Award charts are key when considering hotel cards
Point values are at least as important as your ability to accrue them
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Dear Cashing In,
I'm new to hotel rewards -- I've always had airline cards or general rewards cards like AmEx in the past. But after spending a fair amount on hotels for family visits in the past year, I got a Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature card. I was lured by the fact that there's no annual fee, and you get two points per dollar spent on everyday purchases, and even more than that for special categories. Plus, there was a 40,000-point sign-up bonus. But when I went online recently to use my bonus for a multiday stay for my father, I saw that my points would get me only one free night at a 3-star hotel. Yes, they give you twice the points of many reward programs, but their rooms cost twice as much. It's better than nothing, certainly, but not at all what I was expecting.
Would I be better off with a different hotel card or going back to a general rewards card? I had a Starwood AmEx but found those hotels to be expensive, too. -- Lori R.
You've stumbled onto an important truth about rewards: Points and miles programs are not created equal. In our minds, we often have settled ideas about the value of these reward currencies -- that, say, charging $1 on a card will earn you a point, or accumulating 25,000 miles will yield a round-trip domestic plane ticket.
So when you see an offer promising an easier way to earn points -- such as the Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature card -- it can be tempting to jump on it. But you really need to look at both sides of the equation, the earning and the spending. Card companies love to tout how easy it is to earn points with their cards, but they can be vague about what precisely those points will buy you. This is especially true of hotel redemptions, where the number of points needed can fluctuate depending on the time of year and how full the hotel happens to be on a given night.
Before signing up for a card, do a little digging. Look first at the award chart, by searching the Internet for the program name and "award chart." Put in some sample dates and hotel properties to see how many points they cost and if they tend to be available. Hilton says free room nights start at 5,000 points. However, they tend to be at Category 1 hotels, such as the Hampton Inn in Columbus, Ga. (a room that goes for less than $80 a night) and the Hampton Inn & Suites in Cleburne, Texas ($125 a night). If you look at the categories of all Hilton-affiliated hotels, you'll see there are very few classified as Category 1. Redemptions of 20,000 to 40,000 HHonors points or more for a night are much more common, so you'll probably burn through your 40,000-point sign-up bonus quickly ... unless you happen to find yourself in Cleburne, where you could stay for eight nights.
Hotel-branded cards can be valuable for their sign-up bonuses. Some cards offered by Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott and Fairmont and their bank partners offer a free night or two after you're approved or spend a certain initial amount. Unlike the HHonors Signature Visa, those cards charge an annual fee after the first year of $75 to $95, but the free nights generally pay for the fee as long as you use them. Hilton's premium Reserve card also offers two free nights per year, and charges an annual fee of $95 (waived the first year), so that could be an option if you want to stay within the Hilton group and are willing to put up with the low redemption rates. Hotel cards sometimes offer other perks, such as room upgrades, late checkout and free Wi-Fi, which can be valuable to people who stay there regularly.
But once the bonus points and free stays are used up, it can be difficult for an infrequent traveler to earn enough points for repeated free nights. So, yes, you might be better off with a more general rewards card, such as a cash-back card. You might also consider more general travel rewards cards such as the Capital One Venture Rewards card (free the first year, then $59 a year) or the Barclaycard Arrival card ($89 annual fee, waived the first year), where the rewards are pegged to the cost of the hotel room and can also be redeemed for plane tickets, rental cars and other travel expenses.
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