Hotel rewards: Go for free nights, not points

These cards are best for winning free stays

Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for CreditCards.com

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Question Dear Cashing In,
I have a trip this summer that I’m able to use frequent flier miles for, but now I have started looking at hotels. What’s the best way to get hotel rooms for free using credit cards? – Cory

Answer Dear Cory,
If you think airline frequent flier programs are complicated, hotel programs are even more so.

Typically, hotels have reward programs that vary the number of points needed for a free room by the hotel location and date. With most airlines, you know that if you have 25,000 miles, you probably have enough for a round-trip domestic coach ticket – at least some of the time.

With hotels, though, the number of reward points you will need can vary dramatically depending on where you are going and when. That can make it tough to determine how many points you need to amass.

A safer and more straightforward bet, in my opinion, is to look at cards that come with a free night or two. An October 2016 CreditCards.com survey found six hotel cards with sign-up bonuses valued at $600 or more – in large part because of the value of those free nights.

The most valuable one on that list is the Chase Ritz-Carlton rewards card, which gives you three free nights at any Tier 1-4 Ritz-Carlton, which includes nearly 90 percent of the Ritz-Carltons worldwide.The card has a $450 annual fee, and you have to spend $5,000 in the first three months to receive the free nights, but that is still a tremendous deal when you consider the card’s other perks and the average cost of a Ritz-Carlton room.

Other cards that include free nights as part of a sign-up bonus include:

Typically, once you meet the spending requirements, these cards send you certificates for the free nights. Sometimes you can redeem them online, although you might have to call.

Just about every major hotel brand has an affiliated credit card that gives you hotel points as a sign-up bonus. Often, you can redeem those initial points for at least a night or two. Other cards – including those affiliated with Marriott, Club Carlson (Radisson) and IHG (InterContinental, Holiday Inn) – give you upfront points and a free night every year after you have had the card for 12 months.

There are other options to receive free nights, too. There are bank travel cards that accumulate points redeemable for any travel expense, including hotels. There are travel rewards cards that allow you to transfer points into hotel reward programs. There’s also the Citi Prestige card (annual fee: $450), which gives you the fourth night free at just about any hotel, regardless of cost. Many of the major hotel chains, such as Hilton and Marriott, will also give loyalty members the fifth night free if they pay for at least four consecutive nights at the same hotel through the hotel's website or travel service. So, if you're planning to hunker down in one city for a week or so, check to see if this could also defray the cost of lodging. 

If you are traveling this summer, you have plenty of time to plan. Depending on the length of your trip, and the availability of brand-name hotel rooms, you should be able to cover at least a few nights with reward stays. You might even be able to cobble together rewards from a couple of cards, though you might have to switch hotels.

Once you figure in annual fees, your lodging might not be 100 percent free. But by using hotel reward certificates and perhaps points, you can save a major chunk of your budget on hotel rooms without forgoing luxury. 

See related: Getting the most value for your hotel rewards points, Award charts are key when considering hotel cards

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Updated: 11-17-2017