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What’s the Best Hotel Credit Card? (We Compare 13 of Them)

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List updated October 7th, 2011

In our opinion, the three best hotel credit cards are the Starwood American Express, the Hilton credit card and the Ritz-Carlton credit card. The first two are offered by American Express, an issuer known for catering to frequent travelers and big spenders, while the last is issued by Chase. Keep in mind that the value of hotel credit cards is pretty subjective, since points lose a lot of their value if you don’t redeem for hotel stays or with the hotel chain’s affiliates.

Update 10/7/11: The Marriott Rewards Premier now offers 50,000 bonus points on signup, up from 30,000, along with a free night’s stay. The regular Marriott Rewards credit card offers 30,000, up from 22,500, and two free nights instead of one.

That said, hotel credit cards are a surprisingly good deal in comparison to airline credit cards and even normal rewards credit cards. Many give rewards not just for staying at the hotel, or for spending at affiliates, but also for spending on everyday purchases like groceries. Hotel rewards are notoriously hard to quantify, since points can be used in so many different scenarios. But we’ve done our homework and calculated how much a room costs compared to how many points it takes to book the room, putting a dollar value on murky hotel rewards points.

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Best hotel credit card overall: The Starwood American Express gives, in our opinion, some of the best base and bonus rewards rates out there. We value a Starpoint (the Starwood rewards currency) at 2.3 cents on average, which is far more than the industry standard of a single cent. This actually understates its true value, since it can range from 1 cent to a full 5 cents if you redeem a Starpoint right. That means the base rewards rate for the Starwood AmEx is 2.3% on average, and can max out at 5%. The bonus rewards rate is 5 Starpoints per $1 spent at SPG hotels (2 for the card + 2 for being a preferred guest + 1 for gold/elite status), or ~11.5% rewards. There are also quite a few perks, detailed in our blog post about the Starwood American Express.

Best fringe benefits: The Ritz-Carlton credit card has fringe benefits that rival (and at times surpass) those of the American Express Platinum. It gives complimentary Priority Pass Select airport lounge membership (valued at ~$400), a $200 airline incidentals credit, complimentary Gold Elite status in your first year, and a $100 credit towards dining, spas and other hotel activities each time you spend two or more nights at the hotel. That’s on top of the 50,000-point signup bonus. It gives 5 points per $1 spent at the hotel, 2 per $1 spent on airfare, dining and car rentals, and 1 per $1 spent elsewhere.

Most generous rewards rate: The Hilton HHonors Surpass from American Express comes with a $75 annual fee, but it’s well worth it for the extensive perks and decent rewards rate. You earn 3 HHonors points per $1 as a base rate, 6 points per $1 spent on gas, groceries, drugstores, and cable/internet/wireless bills, and 9 per $1 spent at the Hilton itself. We value HHonors points at anywhere from 0.4-1.7 cents each, and an average of 0.5 cents. Even with that devaluation, the Hilton Surpass earns 1.5% base, 3% in the generous bonus categories and 4.5% at the Hilton itself. The extensive benefits include complimentary Gold VIP status for 1 year, a points bonus for staying at Category 5&6 hotels, and lounge access valued at $99 a year.

The top hotel credit cards, ranked: Here’s our take on the best hotel credit cards. We’ve listed the base rewards rate, bonus rate and rate for staying at the hotel, but as a percentage rather than points earned per $1 spent. We also listed the dollar value of the signup bonus. This is because we’ve valued each hotel’s rewards points in dollar terms based on the cost of a hotel room versus the points you’d redeem. For example, we value Marriott rewards points at 1 cent apiece but Starpoints at 2.3 cents apiece. Even though the Marriott Premier credit card and the Starwood American Express both have 30,000-point signup bonuses, the Marriott’s is worth $300 while the Starwood’s is worth $690. For a complete explanation of how we came to these numbers, check out our hotel rewards infographic.

Card Name Base Rewards Rate Bonus Rate Hotel Rate Annual Fee Value of Signup Bonus
Starwood American Express** 2.3% N/A 11.5% $65* $575
 Ritz-Carlton credit card** 1% 2% on airfare, dining and car rentals 5% $395 $500
Hilton HHonors Surpass** 1.5% 3% on groceries, gas, drugstores, utilities 4.5% $75 $200
No-Fee Hilton HHonors 1.5% 3% on groceries, gas, drugstores, utilities 3% $0 $100
Citi(R) Hilton HHonors(R) Visa Signature(R) Card 1% 3 points per $1 spent on gas, groceries, drugstores (a 1.5% reward rate based on our estimate of point value) 6 points for each $1 spent at participating hotels (a 3% reward rate based on our estimate of point value) $0 $200
Marriott Premier credit card 1% 2% on airfare, dining, rental cars 5% $85* $500
Marriott Rewards Visa Signature 1% N/A 3% $45* $300
Best Western Credit Card 0.6% N/A 9% $0 $90
Priority Club Credit Card 0.6% 1.2% on dining, groceries, gas 3% $49* $180
Wyndham Rewards Visa Signature 1.2% N/A 3% $39 $108
Wyndham Visa – No Fee 1.2% N/A 1.8% $0 $72
Choice Privileges Visa 1.6% N/A 4-12% $0 $128

*The annual fee is waived the first year.
**The card has significant perks/fringe benefits that you should consider; see the card details.
***The Hilton cards’ rewards rates are based on our valuation of Hilton HHonors Points at 2 HHonors points to the penny.

  • http://twitter.com/sunkcosts slug

    FYI The Marriott Premiere credit card annual fee was recently raised to $85 from $65.

    • http://www.nerdwallet.com/ Tim

      Thanks slug, but I don’t think they’ve applied that change to all new applicants yet.  The terms on the application page we use still say $65…

  • TMaG82

    The Ritz Carlton card is offered by Chase, not by Ameican Express.

  • Joseph

    The Hyatt Visa card isn’t here, although it is elsewhere on the Nerdwallet website. I think the Hyatt Visa card, with that huge sign up bonus,  compares really well against these cards. The downside being that there are not as many Hyatt hotels as these bigger chains.

  • Runner312

    Question: I need some help to calculate how much each point in SPG and Hilton worth. Averagely, each SPG pt worth 2.3 cents and each Hilton pt worth 0.5 cents. But SPG get only 1 point for everyday purchase, which means 1 point coms from 1 dollar (if not including spending at hotel). On the other hand, if I only spend money on gas, wireless and certain categories to make sure that I get 6 points per dollar for Hilton card (AmEx) then how is this situation gonna effect how much each point worth for Hilton? Because if I get a hilton card then I will only use that on category purchases. BTW, I know on your post a Tier 1 hotel from Hilton makes a point worth 1.7 cents, but those Tier 1 hotels can be rarely found anywhere inside / outside of US. So please help me on this calculation based on each hilton pt worth 0.5 cent. Thank ya’ll credit card nerds

    • http://www.nerdwallet.com/ Tim

      Hey, if you only use the Hilton card for the 6 point categories, that works out to about 3 cents per $1 you spend, or 3%. That can make it a great choice, even compared to Starwood’s 2.3%.

      At the end of the day though, these loyalty cards all come down to personal preference. We try our best to put everything into numbers so we can make comparisons, but there’s still plenty of subjectivity.

      For example, if you only want to carry one credit card for all purchases, and you frequent Starwood hotels (the W, Westin, Sheraton, etc) then you’d be best served with the Starwood card, especially since it pays by far the highest reward rate on hotel stays. And we know frequent vacationers and business travelers who know how to work the system and have been able to squeeze 3-5% out of the Starwood card.

      In your case, if you’re only going to use the card for the bonus categories, and if you often stay in Hilton hotels, then that card will serve you best.

  • Don Dirkse

    great reviews! QUESTION: several months ago i was considering a chase/ual card for $3-400 because it offered econo-plus seating—does that still exist?

  • Jhvanhorn

    I am trying to decide between the Hilton AmEX card [no annual fee] and the Holiday Inn Priority Card. The Holiday Inn Card is $49.00 a year, but they give you a free night every year. They both seem to run about 3 per cent on staying at their hotels. I hate to seem stupid but I just can’t seem to figure out which one is the best deal. Help!

    • http://www.nerdwallet.com/ NerdWallet

      The first criteria is which hotel you frequent more – if you’re predisposed to one or the other, go with that hotel’s card. But for the sake of argument let’s say you can go either way. In that case, I prefer the Hilton credit card, for the following reasons:

      – It gives bonus rewards on Hilton stays, gas, groceries, drugstores and some utilities, while the Priority Club card gives 3% only at affiliate hotel stays
      – It has a 1.5% base rate, while the Priority Club card only has 1%
      – The signup bonus is higher: 40k HHonors points (we think it’s worth $200) compared to 15k points (worth $150)

      (Note: we value HHonors points at 0.5 cents each, so you technically get 6 HHonors points per $1 spent on the bonus categories listed above, but we think that equates to a 3% rate).

      The downside of the HHonors card is that it’s an Amex, which has lower acceptance, and it gives automatic Silver status rather than Gold.

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