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We all love credit cards that earn transferable currencies such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or the American Express® Gold Card.

But what about the co-branded airline or hotel credit cards – do they come with valuable incentives to keep the card in your wallet? Do the benefits justify their annual fees?

Hotels’ co-branded credit cards often come with good perks, such as elite status, extra points earning opportunities and free night certificates. And sometimes you can spend your way to a free night. The cards that have the free night as one of their benefits also come with annual fees ranging from $95 to $450.  

Let’s have a look at this annual benefit across five hotel brands and their respective credit cards.

Before we dive in, remember that the programs’ marketing materials call these “free nights”, but because all of the cards we’ll be looking at here have annual fees, these are really discounted nights, rather than free. In some cases, as you’ll see, the discounts are huge, but still the rooms you book aren’t going to be completely “free”.

How much of a discount you’ll be getting will depend on the card and on what kind of award availability you are likely to find. How much money you will be able to save by taking advantage of the free night benefit will depend on where and when the free night is redeemed.  

Hyatt

The World of Hyatt Credit Card has an annual fee of $95 and comes with an annual free night starting on the cardmember’s first anniversary.

Cardholders can also earn an extra free night award by spending $15,000 during their cardmember anniversary year. The free night certificate is valid at category 1 through 4 properties.

If you can redeem the free night at one of the more expensive properties, the card more than pays for itself.

For example, the Confidante Miami Beach hotel averages $200 plus per night during the winter months when most of us want to escape the cold, grey weather in the northern part of the country. So even taking the annual fee into account, you’ll be saving more than $100.

I’ve once used my free night on an overnight layover at Hyatt Place Flushing-LaGuardia Airport. We were traveling during the very busy spring break season and all the hotels around JFK and LaGuardia airports were in the $220-250 range. Definitely not a glamorous redemption, but I saved a significant amount of money nevertheless.

Hyatt doesn’t charge resort fees on award stays, so if you can find a category 4 resort property, you’ll be saving even more.

Marriott Bonvoy

Marriott Bonvoy free night certificates come in a couple of flavors, depending on which card you currently hold. All Marriott Bonvoy co-branded credit cards that have an annual fee come with a free night certificate. You can redeem the free night certificates that come with two of the three cards for stays costing up to 35,000 points and one costing up to 50,000 points.

Since Marriott introduced peak, off-peak and standard awards, it’s possible to find very good value even for the 35,000 points certificates.

Marriott also has a separate “PointSavers” award chart which is basically awards on sale. You can sometimes find extremely good value for the 35,000 points certificate, such as an off peak award at a category 6 property.

These aren’t easy to find, however, especially in top locations, but if you have a flexible schedule, it’s possible to find a real deal. To find PointsSavers hotels, just scroll down on the PointSavers page to see hotels with discounted awards. You can search for hotels in the U.S. or worldwide.

So are these three cards worth their respective $95 or $450 annual fees? The short answer is (as is the case with a lot of things we talk about here) it depends. If you can redeem the free night certificate for a stay that costs more than the annual fee, then you are coming out ahead.

However, remember that you will be subject to Marriott’s definition of standard, peak and off peak dates, as well as having to plan your trip around finding available properties in the Marriott’s family of hotels.  

If the hotel charges resort fees, you will have to pay resort fees when using the free night certificate.

Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card

Chase’s Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit Card has a $95 fee and comes with a free night award on your account anniversary. This free night is valid for a stay at a property with a redemption level up to 35,000 points.

What can you book with 35,000 points? Any hotel any time in categories 1-4, or a category 5 hotel with off peak or standard pricing. Is this enough to book a nice stay? It depends on the location and time of year. However, it is possible to find a deal at a nice property for 35,000 points.

For example, this great looking Westin Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort is a category 5 property.

Westin Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort | Photo courtesy of Marriott.com

I found plenty of dates when this hotel costs 35,000 or less and therefore can be booked with the free night certificate. The cash rate at this time is about $250, so that’s a great use of the free night certificate that effectively costs $95.

Marriott Bonvoy Business American Express Card

The Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card has a $125 annual fee (Rates & Fees) and comes with a free night award on your account anniversary. This free night is valid for a stay at a property that costs up to 35,000 points/night. Cardmembers can also earn an additional free night after spending $60,000 in purchases on the Bonvoy Business Amex card in a calendar year.

Both the annual free night award and additional free night earned through spending can be redeemed at any hotel any time in categories 1-4, or at a category 5 hotel with off peak or standard pricing.

One of the most stunning Marriott properties is JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay Resort & Spa in Vietnam.

JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay Resort & Spa | Photo courtesy of Marriott.com

The rooms can cost as much as $450 plus taxes in high season but I was able to find plenty of award space at 35,000 points/night.

Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express Card

The Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card card has a $450 annual fee (Rates & Fees) and comes with a free night on your cardmember anniversary that can be redeemed for a room that costs 50,000 Marriott Bonvoy points.

You can redeem the certificate for a free night at a Category 1 to 5 hotel anytime, a Category 6 property during off peak or standard rates and even a Category 7 hotel during the off peak dates.

This gives us significantly more choices, including stays at some of the top properties such as the luxurious JW Marriott Miami Turnberry Resort & Spa where you can book a room at off peak rates for 50,000 points.

JW Marriott Miami Turnberry Resort & Spa | Photo courtesy of Marriott.com

I found a lot of dates at 50,000 points at this property where the cash price fluctuates between $250 and $550 before taxes.

The Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant from American Express card has other perks that help offset the annual fee, such as a complimentary Gold status, $300 in statement credits at Marriott properties each year and Priority Pass membership.

Hilton Honors

Thanks to Hilton’s wide reach around the globe, it’s easy to find Hilton properties almost anywhere in the world, which makes its free night awards quite valuable. Among thousands of Hilton’s properties, only a handful hotels don’t accept the free night certificates.

And unlike Marriott and Hyatt, the free nights can only be redeemed on the weekend, including Friday, Saturday, or Sunday night.

In light of Covid, and as a temporary measure, rewards issued prior to December 31, 2020, can be redeemed for any night of the week. Hilton’s free nights are uncapped, which means they can be used at some of the most expensive properties around the world.

Among Hilton co-branded credit cards portfolio, there’s only one card that offers an anniversary free night. But cardholders of two other cards can still earn a free night by spending $15,000 in a calendar year.

Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card

The American Express Aspire card from American Express comes with a $450 annual fee. The fee can be offset by an annual free weekend night and a host of other benefits, such as Diamond status, airline incidentals credit, resort credit and Priority Pass membership.

Another free weekend night reward can be earned by spending $60,000 in eligible purchases during a calendar year.  

Hilton Honors American Express Surpass Card and the Hilton Honors American Express Business Card

The Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card (Rates & Fees) and The Hilton Honors American Express Business Card (Rates & Fees)both have a $95 annual fee and don’t come with an annual free weekend night reward. However, cardmembers can earn a weekend free night reward after making just $15,000 in eligible purchases in a calendar year.

Hilton Honors Amex Business cardholders can also earn a second free weekend night reward after spending $60,000 in purchases on your Card in the same calendar year.

Spending $60,000 on one card just to earn one free night might be an overreach, but if you have large expenses coming up and don’t want to apply for a new card, spending $15,000 on one of these cards might be something to consider.

As mentioned earlier, any property, including the stunning (and very expensive) Conrad Maldives can be booked with the free weekend night reward.

There are no resort fees on award stays.

Conrad Maldives | Photo courtesy of Hilton.com

IHG Rewards

The IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card has a $89 annual fee and comes with a free anniversary night valid at IHG Hotels with a point redemption level of 40,000 points or less.

Despite the 40k point cap, there are still a number of beautiful IHG hotels where you can use the reward night certificate and get an amazing value. IHG doesn’t have an award chart anymore, so you’ll just have to search for your dates and location to find the best deal.

You’ll have to pay resort fees on free night awards.

The InterContinental Bangkok | Photo courtesy of IHG

For example, the beautiful Intercontinental Bangkok has award rates far below the 40,000 points cap. The rate will be higher during the peak season, but shouldn’t surpass 40,000 points.

An elegant riverside Intercontinental Budapest can also be booked with the IHG free night award.

Intercontinental Budapest | Photo courtesy of IHG

Radisson Rewards Premier Visa Signature Card

Radisson Rewards card has a $75 annual fee and you can earn up to three free nights every year. You’ll earn one free night certificate for each $10,000 in spend up to $30,000 a year.

Each certificate is valid for one night in one standard room, double occupancy, at any Radisson Blu, Radisson, Radisson RED, Park Plaza, Park Inn by Radisson, or Country Inn & Suites by Radisson hotel located in the United States.

This is a major limitation and makes this card far less attractive compared to other cards when it comes to the free nights certificates.

You’ll have to pay a resort fee if staying at a resort.

Final Thoughts

Because all co-branded hotel credit cards covered here have annual fees, these free nights aren’t really “free”, but rather discounted award stays. Some will be easier to redeem than others – it all depends on the hotel chain, location and the time of year you’ll be traveling.

If you can only travel during what hotels deem the peak season, some of the free night certificates that come with these credit cards might be difficult to redeem when and where you want to travel.

And sometimes the certificates can be used at any location within that brand’s portfolio, but only on certain days of the week. Or you’ll need to put a lot of spending on each card in order to earn the free night. That spending could go towards earning a new welcome bonus with potentially much higher value.  

It’s important to evaluate each and every benefit of the hotel credit card you are planning to keep, not just the “free” night award, keeping in mind yours and your family’s travel needs.

Keep good records and set calendar reminders – the free nights usually expire after 12 months.  Don’t wait till the last minute to use them in the hopes that a perfect redemption might still come up. We don’t want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

And these free nights don’t have to be used just at glamorous vacation destinations at the highest category hotel possible. If you use the certificates on a road trip through the National Parks, or near large airport hubs on an overnight layover, where accommodations can be expensive – that’s good enough! You’ve gotten a good value and saved more than you spent on the annual fee.

Share with us how you’d use your hotel credit card’s annual free night. Did you ever find a hidden gem that proved to be an amazing value?

Travel well,

Anna

 

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