Hotels 101: Free Hotel Nights
There are four basic ways to get a free hotel room.
- Hotel Reward Programs. All major hotel chains operate loyalty programs. Earn enough points, and you can redeem them for free nights at one of their hotels. You can earn points whenever you stay; but you can also earn points from the hotel's credit cards, from promotions, and from a number of different partners.
- Credit Card Points. Several banks operate their own credit card reward programs. You can use points from many of these programs to book hotel rooms. The most likely scenario is using Chase Ultimate Reward points to get free nights at Hyatt hotels.
- Free Night Certificates. You can earn free night certificates from several different hotel credit cards. Sometimes you get certificates just by signing up for the card (and meeting its initial spending requirement), sometimes you get a certificate every year, and sometimes you get a certificate for every year in which you spend more than a certain amount of money.
- Promotions. You can occasionally earn free nights by participating in hotel promotions.
- 1 Getting free night certificates from credit cards
- 2 Promotional free night certificates
- 3 Hotel reward programs: the very basics
- 4 Getting points to use for award nights
- 5 Seeing which award hotels are located at your destination
- 6 Tips for getting good value from your award points
- 7 Determining if booking an award night is a good use of your points
Getting free night certificates from credit cards
Several different credit cards provide free night certificates. For example, the sign-up bonus for the Ritz Carlton credit card is two certificates, each good for a free night at any Tier 1-4 Ritz Carlton hotels, and the IHG credit card gives you a free night certificate every year you have the card, which can be used for a free night at any of their hotels.
Many hotel certificates can be used at any of of the program's hotels. They are a great way to get a free night at very expensive hotels that would normally cost over $500 per night. Other certificates can only be used at the program's less expensive hotels, but can still often be used for rooms that would cost $200-300 per night.
The main downside of hotel certificates, is that they usually expire after a single year. If you get too many certificates, you might not have a good opportunity to use them all.
We recommend that everyone take advantage of credit card hotel certificates to stay for free, especially for luxury hotels, or when regular rates are higher than normal. Staying for Free at High-end Hotels with Credit Card Free Night Certificates
Promotional free night certificates
The other way to get free night certificates is through hotel promotions. For example, Marriott will give any new member a free night certificate, if they stay two times during the first few months that they are a member. Although, you have to sign-up for your membership through the promotion page. New Marriott Members Can Easily Get a Free Night
Throughout the year, several hotel companies will run promotions along the lines of "stay 2 nights and earn a free night" (sometimes you have to stay 3 times). This can be an excellent way to get free hotel nights, especially because you can often earn the certificate by staying at inexpensive hotels, and then use the certificate to stay at a more expensive property. Uncovering Lucrative Hotel Promotions When They Become Available
Hotel reward programs: the very basics
If you are truly a newbie to the world of hotel loyalty programs, there are a few things that you need to know.
- You might not immediately recognize the names of a couple of the largest hotel programs. The largest hotel company in the world is called the “Intercontinental Hotel Group” or “IHG”. They are the parent company of Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, and a few other companies; but are named after their high-end Intercontinental brand. Another major program is called “Starwood Preferred Guest” or “SPG”. This program includes Westin, Sheraton, and a bunch of other well-known hotel brands.
- Some hotel points are much more valuable than others. Different hotel loyalty programs require very different amounts of points for free hotel night. For example, for a roughly equivalent hotel, Starwood might require 10,000 points, Hyatt might require 12,000, Marriott might require 30,000, and Hilton might require 40,000 points. The expected value of different hotel points ranges from a low of about .4 cents per point, to a high of 2.1 cents per point.
- Each hotel program has an award chart where the number of required points is based on the “category” of the hotel. For example, Marriott has nine categories of hotels ranging from 7,500 to 40,000 points per night. Hotel programs generally keep the point costs for each category constant, but periodically move the hotels from one category to another. A hotel that was in category 5 one year, might be in category 6 the next. As you might expect, many more hotels move to more expensive categories than move into less expensive categories, so a typical hotel award night has gradually required more points.
- Marriott and Starwood are merging. For the time being, they still have separate reward programs. However, you can convert as many Starwood points into Marriott points as you want, at a rate of 3 Marriott points to 1 Starwood point, or vice versa. Each program will also automatically match any hotel status you have in the other program.
This is very different from the world of frequent flyer miles, where most airlines charge roughly the same number of miles for the same type of flights.
Getting points to use for award nights
Unless you travel a lot for work, you probably aren’t going to earn very many points through actual hotel stays. Sophisticated travel hackers can sometimes take advantage of loyalty program promotions to earn larger than normal amounts of points on their paid stays. But for most people, it takes a long time to earn enough points to be able to redeem a free night the normal way.
So how do you earn enough points to able to get multiple free hotel nights every year?
- Most of your free nights are likely to come from signing up for credit cards. Each time you sign up for a card, you’ll generally receive enough points for 1-3 nights at a high-end hotel, or up to dozen or more nights at a less expensive option. A few credit cards provide free night certificates instead of hotel points.
- Free Hyatt hotel nights are a good use of your Chase Ultimate Reward points. Another way to get more hotel points is to earn Chase Ultimate Reward points, and convert them into Hyatt points. Each Ultimate Reward point coverts into one Hyatt point, which you can then use for free Hyatt hotel rooms
- Other than using Ultimate Rewards points for Hyatt redemptions, it rarely makes sense to transfer flexible credit card points to hotel programs. Amex operates a loyalty program called Membership Rewards, and Citibank operates a program called ThankYou points. Both programs allow you to transfer your points into various hotel programs to redeem for free hotel nights. However, the value you get when you do so, is lower than you can typically receive using these points in other ways. You can also transfer your Ultimate Reward points to hotel partners other than Hyatt, but these other options typically aren’t worthwhile. Introduction to "Transferable" Reward Points.
- Using the “Cash & Points trick” you can purchase IHG and Choice points at good enough prices that they are always interesting award options. Every hotel program allows you to purchase additional points, rather than earning them. However, the rate for buying hotel points is normally too expensive to be worthwhile. But, with both IGH and Choice, you can take advantage of the “Cash & Points” trick to purchase last-minute points at lower-than-normal rates. While buying points to use for an award isn’t really a free night, it essentially allows you to sometimes purchase rooms at a significant discount.
- It can make sense to purchase hotel points when they are running good promotions. While the normal purchase prices are too expensive, hotel companies sometimes have sales where you receive bonus points for every purchase. Sometimes, this bonus rates can be as high as 100%, meaning that you’ll get double the normal number of points. When they are running a particularly good sale, it can make sense to purchase points and have them on-hand for future redemptions. Acquiring More Hotel Points When They are On Sale.
Unless you have a problem with handling credit, signing up for credit cards just to collect sign-up bonuses is a sensible thing to do. It won’t kill your credit rating—in fact, it is more likely to improve it. Credit Cards 101.
In this table, you can see how many free nights you can expect to get from the typical sign-up bonus of each card, if you use your points to book rooms at the hotel company’s least expensive, typical, or most expensive hotel options.
You can sign up for multiple of these cards over the next few years, and take advantage of dozens of free hotel nights.
|Card||Typical Bonus||Free Nights|
|Least Expensive Hotels||Typical Hotels||Most Expensive Hotels|
|Marriott (business version also available)||80,000||10.7||2.7||1.8|
|SPG (business version also available)||25,000||12.5||2.5||0.7|
|Hilton Aspire Amex||100,000||20.0||2.5||1|
|Hilton Ascend Amex||100,000||20.0||2.5||1|
|Club Carlson Premier Rewards||85,000||9.4||2.1||1.2|
|Club Carlson Rewards||60,000||6.7||1.6||0.9|
Ultimate Rewards is a program operated by Chase for a several of its credit cards, and is probably the best credit card based loyalty program. We strongly recommend signing up for their cards, and using them for your credit card spending, to earn large quantities of Ultimate Reward points. The points can then be converted into different types of frequent flyer miles to redeem free airplane tickets, or they can be used (like cash) to pay for any type of travel. But, one of the best ways to get good value from your Ultimate Reward points is to convert them to Hyatt points, and use them for free hotel rooms. Ultimate Rewards Guide.
For example, you can purchase IHG points for .625 cents each (and sometimes less). If you are interested in staying at a Holiday Inn that costs 15,000 points per night, the required points would cost $93.75. This might be significantly cheaper than the normal price for the room. Get Cheap IHG and Choice Points Using the Cash & Points Trick.
Seeing which award hotels are located at your destination
Usually the first step for using your hotel points is to determine which hotels are available where you are travelling, and how many points they cost per night.
Remember that you can book hotels that belong to any hotel program where you have a bunch of points. In addition, you can always book IHG and Choice hotels, by taking advantage of the opportunity to purchase reasonably priced last-minute points. And, if you have Ultimate Reward points, you can often get value on Hyatt hotels as well.
There are several valuable tools that make it easy to see your options across the different hotel programs you can take advantage of. Finding the Award Options at Your Destination
- Pointimize. Pointimize is the best tool for finding and evaluating all the award hotel options at a destination. It shows you the available hotels, how many points they cost, what the regular room rate is, and how much value you are getting from your points. Finding the Award Options for Your Destination.
- Award Mapper. Award Mapper doesn’t help you compare the award cost with the regular room rate; but it is much faster, and does a better job of letting you explore your hotel options using a map. We sometimes use it to get a quick glance of our options, or to see what is available throughout a region, or along a road trip. In addition, it supports two programs (Choice and Club Carlson) that Pointimize does not.
- Preferred Hotels & Resorts. You can use Choice hotel points to book rooms at many of the hotels in the Preferred Hotel & Resorts program. If you are looking for a luxury hotel, make sure to check the Preferred Hotel directory. These hotels won’t show up in Pointimize or Award Mapper. Booking Independent Luxury Hotels with Choice Points.
Tips for getting good value from your award points
You’ve been building up loyalty points through a combination of credit-card sign-up bonuses, hotel promotions, shopping portals, and hotel stays. Now, it’s time to travel. How do you best use your points to get free hotel rooms?
- Point-based stays are most valuable during periods of top demand, such as during festivals and events, ski season, or school breaks. The number of points that you need to redeem for a hotel are based on the normal rates for the hotel—the more expensive the hotel or destination, the more points you need. While some programs require more points during “high season”, award rates don’t fluctuate as much as regular room rates do. As a result, your most lucrative redemptions are going to be when you need to visit a destination when the hotel rates are high—during ski season, school breaks, special events, holidays, and peak travel season.
- You are usually better off taking advantage of a cash and point redemption (when you can). Unless you earn so many points that you can book award rooms every time you travel, you are going to make a combination of award and paid reservations over the course of the year. You’ll usually get more value by taking advantage of cash and points redemptions to spread your points across more nights. The cash portion of a cash and points redemption is usually less money that the value of the points you save. Use Cash and Points Awards to Get a Better Deal When You Redeem Hotel Points.
- Marriott, Starwood, and Hilton give you your 5th night free on award stays. Four nights worth of points will get you a five-night stay. For Hilton, you need to have at least Silver elite status to take advantage of this benefit.
- Consider staying on the outskirts of cities, or by the airport. The required number of points for a typical hotel are usually much lower outside the city center. If you are sightseeing by car anyway, in may not make a big difference on your trip, and you’ll usually save even more money by avoiding the need to pay for expensive overnight parking. For example, the Westin Riverwalk costs 12,000 Starpoints a night, but the Four Points by Sheraton San Antonio Airport only costs 3,000 points on a weekend night, and still gets a 4.5 rating on Trip Advisor. The San Antonio Marriot Riverwalk is 35,000 Marriot points per night, but the TownPlace Suites San Antonio Northwest is only 10,000 points.
- You can often spend a small amount of additional points to get a junior suite, club room or other upgraded room. Sometimes, you’ll need to call-in to take advantage of the opportunity to book an upgraded room.
- You’ll get the most value from your points at a hotel chain’s cheapest and most expensive hotels. The required points for staying at Category 1 or Category 2 hotels can be ridiculously low. Obviously, the cash rates for these lower category hotels also tend to be low, but the relative point cost is even lower. Bloggers are happy to point out that 95,000 Hilton points will get you a single night at one of Hilton’s most expensive hotels, or nineteen nights at one of their Category 1 hotels. Of course, most of the time, you won’t have an opportunity to stay at a Category 1 or Category 2 hotel unless you are visiting a very inexpensive (usually international) destination. Getting More for Your Points by Using Them at Inexpensive Hotels.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the room rates at the most expensive hotels in the chain can be extremely high, even over $1000 per night, giving you a very good return your award points. There is a fixed upper limit to the number of points required for a free hotel night, but there is no upper limit to the cash price of the hotel room. Of course, the real value you receive is based on what you would have actually paid to stay at the hotel, not the necessarily the hotel’s listed price.
Determining if booking an award night is a good use of your points
- Because you have a limited supply of points, you need to be smart about when to book an award night, and when to just pay the going rate for your room. You don’t want to use up all your points on free hotel nights, where you are only getting a low value per point; and not have enough to be able to use them later when you could get more value. At the same time, you don’t want to hold onto your points forever, passing up free hotel rooms, while you forever seek out the highest possible redemption rates.
- We recommend converting the required number of points into an “award room rate”. Your points have real value. The best way to think about whether it makes sense to book an award night is to convert the required number of points into a dollar value, and then decide whether the room is worth “spending” that much money, or whether you are better off taking advantage of another option.
- The value per point that you should use is based on your own individual circumstances, but we provide a set of values that work well for many people. In some cases, you might have an award opportunity that is so good that it makes sense to purchase new points, if you don’t already have enough to make an award reservation.
For example, if the points cost of a Sheraton hotel is 10,000 SPG points per night, and you value SPG point at 2.1 cents per point, the “cost” of using award points is $210 per night. If the $210 “award room rate” is lower the regular room rate, you are better off making an award booking, rather than a normal booking. But, if the room still isn’t worth $210 per night, compared to the other options at your destination, you are better off saving your points, and booking another hotel instead.
One of the nice things about searching for award hotels with Pointimize, is that they calculate an award room rate for every hotel.
|Program||Typical value per point||Acquisition cost|
See our more in-depth analysis of Determining Whether an Award Night is Worthwhile.