Cashing In Q&A columns

Reward card sign-up bonuses not all created equal


Big card sign-up bonuses turn heads, but do the math first. A hotel card’s 100,000 points generally are less valuable than other rewards card bonuses

The content on this page is accurate as of the posting date; however, some of our partner offers may have expired. Please review our list of best credit cards, or use our CardMatch™ tool to find cards matched to your needs.

If you’re a fan of receiving big bonuses of reward points, chances are you’ve noticed some of the generous offers lately on hotel credit cards. Before you race to sign up for a hotel credit card, though, make sure you understand how hotel points systems work: The offers might be less lucrative than they appear.

Currently, hotel cards are offering some of the biggest caches of points out there:

  • The Hilton Honors Surpass card from American Express (current annual fee: $75 before Jan. 18, 2018; $95 thereafter) is offering 125,000 Hilton points: 100,000 for spending $3,000 in the first three months, plus another 25,000 for spending an additional $1,000 in the first six months.
  • Another big offer is with the Chase Marriott Rewards Premier card (current annual fee: $85, waived first year). The Marriott card is offering 10 points on every dollar spent in the first year, up to $12,000, which means you can earn up to 120,000 Marriott points.

Those are big hauls of points. Typically with reward cards, you’ll see sign-up bonuses of around 50,000 points. Occasionally, bonuses will hit 100,000. Seeing multiple offers of more than 100,000 points is unusual.

However, keep in mind that all points are not created equal. Each rewards program – those run by banks, airlines, hotels and so on – essentially has its own currency. You earn points or miles for certain activities, including charging money on a credit card, and you redeem those miles or points for other activities, such as cash back, flights or hotel stays.

Compare the value of hotel points at various properties

Getting excited about 100,000 points or more might not be justified if you’re not getting a great value for those points. Let’s look more closely at how you might use 125,000 Hilton points from that card offer.

Hilton does not have a set award chart, but rather tells you on a case-by-case basis how many points are required based on room availability and other factors.

Let’s say you’re going to New Orleans for a night in early December. Looking on Hilton’s website, you see 25 different options. The most expensive is The Roosevelt, a luxury hotel near the French Quarter, which goes for $212 a night or 56,000 points. The least expensive is the Hampton Inn in Covington, an hour north of New Orleans, which goes for $90 a night or 19,000 points.

If you redeemed your 125,000 points at The Roosevelt, they would be worth $473. If you redeemed your 125,000 points at the Hampton Inn in Covington, they would be worth $592.

That’s not bad: Either way, you’re receiving hundreds of dollars in value from the card in the form of a couple nights at a fancy hotel or six nights at a suburban Hampton Inn.

Calculate points value for a big sign-up bonus

But don’t think that 125,000 points in the Hilton program are as valuable as 125,000 points in other programs.

If you had 125,000 airline miles, that’s generally worth five domestic coach round-trips or two coach round-trips to Europe, which could be worth $2,000 or more. If you had 125,000 Chase points and a Chase Sapphire Reserve card, you could redeem those Chase points for travel worth $1,875.

The bottom line: Don’t be wowed by large numbers of reward points. Before signing up for any reward card, check out the program and ensure you understand how points are earned and spent. In the case of hotel cards, reward currencies are often worth less than those of other programs.

See related: Maximizing card rewards after you’ve earned the sign-up bonus, Hotel credit card reviewsHow to get free stays and perks faster with hotel rewards, How to transfer hotel points

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.

What’s up next?

In Cashing In Q&A columns

Do the math to compare reward points’ values

When weighing reward redemption possibilities, this simple calculation will help you derive relative points values.

See more stories
Credit Card Rate Report
Cash Back

Questions or comments?

Contact us

Editorial corrections policies

Learn more