05 MayWhich Credit Card Should You Use to Get Free Hotel Stays?

If your goal is earning free hotel stays, it’s hard to know which type of rewards card to get. While co-branded hotel credit cards are an obvious pick, general-purpose travel credit cards that let you redeem points for different kinds of travel rewards can work well for free hotel stays, too.

Which card is best? It depends on your travel style and vacation goals. Let’s dig into both types of cards to see how they work, whom they’re best for, and where they fall flat.

Co-Branded Hotel Credit Cards

Each major hotel chain — Hyatt, Carlson, Marriott, IHG, Hilton, and the like — offers a unique set of options. Where IHG only has one co-branded hotel credit card, Hilton has several. Some hotel brands offer co-branded business cards, too, giving you even more ways to rack up points.

These co-branded cards have several benefits and drawbacks, compared to more flexible travel rewards cards.

Focused Strategy Generally Nets Extra Points and Perks

Hotel credit cards can offer great value if you’re an enthusiast for a specific chain. If your family always stays at Hiltons, for example, getting the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve might be smart. Not only do you get automatic Gold status just for being a cardholder, but you can quickly earn points on stays for free nights. Co-branded cards generally offer very high bonus points for stays at its properties. They also often feature generous sign-up bonuses that can cover free stays for a few nights.

You’re Stuck With One Chain

The downside with hotel credit cards is that they aren’t as flexible as general travel credit cards. With a co-branded hotel credit card, you can only book free nights at a hotel within that chain. So, if your travel plans change or you want to try a different hotel brand, you might be out of luck.

Award Availability May Be Limited

Another downside with hotel credit cards is that even though most major hotel brands advertise “no blackout dates” for award nights, they still may limit award availability. So, even if you have the points to burn, you may not be able to use them for the exact dates you want.

Hotel Credit Cards Are a Good Fit for You If:

  • You like to stay with the same hotel chain. This is a particularly good strategy if you travel for work and are able to book your own room and then get reimbursed by your employer.
  • You love earning special hotel status and room upgrades.
  • You tend to have flexible travel dates when you want to redeem rewards.

General-Purpose Travel Credit Cards

General-purpose travel cards come in a couple of different flavors, but they all offer one trait that co-branded hotel cards simply cannot — flexibility. With flexible travel cards, you can usually use reward points to book nearly any hotel you want.

Statement Credits Make Rewards Redemption Simple

One type of flexible travel card lets you use points to get a statement credit for a travel purchase you’ve already made. Take the BankAmericard Travel Rewards® credit card, for example. You earn points with your purchase, and to redeem, simply book any hotel you want with your card, then use your points as a statement credit toward your travel purchases. You can book directly or through a booking site. Most travel purchases are eligible. Each point is worth one cent.

Travel Booking Portals Let You Book at Multiple Hotels

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® card is another flexible travel credit card that makes booking hotel stays easy. The flexibility this card offers helps it stand out as a winner among all travel credit cards. Why? Because you can redeem your points for hotel stays or other types of travel in more than one way.

For starters, you can use points to book hotel stays through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal. The portal lets you search for hotel stays based on destination and price. The benefit here is that you can use your points to book a room with any hotel chain of your choosing, from high-end luxury hotels to cheap roadside motels.

They May Offer Extra Value

On top of the added flexibility you get from using the travel portal, you also get a 20% discount when you book. That means each Ultimate Rewards point is worth 1.25 cents in its travel portal.

If you can’t find the exact hotel you want through the Chase portal, you can redeem your points for cash back at a rate of one cent per point (e.g. 50,000 points = $500) and cover your hotel stay that way. Clearly, though, that doesn’t offer as much value as booking through the portal.

Transfer Partners Give You Even More Options

Cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® let you transfer points to several hotel partners at a 1:1 ratio. Hotel transfer partners for Chase include IHG, Marriott, Ritz Carlton, and Hyatt.

If you lean toward one of these travel brands, it can be smart to have both the co-branded hotel credit card and the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. You could, for instance, rack up extra points using the hotel card when you pay for stays within the chain, and use the Sapphire Preferred card for other kinds of travel and dining purchases, maximizing your earning power for that chain.

Flipside of Flexibility: Earning Less Concentrated, Extra Perks Scarce

The main drawback of these more flexible cards is points accrue slower. The rewards you get for your hotel stays will be much lower, but generally you do get more rewards for other purchases than you would for hotel specific cards. You also won’t get the free anniversary award nights, or the upgrades and other special treatment that come with many hotel cards.

General-Purpose Travel Cards Are a Good Fit for You If:

  • You don’t spend a lot at a particular chain and don’t want to be tied down to only staying at one.
  • You don’t have flexible travel dates — you can use your points regardless of award availability or blackout dates.
  • You spend in categories that other rewards cards offer higher bonuses for.

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