Quickest spend to real stays

Updated: 5/8/2015

In the past few days I analyzed options for manufacturing spend in order to earn top tier hotel stays (see this post), and bottom tier hotel stays (see this post).  The former analysis showed that, for most situations, the best path to luxury hotel nights is to manufacture cash rather than points via a 5% cash back card.  If you have your eye on a particular high end property within the Club Carlson, Hyatt, or Hilton brands, though, it might make sense to manufacture those points, but only if the room rates would otherwise be incredibly high (e.g. over $700 per night).  At the other extreme, 5% cash back, Hilton, and Club Carlson were shown to all be good choices if you want to stay in bottom tier hotels.

OK, good enough, but what about real stays?  What about those family trips to the coast, or driving trips through the west?  Where does manufactured spend fit in if you want to stay in a nice, but not overwhelmingly opulent property?  To answer this question, I went back to my spreadsheets and changed the numbers to target mid-tier properties…

Shown above: Radisson Fort McDowell Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona.  This is a Category 4 Club Carlson property which costs 38,000 per night.

For each hotel chain, I identified the middle category and the number of points required for that category.  For example, Hyatt has 7 categories, so I used the middle category (4) which requires 15,000 points for a free night.  Hilton, with 10 categories, has two middles: category 5 requires 30K to 40K points per night, and category 6 requires 30K to 50K points per night.  I somewhat arbitrarily chose 40,000 points as the middle-ish point between these two categories.  And, with Ritz Carlton, I chose the bottom tier (30K points) since the entire brand is upscale.

In addition to figuring out the mid-points for hotel point stays, I estimated the cash price for a mid tier hotel to be $150 per night.

For details about the rest of the methodology, please see the prior posts (here and here).  Here were the results:

Hotel Chain Points Required for Mid Tier Free Night # Gift Cards Req for Free Night Total Fees
Pay w Cash * 15,000 6 $29.70
Pay w Arrival Plus Points ** 13,500 14 $55.30
Hilton 40,000 14 $83.30
Hyatt 15,000 15 $104.25
Club Carlson 38,000 16 $63.20
Starwood 10,000 20 $79.00
Marriott 25,000 25 $173.75
IHG 30,000 30 $208.50
Ritz Carlton *** 30,000 30 $208.50

* $150 translates to 15,000 “penny points” in the Pay with Cash option.
** When paying with Arrival points, you get an automatic 10% rebate.  A $150 charge costs 15,000 points, then the 1,500 point rebate results in a 13,500 point net cost.
*** For the Ritz Carlton chain, I chose the bottom tier to represent mid tier type hotels

As you can see above, once again earning 5% cash back and paying for rooms outright is the best way to go.  A distant second is the Arrival Plus with Club Carlson finishing third.

What if we increase the expected cash price of a mid tier hotel?  Will cash still win out?  Here are the results assuming $300 per night rooms:

Hotel Chain Points Required for Mid Tier Free Night # Gift Cards Req for Free Night Total Fees
Pay w Cash * 30,000 12 $59.40
Hilton 40,000 14 $83.30
Hyatt 15,000 15 $104.25
Club Carlson 38,000 16 $63.20
Starwood 10,000 20 $79.00
Marriott 25,000 25 $173.75
Pay w Arrival Plus Points ** 27,000 27 $106.65
IHG 30,000 30 $208.50
Ritz Carlton *** 30,000 30 $208.50

At $300 per night, 5% cash back is still the best with Club Carlson moving up to second.  Starwood and Hilton not far behind.  That said, I’m not sure how often you’ll encounter chain hotels categorized as mid-tier that would otherwise cost $300 per night or more.  I know this happens at times (particularly when events or seasonality drive up demand and prices), but it is not the norm.

What this means

If you want to manufacture spend to earn hotel nights, the most logical choice is to earn cash with a 5% cash back card (see “Playing 5X everywhere Whack a Mole”).  Yes, there will be situations where you can do better by manufacturing points (specifically with Club Carlson, Hilton, and Hyatt), but most of the time you’ll do better and have more options by going with cash.

The problem with this conclusion, though, is that paying cash does not feel as good as paying with points.  I discussed this in the post “Rationality is overrated.”  Paying for a hotel with points feels free, whereas paying with cash does not.  For some people the “joy of free” could add enough value to hotel stays to make it worth pursuing less rational approaches.  If that is you, and you want to earn free hotel nights (vs. free flights, for example), I’d recommend these approaches:

  • Use an Ink Plus or Ink Cash card when buying gift cards at office supply stores (where this card earns 5 points per dollar).  Points earned with the Ink Plus card allow 1 to 1 transfers to numerous airline and hotel programs (including Hyatt) and even to Amtrak (see “Easy wins”).  More than any other point options, Ultimate Rewards points have many high value uses so I would never consider it a waste to build up these points.
  • Use the Hilton Surpass card to buy $500 Visa gift cards at your local supermarket or gas station (to get 6 points per dollar).  This card also grants automatic Hilton Gold status (which means free breakfast and internet).  If you’re really lucky, you might even earn fuel points when buying gift cards at your grocery store.  
  • Use the Club Carlson Premier or Business card when buying gift cards with low fees at any location or merchant since this card earns 5 points per dollar on all spend.

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  1. @FM
    Hyatt place in cities costs 300$ on peak weekends
    Still 8000 points is better, even though “typical” cash back is king.

    • Well, some cities are usually cheaper on the weekends when they struggle to fill up their business hotels, but your point is still valid. Its not just events and seasonality that can tip the scales towards points.

  2. FM:
    I enjoy reading your daily writings on points every Monday through Friday. Waking up on thee weekends isn’t the same. Anyway, great 3 part series. Since I have MR points coming out my wazoo (which are clearly best used on airlines), I’ve been thinking about building up my hotel points base. I agree with your analysis that Ultimate Rewards, which can be used as cash or transferred to Hyatt, offers flexibility. And the Hilton Surpass card gives easy redemptions at Hilton (let alone Diamond Status when you hit 40k/year). I also have the Club Carlson card, but except for State College PA on a football weekend, the hotels don’t seem terribly appealing. Like I said, great subject and analysis. You deserved that award (but a much bigger trophy!!!)

  3. FM – I love the mental exercises in all these! In them, you talk about buying Visa gift cards. I think maybe I checked out for a few months or something, but I thought most of the avenues to use those had dried up? I remember something about Bluebird dying, and I haven’t used it since…but am I missing something? Can you point me to a resource to remind me of the plays?

  4. This series does a great job of showing that the 5% cash back card leads in most MS scenarios for hotels, and therefore would lead to more questioning over whether I REALLY need the hotel and how much travel I would undertake in them, ie. removing the ‘joy of free’ removes the illusion that MSing into hotel nights does not have opportunity cost, and separates the hotel night decision from the profitable MS 5% cash back transaction. At the least, it is likely I would Airbnb more, and may just travel the lowest essential amount since I recognize better that it is still costing me the real cash I could have made instead of earning hotel points.

    Of course, this does not apply directly to premium air travel, but I would love to see a similar comparison as to how much MS 5% cash one has to give up to MS enough miles for business awards in the major air programs. Next analysis?

    And of course, sign up bonuses are still better than even 5% MS cash, due to much higher implied points per dollar for the minimum spend with the cost of a credit pull. But there is still a low opportunity cash cost involved.

    • Thanks Jig. Yes, I’ll consider doing similar analyses for flights. That will be a bit harder since airline redemptions are not as straightforward as hotel night awards, but it should be possible to do with enough assumptions in place.

  5. Kick me if you mentioned it, but if you are paying with “cash”, does points earning at the hotel come into play?

    • With promotions, hotels often kick back 15-30% of the stay value in points, so that would make the cash option even more attractive, effectively earning some “free” nights in addition to the ones explicitly paid for with MS 5% cash. So, if you paid $300 cash a night as a HH Gold with a double base points promo, you could earn 27 points times $300 equals 8,100 points. A $300 night hotel is often 40-60k points per night, so a sort of 15-20% rebate in points.

      An offset is that cash stays lead to taxes and resort fees avoided with points stays, which are usually 15-25% of base cash price. So, maybe points earned and taxes paid basically offset on cash stays when comparing to points stays?

    • Yes, point earning is an important benefit of paying cash. Its possible to earn points from your credit card, from a portal, and from the hotel or booking site you used. Of course, not all lodging options offer points, but you can usually at least get credit card points if nothing else. That said, I do think Jig makes a good point that taxes and fees that are not usually charged on free award nights are an offsetting downside to paying cash, so there is a bit of a balance there.

  6. Love the brutal efficiency of your analysis. This final analysis would make me nervous if I was at one of the major hotel loyalty programs……your conclusions really opens up the boutiques option and the Airbnb options……..but the discussion on the most “efficient” MS is still up in the air……….international FC?

  7. Hi FM,

    I’m not trying to be overly critical, just providing honest feedback.

    I love the idea of this whole analysis, but it seems to be over simplified to the point where it is not useful.

    To me, it’s the analysis itself that should be tweaked. For example, you assign a “mid tier” value by looking at the number of tiers, and choosing the one in the middle.

    If I were doing this analysis, I would have looked at the number of properties per level and calculated at the least the median tier (which would more likely be tier 2 or 3 for most of these hotel chains), or even a weighted average tier, which would be more precise.

    I just feel like most of your recent stuff has shown little effort in its production, like you decided to knock out a post based on information you already have in 15 or 30 minutes.

    Sorry to be critical, but that’s my honest feedback.


    • Hey Clint, I like where you’re going with this, but I don’t think that a weighted average is right either. The point was to avoid the top and bottom end hotels, so I wouldn’t want the number of properties in either of those buckets changing the hotel’s “score”. A better option might be to look at the tiers that are reasonably considered “mid tier” and either create a weighted average of those or simply pick the mode since that would likely be the most common redemption.

      That said, I doubt that making the analysis more correct will change the overall conclusion. Plugging in the numbers you came up with didn’t change things much. Club Carlson now would require 14 gift cards instead of 16 (or 7 per day for 2 night stays instead of 8 per day), and IHG would require 21 gift cards which is a big drop from 30, but still puts IHG nowhere near the top. If you can find a source to get better numbers for the rest of the chains, I’d be happy to try those numbers out (I’m not sure where to find that info).

      • Hi FM,

        I just sent you a spreadsheet with all the same data for the other chains. I’m really curious to see if this changes the game for Hyatt, as it is heavily weighted towards cat 1 and 2 properties, and those are the likely “real” properties people will be staying at.

        Just trying to help this awesome analysis for all.



  8. Okay, so here I go again lol. Using Drew’s maps on Travelisfree.com (http://travelisfree.com/2014/08/09/map-of-club-carlson-hotels/), I calculated the weighted average points required for a CC stay at 32,873, which would be the equivalent of a Category 3.45. Which is funny, because that’s almost half of seven, so maybe it’s what you used?

    But when I do the same calculation for IHG, the weighted average points per night comes to 20,246, which is almost exactly the amount of a category 3 redemption, rather than the category 4 or 5 you would have chosen based on 9 categories.

    So what I’m saying is being a little more sophisticated with the analysis with just a little more effort would lead to some much more accurate and helpful results.



  9. Hi FM,

    I tried to post a follow up comment, but it is still in moderation.

    Using Travelisfree.com’s maps (http://travelisfree.com/2014/08/09/map-of-club-carlson-hotels/), I calculated the weighted average category and points required for Club Carlson hotels and the median. The median hotel is a category 3, but the weighted average points required is 32,873, which is effectively a 3.5 category hotel. Since you used the mid tier of 7 categories, you may have used this number.

    But IHG properties, the numbers come out a little different. You would have used category 4 or 5 for the 9 categories, but the median category is about a 2.33 and the weight average points needed is 20,246, which is almost exactly a category 3.

    So what would your numbers look like if you took into account the median redemption values rather than your “mid tier” number I wonder?

    The issue is the categories are heavily skewed towards the bottom and so the mid tier points value should reflect that, right?



  10. BTW I think the analysis behind this is great…..most don’t seem to make the “free” connection with “real” dollars and in that regard you are working on your 2d doctorate while other analysis crams for freshmen English……….you question reality in a brilliant way………

  11. Larry, how, pray tell, do you get rooms on Football weekends in State College, especially using carlson points. I looked at weekends in sept 2015 and some are already showing no availability so I assume they are home game weekends

  12. I think there is no mile, point, or points currency that is worth more than five cents. So if you can get 5% cash back instead of points that is almost always the best option. But there are limitations on how much MS you can do with 5% back cards, and it isn’t realistic to put 100% of spend on 5% cash back cards. I get as much 5% cash back as I can every month, then start spending to earn miles points. I then pocket the cash and use points/miles to pay for my flights and hotels.

  13. When I was looking at Australia/New Zealand before AA pulled the rug out from under in the Explorer scandal, those hotels seemed to be much more expensive to do cash versus points……..just a sense from multiple city searches………

  14. awesome 3 part series. really makes me re-think my MS/points strategy. a couple questions

    a) for ongoing MS (i.e. not minimum spend bonuses on new cards)… i have been doing the staples + chase ink plus to load bluebird, but with staples dropping out of VSE, the effective rate is now a mere ~1.7x (5x points minus $6.95 in fees/$200 gc). since 5% CB is VERY limited (most cards now only offer 6 months at 5%, or a very low $1500 cap per quarter), is the best option the 4% with ebates CC + amex gift cards and loading on redbird?

    b) why is the amex SPG so hyped? it seems like with only ONE point/dollar… not a very efficient use of spending. are the benefits of that card really that great to sacrifice many more points/$ with other cards?

    c) more of a comment than a question… but if one wants to stay at a VERY high-end property (4S, aman, capella, etc), most of those hotels do not even offer a reward program/credit card (i.e. 4S now has rewards but still no card… AFAIK). is the best option is then CB cards? or do certain cards allow you to use points to stay at those hotels anyway?

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