If you’re in the market for a co-branded hotel card, your chain loyalty (if you have any) will choose the card for you. However, if you have no loyalty and frequently travel to places where all the major chains are represented, our list will help you pick a hotel card for 2016. Because these cards are all so different (and so are travelers), we chose a top pick for various categories.
It’s possible none of the card we chose will be the best fit for you. You can compare more options here.
Best hotel card for flexibility: Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express ($95 annual fee, waived the first year)
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The tricky thing about co-branded cards is that you can easily get stuck with points you won’t use, if you don’t stay at the affiliated chain as much as you thought you would. The Starwood Preferred Guest card gets around that problem by offering more than 30 airline transfer programs. Can’t use your points at Starwood? Fine – transfer them to British Airways, United, American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and many more. You even get a 5,000-point bonus whenever you transfer 20,000 points.
As for earning those points, you’ll get 1 Starpoint per dollar on most spending and 4 to 5 Starpoints per dollar on Starwood stays, depending on your elite status.
Notable benefits: Free premium in-room Internet; complimentary Boingo membership; 5 nights and 2 stays toward elite status; relatively high per-point value of more than 2 cents each (as calculated by The Points Guy); 30+ airline transfer partners (and 25 percent transfer bonus when transferring 20,000 points at a time).
Caveats to consider: No free anniversary night (a perk several other hotel cards offer); no automatic elite status; no extra bonus categories (aside from Starwood stays). Also, Starwood is in talks with Marriott about merging, which could affect the rewards program.
Best hotel card for the budget-conscious: IHG Rewards Club Select Card ($49, waived the first year)
Concerned you won’t earn enough rewards to cancel out the annual fee? This card has a low cost of entry, at $49 per year (waived the first year). Plus, with a free annual night (no category restrictions), you can still get value out of this card even if you don’t spend a cent on it.
If you do spend on the card, you’ll earn 5 pts per dollar at IHG hotels; 2 points per dollar at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants; and 1 cent per dollar on other purchases. The everyday nature of these categories means you can earn rewards without even leaving home. You’ll also get a 10 percent rebate every time you redeem.
Notable benefits: Free annual night; automatic Platinum elite status; bonus categories that reward everyday spending; 10 percent redemption bonus.
Caveats to consider: Relatively low point value of less than 1 cent each.
Best hotel card for frequent travelers: Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card ($85)
Hotel cards will nearly always give extra points per dollar on spending at their properties. And this card is no exception, offering 5 points per dollar at Marriott locations. However, it also offers 2 points per dollar on restaurants, car rental agencies and airline tickets purchased directly with the airlines. So, even before you reach the front desk, you have the chance to earn extra rewards on your flight there, the car you drove to the hotel and on lunch.
Plus, if you’re on the road a lot, you’ll like Marriott’s large portfolio of properties (more than 4,000), which is soon to grow larger following the merger with Starwood.
Notable benefits: Free annual night (category 1-5), 15 credits toward elite status (guaranteed Silver status); bonus categories that reward travel spending.
Caveats to consider: Relatively low point value of less than 1 cent each; 2 points per dollar only on flight purchases directly from airlines (meaning no extra rewards from online travel agencies).
Best hotel card for free nights: Hyatt Credit Card ($75 annual fee, waived the first year)
Most card sign-up bonuses give you a boatload of points, and it’s up to you to maximize them. If you’re thinking, “That’s too much effort, just let me stay for free,” this could be your card. As of January 2016, the card gives you 2 free nights after you spend $1,000 in the first three months of opening the card. There are no category restrictions on these nights (although the hotel has to have a standard room available). Then, every account anniversary, you get another free night (category 1 to 4).
When it comes to earning points toward more free stays, this card gives you 3 points per dollar at Hyatt properties, 2 points per dollar on restaurants and airline tickets (directly from the airlines) and 1 point per dollar on other purchases.
Notable benefits: 2 free nights (if you meet the sign-up requirements); 1 free anniversary night (category 1 to 4); bonus categories that reward travel spending; automatic elite status (Platinum status); 2 stay credits and 5 night credits toward Diamond elite status if you spend $20,000 in a calendar year; relatively low annual fee ($75); relatively high point value (almost 2 cents each, as calculated by The Points Guy).
Caveats to consider: Hyatt is relatively small, compared to other hotel-chain giants, with 600 properties worldwide (according to its website), so you might not find a property in every city you visit. For comparison, Marriott and IHG each have more than 4,000 properties.
Best hotel card if you want luxury — Hilton HHonors Surpass from American Express ($75 annual fee)
Hilton’s brand image is one of luxury, and its Surpass card throws in some perks for those who want to travel in style. Complimentary Priority Pass membership gets you into more than 600 airport lounges worldwide. Automatic Gold Hilton HHonors status gets you (depending on the property) late check-out, free water, free snacks, free in-room movies, complimentary in-room Internet and more. If that’s not enough, you can get upgraded to Diamond status through the end of the next calendar year if you spend $40,000 in a year on the card. Depending on the property, Diamond status can get you room upgrades and executive floor lounge access.
As for rewards, you’ll earn 12 points per dollar on Hilton purchases; 6 points per dollar at restaurants, supermarkets and U.S. gas stations; and 3 points per dollar on other purchases.
Notable benefits: Complimentary Gold status; ability to upgrade to Diamond status if you meet spending requirements; Priority Pass membership; relatively low annual fee ($75); bonus categories that reward everyday spending. See Rates & Fees.
Caveats to consider: Relatively low point value of 0.5 cents per point, as calculated by The Point Guy (hence, the inflated number of points earned per dollar); annual fee isn’t waived the first year; no free anniversary night (if you want that, check out the Surpass’s sister card, the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Visa).