Frugal travelers know that cheap is good, but free is better. But are free hotel stays really “free?” Strictly speaking, the only hotel nights that are truly free are the bonus nights booked on award stays with selected chains:
Hilton offers the fifth night free on award bookings for any HHonors elite member (from Silver through Diamond). The nights must be booked consecutively on a Standard Room Award. You’re limited to four free nights in a single stay, for a total of 20 nights. If the point cost of the room fluctuates during your stay, the cost will be averaged out. Status can be achieved with any of the American Express Hilton cards, the Platinum card, or earned the old-fashioned way with paid nights.
With Marriott, you also get the fifth night free on award bookings, and anyone can take advantage of it—not just elite members. There’s no stated limit on the number of times you can use the free night during a single stay. Guests staying more than five nights can mix and match the nights for the award stay, creating the opportunity to pay cash for the cheaper nights.
IHG is even better: Members holding their Rewards Club Premier Credit Card get their fourth night free.
The discount is automatic with all three chains at the time of booking, so you don’t have to wait for a refund. Hyatt occasionally runs free night promotions for specific hotels, regions or time periods, but doesn’t offer the perk across the board.
Credit Card Anniversary Nights: Many co-branded hotel credit cards offer a free night on your account anniversary, with some variations in terms. While these nights aren’t technically “free,” they can be a great value depending on the card’s annual fee.
Once upon a time, the IHG Select card ($49 annual fee) came with an unrestricted, chain-wide free night. Those days are over: The Select card is no longer offered to new signups, and cardholders now receive a free night on their anniversary which can be redeemed at any hotel costing 40,000 points or less. If you still have the Select Card, however, you’re able to sign up for the newer Premier card ($89), which also offers a free night at hotels costing 40,000 points or less. Those two nights may be stacked. IHG estimates that 4,900 of its 5,200 hotels are under the 40,000-point threshold, but a great deal depends on your travel patterns. It’s impossible to find a qualifying hotel in Manhattan, for example, and other big cities are difficult as well.
With the Marriott Bonvoy card from Chase ($95), you receive a free anniversary night at hotels costing 35,000 points or less. The same applies to the Marriott Bonvoy card from American Express ($95, formerly the Starwood card), which has been discontinued for new applicants. Amex’s new Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant card ($450) comes with an anniversary night that can be redeemed at hotels costing 50,000 points or less. These nights may be stacked for holders of multiple cards, and it’s easier to find a room in a major city.
The Hyatt Visa from Chase ($75, now closed to new applicants) and their newer World of Hyatt card ($95) both offer a free anniversary night at hotels in Categories 1 through 4. While this rules out Park Hyatt properties and high-end resorts, it does include a number of Regencies in major cities. Holders of the World of Hyatt card can also earn an extra free night with purchases of $15,000 or more during their cardmember year. Unlike IHG, you cannot hold both of these cards at once.
For the Hilton cards from American Express, the situation is a bit more complicated. The Surpass card ($95) offers a free weekend night as part of the signup bonus, after spending $4,000 within the first four months after account opening; cardholders can earn an additional weekend night by spending $15,000 or more during a calendar year (a weekend is defined as a Friday, Saturday or Sunday night). The Aspire card ($450) also gives a free weekend night each year, with the option of earning another one by spending $60,000 or more. These nights may be used at any Hilton property costing 120,000 points or less. In addition, the Aspire card gives members a $250 annual statement credit at participating Hilton resorts.
Signup Bonuses: These vary all the time, and banks have been aggressively competing with each other lately. Bonuses an excellent way of accumulating a pile of points to use for free nights, provided the spending requirements work for you. Right now, American Express is offering 75,000 points for the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant card and 150,000 points for the Hilton Surpass Card, both for spending $3,000 within the first three months; Chase is countering with 75,000 points for their Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card and 125,000 points for the IHG Premier, also with a minimum $3,000 spend.
Remember that all points are not created equal. Most estimates place Hyatt points at nearly two cents each; Marriott points are worth close to one cent, while IHG and Hilton hover around one-half cent per point.
There are multiple opportunities for scoring free or heavily discounted hotel nights. Study the programs carefully to figure out which chain works best for you and your individual travel goals.
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Source: frugal travel guy