Best hotel credit cards
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A great hotel card can help you log free hotel nights, add a touch of luxury to your hotel stays and even take the stress out of travel with convenient perks and upgrades. Many hotel cards combine generous rewards with ample perks for loyal guests.
Premium hotel cards, in particular, have cultivated a reputation for offering some of the most coveted benefits you can get with a credit card, including airport and hotel lounge passes, free room upgrades when available, early and late checkout, free breakfast at in-house restaurants, complimentary internet access and bonus nights at the hotel of your choice. Some hotel cards also let you transfer your rewards on a one-to-one basis to a range of frequent flyer programs, amplifying the card’s rewards value.
To help you narrow your options, CreditCards.com evaluated some of the top-rated cards in the hotel card category and asked a panel of judges to rate the CreditCards.com staff’s top three picks.
Judges for the Best Hotel Credit Card of Winter 2017 were personal finance expert Holly Johnson (clubthrifty.com), travel expert Johnny Jet (johnnyjet.com), personal finance writer Rebecca Lake, CreditCards.com Editor-in-Chief Daniel P. Ray and CreditCards.com senior industry analyst Matt Schulz.
Winner: Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express
Other features: No foreign transaction fee, free night's stay when you redeem your points for 3-5 consecutive nights
A recurring favorite of travel and rewards card experts, the Starwood Preferred Guest credit card won first place in the best travel card contest.
This is the third consecutive time that the Starwood card has claimed the top honor for best hotel credit card. Designed for affluent travelers who appreciate staying at upscale hotels, such as the Westin, and at midrange properties, such as Sheraton, the Starwood Preferred card from American Express combines a generous rewards program with a wide range of redemption choices and attractive perks for returning guests.
Cardholders can redeem their points for free night stays at Starwood and Marriott properties around the world, including the St. Regis, Westin, W Hotels, Sheraton, Four Points, Ritz Carlton, Gaylord Hotels, Courtyard Marriott, Residence Inn, Fairfield Inn and Suites and more. They can also transfer their points on a one-to-one basis to partner airlines.
“For me, a great rewards card is all about flexibility,” says CreditCards.com senior industry analyst Matt Schulz. “That’s what separates the Starwood card from the rest and makes it a card I recommend and personally carry.”
The Starwood card’s most coveted feature is its unusually generous rewards program, which values Starpoints at more than twice the value of the average card rewards point. “The Starwood Preferred Guest card is easily the winner because their points are so valuable,” says travel expert Johnny Jet.
Unlike most rewards cards that value points at just a penny each, the Starwood card typically values Starpoints at more than 2 cents each, depending on how you redeem them. That makes the Starwood card significantly more generous than it seems.
Above average bonuses
Judges say the Starwood card’s unusually high rewards value helps set it apart from its competition, despite boasting a weaker rewards rate than some competitors. The Starwood card offers just 2 Starpoints for every dollar spent on a Starwood or Marriott property and 1 Starpoint for every other dollar spent. Cardholders who are members of Starwood’s membership rewards program also earn an additional 3 points for every dollar spent at a Starwood hotel. But because Starpoints are worth so much more than the average card rewards point, cardholders can expect to buy significantly more with their rewards.
The Starwood card’s 25,000-point sign-up bonus, for example, is comparable to a card that offers 50,000 bonus points. Cardholders can earn the amplified sign-up bonus points by spending at least $3,000 in the card’s first three months.
“The top hotel credit card out of the three contenders is the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express, and it's not even close,” says personal finance expert Holly Johnson.
Extra perks for frequent guests
“Not only does this card offer a generous sign-up bonus, but you get added perks at Starwood Hotels like free premium internet service,” she says.
In addition, frequent Starwood guests may be eligible for additional benefits, such as free room upgrades, complimentary food and beverages and exclusive lounge access at select hotels.
Starwood also awards a fifth night free, as well as other promotions that can lead to extra savings. Starwood offers a special “Nights and Flights” promotion that allows you to use Starpoints to book a flight and hotel package at a substantial discount, says Johnson. “Special rewards promotions they offer like ‘Nights & Flights’ and ‘5th night free’ are just icing on the cake,” she says.
Judges also like that the Starwood card doesn’t impose travel blackout dates, making it a popular choice for cardholders who want to travel during popular times, such as the holidays. “I go to Hawaii every New Year’s using my SPG points,” says Jet.
In addition, the Starwood card doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee, says Johnson, so cardholders can take it abroad without worrying about extra charges.
Transfer your points at 1:1 ratio
In addition to its extra generous rewards rate, the Starwood card’s other best known feature is its relaxed redemption policy, including an unusually flexible transfer policy for cardholders who want to spend their points on flights instead of hotels.
“Another big perk that's rare among hotel credit cards is the fact that the Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express lets you transfer points to airline partners, most at a 1:1 ratio,” says Johnson. “With some of their partners, you even get a 5,000 mile bonus each time you transfer 20,000 Starpoints to miles.”
Airline partners that allow for a 1:1 point to mile transfer include Delta, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, British Airways, Air Canada, Aeromexico, Air China, Korean Air, Qatar Airways and more.
Large network of hotels around the globe
In addition, judges praised Starwood and Marriott’s extensive hotel network, which makes it easy to book a stay at a wide range of international destinations.
“On the rewards side, the Starwood card comes out ahead due to the sheer number of properties you can book,” says Johnson. “Since Starwood has merged with Marriott, you can use the points you earn at both Starwood Preferred Guest and Marriott properties around the globe, which now equals more than 5,700 hotels.”
Judges say the Starwood card’s wide range of hotel choices coupled with its flexible transfer policy make it a much more versatile card than the average hotel credit card.
“The other best-in-breed hotel cards have a lot going for them, but my choice has to be the Starwood Preferred Guest Card from American Express,” says CreditCards.com Editor-in-Chief Daniel P. Ray. “The reason can be summed up in one word: flexibility. I have 5,700 properties from which to choose, across 110 countries. And if somehow that’s not satisfying, I have the choice to use the points across a wide array of airlines.”
The biggest downside to the Starwood Preferred Guest credit card is its price. The card’s annual fee costs $95 after the first year. In addition, many of Starwood’s most high-end properties charge hefty incidental fees that aren’t paid for by the card, such as overnight parking.
Second place: Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card from U.S. Bank
Other features: Automatic upgrade to silver elite status, complimentary room upgrades, 35% bonus points on hotel stays, food and beverage discounts, early check-in/late checkout
One of the more generous hotel cards out there, the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature card from U.S. Bank won second place in the best hotel card contest. Best known for its supersized point bonuses, the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature card showers frequent hotel guests with a huge number of points with every purchase.
A plethora of points
Cardholders earn 10 points for every dollar spent at a Carl Rezidor property – including Radisson, Park Plaza, Country Inn and Suites and more – and 5 points for every dollar spent on general purchases.
“The Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa comes in second place due to the high rate of return on spending and its sign-up bonus,” says personal finance expert Holly Johnson.
With such a high rewards rate, cardholders don’t have to charge much to collect a huge number of rewards. Just using the card for hotel purchases and occasional everyday purchases could net cardholders a substantial amount.
An impressive sign-up bonus
In addition to earning a slew of points just for travel and everyday purchases, cardholders also take home an eye-popping 50,000-point sign-up bonus after their first purchase and an additional 35,000-point bonus once they spend $2,500 in the card’s first three months.
“The Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature card offers the best all-around combination of a high rewards rate for hotel purchases, above-average rewards for everyday purchases and a generous introductory points bonus,” says personal finance writer Rebecca Lake.
“Another excellent feature is the annual points bonus for renewing your membership,” adds Lake. Ongoing cardholders earn 40,000 bonus points each year they renew their ownership by paying a $75 annual fee.
Cardholders who spend at least $10,000 a year are also awarded an extra free night’s hotel stay – another big perk that only costs a little over $833 per month in spending.
Low points value
Carlson points aren’t worth as much as the average card rewards point, though, and so the high rewards rate is somewhat misleading. But proponents say the plethora of points that cardholders earn with travel and everyday purchases makes up for the points’ relatively low value.
Frequent guests may also earn additional hotel perks, says Lake, making it a good choice for cardholders who want more luxury or convenience with their nightly stays.
Cardholders are automatically awarded Gold Elite Status in the Club Carlson rewards program as soon as the card is activated and used.
“Enjoying Gold Elite status in the Club Carlson Rewards program can open the door to some additional valuable perks, including booking discounts, complimentary room upgrades and points for food and beverage purchases,” says Lake. “It’s a solid choice for any traveler who frequents the Club Carlson network of hotels, or wants to earn rewards toward hotel stays everywhere they spend.”
Somewhat limited network
Judges say that the biggest downside to the Club Carlson card is its somewhat limited hotel network. The international network of hotels stretches around the world, but includes fewer properties than its competitors. “Unfortunately, Club Carlson doesn't have a very big footprint around the U.S.” says Johnson. Carlson properties tend to mostly be scattered in the eastern half of the United States and are harder to find in the west. Properties include Radisson, Country Inn and Suites, Park Inn, Park Plaza, art’otels and the Quorvus collection.
The Club Carlson card is also less versatile than some of its competitors, making it less attractive to certain types of travelers. For example, cardholders are allowed to use their points for air travel and other rewards; but they get more value using them to pay for Carlson hotels.
It also charges a foreign transaction fee, making it a poor choice for using abroad.
Third place: Best Western Rewards Premium Mastercard
Other features: Automatic platinum elite status, 10% discount on hotel stays, 15% point bonus per stay, free room upgrades
Less expensive than many of its competitors, the Best Western Rewards Premium Mastercard placed third in the best travel card contest. The Best Western Rewards Premium Mastercard charges just $59 annually after the card’s first year, but Best Western fans say the card’s ample point bonus more than makes up for the card’s modest fee.
Tons of points on hotel stays and regular purchases
Best Western rewards frequent hotel guests with 10 points for every dollar they charge to their Best Western card when booking a Best Western hotel room. Cardholders also earn an additional 10 points per dollar spent when they enroll in Best Western’s loyalty program. In addition, cardholders earn an impressive two points for every dollar spent on general purchases, making it easy to rack up a large number of points relatively quickly.
Large sign-up bonus
The premium hotel card also offers a huge sign-up bonus totaling 50,000 bonus points when you spend $1,000 in the card’s first three months and an extra 20,000 bonus points each year you charge at least $5,000 to your card.
Fairly large hotel network
The Best Western card doesn’t offer as many worthwhile redemption options as some of its competitors, though, and so cardholders are better off choosing a different card if they don’t stay at Best Western hotels often.
The chain’s hotel network is so large you shouldn’t have much trouble finding the right hotel – even if you travel internationally. Best Western hotels can be found in more than 100 countries.
In addition, judges appreciated that the Best Western card requires relatively few points for free hotel stays and doesn’t impose travel blackout dates – making the extra large point bonuses cardholders can earn even more valuable. The cost of free night stays ranges from 8,000 points to 36,000 points, depending on where cardholders choose to stay.
“People whose travels taken them to Best Western Hotel chain locations have an excellent choice in the Best Western Rewards Premium Mastercard,” says CreditCards.com Editor-in-Chief Daniel P. Ray. “It takes little time or effort to earn a free night back, and its relatively low annual fee make it a choice you won’t regret.”
How to pick the best hotel card
To pick the best card for your travel plans, consider your travel goals, habits and hotel budget before jumping on an offer. Some of the best hotel rewards programs are only available at upscale hotels that charge pricey extras not covered by the rewards program, such as parking and other amenities. Other cards offer tons of points to frequent travelers, but sharply restrict how you can use them. Furthermore, many hotel cards only allow you to accrue a significant amount of points by frequently using the card on hotel stays with their brands, making the card less valuable to those who don’t travel and stay at hotels often.
In other words – you need to search for a hotel rewards program that not only offers a large number of points, but that fits your budget and can take you where you want to travel.
Meet the judges
Rebecca Lake, personal finance writer
Favorite hotel card: Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature card
"The Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature card offers the best all-around combination of a high rewards rate for hotel purchases, above-average rewards for everyday purchases and a generous introductory points bonus."
Johnny Jet, travel expert
Favorite hotel card: Starwood Preferred Guest credit card
“The Starwood Preferred Guest card is easily the winner because their points are so valuable. They give you the fifth night free and they don’t have blackout dates.”
Holly Johnson, personal finance expert
Favorite hotel card: Starwood Preferred Guest credit card
“The top hotel credit card out of the three contenders is the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express, and it's not even close. Not only does this card offer a generous sign-up bonus, but you get added perks at Starwood hotels like free premium internet service.”
Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com
Favorite hotel card: Starwood Preferred Guest credit card
“For me, a great rewards card is all about flexibility. That’s what separates the Starwood card from the rest and makes it a card I recommend and personally carry.”
Daniel Ray, Editor-in-Chief at CreditCards.com
Favorite hotel card: Starwood Preferred Guest credit card
"The other best-in-breed hotel cards have a lot going for them, but my choice has to be the Starwood Preferred Guest Card from American Express. The reason can be summed up in one word: flexibility."
How we choose our best hotel cards
This is the second year that we have held a contest for best cards in their class. To help choose the best hotel cards, we asked a panel of credit card and personal finance experts to choose their favorite card from the three highest rated hotel cards as determined by our credit card reviews program. We averaged out our judge's rankings and chose the card with the best average ranking as the winner.
Our reviews program rates credit cards using a weighted scoring system that assesses the cards’ most relevant attributes. Each card attribute is scored on a scale of 1 to 5. For hotel cards, we evaluate a number of common hotel card features, including:
- Estimated rewards value (47 percent): Because card applicants typically place a high value on rewards earnings, we assign the greatest weight to the amount of earnings cardholders take home. We use a formula to calculate the estimated yearly value, assuming cardholders spend $1,325 per month, averaged over three years. The formula includes an average rewards rate, sign-up bonus and annual fee. We then assign a score depending on how the estimated rewards value compares to other cards.
- Rewards flexibility (40 percent): We focus heavily on the flexibility of card redemption options and assign a substantial amount of weight to that category. Using a scale of 1 to 5, we rate factors such as expiration dates, how easy it is to earn and redeem rewards, whether there are limits on how much cardholders can earn, minimum redemption thresholds and whether cardholders can transfer card rewards.
- Features (10 percent): We also consider the quantity, uniqueness and value of the features for each card and rate them on a scale of 1 to 5.
- Annual percentage rate (APR) (3 percent): Hotel cardholders are typically advised not to carry a balance because rewards card rates are notoriously high. Because cardholders generally don’t want to carry a balance, we assign less weight to the card’s APR. We assign a score depending on how the average APR and the introductory APR compares to other rewards cards.
All best credit card stories are prepared by CreditCards.com staff. Opinions expressed therein are solely those of the reviewer and have not been reviewed or approved by any advertiser. The information, including card rates and fees, presented in the story is accurate as of the date of the story. Check the credit card terms and conditions link on the issuing bank’s website for the most current information.