5 reasons we prefer hotel points over free night certificates
Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here.
You’ve likely noticed the big sign-up bonuses from hotel credit cards recently, offering things like “three free nights” or “five free nights.” For example, the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card offers a sign-up bonus of 100,000 welcome bonus points after spending $3,000 in the first three months from account opening.
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Free nights are worth just 1 night
A free night award is what it sounds like: a free night award. It can’t be a “free nights” award (notice the “s”). This means you’ll only get one hotel night for each award. You need four free night awards if you want to stay somewhere for four nights.
On the flip side, you can use points for as many nights as you can stretch them into. If you have 35,000 points in your Marriott Bonvoy account and a free night award capped at 35,000 points, you could redeem either for one night in a room that costs 35,000 points per night.
However, if you find a hotel across the street that costs just 17,500 points per night, you could stay there for two nights using your points. Meanwhile, your 35,000-point free night award would give you just one free night.
Related: How 2 Marriott 35K free night awards got me $1,141 worth of hotel stays this year
Free night awards expire sooner
Nearly every airline and hotel program has a points expiration policy. Those whose points never expire are in the minority.
Add to this the fact that most programs with expiration policies have a way to extend the life of your points. This could be as simple as earning or redeeming some points in your account or using a cobranded credit card from that program. Thus, you can keep your points for the future if you aren’t ready to use them now.
On the flip side, free night awards expire and usually can't be extended. Many of them expire one year after they are earned, and free nights earned from limited-time promotions may expire after just six months. Unfortunately, you can’t extend the validity of these awards. We saw hotel programs make exceptions during the pandemic, but don’t expect that in the future.
This means your free night awards will expire before your points, which means you may feel pressure to redeem the free nights in your account, even if it’s not a very good redemption.
Related: Here’s how to get your points and miles back after they expire
Free night awards are designed for breakage
“Breakage” is a term that refers to benefits that are designed to not be redeemed for their full value, padding the profits of whoever issues those benefits.
A perfect example of this type of benefit is your monthly Uber credits from American Express. Could Amex issue the funds as an annual lump sum? Certainly. And it would be much easier for consumers to use the full value of this perk. However, doling the credits out in monthly amounts means consumers are less likely to remember to use the funds, less likely to use the full amount or more likely to spend past the free amount, requiring them to pay extra.
This is how free night awards work with hotels, as well. Some people will work hard to maximize their free night awards, seeking out as much value from them as possible during each redemption. However, most people do not do this.
Many people will redeem a free night award for less than its full value because it’s available, because it’s expiring soon or because there aren’t any properties available on the desired dates that cost the full value of the certificate. Thus, many awards are redeemed for less than their full value, creating “breakage” that helps hotel profits.
Related: How to protect your Marriott free night certificates from dynamic pricing
Extra free night perks only apply to points
Marriott Bonvoy, Hilton Honors and IHG One Rewards have a perk where you can get a free night when paying with points for a stay of four or five nights.
With Marriott, you get the least expensive night comped when redeeming points for a stay of five nights or longer. With IHG's fourth night reward, select IHG cardholders pay zero points for every fourth night when redeeming IHG points for a stay of four nights or longer. And Hilton deducts the cost of one night from the average cost of five award nights when Hilton elite members redeem Hilton points.
Unfortunately, these policies don’t apply to free night redemptions. You cannot use multiple free night awards and then receive an extra free night added to your stay.
Related: Can I mix hotel points and free night certificates to get a 4th or 5th night free?
Points are more flexible
Given that they last longer, can be used however you see fit and can garner a free night added to your stay, hotel points are more flexible than hotel free night awards. These are the reasons why we prefer points over free night certificates.
If you want to stay at a top-end property that costs 50,000 points per night, you can spend 50,000 points to stay there. You could just as easily stay there for a night with a free night award worth 50,000 points. However, if you want to stretch your points, you can stay at a hotel that costs less than 10,000 points per night. This lets you use your same 50,000 points to pay for five nights — possibly more if that hotel program has a perk where you’ll get a fourth or fifth night free when redeeming points.
Sadly, you cannot stretch your free night awards to be worth anything more than just one night each.
Related: Flexible free night certificates from Marriott and IHG are here — but it’s not all good news
Example bookings where points go further
To drive home the point, let's look at some recent redemptions we've made where points go further than free night awards.
I love Mexico City, and the Centro Historico is the area where you should stay on your next trip. If you have a weekend free night award (valid at nearly any Hilton property worldwide), you could redeem it for one night at any of these three properties. You'd likely choose the most expensive option when doing so.
However, paying with points is a different story. If you have 50,000 points, you could get one night at Umbral or one night at the Reforma property. With those same 50,000 points, you could stay for two nights at the Hampton Inn & Suites property, which I love due to its great staff and amazing interior.
The same concept applies to your next visit to Shanghai. Consider these two hotels, which are separated by just three subway stops. It takes five minutes to get from one property to the other. If you have a free night award with Hyatt, you could spend one night at either property. Points are a different story, though. With the 15,000 points required to stay at the Grand Hyatt Shanghai for a night, you could spend three nights at the UrCove Shanghai Lujiazui Expo hotel instead.
One of my favorite Marriott Bonvoy properties, the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate, costs between 10,000 and 15,000 points per night (until it leaves Marriott Bonvoy on Sept. 1). So, I could use a 50,000-point free night award for one night at this hotel. At the same time, I could use less than 50,000 points for a five-night stay at the hotel on most dates.
Or, consider redeeming IHG points in Dubai this summer. If I had a 40,000-point free night certificate, I could use it for a night at any property I wished in the city on a random date this month. On the random date I selected, award nights range from 8,000 points to 23,000 points.
But, if I instead had 40,000 points, I could use these points for two nights at the InterContinental Dubai Festival City.
Or I could use 40,000 points for six nights after a fourth-night reward as an IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card holder at the Holiday Inn Express Dubai - Jumeirah.
That's the value of points instead of certificates — you can use the points as you see fit, opting for fewer nights at more expensive properties or more nights at less expensive properties.
Related: Book low-end or luxury to get the best value from your hotel points
For us, we’ll choose points over free night certificates any day of the week. Points last longer, are more versatile and can be stretched into more than just one free night at a hotel.
As we see more and more credit card welcome offers with “x number of free nights” bonuses, remember that there are limitations to what you can do with these awards. For us, we'll be waiting for the "earn x number of points" welcome offers to come back.