There isn’t a single traveler out there who doesn’t love a free night in a hotel.
Over the past few years, travel bloggers and credit card experts have gone crazy over the various ways you can use hotel rewards credit cards to score free nights at everything from small-town inns to beautiful resorts on an island paradise.
As a result, “Best of” hotel credit card lists are as plentiful as mai-tais and daiquiris at an all-inclusive resort.
We wanted to do our own research in this area to make sure you find a card that can get your toes between the sand on a private Caribbean resort as fast as you possibly can. The results of our research are what you’ll read here: seven different hotel rewards cards judged across eight scored categories and one bonus category.
How We Scored the Hotel Rewards Card Competition
We assigned 7 points to a hotel card if it finished first in its category, 6 points if it finished second, and so on. We doubled the points in four categories because we felt they were more important to travelers: rewards nights, points for a Category 1 hotel, points-per-dollar, and tier upgrades.
So, if a card got 4 points in each of the eight scored categories, its final score would be 32.
Because the results of our bonus category are far more subjective than the other categories, we didn’t include the bonus rankings in our scoring.
As you read through how the cards perform in these categories, we recommend that you think about these cards as short-term and long-term tools. Don’t get stuck on what they offer up front; sometimes the dazzling free nights or points are just covering for blah benefits down the road.
Here are the seven cards competing for Best Hotel Rewards Card of 2018:
- Starwood Preferred Guest from American Express
- Marriott Rewards Premier from Chase
- Hyatt Visa from Chase
- IHG Rewards Club Select from Chase
- Hilton HHonors Surpass from American Express
- Choice Privileges Visa
- Wyndham Rewards Visa Signature from Barclay
Here’s a chart of the cards we’re analyzing (all information was current at the time of research):
|Card||Sign-Up Points/Nights Bonus||Spending Requirement to Get Bonus||Points for Category-1 Hotel||Points per Dollar||Tier Upgrade||Free Anniversary Night or Points||APR||Annual Fee|
|Hyatt Visa Signature||2 free nights||$2K||5,000||3:1 at Hyatt hotels, 2:1 on travel/dining, 1:1 on rest||Yes, Platinum (2nd best of 3)||Yes, free night||16.24%||$75|
|Starwood Preferred Guest Amex||25,000 points||$3K||3,000 (2,000 on weekends)||5:1 at SPG hotels, 1:1 on rest||No||No||15.49%–19.49%||$0 1st year, $95 after|
|IHG Rewards Club Select from Chase||60,000||$1K||10,000||5:1 at IHG hotels, 2:1 on gas/grocery stores/dining, 1:1 on rest||Yes, Platinum Elite (2nd best of 4)||Yes, free night||16.24%–23.24%||$0 1st year, $45 after|
|Hilton HHonors Surpass Amex||75,000||$3K||7,500||12:1 at Hilton hotels, 6:1 on dining/grocery stores/gas, 3:1 on rest||Yes, Gold Status (2nd best of 4)||No||15.49%–19.49%||$75|
|Wyndham Rewards Visa Signature from Barclay||30,000||After first purchase||15,000||5:1 at Wyndham hotels, 2:1 on rest||No||Yes; 6,000 points||15.49%–20.24%, 0% APR on balance transfers for 15 months||$69|
|Choice Privileges Visa||32,000||$1K||8,000||15:1 at Choice Privileges hotels, 2:1 on rest||Yes, Elite Gold Status (3rd of 4)||Yes; 8,000 points||15.49%-25.24% (0% intro APR on balance transfersfor 15 months||$0|
|Marriott Rewards Premier||80,000 points||$3K||7,500||5:1 at Marriott hotels, 2:1 on travel, 1:1 on rest||Yes, Silver Elite||Yes, free night||16.24%–23.24%||$85|
- Sign-up points/nights bonus: What kind of free stuff do you get when you sign up?
- Spending requirement to get bonus: How much do you have to spend in the first three months to get the free stuff?
- Points for Category 1 hotel: How many points it costs to book a night the cheapest rewards tier?
- Points per dollar: How many points you get for every dollar you spend with your card?
- Tier upgrades: Do you get to bump up past the basic hotel membership level?
- Free anniversary night: Do you get a free stay on your sign-up anniversary?
- APR: What’s the APR and is there a 0% offer?
- Annual fee: How much does the card cost each year?
Will our winner be the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express, the hotel rewards card that’s captured the hearts of many leading personal finance sites?
Or could the winner be one of the Hilton HHonors Surpass from Amex, or maybe the Hyatt Visa from Chase or the Marriott Rewards Premier from Chase?
You’ll find out by the end of this article. In the meantime, we’ll award a winner to each category we studied. Let’s start with something every hotel lover craves: free nights and points.
Sign-up Points Nights Winner: Hilton HHonors Surpass & Marriott Rewards Premier
Trying to figure out which card offers the best nights/points bonus takes a quick rundown on how points work for hotel cards.
The hotel chains in this competition assign levels to their hotels. The “cheapest” ones are Category 1 hotels, and the most luxurious ones are the highest level.
Our chart tells you how many sign-up points you get, as well as how many points Category 1 hotels cost. So, here are the best deals in the bunch:
- Hilton HHonors Surpass: 10 nights (12 with 5th Night Free)
- Marriott Rewards Premier 10 nights
- IHG Rewards Club Select: 6 nights
- Starwood Preferred Guest: 8 nights or 12 nights
- Choice Privileges Visa/Marriott Rewards Premier: 4 nights
- Hyatt Visa: 2 nights
- Wyndham Rewards: 2 nights
The clear winners here are the Hilton Honors Surpass (75K points) and Marriott Rewards Premier card (80K).
The Hilton’s 75,000 sign-up bonus can get you 10 nights in a Category 1 hotel. Another perk – if you book four nights in a standard room with your rewards points, you’ll get a fifth night free. Book a pair of four-night stays and you’ll get two free fifth nights. Not bad!
We think the most interesting cards here are the Hyatt Visa and SPG Amex. With the Hyatt card, you can use your rewards nights at any Hyatt property. You can use those nights at a hotel that would normally cost 30,000 points, which is a great perk.
With the SPG Amex, you can book a Category 1 hotel (70+ choices) for 3,000 during the week, but those same hotels can be booked for 2,000 points on the weekend. However, this deal isn’t as good as it seems, and we’ll tell you why in a few minutes.
Spending Requirement to Get the Sign-Up Bonus Winner: Wyndham Rewards Visa
This category in our competition offers much quicker milestones than what you’d find in the travel cards we sized up. Here are the standings:
- Wyndham Rewards Visa: After first purchase
- Choice Privileges & IHG Rewards Club Select: $1,000
- Hyatt Visa: $2,000
- Hilton HHonors Surpass, SPG Amex, Marriott Rewards Premier: $3,000
We love that the Wyndham rewards kick in with your first purchase; you don’t have to keep track of your spending and your rewards will arrive quicker than if you had to rack up $3,000 in purchases. Choice Privileges, IHG Rewards and Hyatt Visa have low thresholds as well.
In research for our article on travel cards, we used the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2015 research to show that the average American would have no problem spending $3,000 in three months.
So, whether you get the Wyndham card or the Hilton/SPG/Marriott cards, you’re most likely going to get your rewards.
Points for a Category 1 Hotel Winner: Hyatt Visa
This category was an interesting one for us because the hotel with the lowest Category 1 points wasn’t the winner. Here are our standings:
- Hyatt Visa: 5,000
- Marriott Rewards Premier: 7,500
- Choice Privileges Visa: 8,000
- SPG Amex: 3,000 (2,000 on weekends)
- Hilton HHonors Surpass: 7,500
- IHG Rewards Club Select: 10,000
- Wyndham Rewards Visa: 15,000
Hyatt’s points program offers Category 1 rooms at 5,000 points and there are more than 70 hotels in this category. Plus, all but nine of those more than 100 Category 1 hotels are in the United States.
We ranked the Hilton below the Marriott and Choice Privileges because it offers 64 Category 1 hotels, but only two are located in the United States: one in Cleburne, Texas, and one in Columbus, Georgia. Not too impressive.
Same rules apply to the SPG Amex … there are only three Category 1 hotels in the United States: one in Tucson, Ariz., one in Kansas City, Mo., and one in Romulus, Mich.
Marriott has a strong lineup of Category 1 hotels: nearly 120 hotels in the U.S.
Points-per-dollar Winner: Hilton HHonors
This category has some mind-blowing points-per-dollar benefits; way more than what we’ve found with travel cards. Here are the results:
- Hilton HHonors Surpass: 12:1 at Hilton hotels, 6:1 on dining/grocery stores/gas, 3:1 on rest
- Choice Privileges Visa: 15:1 at Choice Privileges hotels, 2:1 on everything else
- Wyndham Rewards: 5:1 at Wyndham hotels, 2:1 on rest
- Marriott Rewards Premier & IHG Rewards: 5:1 at brand’s hotels, 2:1 on travel, 1:1 on rest
- Hyatt Visa: 3:1 at Hyatt hotels, 2:1 on travel/dining, 1:1 on rest
- SPG Amex: 5:1 at SPG hotels, 1:1 on rest
The Hilton card wins this category running away, with its insane points bonuses on Hilton stays and on dining, grocery store, and gas station purchases. How many points can you expect per year with the Hilton’s juicy bonuses?
Based on the stats we gathered from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American household spends about $4,000 on groceries, $3,000 eating out and $2,100 on gas. So, with 6:1 on dining out, groceries and gas, you’re looking at 54,600 points per year because of the bonuses.
Those three spending categories fall under the around $25,000 you can expect to spend on your card in one year, which leaves around $15,000 subject to the Hilton’s 2:1 perk, or 30,000 points.
Our calculations suggest you can bring in about 85,000 points a year with the Hilton card, not including any purchases you make at Hilton properties (12x points bonus).
No other card comes close in this category.
Tier Upgrade Winner: IHG Rewards Club Select
Five of the seven hotel cards we researched included upgrades to the hotel’s “frequent flyer” programs. Here’s a chart of the benefits of the upgrades:
|Card||Complimentary Upgrade||Free Internet||Late Checkout||Discounted Rates||Points Bonus||Guaranteed Availability||Priority Check-In|
|Hyatt Visa Signature||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||Yes, 15%||Yes||Yes|
|Starwood Preferred Guest Amex||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|IHG Rewards Club Select||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||Yes, 50%||Yes||Yes|
|Hilton HHonors Surpass||No||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes, 25%||No||No|
|Choice Privileges||No||No||Yes||No||Yes, 10%||No||No|
|Marriott Rewards Premier||No||Yes||Yes||No||Yes, 20%||No||No|
As you’ll see, two of the hotels don’t bump you up into higher tiers. Here’s our breakdown of the rankings, according to seven categories we felt were most important for a guest’s upgraded experience:
- IHG Rewards Club Select: 6 out of 7 categories
- Hyatt Visa: 6 out of 7 categories
- Hilton HHonors Surpass: 4 out of 7 categories
- Marriott Rewards Premier: 3 out of 7 categories
- Choice Privileges Visa: 2 out of seven categories
- Starwood & Wyndham: No tier upgrades
Both the IHG Rewards and Hyatt put you into tiers that met six of our seven categories. We gave the nod to the IHG Rewards because you get a 50% bonus on your points when you cash them in for a rewards stay.
While the Hilton HHonors Surpass’ Gold Status doesn’t give you a complimentary upgrade when you check in, you do get access to discounted room rates.
Free Anniversary Nights/Points Winner: IHG Rewards Club Select
This category included two types of anniversary rewards: nights and points. Here’s our list of which hotels offered the best perks:
- IHG Rewards Club Select: Free stay at any hotel within the IHG family
- Marriott Rewards Premier: Free stay at a category 1-5 hotel
- Hyatt Visa: Free stay at a category 1-4 hotel
- Choice Privileges Visa: 8,000 points
- Wyndham Rewards: 6,000 points
- Starwood & Hilton: None
We put IHG at the top of the list because there are no limits on where you can redeem your anniversary night. Marriott limits their anniversary night redemptions, as does Hyatt. Last on the list here is the Wyndham Rewards points bonus; you get 6,000 points each year, less than half of what you’d need to book a reward night.
Best APR Winner: Hyatt Visa
The APR’s we saw on these cards ranged from 15.49% to 25.24%. Here’s our ranking of each card:
- Hyatt Visa: 16.24%
- SPG Amex & Hilton HHonors Amex: 15.49%-19.49%
- Wyndham Rewards: 15.49%-20.24%
- Marriott Rewards Premier & IHG Rewards: 16.24%-23.24%
- Choice Privileges Visa: 149%-25.24%
We like that the Hyatt card offers a set percentage; if you’re accepted for the card, you’re going to get 16.24%. The Choice Privileges card has a huge range of APR and the highest top-end interest rate (25.24%).
Quick tip: On a continuous $4,000 balance, one percentage point of APR equals about an extra $36 per year.
Annual Fee Winner: Choice Privileges
Because some cards waive your annual fee the first year, we’ve decided to judge each card by its two-year annual fee total:
- Choice Privileges: $0
- IHG Rewards Club: $45
- SPG Amex: $95
- Wyndham Rewards: $135
- Hilton HHonors & Hyatt Visa: $150
- Marriott Rewards Premier: $170
There was no debate here – Choice Privileges’ zero annual fee is unbeatable. Both the IHG and SPG hotel cards waive your annual fee the first year, giving a very reasonable two-year total.
Bonus Category – Best Perks Winner: Hilton HHonors
This category is the final one in our analysis of 2018’s best hotel rewards credit cards. This one is subjective; it’s not as easy to pin down as the other categories. So, we decided to pick the top perk of each card, then talk about which perk is best.
- Hyatt Visa: Upgrade to Platinum status
- SPG Amex: Points can be transferred to airline frequent flyer programs
- IHG Rewards Club: Upgrade to Platinum Elite status
- Hilton HHonors: Chance for Diamond status/Priority Pass Select Enrollment
- Wyndham Rewards: 0% for 15 months on balance transfers
- Choice Privileges: 0% for 15 months on balance transfers
- Marriott Rewards Premier: Points can be used to purchase Priority Pass membership
To us, the winner here is the Hilton HHonors card’s Diamond status perk. Cardmembers can achieve Diamond status with $40,000 in purchases in one year.
Normally, you’d have to log 30 stays or 60 nights, or rack up 120,000 in points to get that status. Here’s another fantastic perk – you get Diamond status for the rest of the year in which you hit $40,000 in spending, plus all of the following year, too.
Entrance into this includes a 50% return on points used for a rewards night. So, if you spend 20,000 points on a room, you get 10,000 points credited back to your account. No other card gives you the chance to gain top-tier status so quickly.
Your Hilton HHonors Rewards Premier card also gets Priority Pass Select membership (a status given to members of certain financial institutions).
This perk gives you $27 entrance into any of the nearly 1,000 Priority Pass airport lounges in the world. These lounges often have complimentary drinks and snacks, as well as comfortable seating, a bar and, in some cases, showers.
The Marriott Rewards Premier comes in a distant second here. Their best perk is that they let you trade in points for Priority Pass memberships: Standard (20K points), Standard Plus (55K points) and Prestige (85K points).
New cardmembers could potentially sign up for Standard Plus membership (first 10 lounge visits are free, $27 after that) and still have enough points for three free nights in a Category 1 hotel.
So, are you ready to hear our pick for the best travel card? Before we get there, let’s recap the winners of each individual category:
- Sign-up Points/Nights Winner: Hilton HHonors Surpass/Marriott Rewards Premier
- Spending Requirement to Get Sign-Up Bonus Winner: Wyndham Rewards Visa
- Points for a Category 1 Hotel Winner: Hyatt Visa
- Tier Upgrade Winner: IHG Rewards Club Select
- Free Anniversary Nights/Points Winner: IHG Rewards Club Select
- Best APR Winner: Hyatt Visa
- Annual Fee Winner: Choice Privileges
- Points-per-dollar Winner: Hilton HHonors Surpass
- Bonus Category Best Perks Winner: Hilton HHonors
First, the Card You Thought Might Win but Didn’t: SPG American Express
Choosing the best hotel rewards card is pretty tough. There’s a lot at play here that we haven’t mentioned yet. For instance, hotel categories are based on luxury and location.
A luxurious hotel in Tampa, Fla., for example, may cost the same as a mid-range hotel in New York City. The better the location, the more points it costs to book a room, even if it’s in a “mediocre” hotel.
Comparing the bang you can get for your rewards points buck is a really relative argument. Overall hotel chain quality is something to consider as well. Choice Privileges hotels aren’t going to stack up well against Hyatt or SPG hotels.
So, in the end, we’ve decided to stick with the eight different categories we’ve covered. Based on our research, the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express is definitely not the winner despite it being the favored card of NerdWallet, Value Penguin, The Simple Dollar and Wise Bread.
The card doesn’t offer anniversary rewards, there are only three Category 1 hotels in the U.S., there are no upgrades in membership tiers and all non-Starwood purchases have a paltry 1:1 points-to-dollars ratio. We don’t see a big upside for the average consumer looking for a hotel rewards credit card they can use.
Now, for the winner of our best hotel rewards card of 2018.
The Best Hotel Rewards Credit Card of 2018 is the Hilton HHonors Surpass from American Express
According to our scoring system, the Hilton HHonors Surpass by American Express is the top hotel rewards card. It scored major points by finishing first in two of the weighted categories: sign-up points and points-per-dollar.
This card’s intro points, 75,000, give you 10 nights at any of their Category 1 hotels, and if you book four rewards nights in a row, you get a free fifth night. Those are great perks, in our opinion.
However, this top-ranked card comes with a caveat – there are only two Category 1 hotel in the United States. The rest of its low-points hotels are located abroad.
We checked up on their Category 2 hotels and found 65 hotels. These hotels cost 15,000 points per night. The Hilton HHonors Surpass’ high points-per-dollar ratio makes up for the cost of a Category 2 hotel – the average household can rack up around 85,000 points per year.
Second Place in the Best Hotel Rewards Card: Hyatt Visa and Marriott Rewards (tie)
The race for the top spot in this competition was really close. While we think the Hilton HHonors Surpass was worthy of the #1 spot, think of the Hyatt Visa and Marriott Rewards Premier as tied for #1.5.
The main reason we say this is that their Category 1 hotels are really affordable and there are more than 175 U.S.-based choices between the two cards, whereas the Hilton HHonors only has two Category 1 choices. These two cards also offer some strong tier upgrades.
Deciding which of these cards is better was tough. The Marriott Rewards Premier offered a fantastic 80,000 rewards points, especially considering they have more than 100 Category 1 hotels in the U.S. that cost just 7,500 points.
However, the Marriott card carries the highest APR of the cards we analyzed, and it has the second-highest annual fee.
The Hyatt Visa’s two sign-up nights were a meager total compared to the 10 you could book with the Marriott card, but the Hyatt nights can be redeemed at any hotel in their chain, whether it’s a Category 1 or Category 7. Hyatt’s top-category hotels are also more affordable than Marriott’s: 30,000 to 45,000.
Hyatt’s 16.24% APR was also the best of the bunch, considering every other card offered a range of interest rates instead of a single one. American Express’ cards ranged from 15.49% to 19.49%.
Though the Hyatt Visa finished one point ahead of the Marriott card, we felt the Marriott’s tremendous sign-up bonus pushed it into a tie.
The Choice Privileges Visa, IHG Rewards Club Select, Starwood Preferred Guest Amex and Wyndham Rewards Visa rounded out our rankings. Here is a list of the weighted final scores:
- Hilton: 59
- Hyatt: 54
- Marriott: 53
- Choice Privileges: 52
- IHG: 40
- SPG: 38
- Wyndham: 37
Want to Read More “Best of” Articles About Travel Credit Cards?
This ranking on the best hotel rewards credit cards is part of a collection of “Best Of” guides we’ve written about travel cards.
- Our choice for the top travel credit card of 2018
- Our choice for the best airline rewards card of 2018
- Our choice for the best premium card of 2018