Rewards expert who writes the “Cashing In” reader Q&A column for CreditCards.com
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Most people probably have a good idea of the ways they can use reward cards for travel. Airline tickets are the most obvious, and there are plenty of ways to use cards for plane tickets, either by accumulating frequent-flyer miles on a card or using a card that has travel benefits and reimburses you for flights.
Hotel rewards cards, though, can be a little trickier. There are different hotel chains with different cards and different perks. Hotel rewards programs have points, too, but it is often difficult to know how many points you need, because the requirements vary based on the time of year and which hotel property. You have to search each potential stay individually to find out how many points you need on the date you want to travel.
But there is another way to unlock free hotel stays without worrying about how many points you need: free nights.
Many hotel cards now offer free nights as part of having the card. Sometimes hotel credit cards award you a free night every year; other times they include the free night as part of the sign-up bonus.
One of the nice features of these free nights tied to hotel credit cards is that the hotel chains let you use them even at some of their nicest hotels, where a one-night stay can cost hundreds of dollars. It can be tough to string these free nights together for an extended vacation, but the free nights can represent real savings.
Of course, you also have the ability to combine the free nights from a card with free nights from points that you might earn.
Combining free hotel stays with travel credits
Let’s look at how you might use this perk to save money. Let’s say you and your wife want to take a nice trip for your anniversary in June. Say you both want to go to Lake Tahoe, which straddles the Northern California border with Nevada, for a long weekend. Say you fly into Reno, Nevada, and the tickets are $300 apiece, and you’re eyeing a Holiday Inn Express that is $230 a night.
On that trip, airfare would cost you $600, and four nights at the hotel would run another $920. That’s $1,520 for just flights and hotel. Add in a rental car, food and activities, and you’re looking at a vacation of probably $2,000 or more.
But there are ways to cut that cost dramatically. If you and your wife had the foresight to each sign up for a Chase Ritz-Carlton Rewards card, on which the annual fee is $450, you would have spent $900 in annual fees. But look at what you would get: $300 each in annual travel credits, plus two nights each at a Ritz-Carlton of your choosing, such as the Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe.
So if you used the travel credits to cover the airfare, and had four nights at the Ritz, your cost for flights and hotel have dropped from $1,520 to $900 (the card annual fees). And, instead of staying at the Holiday Inn Express (which looks perfectly pleasant), you are staying at the Ritz-Carlton, for which the room rates in June 2018 start at $460 a night.
That’s $1,840 in value of hotel costs, plus $600 in travel credits for airfare – a total value of $2,440, all for just $900 of credit card annual fees. In other words, the cost of this special getaway is slashed by almost half, and you’re staying at a premium hotel.
There are other cards, too, with similar perks. Many, including cards connected to Hilton, Marriott, Holiday Inn and Hyatt, give you a free night once you have had the card for a year. Another card, the Citi Prestige, gives you a free fourth night at any hotel when you use the card to book consecutive nights. Consumers have plenty of options.
Here are some of the cards offering free hotel nights:
American Express Hilton Honors Ascend
(This card is replacing the Hilton Honors Surpass early in 2018. It’s one of the big changes to Hilton cards coming in 2018.)
Annual fee: $95
Free night: 1 free weekend night after $15,000 spend in one year
Other perks: Hilton Gold status, 12 points/$1 on Hilton purchases, 6 points/$1 at grocery stores, restaurants and gas stations, 3 points/$1 on all else
Chase Marriott Rewards Premier
Annual fee: $85
Free night: 1 free night in category 1-5 hotel each account anniversary
Other perks: 80,000-point sign-up bonus, 5 points/$1 at Marriott hotels, 2 points per $1 on plane tickets, car rentals and restaurants
Chase Ritz-Carlton Rewards
Annual fee: $450
Free night: 2 free nights in tier 1-4 after spending $4,000 in three months
Other perks: $300 annual travel credit, 5 points/$1 at Ritz hotels, 2 points per $1 on plane tickets, car rentals and restaurants
IHG Rewards Club Select
Annual fee: $49 (waived first year)
Free night: 1 free night for account anniversary (Holiday Inn, InterContinental and others)
Other perks: 60,000-point sign-up bonus, platinum elite status, 5 points/$1 at IHG hotels, 2 points/$1 at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants
Annual fee: $75
Free night: 1 free night at account anniversary at category 1-4 hotel
Other perks: 40,000-point sign-up bonus, 3 points/$1 at Hyatt hotels, 2 points/$1 on plane tickets, car rentals and restaurants, Discoverist status
Annual fee: $450
Free night: Free fourth night at any hotel when booked through Citi portal
Other perks: $250 annual airline credit, Global Entry credit (worth $100), Priority Pass airport lounge access, 3 points/$1 on air travel and hotels, 2 points/$1 on dining and entertainment
See related: Best hotel credit cards, Hotel credit card reviews, 5 tips for choosing the right hotel credit card, Use your credit card to score a hotel upgrade, How to stay at the best hotels for under $100