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No-annual-fee hotel credit cards: Which is best for you?

Consider hotel footprint, point value and elite status perks before choosing a co-branded card with no annual fee

Summary

Hotel co-branded credit cards are a relatively new offering in the space, but they provide great value for many travelers — as long as you choose the right one.

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Co-branded credit cards with hotel loyalty programs can be a great way to earn a few extra points toward your next free night. For those who don’t stay at a hotel often enough to earn significant rewards on hotel stays alone, you can rack up plenty of points on your everyday purchases with one of these cards.

If you are looking to fast-track your way to your next hotel night — but don’t have a lot of extra room in your budget — you can opt for a hotel co-branded card without an annual fee. Such cards haven’t been around long, but they provide a valuable option for those who want to earn extra hotel loyalty points without shelling out a high annual fee.

Who is a no-annual-fee hotel card best suited for?

Major hotel loyalty programs like Hilton Honors, Marriott Bonvoy or IHG Rewards Club offer co-branded credit cards for every type of spender — from cards with no annual fee to luxury cards packed with travel credits. Beyond what kind of annual fee you can afford, travel benefits, elite status and earning rate all play a role in which class of card is best for you. When it comes to hotel cards with no annual fee, we recommend these options for the following kinds of cardholder:

  • Cardholders who stay at hotels more infrequently and want to earn rewards on everyday purchases in addition to hotel stays
  • Cardholders who are more focused on saving on an annual fee than extra benefits like free night awards
  • Cardholders looking to try out a loyalty program without paying a fee to see if it suits their needs

For more frequent travelers or those interested in luxury benefits like lounge access or premium elite status, you might take a look at a co-branded card with an annual fee.

See Related: Which Hilton Honors card is best for you?, Which Marriott credit card is best for you?

Comparing no-annual-fee-hotel cards

Right now, two major hotel loyalty programs offer co-branded cards without an annual fee — Hilton Honors and Marriott Bonvoy. Both programs’ no-annual-fee cards are provided as alternatives to more luxurious offerings and therefore offer lower earning rates and fewer benefits.

However, both can be a valuable option for the right kind of cardholder.

No-annual-fee hotel cards: At a glance

CardRewards rateOther things to know
Hilton Honors American Express Card

Hilton Honors American Express Card

  • 7 points per dollar on Hilton hotel stays
  • 5 points per dollar on U.S. restaurant, U.S. supermarket and U.S. gas station purchases
  • 3 points per dollar on general purchases
  • Terms apply
  • 75,000 points if you spend $1,000 in first 3 months
  • Automatic silver status
  • No foreign transaction fee
  • Free ShopRunner subscription
Marriott Bonvoy Bold card

Marriott Bonvoy Bold™ Credit Card

  • 3 points per dollar on Marriott Bonvoy purchases
  • 2 points per dollar on travel purchases
  • 1 point per dollar on other purchases
  • 30,000 points if you spend $1,000 in first 3 months
  • 15 elite night credits per year (enough to qualify for silver status)
  • No foreign transaction fee

One of the most important factors to consider when choosing a hotel co-branded a card is which property you prefer to stay at when you travel. If you are a fan of both Marriott and Hilton brands, however, both cards offer some great benefits. Here’s a quick look at how they compare:

Introductory bonuses

It is important to note when choosing a hotel co-branded card that most hotel loyalty points are inflated — and have a much lower value than other rewards program points. For example, we estimate each Hilton Honors point is worth around 0.5 cents. For Marriott Bonvoy points, we estimate a 0.8-cent-per-point value.

Estimated introductory bonus value: Hilton Honors Amex vs. Marriott Bonvoy Bold

Hilton Honors American Express CardMarriott Bonvoy Bold™ Credit Card
75,000 points x 0.5 cent point value = $37530,000 points x 0.8 cent point value = $240

As you can see, the Marriott Bonvoy Bold card is less valuable than the Hilton Honors Amex.

Elite status

Both of these no-annual-fee options offer a fast-track to elite status with the loyalty program. With the Hilton Honors card, you’ll automatically earn silver status. The Marriott Bonvoy card instead offers 15 elite night credits every calendar year to help you work toward status tiers. Luckily, the yearly elite credit allowance is more than enough to propel cardholders to silver status.

Earning rate

Just like introductory bonuses are affected by point value, the seemingly high earning rate on the Hilton Honors Amex is limited by a low point value. To calculate the rewards potential of your hotel card, you’ll need to factor in both the average earning rate and the value of each point. Based on these factors, we estimate the average value of the rewards you earn per dollar of spending on the Hilton Honors card is about 2.1 cents.

While this rewards value is not as high as you’d expect from such lucrative bonus categories, the Hilton Honors card still easily outpaces the earning potential of the Bonvoy Bold card. Since the Bonvoy card only earns bonus points on Marriott and travel purchases, we estimate the average value of rewards earned per dollar of spending (factoring in earning rate and point value) is only about 0.9 cents.

The main reason for this is the more expansive bonus categories on the Hilton Honors card. Not only can cardholders earn a good rate on Hilton purchases, but they can rack up plenty of points on U.S. restaurant, supermarket and gas station purchases. The Bonvoy card’s earning potential is much more limited.

Is a no-annual-fee hotel card really a better deal?

For cardholders who are wary of high annual fees but eager for a new way to earn hotel points, a hotel co-branded card without an annual fee can be a great introduction. However, consider the value of additional perks before writing off a card with a fee, as benefits can often help offset the cost.

For example, the Hilton Honors American Express card doesn’t offer any sort of annual bonus, while the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card gives cardholders who spend $15,000 in a calendar year a free weekend night award. This is a relatively easy spend threshold to reach, only requiring $1,250 in spend per month. If you redeem your free weekend night for a more expensive room, it can be worth much more than the Surpass card’s $95 annual fee.

As long as you stay at your favorite hotel brand at least a few times a year, you might be better off choosing a midlevel co-branded card. Options like the Hilton Honors Surpass and the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit Card offer much better hotel perks for just a modest annual fee.

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Published: June 17, 2019

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