for perks like room upgrades (excluding suites) and complimentary breakfast. This benefit is automatic; you don’t have to do anything special to unlock it, so it’s a great asset for cardholders who wouldn’t achieve Gold status through regular stay activity. However, it’s redundant if you regularly bank 20 stays or 40 nights annually, or if you have the Platinum Card from American Express, which also offers Gold status as a standard benefit.
Upgrade to Hilton Honors Diamond Status: Cardholders can earn Diamond status after spending $40,000 on eligible purchases in a calendar year. That gets you a 50% points bonus on paid stays, higher upgrade priority (including suites) and executive lounge access at applicable properties. Unfortunately, Hilton Diamond offers relatively low value compared to other top-tier elite status, and the advantages over Gold status might not justify the opportunity cost of meeting the spending requirement.
If you would normally put close to $40,000 on this card annually, then it could make sense to charge some non-bonus purchases to get yourself over the threshold. Otherwise, the new Hilton Aspire Card coming in January offers an easier (and likely more lucrative) path to Diamond status.
Weekend Night Reward: Beginning in January (after Surpass accounts transition to the Hilton Ascend Card), cardholders will earn a free weekend night after spending $15,000 on purchases in a calendar year. Unlike Diamond status, I think this spending bonus is worth going for if you can work a free weekend night into your travel plans.
A handful of properties are ineligible for this reward, but otherwise you can get huge value from it. For example, a weekend night (Friday, Saturday or Sunday) at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island typically goes for over $850. Even if your free night saves you just $300, you’ll be getting a 2% return on your spending in addition to the points you earn.
Priority Pass lounge access: Cardholders currently receive a Priority Pass Select membership that is borderline useless. Lounge visits are charged at a rate of $27 per person, which is light-years behind the several cards that offer complimentary access. However, you’ll get 10 free visits each calendar year following the January transition to the Ascend card. That’s a great perk for anyone who only needs lounge access sporadically.
Online booking bonus: You’ll earn 500 bonus points when you use your Surpass card to book stays through the Hilton website. Booking directly with Hilton is generally a good bet anyway due to the Honors member discount, so these points are low-hanging fruit that can add up to a nice bonus over time. That said, this perk doesn’t add any value to the Surpass card in my opinion, since the same bonus is available on the no-fee Hilton Honors credit card. I’d love to see Amex set the Surpass card apart by bumping the bonus up to 750 or 1,000 points per booking.
No foreign transaction fees: This is another change that will take effect in 2018, and it’s long overdue. It’s silly for a major international hotel chain to issue a co-branded card that can’t even be used at its own properties abroad without incurring additional charges, especially given the growing list of cards with no foreign transaction fees. Fortunately the 2.7% fee will be eliminated in January — that may not compel you to use this card, but at least you’ll no longer have such a compelling reason to avoid it.
Shopping Coverage: The Surpass Card offers benefits like purchase protection (against theft and accidental damage), return protection and extended warranty. These benefits are standard on many Amex cards, from the no-fee Hilton Honors Card to the Platinum Card. The terms are favorable, though Amex is one of the few major card issuers to not offer price protection. That should make you think twice about using this card for major purchases if you suspect the price will drop.
Travel coverage: The Surpass Card also comes with standard Amex protections like car rental and baggage insurance, and travel accident insurance. These benefits generally don’t stack up to the competition. Furthermore, you don’t get trip delay reimbursement or cancellation coverage, and that alone is a fair reason to look elsewhere when making travel purchases other than Hilton stays.
Which Cards Compete With the Hilton Surpass?
Now that Citi is no longer accepting applications for its co-branded Hilton cards, the main competition for the Surpass card are the other Hilton credit cards in the Amex portfolio, including those that aren’t yet available. Given the value of Honors Gold status and the potential of the weekend night reward, I think Surpass is a clear winner over the no-fee option, which offers relatively scant benefits. If your Hilton stays are so infrequent that the Surpass card’s benefits don’t make up for its annual fee, then I’m not sure either card is a great fit.
The question many award travelers will face is whether to apply for the Surpass Card or hold out for the more high-end Hilton Honors Aspire Card, which is slated to launch in January. Aspire comes with a $450 annual fee — standard for cards in the premium space — and offers more lucrative benefits like complimentary Diamond status, a $250 annual statement credit for airline incidentals, and another similar credit for qualifying Hilton stays. I think both Surpass and Aspire justify their respective price tags, so deciding between them boils down to how well their benefits suit your own travel needs.
The Hilton Honors Surpass Card stacks up well next to other mid-tier hotel credit cards. I think complimentary Gold status alone makes this card a no-brainer if you stay with Hilton regularly, but don’t bank enough activity to qualify each year. The strong bonus categories and weekend night reward make Surpass a viable option for everyday spending, and the 10 annual lounge passes provide extra value if you don’t already have airport lounge access.
The current bonus of 125,000 points is a great incentive to apply, but beyond that I think the Surpass Card is a keeper. Apart from the increasing annual fee, the updates coming in January are all improvements. so I’m confident this card will continue to return value in the long-term.
What are your thoughts on this new offer?
Featured image courtesy of Getty.