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Quick Points: When you should redeem free night certificates instead of hotel points

Aug. 05, 2022
6 min read
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Free hotel night certificates are invaluable in a clever points and miles strategy, but you need to know how to maximize them.

You can earn free night certificates for staying a specific number of nights each year with a particular hotel chain, renewing a credit card or spending a certain amount on your hotel credit card each calendar year.

And while these certificates can each be worth hundreds of dollars in hotel stays, there’s a reason award travel enthusiasts prefer regular ol’ points.

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Let’s look at why you should often strive to use your free night certificates before burning points. We’ll also examine a couple rules of thumb to help you ensure you’re getting the most value from said certificates.

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Free night certificates are more restrictive than hotel points

View from a suite at the Sheraton Grande Rio. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Free night certificates expire

The main reason you should use your free night certificates before hotel points is that free night certificates expire.

Hotel points expire, too, but it’s extremely easy to extend their life. Depending on the hotel currency, your points may expire after anywhere between 12 and 24 months — but that clock resets every time your account experiences activity (namely, earning or redeeming points).

Free night certificates are valid for one year after the issue date. Each hotel has varying rules for what happens when a free night certificate expires, but one thing is constant: They can’t be extended indefinitely. You might get a one-time exception that extends your certificate for a few months, but it's unlikely that this will happen more than once.

Related: 7 of the best hotel credit cards that come with an annual free night

Most free night certificates are capped

With the exception of Hilton's, all free night certificates have an effective “points value.” For example, Hyatt issues a Category 1-4 free night certificate. You cannot use it for a hotel in a category higher than Category 4. That limits your options. For example, you can’t use the certificate for a night at a fancy hotel like the Park Hyatt Milan.

Meanwhile, Hyatt points aren’t hampered by this restriction. If you want to stay at the Park Hyatt Milan, you simply spend 40,000 Hyatt points for a free stay.

Note: Marriott allows you to combine free night awards with up to 15,000 points. This increases the number of hotels where you can use your certificate, but still caps the certificate below the points rate of some of Marriott’s fanciest hotels.

Related: What to do when your Hyatt free night certificate is expiring

Sometimes it’s better not to use free night certificates first

A great use of a Hilton free night certificate is at the Waldorf Astoria Los Cabos Pedregal, which normally costs 120,000 points per night. (Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

For all the merit of utilizing your free night certificates first, you shouldn’t do it if you aren’t getting a reasonable value from them. Here are two reasons to keep them in their holster and instead use points.

Free night certificates are single-use

If, after earning a 50,000-point free night certificate, your first hotel stay is with a property that costs 10,000 points, using your certificate wouldn’t be wise.

That’s because free night certificates are single-use. If you stay at a hotel that costs less than the certificate, you’ll forfeit the remaining value. Try to use them when you’re staying at a hotel that costs around the same number of points your free night certificate is worth — unless it’s expiring really soon.

So if you have a Marriott 35,000-point free night certificate, try and use it for a hotel stay that would cost around that number of points.

Use free night certificates for stays lasting three nights or less

Another restriction that may encourage you to save your free night certificate is the inability to use it in conjunction with a free night benefit.

Several hotel chains will give you a complimentary night when booking a certain number of consecutive reward nights:

For example, if you booked four nights with Marriott points and one night with a Marriott free night certificate, you would not qualify for a free fifth night — because Marriott doesn’t count free night certificates as “award nights.” If you’re staying five nights with Marriott, it’s better to use points for all five nights and save your free night certificate for another day.

Related: How to maximize hotel stays by using a free night benefit

Bottom line

If you don’t redeem your free night certificate, it will expire. In most cases, there’s nothing you can do to indefinitely extend its life. For this reason, it’s better to use it as soon as (reasonably) possible.

If you’ve got an upcoming stay at a hotel that costs nearly the same number of points as your free night certificate is worth, use it — and save your points for hotel stays that can’t be booked with a restrictive certificate.

Featured image by Getty Images/Maskot
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

Pros

  • Earns 3x points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases