Quickest spend to top tier stays

Updated 5/8/15

In my recent post, “Easy wins,” I showed, among other things, easy ways to get credit card signup bonuses for luxury hotel stays.  Another option for luxury stays, is to use points earned from credit card spend.  Some people buy and liquidate gift cards in order to run up credit card spend and earn points.  For this post, I analyzed what I believe to be the quickest ways to earn points through manufactured spend and compared these approaches to see which was best.  The results might surprise you…

IntercontinentalThalassoBoraBora

Shown above: The Intercontinental Bora Bora Resort.  Overwater bungalow rooms are bookable for 50,000 IHG points per night.

Analysis Approach

For each included hotel chain, I looked up the number of points required for their top-tier properties.  In a few cases, the number of points required varies seasonally, so I always chose the most expensive point rate.  And, to compare to cash rates, I made the assumption that a $700 per night hotel room is a good target for top tier stays.  I realize that some top tier properties sell rooms for much more than $700 per night, but I believe that $700 is enough to get a really nice room in pretty much any city or town, anywhere.

Hotel Chain Top Category Points Required
Club Carlson 7 70,000
Hilton 10 95,000
Hyatt 7 30,000
IHG 9 50,000
Marriott 9 45,000
Pay w Cash N/A 70,000
Pay w Arrival Points* N/A 63,000
Ritz Carlton 5 70,000
Starwood 7 35,000

* Points required (shown above) when paying with BarclayCard Arrival Plus card points is after the automatic 10% rebate.  For example, a $700 hotel night would require 70,000 points, but you would receive an instant 7,000 point rebate for a net cost of 63,000 points.

Next, I looked at the best credit card to use to buy gift cards to get the required points (or cash):

    • Arrival Plus card: This card earns 2 points per dollar on all spend, so there is no restriction on where gift cards are purchased.  I made the assumption that one would buy $500 Visa gift cards each with a $3.95 fee.
    • Club Carlson Premier or Business card: This card earns 5 points per dollar on all spend, so there is no restriction on where gift cards are purchased.  I made the assumption that one would buy $500 Visa gift cards each with a $3.95 fee.
    • Hilton Surpass card: This card earns 6 points per dollar at grocery stores and gas stations.  I made the assumption that one would buy $500 Visa gift cards each with a $5.95 fee.  Note that it is possible to get 7.5 points per dollar by reloading Amex Campus Edition cards with a Citi Forward card (5X) and then transferring points to Hilton at a 1 to 1.5 exchange rate.  Aside from the fact that you can do better with Citi ThankYou points, the Forward card is no longer available to new applicants, so I didn’t include this option in the analysis.
    • Ink Plus / Ink Bold / Ink Cash card: This card earns 5 points per dollar at office supply stores. I made the assumption that one would buy $200 Visa gift cards at Staples, each with a $6.95 fee.  Of the hotel chains in this analysis, the Ink Plus card allows 1 to 1 transfers to Hyatt, IHG, Marriott, and Ritz Carlton.
    • Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) card: This card earns just 1 point per dollar on all spend (except SPG properties where it earns 2X), so there is no restriction on where gift cards are purchased.  I made the assumption that one would buy $500 Visa gift cards each with a $3.95 fee.
    • 5% Cash Back card: There are several different cards that earn 5% cash back under various conditions (see “Playing 5X everywhere Whack a Mole”).  Most of these cards offer 5% at drugstores (among other locations) where $500 gift cards with $4.95 fees are usually available.

Other assumptions: In addition to the above listed assumptions, I also assumed that there would be no fees involved in cashing out gift cards.  This can be done, for example, by using the cards to load Bluebird or Serve at Walmart or REDbird at Target. Fees for other approaches (such as buying money orders, etc.) vary a lot, so were not included in this analysis.

Gift card purchase fees shown in this analysis were based on my assumptions of the most usual scenarios.  There are, of course, tricks for spending less (or earning more).  For more details about buying Visa and MasterCard gift cards, please see: “Best options for buying Visa and MasterCard gift cards.”

Method

For each hotel / credit card / gift card scenario, I calculated the number of gift cards needed to get a top tier free night, and added up the fees on each gift card.  For simplicity sake, I didn’t count points earned from the fee portion of the gift cards.  It wouldn’t have amounted to much, anyway.

Results

Here are the results in tabular form:

Hotel Chain

# Gift Cards Req for Free Night

Total Fees

Club Carlson 28 $110.60
Pay w Cash 28 $138.60
Hyatt 30 $208.50
Hilton 32 $190.40
Marriott 45 $312.75
IHG 50 $347.50
Pay w Arrival Plus Points 63 $248.85
Starwood 70 $276.50
Ritz Carlton 70 $486.50

 

Best Options: 28 to 32 gift cards; $82 to $190 in fees

The best options for manufacturing luxury hotel nights are: Club Carlson, Pay with Cash, Hyatt, and Hilton.  To get top tier free nights via gift card purchases you would need to buy between 28 and 32 gift cards and spend between $110 and $208 in fees.

The Club Carlson approach slightly beats out the competition. It did much better before the Bonus Award Night feature of their credit card was discontinued, but still holds a strong position. The downside is that they currently have very few luxury properties.  And, of their top tier category 7 properties, I doubt many routinely charge anywhere near $700 per night.  That may change a bit as Club Carlson builds out their new Quorvus Collection brand.  For now, though, the choices are quite limited.

The next best option is to earn and pay cash.  Not only does this give you the second best results as shown above, but by earning cash back and using that cash to pay for hotel nights, you can stay anywhere.  And, since many desirable properties cost considerably less than $700 per night, you can probably stretch your rewards even further.  And, don’t forget that when you pay for a hotel room rather than using points, you can potentially earn rewards in that hotel’s loyalty program or from a booking service such as Hotels.com (and you can make the latter even sweeter by going through a portal to book hotels).

Hyatt and Hilton are also good options here, although the Hyatt option is fairly pricey at $208.50 in fees.  Keep in mind that Hyatt has many very desirable properties at the lower category 6 level (25K points per night); and Hilton has a wide range for their top tier: 70,000 to 95,000 points.  Also, Hilton elites can book five nights for the price of four, so that helps reduce the price point on long stays.

Middling Options: 45 to 50 gift cards; $312 to $347 in fees

Using the gift card buying approach to earn Marriott and IHG points (with Chase Ink cards) to cover top tier hotel nights is not a great way to go, but there are worse options.  For one night in these hotels you would need to buy and liquidate 45 to 50 gift cards and would spend $312 to $347 in fees.  Marriott, though, does have a 5th night free option to help reduce the sting if you plan to book a longer stay.  And, IHG lets you buy points for only .7 cents each by booking and cancelling points & cash stays.  So, you could actually do significantly better with IHG by using a cash approach (or even converting Ultimate Rewards points to cash) and then buying points as needed.  This approach makes the most expensive IHG properties cost only $350 per night.

Worst Options: 63 to 70 gift cards; $248 to $486 in fees

The worst options for acquiring top-tier hotel nights through gift card purchases are the Arrival Card (with which you could book any hotel room), SPG, and Ritz Carlton.  With these approaches, you would need to buy 63 to 70 gift cards and spend $248 to $486 in fees.  SPG is actually even worse than it appears since some of their luxury hotels have no standard rooms and they therefore charge even more than 35,000 points per night.

Points & Cash Options

Hyatt and SPG have meaningful Points & Cash options for booking nights.  Hyatt charges 15,000 points plus $300 at their top tier, and SPG similarly charges 15,000 points plus $275.  What if you were to use two credit cards: one to earn points and one to earn cash?  Here are the results:

Hotel Chain

# Gift Cards Req for Free Night

Total Fees

Hyatt Points & Cash 27 $187.65
SPG Points & Cash 41 $161.95

 

It turns out that Hyatt’s numbers are about the same in either scenario.  The points & cash approach is a tiny bit better, but not meaningfully so.  On the other hand, the SPG Points & Cash approach makes a big difference.  Suddenly the number of gift cards required drops from 70 to 41; and the total fees drop from $276 to $162.  This puts the SPG points & cash approach in the “middling” group of options.

What it all means

If your goal is to earn luxury hotel nights through manufactured spend, consider these best options:

Club Carlson: If Club Carlson’s limited set of luxury accommodations work for you, and if you like to stay in hotels two nights at a time, and if the rooms would otherwise cost over $350 per night, then running up spend on the Club Carlson Premier or Business Visa is your best option.  Yes, a lot of “ifs”.

5% Cash Back: Unless you’re eying hotels that routinely cost significantly more than $700 per night, this is the single best approach.  The tough part is that 5% cash back cards have time limits and/or prerequisites that make the cards best for really big spenders.  See details here: “Playing 5X everywhere Whack a Mole.”

Hyatt: If your heart is set on staying in one of the six category 7 Hyatt properties (found here), then it can definitely make sense to earn Hyatt points with your Chase Ink card at Staples since these properties are often outrageously expensive.  For other Hyatt properties or for off-season stays, you would often do better with the 5% cash back approach.

Hilton: I think that the Hilton approach for 95,000 point per night stays makes sense if: 1) You would like to stay at properties that cost over $700 per night; 2) You value top tier Diamond status (which you would get with $40K annual spend on the Hilton Surpass card); and 3) You plan to stay 5 nights to take advantage of a fifth night free award.  The Hilton approach gets more attractive if you find otherwise expensive properties in lower categories or offering off-season point rates.

Summary

Next to signup bonuses, Cash is King.

See also: Luxury travel via Penny Points.


Follow me on Twitter / Like me on Facebook / Find me on Google+


If you are new to collecting miles, click here for the free newsletter
If you are new to Frequent Miler, start here

Pingbacks

Comments

  1. Great job compiling this info. I was wondering, if you MS with the CC signature Visa and buy VGC at $2.95 per, did you consider the fact that you’d get US Bank branded VGCs and any possible unfavorable actions from US Bank from using the VGCs with a US Bank branded card such as the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Signature Visa?

  2. Nice analysis! How much do you think the ranking would change with a consistent $5.95 fee per gift card? In most areas that I live, work and travel, the $2.95 gift cards are far more than a $2 drive out of my way, not even counting the extra personal time and parking hassles. Other people may also be unlikely to buy those…

  3. Could you please add IHG during the next update?

    Guess I must be a “low rent” traveler, because I also commonly use Choice and Best Western motels. They probably don’t have much $700/night availability 😉 It is nice to plan aspirational travel at the $700/night places, but 99% of our stays have been in the $100 to $400 range.

  4. Come on. Carlson doesn’t really have true top tier. Are you really comparing a Radisson vs Park Hyatt vs Conrad vs St Regis vs IC?

    As such, Carslon \kicking butt\ is a silly claim.

    I have a bunch of Carlson from several card signups, but when I started looking for places to use them, almost everytime a competitor had a significantly nicer property available. So they sit unused waiting for a time I can use for friends and extended family. I know I won’t be needing them anytime soon.

    Finally, if you’re assuming $2.95 cards for SPG, you get slightly lower cost points with HH with a basic 3x everywhere no fee card (Surpass also gets 3x everywhere but has AF)

    • “Kicked butt” referred to the results of the analysis as defined. I completely agree with you about the quality of CC properties. That’s why I wrote:

      The downside is that they currently have very few luxury properties. And, of their top tier category 7 properties, I doubt many routinely charge anywhere near $700 per night. That may change a bit as Club Carlson builds out their new Quorvus Collection brand. For now, though, the choices are quite limited.

      And, regarding 5% cash back, I wrote “…this is the single best approach”

      and

  5. I agree with G above… where are you getting $2.95 fees for gift cards? I can’t get anything near that. Anything I find is always more like $5.95.

  6. For straight MS, the IHG card is not good, but IHG sometimes has promos which allow easy accumulation of huge amount of points (like the Big Win). Also, being able to purchase them at 0.7c each (or cheaper, like with Daily Getaways) made IHG the top choice for high end resorts for me. I have 6 nights reserved in Bora bora next summer.

  7. With these approaches, you would need to buy 63 to 70 gift cards and spend $185 to $341 in fees. –

    \And\ fees? Not with the Barclay. 63 cards @ 2.95 = $185.85. You’re paying $185.85 for the $700 hotel room.

    • That’s correct. The Arrival option is the best of that bunch since it has the lowest fees. I weighted the # of gift cards required more highly than fees because I highly value my time. Dealing with 63 gift cards for a one night stay is a big burden in my opinion.

  8. It does drive home the point that MS for hotel points/stays is not the most efficient use of MS. Cash wins vs hotel but does it win vs international FC? And if MS is not good for hotel stays what is the strategy to get hotel benefits/free nights? Your overall analysis is brutally efficient……….

    • MS is good for hotel stays. This just shows that the way to do it is to get cash and use cash for those stays. Some hotels are certainly exceptions. The Park Hyatt Vendome, for example, costs more than $700 per night so there you are better off with points or points & cash

  9. I do concur the Vendome is a worthy target but 30 gift cards + $146.40 in fees won’t have folks lining up at the door…….and 30 cards mean you have to be able to use 6k of your wash ceiling. If you guarantee the breakfast I’m there……..But the spirit of the post wanders toward MS for income as opposed for purely travel………yes you made that transition but I am not sure the average reader will execute it as such…….which leads back to the question is there a \pure travel\ benefit that is better than 5% cash back when I buy that CVS gift card or that mall gift card? The high end aspirational properties and flights are established as value….it is the middle ground that looks unatractive………….

  10. I think this is a good analysis of top tier properties. However, lots of folks simply can’t get to the properties. Those of us with families, etc. I think you should do a segment on mid-tier hotels this would help out the “working family” and would draw a different audience. I would love to be able to go to the Maldives or Bora Bora, but that’s simply out of the question with a 1 year old.

  11. I’m wondering in doing this cost analysis , how much time is involved with each of these and at what price do you value your time?
    I’m not saying I would not do it, but there’s risk as I know from having Chase cards closed, and if you read the T&C, most of these cards say you won’t get miles for buying gift cards….even though you do. I guess enough cards and you get looked at more closely.
    I’m waiting for someone whose Chase accounts were closed to file a complaint with the CFPB to see what kind of response they get. I won’t be the first.

    So, yeah, I have a basic problem with buying gift cards you are not going to use unless it’s something like an AMEX deal where you get both MR’s as well as points from an airline. At 4.5 total points per $1 I can find something to spend it on, even if it’s overpaying taxes.

  12. Great idea for article series. Should there be one more category option to analyze?

    I’m thinking cash+points should be looked at in thrsr compatisons, especially since it sometimes provides best value when and where avail.

    Thanks for this helpful info.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>