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

Aug 5, 2022

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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.

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 Suite at the Sheraton Grande Rio
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 photo by Maskot/Getty Images.

Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card

Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card account anniversary. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy points) at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program.

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More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 125,000 Marriott Bonvoy Bonus Points after spending $5,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 8/31/22.
  • 6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy™ program.
  • 4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a 7% discount off standard rates for reservations of standard guest rooms at hotels that participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program when you book directly. Terms and Conditions Apply.
  • Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card renewal month. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy points) at a participating hotel. Certain hotels have resort fees.
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