A tale of two free hotel nights — reader success story

Dec 11, 2019

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Today I want to share a story from TPG reader Jeff, who had two distinct experiences when redeeming hotel free night certificates:

My wife and I were traveling to Madrid out of JFK, and decided to spend the previous night in New York. Knowing that hotels are notoriously expensive in the city, we decided to use a Marriott free night certificate that we received as a benefit of carrying a Bonvoy credit card. We chose the Fairfield Inn at Madison Square Garden based on location, decent reviews and a rooftop bar. The cost equivalent of the room was right around $400.

We received a small room (no surprise in NYC) with dated furnishings and a noisy A/C unit that was unable to keep the room cool even with continuous operation. Our view was of brick walls on all three sides and a dumpster collection facility directly below us. At the rooftop bar, I paid $22 for a poorly-crafted old fashioned served in a small plastic cup. In general, we felt that the accommodations and service were second rate, and that we received poor value from our free night certificate.

Determined to improve on that experience, and with a Hilton free weekend night certificate in hand from our Hilton Amex card, I set out to optimize our next redemption. Unlike Marriott, Hilton does not restrict the certificate to certain hotel categories. Since we had already planned a trip to Southern California in October, I booked our free night at the fabulous Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills in a room that was going for $1,030. The hotel, staff and room were absolutely first class. Our room featured a balcony overlooking Beverly Hills, luxurious furnishings, artwork and high-tech controls for lighting, drapes, connectivity, etc.

We headed to the rooftop bar for a drink and appetizer before dinner — excellent food and beautiful gardens with a killer view and good people watching. We had a dinner reservation a few miles away and arranged for the house car to drop us off. What we received was a ride in a stunning white Rolls-Royce Phantom. After dinner, the same car picked us up for the return. We couldn’t have been happier with the hotel and the service we received during our stay. Our lesson: choose your redemptions wisely for maximum value and benefits.

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While Jeff and his wife preferred their stay in Beverly Hills to the one in New York, I think both were good examples of how to maximize a hotel free night. You can use Marriott certificates from the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card or Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card at properties costing 35,000 points or less per night (which translates to Category 5 or lower at the standard award rate). Few properties in that range cost more than $400 per night, so Jeff got a good deal strictly in terms of redemption value even if the experience was subpar. We can debate whether that property is worth the going rate and which other New York hotels might have been preferable, but redeeming the certificate kept a substantial amount of money in their pockets regardless of the service issues they encountered.

As Jeff points out, Hilton doesn’t restrict free night certificates by hotel category, so you can get exceptional value by using them at top-tier properties. However, Hilton does impose other limitations: In addition to a few dozen excluded properties, these certificates are only valid on weekend nights (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays), so roughly 57% of the calendar is blacked out. That can make redeeming tricky on longer stays that encapsulate an entire weekend, especially if you’re also trying to make use of the fifth-night-free benefit. To maximize value, look for opportunities to use certificates when cash prices are high, like in popular destinations or during special events.

I find that hotel award categories correlate more closely with average room rates than with actual quality. Apart from location, a mid-tier hotel in a major city may not offer much more than a lower-tier property on a rural stretch of interstate, so don’t base your expectations on price alone. To avoid booking an unpleasant stay, make sure your hotel has the amenities you need, and read reviews (especially recent, negative ones) to identify potential problems. Don’t fret over every complaint, but if a specific service issue (like poor temperature control) is cited by multiple guests over a long period, it’s probably not a coincidence.

Related: Hotel credit cards that come with an annual free night

I love this story and I want to hear more like it! In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending Jeff a gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own award travel success stories to info@thepointsguy.com; be sure to include details about how you earned and redeemed your rewards, and put “Reader Success Story” in the subject line. Feel free to also submit your most woeful travel mistakes. If your story is published, we’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. Due to the volume of submissions, we can’t respond to each story individually, but we’ll be in touch if yours is selected.

Safe and happy travels to all, and I look forward to hearing from you!

Featured photo by Carolin Voelker/Getty Images.

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