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Free hotel stays. Mountains of bonus points. Automatic room upgrades.
The lure of hotel credit card offers can be irresistible. But are hotel credit cards worth it?
For some travelers, absolutely. For others, these cards cost more in cash and missed opportunities than they're worth. So here are the questions to consider when deciding whether to sign up for a hotel credit card.
Will you pay off your balance in full and on time every month?
If you won't pay your balance in full every month, a hotel credit card is not worth getting. Interest charges and late fees will quickly outweigh the value you get from the credit card's perks.
» Learn more: How do travel credit card categories work?
Can you offset the card's annual fee?
For a hotel credit card to be worth it, the cash value of your perks should be greater than the card’s annual fee. For example, the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card comes with one of highest annual fees around: $650. But in return, you can get up to $300 in statement credits per calendar year for eligible purchases at restaurants worldwide. Terms apply.
Plus, you get a certificate redeemable for a free night in a room worth up to 85,000 Bonvoy points every year after your card renewal month that your account remains in good standing. Terms apply.
What’s that certificate worth? Depends where you use it. But as an example: An ocean view room Ritz Carlton Cancun goes for 50,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night in mid-May at the same time the cash rate is $441 per night. So in this case, your free night certificate plus your $300 statement credit are worth $741, easily trouncing the $650 annual fee. Terms apply.
Sounds great. But that won't work out for everyone. A room at the Ritz starts at 60,000 points in January, meaning your certificate is useless here if you travel at peak times. If you can't use the certificate when you want at the hotel you want, and if you won't charge $300 every year at Marriott properties to get the statement credit, this card could be a money-loser for you.
Lots of hotel credit cards come with low or no annual fees, like the Marriott Bonvoy Bold® Credit Card, the Hilton Honors American Express Card and Radisson Rewards™ Visa® Card. But even $0-annual-fee hotel credit cards can be a losing proposition if you use them instead of a card better suited to your spending habits.
» Learn more: Avoid these common hotel credit card mistakes
Does the card reward your unique spending habits?
Hotel credit cards award bonus points when you use them to pay for stays at participating hotels. Many credit cards also give you bonus points for spending on specific categories, such as grocery stores, gas stations, drug stores and home improvement stores. If you choose a card that doesn't reward your spending habits, you miss out.
For instance, the $95-annual-fee World of Hyatt Credit Card pays 1 point per dollar at grocery stores. NerdWallet estimates Hyatt points are worth about 2.3 cents each, meaning $6,000 in grocery charges will get you Hyatt points worth about $114. Meanwhile, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express pays 6% cash back on up to $6,000 worth of purchases per year at U.S. supermarkets. Terms apply. That’s up to $360 back in your pocket. So if you frequently use the Hyatt credit card at grocery stores, you could be leaving almost $250 on the table.
» Learn more: The best hotel credit cards right now
Are hotel points worth more to you than other types of points?
Many financial institutions have their own rewards programs that issue points redeemable for hotel stays, flights, rental cars, gift cards, cash and more. They include:
Bank of America Preferred Rewards.
Wells Fargo Rewards.
If you don't tend to stay at properties affiliated with any one particular hotel group, these "flexible points currencies" could be more useful to you. But suppose you stay at lots of hotels with the same loyalty program. In that case, a hotel credit card can probably deliver more value because they come with additional perks like room upgrades, accelerated paths to elite status and more.
Will you pay resort fees when you redeem your points?
If you use Marriott points to book a hotel stay at a property that charges a resort fee, you'll still be on the hook for that fee, which can cost more than $40 per night at some properties. On the other hand, Hilton and Hyatt sometimes charge resort fees when you pay for your room with cash, but those fees are waived when you pay with points.
What hotels look good at your future travel destinations?
Are you heading to Hawaii? Think twice before you sign up for a credit card that's co-branded with IHG Rewards. That hotel group has just two hotels in the Aloha State; both budget properties away from the beach.
On the other hand, if you're dreaming of French Polynesia, an IHG credit card could be perfect since you can redeem IHG points for a stay at the spectacular InterContinental Le Moana Bora Bora.
Think about your next three or four travel destinations, then search for hotels you like, making a note of which hotel chain has the best picks for you. Don't overlook lower-cost hotel groups like Wyndham, Choice Hotels and Best Western, all of which have loyalty programs and co-branded credit cards.
» Learn more: How to choose a hotel credit card
Are the perks redundant with your current credit cards?
If you're traveling outside the country, you need a card that doesn't tack on foreign transaction fees. If you're going to rent a car, you should probably use a credit card that comes with rental car insurance coverage. Finally, if you fly often, a card that reimburses the $78 membership fee for TSA PreCheck is like money in the bank.
Before you apply for a hotel credit card offering these or other perks, ask yourself: Do you already have these benefits through one of your current card accounts? If so, look at hotel cards that complement your current lineup.
Is hotel elite status all it's cracked up to be?
Some credit cards help you earn elite status in the hotel loyalty program, which sounds great. But the perks may not mean much to you.
For example, late checkout, a perk of elite status in some hotel loyalty programs, is worthless when you usually take early flights. In addition, the more valuable perks typically aren't available until you earn higher elite status levels. So do your homework and don't let a promise of elite status win you over.
» Learn more: 5 credit cards with automatic hotel elite status
If you're thinking of getting a hotel credit card
When a hotel credit card offer tempts you, look at the downsides as well as the perks. Annual fees, interest charges and late payment fees can make a hotel credit card a losing proposition. But if you expect to stay in the same hotel group a lot in the future, do some math to calculate your possible rewards to see if you can come out ahead with a hotel-branded credit card.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card