Which Are The Best Hotel Credit Cards For Free Nights?

Jul 30, 2014

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Today, TPG Contributor Jason Steele analyzes current credit card offers to see which ones can get you free hotel nights fastest among the top brands.

Hotel awards can can be underrated. Unlike most airline frequent flier programs, many hotel loyalty programs offer awards with no blackout dates or capacity controls. Furthermore, most hotel award nights are truly free, with no taxes or surcharges. Even when hotels impose a “resort fee” on award nights, these charges are far more affordable than the typical airline fuel surcharges.

Many reward travel enthusiasts, like myself, earn most of their hotel loyalty points through credit card spending, and only a minority through paid stays. So it seemed like a good idea to analyze which credit cards offer the fastest free nights for general spending outside of hotel stays or other bonus categories. This seems especially useful since different hotel credit cards offer different numbers of points per dollar spent, and their free night award charts vary wildly compared to frequent flier awards, which still have some lingering standards.

How fast you earn a free night depends on the number of points per dollar you earn, and the award chart. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
How fast you earn a free night depends on the number of points per dollar you earn, and the award chart in question. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

How the top hotel credit cards compare

I looked at the credit cards offered by the leading hotel brands including Hyatt, Marriott/Ritz-Carlton, IHG Rewards (formerly Priority Club), Hilton, Starwood, and Club Carlson. As a reminder, the chart below shows TPG’s latest valuations (in cents per point) of points in the major hotel loyalty programs. Note that for Starwood I used valuations from June, since the July values are inflated due to the current American Airlines and US Airways transfer bonuses.

Hyatt Marriott & Ritz IHG Hilton SPG Club Carlson
1.8 0.7 0.7 0.5 2.3 0.6

Using these point values, I calculated which hotel branded credit cards provide the greatest value per dollar of base spend. I then looked at the least and most expensive standard room awards, not counting any limited time promotions, and the spending requirements to reach those respective awards. The chart below shows my results.

Card Base Earning Value / $ spent Base award Spend for base award Top Award Spend for top award
Hyatt 1 1.8 5,000 $5,000 30,000 $30,000
Chase Marriott Rewards 1 0.7 7,500 $7,500 70,000 $70,000
Ritz-Carlton Rewards 1 0.7 7,500 $7,500 70,000 $70,000
IHG Rewards 1 0.7 10,000 $10,000 50,000 $50,000
Citi HHonors 2 1 5,000 $2,500 95,000 $47,500
Citi HHonors  Reserve 3 1.5 5,000 $1,667 95,000 $31,667
Amex HHonors 3 1.5 5,000 $1,667 95,000 $31,667
Amex HHonors Surpass 3 1.5 5,000 $1,667 95,000 $31,667
Amex SPG 1 2.3 2,000 $2,000 35,000 $35,000
Club Carlson Prem./Biz 5 3 9,000 $1,800 70,000 $14,000
Club Carlson Rewards 3 1.8 9,000 $3,000 70,000 $23,333

Analysis and Limitations

My analysis provided both some expected and unexpected results. This comparison doesn’t consider the annual fees and extra benefits of the various credit cards being discussed, nor does it factor in the availability of low and high end rewards in each program. Thus, this isn’t a complete picture of how much value the cards offer. Still, there’s insight to be gained by comparing what they offer just through basic spending. Here’s what my results tell me about each of the hotel branded loyalty cards listed above.

Hyatt – The Hyatt Credit Card from Chase
The Hyatt card offers just one point per dollar on base spend, but even the high end 7th tier Hyatt recently added to just a few properties are reasonably priced at 30,000 points a night. Most of their luxury properties are a more affordable 18,000 – 25,000 points per night, including their new all inclusive resorts at 20,000 points per night. Base awards starting at just 5,000 points per night are accessible, and while the category 1 hotels aren’t in desirable locations, at least there’s a decent number of them.

Hyatt offers great value on mid to high end awards.

Marriott – Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card
This program did reasonably well at the low end with just $5,000 of spending required for a free night at their budget properties. Nevertheless, there’s a reason why TPG values these points at only 0.7 cents apiece, as their high end Ritz-Carlton properties can require an astronomical 70,000 points per night. Other top tier properties in the Marriott family require as much as 45,000 points in their 9-tier award chart.  Another reason for the low value of Marriott points is that awards are subject to capacity controls, just like airline awards. To the program’s credit, it is very generous when it comes to awarding points for paid stays at 10 points per dollar, so it appeals more to actual business travelers than those who just use their credit cards to earn award nights.

IHG (Priority Club) – IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card
Awards with this program, which include brands such as Intercontinental and Holiday Inn, start at a rather high 10,000 points per night. Considering that their credit card only offers one point per dollar spent, and these low end properties are typically part of their Candlewood and Staybridge Suites brands, this is especially disconcerting. On the high end, IHG award nights top out at 50,000 points, which means spending $50,000 on their credit card. That’s toward the high end compared to the other cards discussed here.

Hilton – Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature, Hilton HHonors American Express, Citi Hilton Reserve Card, and Hilton Honors Surpass American Express
Hilton does pretty well in this comparison, mostly because three of its four co-branded credit cards offer three points per dollar spent. On the low end, awards can start at just 5,000 points, or $1,667 of spending, but these are really low end hotels. Basic Hampton Inns and Hilton Garden Inns are much more likely to require 20,000 to 30,000 points, which is not too bad when you are earning three points per dollar spent. The problem is that many of the high end hotels have recently gone up in price, and now require as many as 95,000 points per night.

If your goal is to get a free night stay using your credit card, here is what you need to know. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
If your goal is to get a free night stay using your credit card, here is what you need to know. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Starwood – Starwood Preferred Guest Card From American Express
When I looked recently at How to Get the Best Value for Starwood Hotel Redemptions, I found that some of the best values were in the mid to low range properties that required just 4,000 – 10,000 points. Certainly, there are some great values at the low end, where rooms start at just 2,000 points per night, or $2,000 of spending on the Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express. Nevertheless, there aren’t too many properties at that first tier. On the high end, award nights require as many as 35,000 points, which is steep when the card earns only one point per dollar, but better than man of the other cards considered here.

Club Carlson – Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature, Club Carlson Business Rewards Visa, and Club Carlson Business Rewards Visa Signature
Those who are familiar with this program won’t be surprised to learn that the Club Carlson credit cards did very well in this comparison. The Club Carlson Premier and Business cards offer an outstanding five points per dollar spent on all purchases, which equates to just $1,800 of spending for a 9,000 point award on the low end of their award chart. Even on the high end, their top properties are 70,000 points, which is just $14,000 in spending at 5x per dollar. In contrast, the same amount of spending barely gets you into the local Holiday Inn Express by the highway using the IHG Priority Club card.

Furthermore, these calculations underestimate the value of Club Carlson points, since credit card holders receive a free last night stay with all award redemptions. So these amounts of spending can actually be cut in half for two night stays, or by a third for three night stays. If only Club Carlson had more high end properties in the United States, it would represent an unbeatable proposition.

Radisson Blu is part of Club Carlson. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Radisson Blu is part of Club Carlson. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

For those who travel mostly on award bookings, the Hyatt, Starwood, and Club Carlson programs offer the best value for the least amount of credit cards spending. Credit cards from IHG, Hilton, and Marriott appeal most to those who are loyal to those brand and frequently stay using cash. By considering the best hotel loyalty programs for earning free nights through credit card spending, travelers can choose the best cards for their individual needs.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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