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Have Cards, Will Travel

The hidden costs of free hotel award nights

Watch out for resort fees, dollar limits on "free" breakfasts and other costs when you earn free hotel nights

Summary

Even though free nights should be free in theory, sometimes you might be surprised to find yourself with an unexpected bill at checkout. Beware of these potential hidden costs of free hotel nights.

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There are lots of great co-branded hotel credit cards available these days to help you earn points to redeem for free hotel nights.

But when you use your credit card rewards points to pay for a hotel room, can you expect the full cost of your room to be covered?

Even though free nights should be free in theory, sometimes you might be surprised to find yourself with an unexpected bill at checkout. Beware of these potential hidden costs of free hotel nights.

Resort fees

The largest and most common hidden costs of free hotel reward nights are the resort fees that many properties are now tacking onto your bill to cover the amenities they offer (whether you use them or not).

Both the Hyatt and Hilton hotel property groups waive the resort fee on a stay when you book with your points, but if you’re staying a free night at a Marriott or IHG property, you’ll still be charged a resort fee for each day you stay.

Read more from our credit card experts.

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Not-so-free breakfast

I love when free hotel nights come with the benefit of free breakfast in the morning, but almost all hotels have some limits on what you can order. Alcohol is almost never included (except for one time I had free-flowing champagne breakfast at a Hilton in the Seychelles), and it is common that you’ll be charged at checkout for certain menu items like juices or espresso drinks.

Likewise, some hotels impose dollar limits on how much you can order for free. Usually, this limit is enough to get you a full breakfast, including one entree and a morning coffee, but not always. I just stayed at a Sheraton that gave each guest a $16 certificate for “free breakfast” despite the fact that most of the items on the menu were $17 or more – not including coffee or tip.

If you don’t want to get hit with this hidden cost, be sure you know at the outset what the breakfast benefit is and what exactly it includes.

See related: Setting expectations for a post-pandemic return to travel

Different rules and taxes on cash and points awards

Most hotel property groups give you the option to make a booking fully with points or use some points and pay the rest of the rate with cash. When you choose a cash and points rate, the rules for what you get for “free” often change.

The waiving of resort fees at the Hyatt, for example, does not apply on a cash and points stay the way it applies on a full award stay. Likewise, if you cover part of your stay with cash, you can also expect to be hit with taxes on your final bill.

Parking charges

If you’re going to need to park a car on your free night, you’ll want to know how the specific hotel you’re staying at manages its self-parking and valet services. For lower category hotels, self-parking in the hotel lot is often included. You shouldn’t be surprised to get charged $30-$50 per day for parking for some higher category and pricier hotels.

You might also find that parking is covered as an amenity in your resort fee in some resort destinations. You can win with a two-for-one here by selecting to use your points at a property that includes parking in the resort fee and doesn’t charge you the fee if you’re paying for the stay with points.

This past week I stayed at the Grand Hyatt in Kauai, where my resort fee was covered as part of my award stay with parking as one of the benefits – win-win and no surprise charges.

Late checkout

Want to stay for late checkout beyond the time allotted to you based on your elite status? Some hotels, particularly those in resort destinations, may add extra costs to your bill for the benefit of keeping your room a few extra hours.

The Hilton Hawaiian Village, for example, only grants late checkout to Hilton Gold and Diamond members until 1 p.m., then adds a $175 charge if you want to keep your room past that time.

See related: Hotel loyalty programs extending perks for members through coronavirus

Free nights that aren’t coded as free

If you’re using reward points from a flexible card program to book a points stay through a bank’s travel rewards portal, you often won’t be eligible for the same benefits that you would earn if you were booking directly through the hotel property group. Waived resort fees on free stays often fall into that category.

When you book a hotel with a resort fee via the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, the resort fee is added to the hotel booking price before you pay.

Bottom line

Free hotel nights are one of the greatest rewards you can earn from your hotel and flexible credit card points, but make sure you do your homework first and book wisely, so free is what you actually get.

Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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