Hilton vs Marriott for a 2-player household


On last Friday’s Frequent Miler on the Air podcast, Greg and I discussed his Hilton credit card strategy moving forward. I didn’t personally have a clear roadmap yet for what we’re going to do about Hilton cards. Honestly, before the SLH partnership, it wasn’t a priority for me to create a clearly-defined strategy. The Aspire card has always been an easy no-brainer, but I haven’t made any effort beyond that for years. As I gave the question more thought, I realized that I currently have a problem: our current hotel credit card strategy is expensive and probably includes too many chains. While neither Hilton nor Marriott are my primary chain, I feel like I need to decide to being committed to a Hilton strategy versus a Marriott strategy for my secondary chain, but it isn’t easy to decide which is the better fit.

Diversifying is generally a good strategy

Over the years, I have come to value a diversified strategy when it comes to rewards, which is to say that I enjoy having multiple types of rewards currencies and being ready to pounce when opportunity knocks. As a result, I have collected a wide range of rewards currencies and credit cards.

There’s also the fact that I write about this stuff for a living. It is helpful for me to have many cards so that I can write about my real-world experience with them. I therefore carry more credit cards and credit card annual fees than I “should” on paper because I write about them. It’s part of the cost of doing business if I’m going to be a blogger. But without unlimited resources at my disposal, I still need to make some choices.

In terms of hotel credit cards, we have cards from Hilton, Marriott, Wyndham, Hyatt, and IHG. That’s not necessarily problematic, but as I considered things more closely, I realized that we probably need to give more thought to how much money and how much spend to commit to each chain.

For instance, my wife and I both have a Hyatt card that requires $15K in spend to earn an annual free night certificate. If we also each got a Surpass card to line up more Hilton free night certificates, we would be looking at $60K in annual spend dedicated just to earning free night certificates (1 each from Hyatt and 1each from Hilton). That seems like a lot of spend to dedicate to free night certificates.

To be clear, it’s not that the $60K spend to end up with 2 uncapped Hilton free night certificates + 2 Hyatt Category 1-4 free night certificates + a minimum of 90,000 Hilton points + a minimum of 30,000 Hyatt points is a bad deal per se. That’s actually a pretty good return compared to the $1,572 that I’d otherwise be able to earn with a Bank of America card like the Premium Rewards card with Platinum Honors status. At the same time, my capacity for spend has taken a downward turn recently, so whereas I haven’t before had to choose between meeting ongoing spend like that and meeting requirements for new cards we’d like to open, I need to more carefully consider that balance in the short term.

As I considered that, it dawned on me that we needed a clearer approach on the hotel card front. I probably won’t be moving on from Hyatt as my primary chain of choice any time soon. But for a secondary chain, we’ve gone back and forth between Marriott and Hilton for years. However, I wanted to write this post in part to help me consider which chain should be my secondary focus behind Hyatt.

A two-player strategy: Marriott versus Hilton

They key benefit of most hotel credit cards is an annual free night certificate of some sort. Whether that’s an annual freebie or something that requires spend varies from card to card and so does the maximum value of an associated certificate.

Playing in two player mode, one quickly figures out that 2 free night certificates are better than one. Having only one annual free night certificate might be handy for something like an airport overnight or a road trip stop, but if you want to plan at least a weekend away around a free night certificate situation, it helps to have two of them. Furthermore, it helps to line up when you’ll each receive your annual certificates (hopefully they get issued around the same time so they also expire around the same time).

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that you want a mirrored strategy where Player 1 and Player 2 both have the same set of cards in order to maximize free night strategy. I fully recognize that many people may prefer some type of mix. In reality, we’ve long had a more mixed strategy, but for the purposes of the topic at hand, I want to consider having either only Hilton cards or only Marriott cards.

Also note that this post entirely ignores welcome bonuses. I wanted to consider long-game strategy here, not short-term welcome bonus strategy. That’s important to note here especially because Marriott cards have very complex rules regarding eligibility based on which other Marriott cards you have. This post isn’t about starting out by chasing bonuses but rather more end-game after you’ve gotten them.

A Marriott hotel card collection

a woman holding a lit up light
Marriott really wants to seduce you with some credit cards if you miss your elite status.

If you’re serious about Marriott and you enjoy high-end stays, then the 85K free night certificates will be of high appeal with Marriott since an 85K free night certificate can be topped off with points to book a night that would otherwise cost up to 100,000 points.

The Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant card offers an annual 85K free night certificate and Marriott Platinum status. There’s also the monthly $25 dining credit which makes some dent in the $650 annual fee if you remember to make use of it. If a two-player household wanted at least two annual 85K free night certificates, they’d be on the hook for $1300.

Alternatively (or possibly additionally), that same household could get Chase Ritz-Carlton credit cards. While the Ritz card hasn’t been available to new applicants for many years, it continues to be available via product change. You’ll need to have another Chase consumer Marriott credit card, but if you have one then you could upgrade to a Ritz card. The Ritz card comes with an annual 85K free night certificate and $300 in airline incidental credits for $450. That means that a two-player household could each have a Ritz card and associated 85K free night certificate for $900 out of pocket. That couple would also have up to $600 in airline incidental credits.

It’s worth a mention that one player could get two annual 85K free night certificates without involving Player 2. It is possible to end up with more than one of either of the above cards by product changing. For instance, I opened the Ritz card many years ago when it was still available to new applicants and I also long held a Chase Marriott Rewards credit card. Not very long ago, I product changed that Marriott card to have a second Ritz card in my name and moving forward I’ll have two 85K free night certificates each year.

The same could theoretically be accomplished on the Amex side. That said, I’d argue that it is a bit wasteful for one person to have two Brilliant cards: if I were going to have two Brilliant cards in my household, I’d want both Player 1 and Player 2 to have one since we’d then both have automatic Marriott Platinum status.

Beyond the 85K free night certificates, if one is committed to Marriott, it probably makes sense to also get an annual 35K free night certificate or two. The Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card from Chase offers an annual 35K free night certificate for an annual fee of $95. The Amex Marriott Bonvoy Business card also offers an annual 35K free night certificate, albeit for a $125 annual fee.

Most Marriott cards each offer 15 elite night credits each year (the Brilliant card comes with 25), but you can not stack those blocks of 15 elite night credits with multiple consumer cards (which is to say that no matter how many consumer Marriott cards you have, you’ll get 15 elite night credits with most cards or 25 with the Brilliant). However, elite nights from a business card can stack with elite nights from a consumer card. In other words, if you have any number of Marriott consumer cards that offer 15 elite night credits and any number of Marriott business cards that offer 15 elite night credits, you’ll end up with 30 total elite night credits annually by having at least one consumer and at least one Marriott business credit card.

If both players are going to go for Marriott Platinum elite status and 50-night milestone benefits, it would make the most sense to each have a Marriott business card. Alternatively, if that doesn’t matter, then it makes more sense to have the cheaper Marriott consumer cards.

In the end, I see a 2-player household having a card collection that looks like A or B below:

Combination A

Total cost: $1550.

Total benefits: 2 x 85K free night certificates + 2 x 35K free night certificates + up to $600 in annual dining credits

Combination B

Total cost: $1150.

Total benefits: 2 x 85K free night certificates + 2 x 35K free night certificates + up to $600 in annual airline incidental credits

*Note that in either scenario, the Marriott Bonvoy Business card could be relace with the Chase Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card for a $30 savings for each card, but then elite nights would not stack.

Either card strategy involves significant up-front cost in terms of annual fees, but a Marriott strategy like the above requires zero effort since all of the free night certificates are automatic.

It’s worth a mention that if you don’t need 85K free night certificates, it would theoretically be possible to pursue a strategy with a new Amex Marriott Bonvoy cards. While it has not been available for new applicants for many years, Amex still has a $95 Marriott Bonvoy card available as a downgrade from the Brilliant card. That downgraded Amex Marriott card offers an annual 35K free night certificate. In a 2-player household, it would be possible for both players to get each get a Brilliant card and a Marriott Bonvoy business card (and even be eligible for the associated welcome bonuses) and later downgrade the Brilliant cards to the $95 Amex Marriott cards to end up with a combination that looks like this:

Total cost: $440

Total benefits: 4 x 35K free night certificates each year

This would be a really cheap strategy to end up with four mid-tier Marriott free night certificates each year. Additionally, each player would start the year with 30 elite night credits. If you aren’t interested in top-tier properties and the hefty ultra-premium card annual fees, this could be the ticket.

A Hilton hotel card collection

a sailboat on a beach

On the Hilton side, the situation is both a bit simpler and a bit more complex. It’s simpler because there is a single issuer and only 4 total Hilton credit cards. It’s more complex because although the Hilton Honors Aspire card offers an annual free night certificate just for having the card, you’ll need to spend on their cards to earn more annual free night certificates.

At a base level, each player should have a Hilton Honors Aspire card. While this card has a $550 annual fee, it is chock full of benefits that make it worthwhile. First, it comes with an annual uncapped Hilton free night certificate that can be used at nearly any Hilton property worldwide on any night of the week so long as there is a standard room free night award available. It also includes up to $400 in annual Hilton resort credits and up to $200 per year in flight credits. It also comes with automatic Hilton Diamond status.

From there, if you want Hilton free night certificates, you’ll each want a Hilton Honors Surpass card. That card offers a free night certificate after $15,000 in spend each calendar year. It has a $150 annual fee but also features a $50 quarterly credit for Hilton purchases.

Therefore, if you can meet the spend, a 2-player household would want:

Total cost: $1400

Total benefits: 4 uncapped Hilton free night certificates + at least 90K Hilton points after $30,000 in total purchases between the two Surpass cards (at the base-level 3 points per dollar spent on the Surpass cards) + up to $800 in total Hilton resort credits ($200 semi-annually on each Aspire card) + up to $400 in total airline incidental credits (up to $200 annually on each Aspire card) + up to $400 in quarterly Hilton credits (up to $50 quarterly on each Surpass card).

Opportunity cost considerations: We could alternatively put the $30K in spend on a card that earns 2.625% cash back and earn $787.50.

Four uncapped free night certificates could be incredibly valuable if used at top-tier Hilton properties and/or in situations where room rates are very high. Just last week, I booked a standard room free night award at the Conrad New York Downtown in New York City on a night when the rate was $980 before taxes (it would have been more than $1200 in total with taxes and fees on a paid rate!). And at least in the case of that property, a free night award was available for 90,000 points — so between the uncapped free nights and rewards earned from spend, this strategy would actually be enough for 5 free nights at a property like that (which, for the record, isn’t usually quite so expensive but is often expensive enough to probably justify this strategy if you’d be happy using your points and certificates that.

For very high spenders, keep in mind that it is possible to earn a free night certificate through spend on the Aspire card also. You get one free night certificate every year just for having the card, but you’ll earn an additional free night certificate at $30K in purchases, so the above combo could yield additional uncapped free night certificates with high spend. Note that Amex also typically allows product changes, so the household above could probably product change their Surpass cards to Aspire cards to end up with uncapped free night certificates that don’t require credit card spend (but do require more in annual fees).

If you value Hilton free nights but don’t have the capacity to spend to multiple free night certificates, pursuing multiple Aspire cards might be the way to go. Alternatively, the Hilton Honors Business card now offers 5x on all purchases up to $100K per year in purchases (then 3x). That card has a $195 annual fee and features a quarterly $60 Hilton credit.

Which combination is better?

On paper, I think the Hilton combination looks very strong. That’s because the Hilton free night certificates are all uncapped, so the four annual free nights between two players could be combined for a single high-end stay. And since both players would have Hilton Diamond status, they would enjoy full Hilton elite benefits on their stays. If you can meet the $15K in purchases on each Surpass card, I think it’s pretty hard to argue with the slew of benefits and credits you get between the Aspire and Surpass cards for the $1400 out-of-pocket cost.

On the other hand, I’ve often said that you would have to pry my Chase Ritz card out of my cold, dead hands. And a Marriott strategy requires no credit card spend, which keeps you free to spend on other cards as your overall strategy demands. for slightly less cost or slightly more out of pocket cost depending on whether you go with the Ritz or Brilliant strategy, a two-player couple could end up with four free nights each year without any effort. Unlike Hilton, none of those free nights would be uncapped — you couldn’t use any of them at the highest-end Marriott properties, nor would you likely want to use all four of them at the same property given the fact that the certificates have different maximum value. And while Hilton waives resort fees on free night stays, Marriott does not. Marriott free night certificates do not really yield free nights if you use them at properties that charge a resort or destination fee.

Of course all of the above ignores the desirability of properties in either chain. Marriott tends to have more options at the higher end, particularly when it comes to more unique or uniquely luxurious type of property. Hilton’s top-end properties tend to be a bit more predictable, for better or for worse.

I think which strategy is better likely depends on a combination of your capacity to spend and your interest in the chain in general. Given an unlimited capacity to spend, a Hilton strategy including the Surpass cards probably makes sense. If I knew I wanted multiple nights at a property like the Waldorf-Astoria Maldives, I’d probably consider upgrading the Surpass cards to Aspire cards (at least for a while).

On the other hand, for those who appreciate Marriott’s more boutique brands and the luxury of some of the top-end brands, I could imagine Marriott making more sense. A Marriott strategy is bolstered by the fact that it requires no spend and costs significantly less than a no-spend Hilton strategy (which would require multiple Aspire cards).

As is the case with many things in this hobby, ultimately, your mileage may vary.

As for me, I had hoped that writing this post would give me clarity as to which strategy to pursue, but I’m not sure it has. At this point, we have a lot of Marriott cards in my household and we have zero Surpass cards. If we could complete $15K in purchases before the end of June 2024, we would probably consider a Hilton Business card for my wife since that card will offer a free night certificate only for those who complete qualifying purchases for one by June 30, 2024 (the card will no longer carry any free night certificate benefit after that). But I don’t think we’re in position to complete that level of spend within the window, so the next step would be to open Surpass cards if we want to pursue a Hilton-centric strategy.

I’m conflicted about that because I’m not sure that I want to commit $30K in spend each year to Hilton cards. Neither am I convinced that I want to pay for 3 or 4 Aspire cards at $550 each (while I find the Aspire to be a very good value, the now-quarterly nature of the airline credits and semi-annual nature of the Hilton resort credits means more tracking headache as we expand the collection of them).

That said, I really like SLH and I’m excited to see Hilton’s integration of SLH. Four nights annually at the right SLH property could certainly be worth some effort. I’m also enthused about AutoCamp, though given cash rates at some of them on weeknights, I’m less convinced that I need free night certificates to enjoy a cool AutoCamp stay (though I reserve the right to change my mind on that at a peak time of year!).

Furthermore, if I trimmed back on Marriott annual fees, I could possibly have my cake and eat it, too. As shown above, for $440 per year, it would be possible for us to end up with four 35K Marriott free night certificates with no spend required. We could even expand upon that by downgrading existing Ritz cards, adding Marriott nights for $95 each. That sure seems easier than spending $15K on a Surpass card and it frees up around $1,000 that could be put toward paying for stays, whether at Marriott, Hilton, or Hyatt. If I still wanted to have an Aspire card each on the Hilton side since the card is a good value and a free top-tier Hilton for a weekend every year is attractive, I could do that for about the same total out of pocket cost as any of the strategies above. In other words, a mixed wallet could look something like this:

That’s $1540 in annual fees for 2 uncapped Hilton free night certificates, four Marriott 35K free night certificates, and the slew of other Aspire card benefits in two-player mode. If I valued the Hilton statement credits at 50% of face value ($600 in total between all of the Hilton resort credits and airline credits taken at half of face value), that’s a “net” cost of $940 for 4 nights per year at a mid-tier Marriott and 2 nights per year at any Hilton we wanted. That’s certainly not bad…..though it doesn’t cure my problem of having too many hotel cards!

I think that for the time being, I’m going to stick with the Marriott-centric strategy that we have set up, but that’s mostly influenced by a lack of desire to commit more spend for free night certificates on Hilton cards in the near-term. If Hilton gets SLH rolling as we expect and if top-end properties like the Grand Hotel Victoria and Eichardt’s Private Hotel end up being available with standard room free night awards, that may be enough to send me over the edge to go all-in on Hilton. There’s also the matter of lifetime status: I currently sit two years and just over 100 nights short of Marriott Lifetime Platinum status. I’m therefore somewhat invested in hitting that threshold so that I don’t have to think about Marriott elite nights at all (or face another year like this one, where I missed Platinum by a couple of nights last year and I’m now sitting without free breakfast status!).

In other words, I’m still leaning more toward Marriott for the time being, heavily influenced by our Chase Ritz-Carlton cards. But I stand at the ready to make a switch toward Hilton if SLH and AutoCamp turn out to be as good as advertised. If they do, we’ll be forced to re-evaluate our Marriott strategy moving forward.

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I’m now getting hit with “Family” rejections. P1 and P2 both with NAF AMEX Hilton cards. “NOT ELIGIBLE” for SUB when applying for Surpass.


I think there are other considerations for a P1 + P2 mode: (1) sharing of points between players – Hilton gets the win here with family pooling, (2) sharing of FNCs – I don’t recall if either one can transfer the FNC to another, (3) ease of lifetime status – I think Marriott gets the advantage here, though Platinum is the highest currently, (4) other benefits of the cards – I personally get 3 free nights per year from my Aspire card: 1 with the FNC and 2 with the Resort credits, (5) other loyalty benefits – like Marriott Titanium gets you a free bag and free preferred seats at booking for up to 8 people. Lastly, again depending on one’s situation, since a single player can get multiple FNCs on their own, a family can have their cake and eat it too: P1 goes after Marriott and P2 goes after Hilton, depending of course on how easy it is to share points (Hilton has family pooling, but Marriott is limited to 100,000/yr I believe).

Dugroz Reports

How hard (or easy) is it to marry FNC’s from different people (P1 and P2) into a single Hilton booking?
And any data points when doing so with multiple rooms? Can you still get guaranteed connecting rooms?


Have you considered the IHG Premier as a part of your 2-player strategy? You get the free night, albeit with a 40k point cap, but the annual fee is only $95. The Platinum status and 4 nights for the cost of 3 with points are also great benefits (though not as valuable or necessary when traveling as a couple).


IHG Premier FNC can be topped off with points. (The old $49 AF IHG Select FNC is limited to 40k and can not be topped off).

Don Johnson

I see the appeal of redeeming those Hilton certs for very good value. But I’ve had some trouble finding standard reward availability when I’ve needed it. Whereas with Marriott your value may be capped, but their footprint is huge and you can use the certs in various room types as long as they’re available with points. Different strokes for different folks, all depends what type of experiences you’re after and how much flexibility you have to achieve it.

FM Fan

Nick, this post was incredibly helpful and thoughtful. I hope everything is OK in Reyes land!

For many years I was a Hilton loyalist…I now have the time I need there and just need to rack up a few more nights to hit lifetime Diamond. I just recently got the Aspire for some of it’s cool features but imagine once I hit lifetime Diamond I will drop it back down. They really lost me with their war on breakfast a few years ago, and the closure of so many US lounges. But they usually have the better price point.

On Marriott, I am opposite. I am LT Gold and have the 600+ nights but need 5 more years as Platinum – so I went this year and moved up to the Brilliant. I also have the Ritz card thanks to FM and feel avowed there unto death do we part. While I am a Marriott guy now, for me the Brilliant is worth the $ to make sure I can autopilot to LT Platinum. I was Ambassador for 3 years and recently dropped to Titanium. I don’t recommend Ambassador.

Then there is the precious Hyatt you all got me addicted to. The nights at Ventana alone blew me away and there’s a chain I feel like I would burn cash quickly on when I hit the lotto to quickly achieve LT Globalist since there is no “time” requirement.

In the end, it’s chasing all these lifetime statuses that is keeping me diversified. If I ever am forced to pick though, it will be Marriott given their footprint. They aren’t as loyal as Hyatt, but I find them light years ahead of Hilton these days (at least domestically).


there’s something that always blocks me from getting good value out of free night certs: kids!
seriously, most nice hotels are for 2 people only. Sometimes 3. Having 3 kids completely destroys the value proposition, as you end up having to book two rooms


Woah, I hadn’t realized that Amex would let you get a second Aspire card by product changing from the Surpass. That’s very appealing to me as someone in one-player mode. I’ve still been able to get good value from a single free night award each year, but having the second one will really open up possibilities especially since I’d then also have $400 resort night credits that could go toward a third night of the stay.

Nick, you’ve mentioned in a few places recently about your MS capacity decreasing. I’d be interested to hear the method you used that has gone away if you are willing to share. Also, this post addresses how that is impacting your hotel strategy, but I’d also be interested in a post about how it is impacting your overall strategy. My impression (and I could be wrong) was that you have been using points for nearly all of your flights and that MS was the primary source of those points.


I think the Marriott plan should account for the fact that a Marriott 35K certificate is rarely useful on its own. Outside of airport hotels, I haven’t seen a Marriott property under 40K per night in years (even Fairfields in mid-size towns). You’ll have to top up the certificate with at least 5K points for it to be useful. The upshot is you can get the certificate with no spend, but you probably can’t use it unless you either put spend on a Marriott card or transfer Chase/Amex points to Marriott.


Not positive about this, but I think the marriott platinum status you receive with the Brilliant card does NOT count toward lifetime platinum status. I still need 4 more years to make lifetime and so I keep the biz and brilliant card to start me at 40 nights. Once I make platinum life I may drop some of the cards


Yes it does. I have years of platinum and only once made it with nights.


Thanks Nun. I hadn’t realized it. I guess the only thing that you dont get is the 5 suite upgrade certificates if you dont do the extra 10 nights. But who cares


Great post Nick! I’ve been through this debate in my head the past couple years. I still have both, that’s serving me while I’m still going through SUB. This year I also decided to not spend on the Surpass card and chase more SUBs instead. The marriott lifetime goal is also making me prioritize the Platinum status. That actually might have become my top hotel status chase, since I gave up renewing Globalist because it required too much spend and mattress run for me to be worth it. Hilton requires no effort, so I’m keeping for now.


Always enjoy the analysis posts, especially on hotels. You should do one for Best Western vs Choice as well.

Daniel A

How about a plan to get multiple Bonvoy cards via downgrade? P2 already has a Bonvoy and in my reading of the eligibility chart, can get the SUB for the Bevy and Brilliant (hoping and waiting for the higher SUBs to return). The long term plan would be to downgrade both to Bonvoy, rendering three Bonvoy cards at a total of $285 in annual fees for three 35k FNCs. Any holes in this plan?


I always appreciate the analysis posts. Here, I’m surprised you used the full annual fee rather than discounting it by whatever you value the cash benefits at. It looks like that is really playing into some decisions.

Side note, for me, the night credits on the Marriott are very appealing since it cuts down the move to status and lifetime significantly.

Boise Ding

Nick why isn’t Greg paying you more so you can easily do the spend! Lol