Choosing the Right Hotel Card for You

Photo courtesy of Hyatt.

Recently I shared on Facebook that I had booked five nights for free at Gild Hall, a charming-looking hotel in Lower Manhattan, for the erstwhile Sweet 16 trip I was going to take my daughters on to see Broadway shows.

(That trip was supposed to happen in April 2020. Hahahahaha the virus had other plans. Now it will be more of a “You’re turning 18 and graduating from high school” trip.)

A friend wanted to know how I get free hotel nights. I post a lot about my Southwest Airlines miles, but what’s this hotel thing about?

We ate like this every morning of our week in Kauai. Thank you, Hilton!

Hotel brand credit cards can be great for, well, free hotel rooms. Not only will you likely get a sign-up bonus that is often worth a whole week in one of the brand’s hotels, but many of these cards offer an extra free night annually if you keep the card or if you spend a minimum amount on the card. Even better, hotel cards often give you a little boost in status, at least for the first year after you apply. Status can lead to getting room upgrades, access to clubs, or it can get you little perks like early checkin, free breakfast, or sometimes even an allowance to spend on room service or at the hotel restaurant.

West Hotel’s free breakfast in Sydney. I could murder one of those mini quiches right now.

My favorite perks that I’ve received from having the credit card have been through Hilton, where my boost in status gave me and my guest delcious free breakfast buffets on two different vacations. I’m not talking about packaged muffins and dry cereal. At the Hilton Garden Inn in Kauai, Erik and I filled up on smoked salmon, bacon and delcious fruits every morning, and enjoyed free mai tais every evening. And the breakfasts at West Hotel in Sydney, part of Hilton’s Curio collection? They were so good and so filling, my mom and I barely needed to eat another thing all day.

At this point in my life, I will always prioritize spending on my Southwest cards first, because earning those Companion Passes makes a big dent in the cost of family travel. But last year, we were remodeling our house, and Erik and I actually spent enough money on both of our Southwest cards to earn the Companion Pass well before the end of the calendar year, with lots more money to spend on the remodel. So I decided to put the excess spending on a hotel card.

So if you want to get some free hotel stays, what card should you get? Here are some factors to consider:

  • Consider Chase Sapphire first.

    Chase Sapphire isn’t actually a hotel brand card, but it’s a very flexible rewards card that allows you to redeem points for hotel stays, flights and lots of other things.

    This flexibility is one of the reasons this card is a great first choice for hotels. I especially like that Chase has a lot of properties on its travel portal that aren’t part of big brands. For instance, my husband is going to stay at a little inn in Northern Minnesota for a wedding this fall. Since the inn isn’t part of any of the chains where I have points, I figured we’d be stuck paying cash money for the stay. Then a relative tipped us off that the property accepts Chase’s Ultimate Rewards points, and I booked him several nights for free.

    You can also transfer Chase points to most hotel programs and then book directly through the hotel.
    The other reason I advise you to consider a Chase Sapphire card before applying for other hotel cards is that it can be a little harder to get accepted for. It’s subject to the famous Chase 5/24 rule, which means you can’t get it if you’ve already opened five or more new cards with any bank in the past two years. So if you think you might want to apply for a few new cards this year, make this one the first.

    The Chase Sapphire Preferred card currently giving you a 100,000 point signup bonus, which The Points Guy values at $2,000 and is an all-time high. You pay a $95 annual fee. That’s right: You pay $95, spend $4,000 on the card in the first three months, and they give you $2,000 worth of points. Worth it? Goodness, yes.
  • Who is offering the best signup bonus right now?

    Credit cards don’t always offer the same signup bonus, month in, month out. Sometimes they offer a limited time boost.

    The difficult part about comparing signup bonuses is that all the hotel currencies are worth different amounts. According to NerdWallet, Hyatt points are worth almost 2 cents each, while Hilton Honors points are only worth half a cent.

    So how do you make sense of it? Rely on the experts. Unfortunately, a lot of the credit card/mileage sites lately have made their lists more confusing, because they want to feature lots of cards and get lots of kickbacks when people sign up there. So they say things like “best for couples” or “best for Marriott.”

    It took me a while to find, but I found that The Points Guy compiles a list of the best “elevated” credit card offers, i.e., those that have increased their offer this month. The best thing about this list is that it lists the offers by $ value, not number of points. According to this one, for June 2021, the best hotel-specific card offer at the moment is the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card, a Chase card that offers three free nights in exchange for a $95 and $3,000 in purchases. The Points Guy values this bonus at up to $1,200 — if you stay at expensive enough properties.
  • Where are you most likely to stay?

    If you stay in hotels a lot (I don’t), you might already have loyalty to a certain chain, in which case of course it makes sense to get a credit card for the brand you stay at most. Not only are you more likely to make good use of those points, but if you spend actual money at the hotel chain, you’ll earn a higher reward rate on those dollars. For instance, that Marriott card I mentioned will pay you up to 17 points for every dollar you spend at their hotels with the card. That’s a lot higher than the typical 1 or 2 points per dollar you can earn on general spending with most cards.
  • Are you planning a specific trip?

    Even if you’re not a regular road warrior, you might want to pick a hotel card as part of planning for a specific trip. Say, for example, you want to go on a beach trip to Jacksonville, Florida. If you don’t already have a specific hotel in mind, go to the web sites of the top hotel chains and do a search.

    On Marriott, I found that there were three hotels on the beach, each going for 30,000 points a night. If I got that Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card, I could stay in one of those for three nights for free. At least one had rooms with an ocean view, which I like.

    When I searched the Hilton site, I found that it had Jacksonville hotels near the ocean, but only one, a Hampton Inn, was beachfront and had rooms with an ocean view.

    Hyatt’s Jacksonville hotels aren’t anywhere near the beach.

    Of course, the Chase travel portal has a ton of Jacksonville area hotels, including those on the beach.

    So, if I were picking a card to prepare for that specific getaway, I would probably choose the Chase or the Marriott card. Their Jacksonville beachfront hotel options looked the nicest.
  • What does the card offer besides the signup bonus?

    I’m generally all about the signup bonus, but I have to say I’m excited that Erik and I each have the World of Hyatt Visa right now, because each of our cards comes with a free hotel night every year. A single free night can be a nice way to save money when you’re paying for a stay with cash, as in, you pay cash for three nights and use your free night for the fouth. Or it can be a great staycation or quick getaway.

    This year, I’m using both our free nights to get a couple of hotel rooms with friends in Chicago when we want to spend a fun day there. That will be during a trip when I’ve visiting my parents about an hour away from Chicago, so one night will be enough.

Disclosure: This post contains refer-a-friend links. If you click through and sign up for one of these cards, I might receive a points bonus.

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