What's better than a vacation? One where you can get as much of it for free as possible. And if collecting hotel rewards, rental car rewards, frequent flyer miles, and more, that could very well happen.
You could be earning free nights at fabulous hotels if you collect enough points toward a rewards program. Which hotels have the best award programs? We look at those issues and others in this beginner’s guide to travel rewards points.
What are hotel rewards points?
A free vacation is the best vacation. With enough hotel points, a big part of it can be free. Earning them is simple.
Points are earned through hotel stays you’ve paid for, or by using a credit card connected to the hotel chain. They’re similar to airlines miles earned on paid flights or with an airline’s co-branded credit card that can be used to book a free flight or bump up to business class or first class.
The goal of each hotel chain’s credit card is to encourage users to spend and use the card often in exchange for earning points that can be used at the hotel chain co-branded with the card. Points can be exchanged for free rooms, though upgrades in hotel rooms and other amenities are also offered.
Points usually don’t expire if you keep your card active and use it at least once a year.
The first hotel loyalty program was started in February 1983 by Holiday Inn, though it discontinued its program in 1986 and restarted a year later. Marriott started its program in November 1983, making it the oldest continuously operating program, according to Hotel News Now.
The programs help build brand loyalty, the site reports, and guests end up spending more with a hotel chain that they’re a loyalty program member of. An executive at InterContinental Hotels Group told Hotel News Now that people who join its loyalty program give 36% more of their share of hotel spending to the chain than they did before enrolling.
Loyalty members are also three times more likely to use direct channels such as the chain’s website or 800 number than non-members, which makes it more cost-efficient for the hotel owner, he said.
How to earn points
Earning hotel points is pretty straightforward: Pay for a hotel stay and earn points as a loyalty program member. Or use a hotel’s co-branded credit card to earn points.
Here are five main ways to earn points:
Paying for a hotel room is a basic way to earn points. This includes not just the cost of the room per night, but other expenses at the hotel such as room service, food and beverage, and spa treatments on site.
The amount of points earned per $1 spent varies by hotel. Some chains award more points to elite status tier members, who can gain higher membership by staying at the hotel for more nights in a year.
Here are what some of the biggest hotel chains offer in rewards points for a paid hotel room, per every $1 spent:
Marriott awards 10 points per $1 spent at its hotels, though three of its brands earn five points per $1.
Hilton: 10 points, though two of its brands pay 5 points per $1 spent
Hyatt: 5 points
Wyndham: 10 points
InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG): 10 points
Choice Hotels: 10 points
Radisson: 20 points
Best Western: 10 points
Most hotel loyalty programs only award points for paid stays if the reservation is booked through the hotel. That means using the hotel chain’s online or phone reservation system, or calling the hotel directly where you want to stay.
Using a third-party site such as an online booking site that isn’t part of the hotel chain usually won’t earn you any rewards points. Hotels pay commissions to such sites and prefer you book directly through their hotels so they can save money.
If the travel website has a lower price than the hotel website, then call the hotel and ask if it will meet or beat the price. If often will, and you’ll earn reward points for your stay.
You’re also unlikely to earn awards points if you’re using free awards nights at a hotel. That would be like double-dipping or getting something for nothing. You’re already getting the room for free, so don’t expect additional points for a free stay.
Sign-up bonuses are the fastest ways to earn points for free hotel stays. They require applying and being approved for a credit card branded with a hotel.
Bonuses change all of the time, so if you see a credit card sign-up bonus that beats anything else out there, then apply for it quickly before it goes away. However, be sure to first read the offer details, such as if there’s an annual fee and how much money you have to spend to earn the bonus points.
Most bonuses require spending a few thousand dollars within a few months of opening a card to earn the extra points. If you don’t plan on spending that much money that soon, or don’t expect to pay the credit card bill off in full when it arrives, then you may want to skip it.
The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire card offers 150,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first three months of having the card. That can be enough points to get you a room in a Hilton-brand hotel for four nights, but only if you were going to spend $4,000 in three months anyway.
Credit card points
Credit card companies partnered with a hotel chain are the fastest way to earn points for hotel stays, even without the bonuses.
If you prefer a particular hotel chain, chances are it has a credit card for you. The company you work for may have a deal with a chain, so getting a credit card and using it to book rooms for business travel at that chain can earn you points fast.
The downside, as we’ve mentioned, is paying interest on charges not paid off each month on the credit card tied to your favorite hotel. Interest and late fees will negate the value of most of a free night at a hotel.
An annual fee can also negate the value, though most cards try to make up for it with other benefits.
Annual fees are often waived for the first year, then hit around $99 per year.
The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire card, which we mentioned above, is at the top of the fee range, at $450 annually. It’s not even free the first year.
In exchange, users get a host of benefits, including:
$250 in statement credits each year for purchases at Hilton Resorts
One free weekend night reward each year
An additional night after spending $60,000 on the card in a calendar year
Earn 14X points on Hilton purchases
As with any credit card, check what the interest rate will be. Rates can be variable, meaning they can change without much notice. A high credit score may also be needed to get the best points card.
Where you spend money also affects how many points you earn. If you regularly stay at the same brand of hotel, then a co-branded credit card can be a smart way to earn more points because purchases within the brand often pay the most.
The Hilton card we listed above, for example, pays these bonus points for specific types of purchases:
Booking flights, hotels, and rental cars through the card’s travel website or directly with the hotel should earn you the most number of points. Some hotel chains also have other shopping portals to buy almost anything.
Credit cards that offer reward miles for free airline flights are more likely to have shopping portals, but some hotels do too.
Marriott Rewards has a shopping portal called ShopMyWay where users earn points for shopping at linked online retailers. Going to the site requires installing a secured search extension through Chrome.
The Wyndham shopping portal awards extra hotel points for shopping at certain retailers. Macy's recently doubled its points to four per $1 spent in the portal. The shopping portal for Choice hotels offers 3 points for $1 spent at Bed Bath & Beyond.
How hotel points work
Earning hotel points by the above methods is half of the equation. The other half is the fun part: Redeeming them.
But not every hotel room has the same value. Stay at an expensive location or at a higher-end hotel in the chain or property with more amenities, and you may have to redeem more points to get the free room. Stay at a mid-tier location and you can use fewer points to stay for free.
The points you earn won’t be accepted by a hotel outside of the chain whose loyalty program you’re a member of. Hilton award points, for example, can’t be used at Hyatt. Hilton does have a range of hotel names in addition to its name brand, including Waldorf Astoria, Conrad, Canopy, DoubleTree, Embassy Suites, Hampton, and Homewood Suites.
Hyatt, on the other hand, offers a lot of value in its rewards program by requiring fewer points to stay at its top-tier hotels.
Using elite status
A small but important part of understanding how hotel points work is the added benefit of climbing the “elite status” levels in a chain. More hotel stays will earn you extra points, which will raise your benefit status and earn you more amenities.
You can earn a free breakfast, later checkout, free WiFi, room upgrades, and free parking, among others.
Marriott Bonvoy gives its top elite-level members, called the Ambassador Elite level, a personal Marriott assistant. Hilton members get more bonus points as they climb the elite status ladder, and all members stay for free on the fifth night of a trip.
Biggest hotel chains with points
For the most points, look for a hotel-branded credit card at a hotel chain you’re happy to visit every time you travel. That will earn you the most points, though if you spend thousands of dollars on the card every month you’ll earn a lot of points too.
The big chains may require more points than smaller ones to get a free room, so check how much the room costs before doing the math to see how much the points are costing you. We’ll go more in-depth on that later.
Here’s a sampling of what some of the major hotel chains offer with their co-branded credit cards. All have an annual fee of around $100, so be sure that the benefits add up to more than that fee to make it worthwhile. Each brand offers cards with no annual fee and fewer benefits, and cards with much higher annual fees of around $450, but with many more benefits.
The Marriott Bonvoy Boundless credit card from Chase is one of two each from Chase and American Express. Here are some of what it offers:
Earn five free night awards, valued at 50,000 points, after spending $5,000 in the first three months from account opening
Earn 6X points for every S$1 spent at Marriott Bonvoy hotels
One free night award valued up to 35,000 points every year after the account anniversary
Automatic Silver Elite Status at its hotels
$95 annual fee
Hilton offers a number of credit cards through American Express, including the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire card that we detailed earlier that has a $450 annual fee.
For a more affordable annual fee for a card that is best for occasional Hilton travelers, the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass card offers plenty of benefits. They include:
$95 annual fee
Earn 130,000 Hilton Honors bonus points after spending $2,000 in the first three months
12X Hilton Honors bonus points for every $1 charged at Hilton hotels
6X points at restaurants, supermarkets, and gas stations
3X points on all other purchases
Free Hilton Honors Gold status
Upgrade to Diamond status by spending $40,000 in a year
The World of Hyatt credit card from Chase lets applicants choose which of two reward offers they get:
Earn up to 50,000 bonus points. How? Earn 25,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first three months, and 25,000 more by spending $6,000 total within the first six months.
Earn $200 statement credit after your first purchase with the card, and after spending $3,000 in the first three months. Plus, get one free night at any category 1-7 hotel worldwide.
Other benefits include:
9X points for Hyatt stays
2X points per $1 spent at restaurants, on airline tickets directly from the airline, and local transit and gym memberships.
One free night every year at category 1-4 Hyatt.
An extra free night if spend $15,000.
$95 annual fee
What you get with points
Free hotel rooms are the main benefit from earning points, but there are others that can make an annual fee worthwhile also.
This is where it’s worth doing a little math to see how much value you’re getting for the points you’ve accumulated.
Some chains, such as Hyatt, make it a little more difficult by using the same dynamic pricing methods airlines are using for awarding free airfare and award tickets for flights. Starting in 2021, Hyatt is changing from one set amount of points for a free room to three:
- Off-peak redemption starting at 3,500 points per night for when hotels are less busy.
- Standard redemption starting at 5,000 points per night for a free room.
- Peak redemption starts at 6,500 points per night when hotels are busiest.
Hyatt categorizes hotels by number, from Category 1 up to Category 8. The higher the number, the more points that are required for a free night. A Category 4 hotel, which costs 15,000 points per night for a standard room before the change to dynamic pricing, will still cost 15,000 points during the standard redemption time.
Go during off-peak times and it drops to 12,000 points per night. In peak season it goes up to 18,000 points.
As an example, let’s go to San Diego for a family vacation in July 2021. A standard room at the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego, a Category 4 level hotel near the waterfront, has a standard rate of $334 per night. Or you can book it with 15,000 points in 2020. The site doesn’t yet list how many points will be needed in 2021.
The math to determine how much that room costs in points is:
Cash value divided by the number of points required
In the above example, that would be:
$334 / 15,000 = 2.2 cents per point
But in 2021 Hyatt will charge 18,000 points for that standard room during peak period, which we assume July is in San Diego. At that rate, a point is worth 1.85 cents.
That’s still close to 2 cents per point, but is still a little less in value for the 18,000 points redeemed. In other words, you’re spending 3,000 more points for the same room, making those points less valuable.
Hotel-branded credit card reward points can of course be used for free hotel stays, but for flights too. Many hotel programs allow hotel points to be transferred to major airline partners, such as United Airlines, Delta, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Emirates and a number of airlines within airline alliances like Star Alliance and OneWorld.
The transfer ratio isn’t great and it can take a month or more for the transfer to go through, but you can make the switch if you want. Why would you want to do this? Maybe you don’t want to stay at a hotel chain anymore or the program is losing its value and you can’t use the points how you want to.
Exchange ratios range from 1:1 at Starwood for some airlines such as Air France and Alaska, to 250:1 at IHG for El Al Airlines. Hilton requires transferring at least 10,000 points for most exchanges, such as 10:1 for Alaska Airlines.
Room upgrades are the most common type of upgrades with points. A room upgrade at a Hyatt brand hotel on a paid night costs 6,000 points for a suite upgrade, and 9,000 for a premium suite upgrade.
Just joining a hotel’s loyalty program and being a frequent guest can be enough to get free room upgrades. Hilton members who reach the Gold level and above by earning points and staying often get a free upgrade to a preferred room if one is available.
Example of how points work
But even at a good ratio of 5:1 that IHG offers on some airlines such as American Airlines, it’s not a good deal. It requires 10,000 points to get 2,000 American Airlines miles. To make it a reasonable comparison, let’s assume you’re transferring 20,000 points for 4,000 miles because 20,000 points will get you a good hotel.
In San Diego, the Holiday Inn Express & Suites cost 20,000 points or $120 for a standard room with two Queen beds. That equates to 6 cents per point.
What can you get for 4,000 miles on American Airlines? Basically nothing. Flying from San Francisco, the minimum number of miles for a free flight is 15,000 miles to Los Angeles. A round-trip flight to L.A. in the main cabin on American costs $97.
To get those 15,000 miles for that free $97 flight, you’d need to exchange 75,000 IHG points. That’s almost four free nights at the San Diego hotel, which would save you $480.
Would you rather have a free flight worth $97, or a hotel room for four nights worth $480? Either way, it’s 75,000 IHG points.
Cash back vs points
Having cash in your pocket is always better than not having it, including over hotel points. Even with a large bonus of points when opening a hotel credit card, cash will likely be worth more in the long run.
Hotels change their reward point requirements for free stays from time to time, so 20,000 points for a free stay today will likely be higher in a year or so. With more hotels using dynamic pricing, traveling during peak times when children are out of school will require more points than off-peak times.
Best cards for points comparison
Here’s a comparison of credit cards co-branded with three of the biggest hotel chains. An important consideration when choosing a card is which hotel chain you prefer. If you don’t have a preference, then look for the credit card with the best signup bonus, lowest interest rate, best annual fee, and one with perks you want.
|Header||Annual Fee||Signup Bonus|
|Marriott Bonvoy Boundless||$95||5 free nights, valued at 50,000 points after $5,000 spend|
|Hilton Honors American Express Surpass||$95||130,000 points after $2,000 spend|
|World of Hyatt Chase card||$95||25,000 bonus points or $200 statement credit after $3,000 spend|
Great credit cards for travelers
Chase Sapphire Preferred
While not a hotel credit card, Chase Sapphire Preferred is one of the best travel rewards credit cards. Chase Ultimate Rewards provides hotel points and airline miles on everyday spending. You'll earn 2:1 points on travel and dining at restaurants plus 1:1 point on every dollar spent using the card. The current credit card offer provides 80,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months, which is worth $1,000 in travel rewards.
Chase Sapphire Reserve
Similarly, but if you can believe offering even better ultimate rewards points, the Chase Sapphire Reserve provides 3:1 points on qualifying travel and dining spending, plus awards cardholders $300 annually for travel. But it comes with a $550 annual fee, so that really just drives down the fee to $250, still really high for a credit card.
Chase Freedom Unlimited
You'll earn 5% cash back on travel purchases, 3% on dining and drugstore purchases, and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases with the Chase Freedom United card. Plus, the card doesn't carry an annual fee and can be used to build United MileagePlus points. Chase Ultimate Rewards can earn points on select purchases and can be redeemed for travel or gift cards, as well.
Using Amex's signature American Express Membership Rewards program, you can also earn points on most everyday purchases. Amex claims to have the most transfer points of the major U.S. credit card issuers. It provides 1:1 on spending on a personal card or 1:2 spending if using a corporate card to help you build membership rewards points on personal and work spending.
If you travel occasionally and want a free hotel room from time to time, then earning hotel points through stays or a credit card can be a way to get at least part of your vacation for free.
You can join many hotel rewards programs for free, of course, but it will take longer to earn a free stay. Instead, choose a hotel chain you prefer and one that you’ll enjoy using on every trip you take.
Credit card fees for hotel-branded cards vary from zero to $95 and $450 or so annually. Make sure there are enough perks to make the fee worthwhile. Unless you travel often, you may want to start with a no-fee card to see how earning hotel points works.
And be sure to pay your credit card bill off completely each month, and on time. Paying interest charges will only negate the value of your points, and that won’t make a free hotel stay as much fun.