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This card is a terrific option for those who visit Hilton properties on a somewhat regular basis thanks to the intro bonus, enhanced earning rates and complimentary Gold status, all for a mere $95 annual fee.
In June 2017, we learned that Hilton Honors was dropping Citi and shifting to an exclusive co-brand credit card relationship with American Express. After a few months of radio silence, we’ve since received a flurry of information about what’ll happen to existing Citi Hilton credit cards, what the new Amex cards will look like and what the welcome bonuses for new cardholders will be. While everyone’s travel preferences vary, I’m sure that many of you are likely interested in the new Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card.
But just how rewarding is this new product? Does it beat out its predecessors, the now-defunct Surpass and Citi Hilton Reserve cards? In a word: yes. The lucrative welcome bonus coupled with the array of perks make it an ideal choice for Hilton loyalists in need of a co-branded credit card, and for those transitioning to the Ascend from a previous Hilton card, you’re in for a solid upgrade.
Who Is This Card For?
The Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card is a great option for semi-frequent guests of Hilton properties who don’t typically travel enough to reach Gold (or Diamond) status the “hard” way. Since you’re locked into earning (and then redeeming) points through the Hilton Honors program, a baseline requirement for this card is that you recognize the value of the program. It also carries a low annual fee ($95) but has the potential to be quite lucrative when it comes to earning at many popular categories of merchants in the US. The card also provides some nice value-added perks for when you actually hit the road, both in hotels and the airport. As a result, if you typically average 10-15 stays and/or 20-25 nights during a calendar year, this card is likely a near-perfect fit in your wallet.
When the Hilton Amex Ascend officially launched on January 18, it currently offers a welcome bonus of 125,000 points after you spend $2,000 in purchases with your new card within the first three months of cardmembership. This equates to $750 in value based on TPG’s most recent valuations, but you can easily get more if you look to redeem them at aspirational resorts or even low-level properties.
Here’s how this welcome bonus compares to the other three Hilton Amex cards currently available:
- Hilton Honors Card from American Express: 75,000 Hilton Honors bonus points after you spend $1,000 in purchases on the card within your first three months of cardmembership
- Hilton Honors American Express Business Card: 125,000 Hilton Honors bonus points after you spend $3,000 in purchases on the card within your first three months of cardmembership.
- Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express: 150,000 Hilton Honors bonus points after you spend $4,000 in purchases on the card within your first three months of cardmembership
However, it’s important to note that these bonuses are not included as part of the transition for cardholders of the Hilton Surpass or Citi Hilton Reserve cards. I received my new Hilton Ascend Amex in the mail with my “transition” date of January 30, and even though I’ll be able to take advantage of the rest of the card’s perks below, I won’t be taking home an additional 100,000 points.
As it’s a co-branded card, you’d expect the Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card to offer a solid bonus on purchases at Hilton properties worldwide, and you’d be right. As a cardholder, you’ll earn 12 points per dollar spend on these stays (in addition to the normal points you’d earn through the Hilton Honors program). This is a very solid return of 7.2% on these purchases based on TPG’s valuations, a solid boost over other popular cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve (6.3%).
You’ll also take home 6 points per dollar spent at US restaurants, US supermarkets and US gas stations, giving you another solid return of 3.6% on these purchases. Finally, you’ll get 3 points per dollar spent on all other purchases, equating to a return of 1.8%. While neither of these rates is spectacular, it’s still a decent return for purchases away from the main program with which the card is aligned. However, there are some better options if a bulk of your spending isn’t at Hilton properties, ones that we’ll explore in greater depth below.
When it comes to the Hilton Honors program, your best bet is to redeem your points for free stays rather than “wasting” your time on other options like merchandise or transferring to airlines. Unfortunately, in 2017, Hilton took a page out of Delta’s book and pulled its full award charts, instead using the following language:
“The amount of Hilton Honors points required to redeem hotel rewards varies by hotel, room, booking date and length of stay.”
As a result, you’re left with searching individually for specific properties and their award rates.
Instead of worrying about redeeming your points for a straight-up hotel room, you could utilize the program’s Points & Money option to decrease the number of points and increase the amount of cash you’d use. The premise is simple: You can redeem points to cover an entire stay, pay cash for the entire stay, or adjust these amounts to use a combination of the two. This provides valuable flexibility for your Hilton Honors points, since you’re in charge of how many (or few) points to use on a given redemption. Other programs that provide a similar option will typically set a cash portion for these awards, and many will restrict inventory as well. As long as there’s a room available using points, you have the ability to use Points & Money.
Like most other programs, Hilton Honors also allows members to redeem points for various non-hotel rewards, including on-property rewards (like golf tee times), merchandise through the Honors Shopping Mall and experiences through the Honors auction platform. You can also transfer your points to over 40 airlines or redeem them for free car rentals or cruise certificates. However, all of these options provide relatively low value for your points, so generally speaking, you’re best off redeeming them for hotel stays.
While the card’s bonus and earning rates can be quite lucrative, where the card really shines for semi-regular Hilton guests is with the added perks it offers. While the card provides several “standard” protections for traveling and purchases, there are four additional benefits that stand out:
Complimentary Hilton Honors Gold status (and an upgrade to Diamond when you spend $40,000 in a calendar year). The card provides cardholders with automatic Gold status in the Hilton Honors program, which I valued at $980 last year. It includes perks like bonus points, room upgrades and complimentary breakfast. If you’re a big spender and plan on charging over $40,000 on the card in a calendar year, you’ll be bumped to top-tier Diamond status. Depending on how frequently you stay in Hilton properties (and how much you value the given perks of the applicable status), this can add quite a bit of value to the card.
Keep in mind that Gold status is also an automatic benefit on the Platinum Card® from American Express, so if you already carry that card in your wallet, this particular perk drops in value quite a bit.
Weekend night rewards. Another nice perk on the card is a complimentary weekend night reward after you spend $15,000 on purchases on your card in a calendar year. This is similar to the reward certificate offered by the old Citi Hilton Reserve, though you’ll need to spend 50% more to qualify. That being said, I’ve always redeemed those certificates for stays that would’ve cost $150+, adding a nice boost to the return on your everyday purchases.
Priority Pass Select. The card also comes with a Priority Pass Select membership, though it won’t allow you unlimited access to these lounges. Instead, you’ll receive 10 lounge visits every year once enrolled, and additional passes are just $27. As I mention above, if you’re a semi-frequent traveler who goes through an airport with a Priority Pass lounge a handful of times a year, this is a great perk that won’t break the bank like similar benefits on premium travel rewards credit cards.
No foreign transaction fees. The fourth added perk on the card is waived foreign transaction fees, a benefit that was notably absent on the old Hilton Surpass card. If you’re looking for a card that’ll save you the 2.7% fee on purchases made outside the US, the Ascend card is a great option.
Which Cards Compete With the Hilton Ascend Amex?
Since it carries a mid-range annual fee of $95, this card is set up to compete with the majority of other hotel programs’ co-branded credit cards. One of the most popular is the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express, which offers bonus points at SPG and Marriott properties, credit toward elite status each year and no foreign transaction fees. The annual fee is identical (though waived for the first year).
Marriott also offers a similar card: the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card with a $85 annual fee (currently waived for the first year). You’ll enjoy a welcome bonus of 75,000 Marriott Rewards points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in your first three months from account opening. The card offers 5x points at Marriott and SPG properties plus 2x points at airlines, car rental agencies and restaurants, and it too waives foreign transaction fees. It also comes with a free night certificate every year, valid at Category 1-5 hotels worldwide. Finally, you’ll receive 15 elite credits each year plus an additional credit for every $3,000 spent, allowing you to unlock Gold or even Platinum status through spending alone.
If you’re not looking to be locked into a single program, another competing product is the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which also carries a $95 annual fee (waived the first year). The bonus (50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening) can be used in a variety of ways, including transferring to Hyatt, Marriott or IHG for hotel stays. You’ll earn double points on all travel and dining purchases, including a variety of merchants that may not be obvious. You’re covered with trip delay and trip cancellation insurance plus primary car rental coverage, and like the others above, it also waives foreign transaction fees.
With Hilton’s shift to an exclusive co-branded credit card agreement with American Express, the program now offers the most extensive collection of cards of any chain out there. The Hilton Honors Ascend Card takes its spot in the crowded mid-tier category of hotel credit cards, but with a lucrative welcome bonus, solid earning rates and an array of valuable perks, it’s definitely a great option for those who visit Hilton properties even somewhat frequently. While it doesn’t offer the flexibility of a card like the Sapphire Preferred, it could be just what you need to make your next stay with the Hilton Honors program even more rewarding.
- Earn 125,000 Hilton Honors Bonus Points with the Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card after you use your new Card to make $2,000 in eligible purchases within the first 3 months of Card Membership.
- Earn a Weekend Night Reward from Hilton Honors after you spend $15,000 on purchases on your Card in a calendar year.
- Earn 12X Hilton Honors Bonus Points for each dollar of eligible purchases charged on your Card directly with a hotel or resort within the Hilton Portfolio.
- Earn 6X Hilton Honors Bonus Points for each dollar of eligible purchases on your Card at U.S. restaurants, U.S. supermarkets, and U.S. gas stations.
- Earn 3X Hilton Honors Bonus Points for all other eligible purchases on your Card.
- Spend $40,000 on eligible purchases on your Card in a calendar year and you can earn Hilton Honors Diamond status through the end of the next calendar year.
- $95 annual fee.
- Terms Apply.
- See Rates & Fees