Which credit card offers the best free night certificates?

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I’m pretty excited about IHG’s revamped Premier card and its new business card twin.  Each comes with an annual 40K free night certificate upon renewal.  A single person could sign up for both cards and enjoy a free cheap weekend getaway each year.  A couple can stretch this out into an annual four night vacation.  With the new ability to add points to these free night certificates, it will be easier than ever before to use them to stay in great hotels year after year.  I was already pretty happy that IHG offers Kimpton hotels in their portfolio, but I’m even more enthused about the ability to book many Mr & Mrs Smith hotels with IHG points and certificates.

Before we get too carried away with trumpeting IHG Premier free nights, its worth stepping back to look at other options.  Free nights from Hilton, Hyatt, and Marriott each have their own merits and one can argue that any one of them is the best.  Let’s compare them side by side:

Hilton Hyatt IHG Marriott 35K Marriott 50K
Credit card options Aspire $450
Surpass $95
Business $95
World of Hyatt $95 Premier $99
Business $99
Boundless $95
Amex $95
Prem. Plus Biz $99
Biz Amex $125
Brilliant $450
Ritz $450
Spend required for annual free night upon renewal $0 Aspire
$15K Surpass
$15K Business
$0 $0 $0 $0
Spend required for 2nd annual free night $60K Aspire
$60K Business
$15K
$60K Business $60K Biz Amex N/A
Certificate max point value No Cap
(Limited to weekend nights1)
18K
(Category 4 Peak)
40K 35K 50K
Ability to add points to exceed cap? Not needed
✅✅✅
No Yes
✅✅
Up to 15K
Up to 15K
Equally usable when hotel is peak priced? Yes
Yes
No
(Requires topping off with more points)
No
(Requires topping off with more points)
No
(Requires topping off with more points)
Waives resort or destination fees on free night stays? Yes
Yes
No No No
Book multiple nights on single reservation? Yes
Yes

(Via Pay My Way)
No Yes
Yes
Allows gifting free night to others? Yes
Yes
No No No
Works with 4th or 5th night free awards? No Not Applicable No No No
Can use upgrade certificates with free night certificates? Not Applicable No Not Applicable Yes
Yes
Bookable online? No
(Must Call)
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes

✅ = Notably good feature
1) Hilton free night certificates issued before the end of 2022 can be used any day of the week.

Hilton Free Nights

One could easily argue that Hilton free night certificates are the best.  They have no cap.  As a result, they can be used at the most expensive Hilton properties worldwide.  That’s awesome.

On the other hand, certs issued after this year will go back to being useable only on weekends.  Plus, there seem to be relatively few ultra-luxe properties compared to those available through the other programs listed here.  And the few that do exist seem to rarely have standard room award availability (which is required to use a free night certificate), especially on weekends.  When these factors are all taken together, Hilton’s advantage over the other programs (uncapped free nights) becomes much less important.  Typical travelers may find fantastic uses for these certs occasionally, but I bet the certs are most often used for high end but not ultra-luxe properties.

Summary: Getting great value from Hilton free nights can be a challenge.

Hyatt Free Nights

The free category 1-4 free night certificates that come with the World of Hyatt card are remarkable in that they can be used even when a hotel is peak priced.  You may find that a category 3 or 4 hotel is usually priced under $300 per night, but soars to at least twice that amount during some peak dates.  With Hyatt, as long as standard rooms are available during those peak dates, you should be able to use your certificate.

On the other hand, many desirable Hyatt and SLH hotels are category 5 or higher.  Hyatt doesn’t provide any way to use your category 1-4 certificates at these hotels.  In fact, even though there are plenty of Hyatts in Manhattan, not a single one is category 4 or lower (Incidentally, I happen to be writing this post from the now category 8 Park Hyatt in Manhattan — luckily I booked it while it was category 7).

Summary: Hyatt category 1-4 free nights are great, but only if there’s a great category 1-4 Hyatt where you want to go.  In expensive destinations you’re unlikely to find anything worthwhile.

IHG Free Nights

I think that the free nights that come with the IHG Premier and Premier Business cards are the most versatile of all the options listed here.  They can be used for truly free nights when your target hotel is priced at 40,000 points or less.  Or, you can add any number of points to the free night certificate to book the room.

There is a limit to how “great” these certificates are: The fact that IHG often sells points for as low as half a cent each indirectly limits the top value of these certificates to $200 each (since you can sometimes buy 40,000 points for $200).  On the other hand, if you want to use your free night certificates for nights that cost more than 40,000 points, the occasional ability to buy points for half a cent each during point sales can be a great way to get the points to top-off your free night awards.

Summary: While these certificates don’t have the highest theoretical value, they are probably the easiest to use at places where you really want to go.

Marriott Free Nights

Marriott has one huge edge over the competition: footprint.  In my experience, there are almost always highly rated Marriott hotels in places I want to go (at least when chain hotels are available at all).  Plus, they have the advantage of allowing Platinum elite members to use their Suite Night Awards on stays booked with free night certificates (Hyatt does not allow the same).

While its too early to know how Marriott will price desirable hotels now that they’ve eliminated award charts, prior award pricing has made me optimistic about both the 35K and 50K free night certificates once Marriott adds the ability to top-off certificates with up to 15K points per night (expected “late April 2022”).  Previously I’ve often found that hotels that I wanted to stay at were priced at 40,000 points or 60,000 points: out of range of 35K and 50K certificates.  If pricing increases at most of these hotels by no more than 5,000 points per night, then we’ll be able to book those hotels with a mix of free night certificates and points.  For 2022 Marriott is capping the award price of most of their hotels to the previous peak award pricing (when categories still existed) and so we won’t know until 2023 whether or not the 35K and 50K free night certificates will still be as broadly usable.

One annoying quirk of Marriott’s program is that when hotels list award prices for upgraded rooms, you can’t use a free night certificate.  You can’t even use a 50K free night certificate for an upgraded room that costs 40K per night.  The other programs don’t allow this either, but the way Marriott displays award prices for upgraded rooms makes it look like you should be able to do so.

The biggest disappointment to me with the latest Marriott changes is that the ability to top off free nights is limited to 15,000 points per night.  This means that it will continue to be impossible to use those certificates at ultra-luxe properties.

Summary: We won’t know how bad dynamic pricing is until 2023, but for now the Marriott free night certificates are arguably the best options for staying in desirable hotels in places you want to go, as long as you’re willing to forgo top of the line luxury.

Bottom Line

All of the free night certificates described above have pluses and minuses.  If you want to stay at top of the line luxury hotels, only Hilton and IHG certs offer options.  With Hilton, you have to find standard room award availability and only on weekends (beginning with certs issued next year).  And with IHG, you may have to top off your certs with a huge number of points.  Since IHG dynamically prices most of their hotels, the top-off amount can easily dwarf the 40K cert contribution.  All of the certificates can be effectively used at mid to high tier hotels.

Ultimately, the best free night certs are whichever ones you would dependably use every year.  For each person and each circumstance, the chain that meets that requirement will vary… a lot.

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Jake

Sometimes the best free night certificate isn’t a certificate at all. It’s the 15,000 points annual bonus on the Wyndham cards! Use them on a hotel or Vacasa rental this year or combine them with the annual points given in subsequent years for a multi-night stay or a fancier one. Ok …..Wyndham and fancy. ……. lol. Maybe fewer uses for the points but a much longer time to use them. Instead of a FNC expiring in 12 months you have points good for 4 years.

Aleks

From personal stays, I can place Hilton & IHG Free Certs on-par for the following reasons:

  • Hilton no-cap is easier to search, but it takes Amex a few months to deposit those into your account, plus they going to reverse to weekends only, limiting their use. Plus cardholders can get some tangible benefits at some properties, increasing the value per stay. For hi-end properties Hilton is ahead with no co-pays required.
  • IHG certs are easy to use and book online, although point prices seems to fluctuate after the program switched to fluid pricing. But “free” cert cost is cheaper than Hilton ($49/$99 vs $450), and IHG has a larger footprint. The average 40K-points limit will cover you a room at $200-300 value. Also IHG has the biggest choice of room types (if available) at the same property to get for same-level award (king, 2 dbls, suite, etc.)
  • Hyatt got some nice properties under 18K points, but overall footprint is sparse – mostly in large cities.
  • I’d place Marriott at the bottom.

Saw some comments on Radisson program which gives 40K points annually with CC. I used that for many years, and it does have some uses, especially at low-priced properties overseas (majority hotels in US are 30-45K/nt.), where you can get rooms for 15K, effectively having 2 “free” nights per year.

Thank you Greg for comprehensive rundown, it helps to keep things in perspective.

iamhere

Marriott is the easiest to redeem. The room plus all room expenses is free if the hotel is equal or less than the points on the certificate. If not you’ll have to add points. IHG, many hotels do not participate. However, for Marriott it is almost equal to the amount of points.

Alex

While Hilton does not have that many interesting properties at the high end, if you think what you can get from IHG and Marriott for 40-50K and from Hyatt at 1-4, there’s a whole lot of Hiltons of comparable level. And then if you’re lucky and plan well, you can get Hilton’s gems.

I just used 2 Hilton certs at Grand Wailea. No, it is not worth $1000/night but it’s a great property and after walking over and visiting Andaz Maui, I’d take GW over it any time. If you’re into Maldives, WA Maldives is the best points/certs bet there. And so on. It’s really hard to argue anything but Cat 1-7 Hyatt cert against Hilton’s FN.

Kirk

Hyatt suite upgrade awards not able to be used with free night awards is really a big detriment. If you have a trip using the suite upgrade award (booking with points or cash), and you want to use a free night award, you end up having to book two separate reservations, with no idea if you’d have to move rooms when the free night comes along. Why not just make the free night award equivalent to points booking?

DavidS

Hilton all the way – though that could change in 2023/24. Just booked a couple of nights this fall at a very nice hotel that were otherwise $800/nt. (Though I prefer Hyatt’s loyalty program.)

Interesting that you only calculated maximum value of IHG certs when all the loyalty programs sell points. This would be one way to compare max value. Sorry if I don’t recall the sale prices, but Hyatt: 18kx1.8c?=$324 , IHG: 40kx0.5c?=$200, Hilton: 90/120kx0.5c?=$450/$600, Marriott? never paid attention, but 25/50kx0.8c?=$200/$400

Would be a good line for the table with numbers that aren’t my random guesses. 🙂

farnorthtrader

I have used enough of these free nights to be able to give myself a pretty good idea of which free nights are objectively best. I have used 41 Hilton certs for an average value of $615 each, 25 Marriott nights for $295 each, 17 IHG nights for $475 each (although many of these were before they were capped, capped nights have been $233), and 10 Hyatt nights, for $737 each (although heavily influenced by 4 nights at PH Paris when they were uncapped, so current certs averaged more like $333). From my actual use of certs that are currently available, Hilton is the winner by far, with a value more than double any of the others

whocares

great compilation…”as usual.” About IHG – I haven’t found any reasonable priced Mr and Mrs Smith hotel, let alone available with points. Ok, maybe once I saw one..but it was ridiculous amount of points. Does one have to call in for these?

Also, the link you provide is a great directory of those Smith hotels…makes looking for them much easier. Didn’t know that existed. I’d just see them randomly.

Last edited 1 month ago by whocares
Jana

I booked a number of the certificates and points prior to the changes. Looking at those bookings now, I consider this a horrendous devaluation despite the widespread understanding that Marriott is easing to full full devaluation next year. For instance, my hotels in two Alaska cities doubled in points. A hotel that I typically used in DC also doubled in points. True, my SYD and MEL hotels for May did not double, in fact I was able to save a whole 5,000 points total by rebooking 10 nights, a very small victory. Otherwise, travelers have been Bonvoyed!

John

At one time I had about 3.5MM Marriott points, and now that pile is down to about 350K. I was lucky to use them for some pretty good places like Al Maha and Le Meridien Maldives before the bottom has fallen out. And while I am Lifetime Titanium I see Marriott now in a race with Hilton to the bottom. It looks like IHG and Hyatt see this too and are looking to pick up customers. I have found Globalist is far better than Diamond or Titanium and think my wagon is going to be hooked to Hyatt.

Vincent

Currently, the Amex Hilton Honors and Surpass cards have offers that include free night certificates. The offers end tomorrow (3/31/2022). It’s interesting that the no annual fee Hilton card is offering this, even if you can’t spend your way to another free night certificate in the future. The no annual fee card with outsized return on spend for the bonus is tempting.

Last edited 1 month ago by Vincent
kristin

We love the Hilton FN certs and use them mostly in Europe where you get great Hilton status cares. We both signed for the No AF cards even though it put us both at 5/24 just to get the FN’s 🙂 For instance . . . used at the Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam, two FN is equal to about $1400 – $1600 or more.

Last edited 1 month ago by kristin
JN2

Good analysis (I especially like the summary chart), and I agree that the “best” certificate is subjective based on individual preferences and travel patterns. But, one element that is not considered here is that Marriott and IHG charge “resort” or “destination” or “amenity” fees on award (points, certificates) stays at many mid-range or above properties in the US/Caribbean (and possibly other regions). Between paying a fee and using additional points, it is really more like offering a discount than a true “free” night.

Sam

1.) Hilton
Distant 2nd.) Hyatt or IHG
Last.) Marriott

Kim

My conclusion is, to borrow from Milenomics, be your own elite!

DSK

Just to throw my experience in, since I’ve had 28 of these to burn since the pandemic (8 Marriott, 12 Hyatt and 8 Hilton). I’ve managed to either use or make reservations for all of them.

To me, Marriott is getting harder and harder to use for anything aspirational. Even the 50,000 point certificates are quite limiting if I am trying to stay someplace nice. Plus, my biggest concern with Marriott is they are now making these not really free at all. I’m finding many Marriotts that used to have free parking are now forcing guests into valet–at $35-$50 per night. Some Marriotts are closing off their garages that used to be free and now indicating you can’t park there because stays are all valet. Add to that the resort fee that is still paid by elites (Lifetime Titanium here), so now you can be closer to $80-$100 per night. Then add the cost of the 15,0000 top up points due to the numerous devaluations in order to stay that the same place you used to be able to stay at earlier, and you are in effect paying $200 per night for your free room.

Hyatt is getting tougher too, especially with this last devaluation pushing the hotels I liked into Category 5 (Globalist here). I’m sure they exist somewhere, but I wonder if there is any aspirational category 1-4 hotel in the Northeast that is not a Hyatt Place or Hyatt House, and I have read similar comments about California.

Personally, I think the Hilton certificates are by far the best (Diamond thanks to Aspire). I .have not had an issue using free night certificates or points (since they both pull from the same pool). I have stayed at both Conrad Maldives and Conrad Bora Bora on standard night points, and I think they are pretty aspirational. Hilton Paris Opera was nice on certificates. I used a certificate for the Waldorf Beverly Hills, which would have otherwise cost me $1450 on the night I stayed there. I was booked into two Hiltons in the Seychelles on certificates and points before Covid forced that trip to be cancelled, and am now using four certificates to go to Zemi Beach House this winter. Hilton is the only program where I can use my certificates to stay at virtually any Hilton hotel no matter what the cost or category, and with advanced planning, I have not had an issue finding standard room availability, and even when the weekend limitation comes back (which restricts you to three nights out of seven each week), I don’t see that as a problem.

I absolutely don’t fall into the “my program is better than your program” mindset at all since I play all three (but not IHG), but as far as the certificates, I would vote Hilton. I don’t understand “Getting great value from Hilton free night certificates can be a challenge” since I can get over $1000 per night value out of those certificates, and other than a Hyatt category 7 certificate, that just isn’t happening with Marriott or Hyatt.

whocares

the article does note Hilton has less aspirational properties. Or rather – Hilton has high-end, but fewer ultra-luxe. And I do agree. Yes, Hilton has some, but relatively speaking – no when compared to Marriott (or Hyatt?).

You’ve certainly been using them well. I’ve stayed at a ultra-luxe LXR and Conrad of late. Again, they exist, just not in same qty as Marriott or IHG (now).

Bob

Was there a reason that the Radisson free night certificates weren’t included? On a separate note, I have seen how all of these companies with the exception of Marriott handled the expiration of these certificates. All extended the expiration at least one year, but only Hilton has gone way beyond that both in terms of further extending(or reactivating expired certs) as well as making the certs usable on weekdays. They have been the clear winner here IMHO.

skdelta

The Radisson credit card’s 40K automatic points on renewal would be the way to go for IHG and Mariott if they wanted to make their customers happy and simplify their IT. Put it differently, the Radisson credit card has a floor value of 40K, whereas IHG and Marriott have maximum useful values (time-limited, copay/top-off if available, so lots of breakage or low-value usage, etc.).

TravelerMike

If only the Radisson card was still available …

skdelta

If you’re talking about the old 2nd award night free, that was nice! As for the card, I believe the 40K annual to which I was referring is still available for new applicants.

whocares

got a 45k/cat 3 radisson cert in the USA only from a promo a few months back. Expires May 23rd…can’t use. Only 2 Radissons in WA State I realized yesterday. Now that’s a lame footprint in a large US state.

Yes, international is the way to go for Radisson. Good redemptions for int’l trip later this year.

Bob

Understood. However, it possibly should also be noted that the US Bank Radisson Visa cards can be used to MS at Simon Malls whereas I believe the Amex Hilton cards still cannot.(Unless I am mistaken). If so, then I think a study in the attractiveness of the free night certificates may also benefit from considering how easy they are to obtain. Since, the Radisson cards allow up to three certificates to be earned for $30K in spend, with an annual fee of $65-75 and the annual bonus points of 40K being added in, I would submit that Radisson gives you the biggest bang for the buck, especially if your travel is domestic.

Nate

Back before the 40k limit my $49 AF IHG card free night cert was so clutch. I’m not far from Chicago so I’d always redeem at one of the really nice Kimpton Hotels.

Ash

What about the Marriott 25k certs?

chris

I agree somewhat though IHG ones are so tough to use….as is IHG in general. I very much dislike they only set asside so many rooms for points and certificates. Even booking way ahead I am always surprised at how many nights dont have have any point options. This is unlike Most other rewards programs where if there is a free room you can use points.

Aloha808

Totally disagree here . I get it, you’re not really a Hilton fan. But Hilton certs can be maximized to much more value than any of the other certs, bar none.

Brutus

“One could easily argue that Hilton free night certificates are the best. They have no cap. As a result, they can be used at the most expensive Hilton properties worldwide. That’s awesome.”

You totally disagree with this?

Aloha808

I disagree with this “the Marriott free night certificates are arguably the best options for staying in desirable hotels in places you want to go”.

Paul

Depends what kind of traveller you are. Seems like you prioritize staying at the nicest places bar none to maximize value, but some people want a nice hotel in the place they want to travel to, and Marriott’s program seems to fit that niche a bit better.

Aloha808

If you’re someone who never travels on the weekends, sure Marriott is better. Most travelers do in fact, also travel on the weekends though. In that case, how is Marriott better?

Raylan

I don’t think I can +1 this sentiment enough. Not only are Hilton weekend night certs great for a short 2-3 night getaway, but with a little advance planning, you can get absurd value over holiday weekends. Marriott certs, on the other hand and just in my experience were frequently priced just out of reach on the weekends. Can’t even remember the number of times in the last couple of years that I came across 40k per night prices across every property in a decent location in a city I’d want to visit, even when cash prices were still at ~$150-$175/nt.

Aloha808

As far as the chance of that happening year after year, DSK above seems to have good luck with their Hilton redemptions. I myself last year used two FNCs at the Grand Wailea, both on a weekend, and that’s even with a restrictive schedule due to kids in school and family in the military.

Sure it might take a little work to figure out a great use for the Hilton FNCs, but isn’t that part of the game? Not saying it works for everyone in every example. But it’s really not that hard to get much greater value out of the Hilton certs compared to all the others.

FM fan

Greg’s argument isn’t that he can’t find a way to use the Hilton certs to get great value; it’s that Hilton has fewer high value properties at places that he was already planning on going to.

Aloha808

According to the article, his argument was that Hilton had “relatively few ultra-luxe properties compared to those available through the other programs listed here. And the few that do exist seem to rarely have standard room award availability”. Myself and several others commenting here seem to disagree with that.

As an aside, to be fair we should really make a list of ultra-luxe hotel properties by chain (available to certs) and see where the chips fall. Otherwise I’m sure we could just argue in circles forever. I’m pretty sure Hilton would do well on that list, though.

Last edited 1 month ago by Aloha808
DSK

Actually, you missed one–you also need to see if it fits within an airline schedule that you can book on points. However, maybe it is because I am retired, but I plan my trips pretty much in the order you specified–I pick a number of destinations I’d like to visit where there are high-value Hiltons many months out, check Hilton’s award calendar for standard night rooms at each hotel, and see if I can make something fit into an airline points window. If I am staying at least four nights, at least one of them will work with a certificate (which is valid Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights). Also, I will book trips with a combination of free nights and points and then modify them in the future as I earn more certificates to increase the number of certificates and reduce the number of points. The chance of getting huge value year-after-year–excellent–if you have the flexibility. Plus, reservations can be cancelled for free, so nothing lost if the trip doesn’t happen.

whocares

we are on the same page. Just like we were at the same hotel!