Manufacturing free nights (Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott)

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Many of us aren’t currently doing much traveling, but we are still earning points through credit card spend. This brings up the question of which cards to use and which types of rewards to focus on.  Nick recently took a look at some current hotel credit card promotions and answered the question of whether it was better to earn 12X Hilton points or 6X Marriott.  In this post, I stepped back to look at normal non-promotional card earnings.  Specifically, I wanted to see how much credit card spend is normally required to earn free nights at various hotel chains.  To keep things simple, I tackled this question only for Hyatt, Hilton, and Marriott.

What’s New

The original version of this post was published on May 14th 2018.  Since then there have been significant changes to credit card bonuses, and I’ve re-thought how to identify mid-tier hotels.  Most importantly, the new version considers the fact that points can be transferred from Amex Membership Rewards to Hilton (1 to 2) or to Marriott (1 to 1).  Here are the specific changes and additions to this post:

  • Updated card names (previously listed Starwood Preferred Guest cards, for example)
  • Removed old Hyatt Visa Signature card and added World of Hyatt card
  • Added Chase Ink Unlimited card.
  • Added a number of Amex Membership Rewards cards.  With the Blue Business Plus offering 2X everywhere (up to $50K spend), and the Amex Gold Card offering up to 4X, the new numbers in this post are very different from before.
  • Changed the mid-tier hotel targets.  Previously I estimated the number of points required for a mid-tier hotel by using our Reasonable Redemption Values and an average hotel night cost.  In the new version, I picked a mid-tier category that is actually available on the award charts (or, in Hilton’s case, is a common award cost).

Credit Card Options

The following credit cards can be used to earn points in each hotel program:

Hyatt Point Earning Cards

Chase World of Hyatt Credit Card
Base
Travel
Dine
Brand
Earning rate: ⚬ 2X restaurants / cafes / coffee shops, airlines, local transit, fitness clubs and gym memberships ⚬ 4X Hyatt

Cards that earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points are included next because Chase points can be transferred one to one to Hyatt as long as you have one of the cards with a fee.  In other words, you can earn 5X rewards with the no-fee Freedom and/or Ink Business Cash card and then move those points to a card with a fee (Sapphire Reserve, for example), then transfer to Hyatt:

Chase Freedom Flex
Base
Travel
Dine
Shop
Other
Earning rate: 5x travel booked through Chase ⚬ 5X Lyft ⚬ 3x dining ⚬ 3x drugstores ⚬ 5X in rotating categories on up to $1,500 spend per quarter. Q4 2020: 5X Walmart & Paypal
Chase Freedom Unlimited
Base
Travel
Dine
Other
Earning rate: 5x travel booked through Chase ⚬ 5X Lyft ⚬ 3x dining ⚬ 3x drugstores ⚬ 1.5X everywhere else
Chase Ink Business Cash Credit Card
Base
Dine
Gas
Phone
Office
Other
Earning rate: 5X office supplies ⚬ 5X cellular/landline/cable (on up to $25,000 in total purchases in 5x categories annually) ⚬ 2X gas and restaurants ⚬ 5X Lyft
Chase Ink Business Preferred Card
Base
Travel
Phone
Biz
Other
Earning rate: 3X travel, shipping, internet, cable, phone, and advertising with social media sites (up to $150K spend per year) ⚬ 5X Lyft
Chase Ink Business Unlimited
Base
Other
Earning rate: 1.5X on all purchases ⚬ 5X Lyft
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
Base
Travel
Dine
Other
Earning rate: 2X Travel and Dining ⚬ 5X Lyft (through March 2022)
Chase Sapphire Reserve Card
Base
Travel
Dine
Other
Earning rate: 3X Travel and Dining ⚬ 10X Lyft (through March 2022)

Hyatt Best Options for Spend

  • No Category
    • 1.5X: Freedom Unlimited or Ink Business Unlimited
  • Gas
    • 2X: Ink Business Cash
  • Office Supply Stores
    • 5X: Ink Business Cash (Up to $25K/year)
  • Dining
    • 3X: Sapphire Reserve
    • 2X: Hyatt, Sapphire Preferred, Ink Business Cash
  • Travel
    • 3X: Sapphire Reserve, Ink Business Preferred (Up to $150K/year 3X categories)
    • 2X: Hyatt, Sapphire Preferred
  • Rotating Categories
    • 5X: Freedom (Up to $1,500 per quarter)

Hilton Point Earning Cards

Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card
Base
Travel
Dine
Brand
Earning rate: ⚬ 14X Hilton spend ⚬ 7X US restaurants, flights booked directly with airlines or amextravel.com, select car rental companies ⚬ 3X on all other eligible purchases ⚬ Terms & Limitations Apply.
Hilton Honors American Express Business Card
Base
Travel
Dine
Gas
Phone
Biz
Brand
Other
Earning rate: ⚬ 12X Hilton spend ⚬ 6X on Select Business & Travel Purchases (flights booked directly with airlines or Amex Travel; car rentals booked directly from select car rental companies; US restaurants; US gas stations; wireless telephone services purchased directly from US service provider; US shipping purchases) ⚬ 3X on all other eligible purchases
Hilton Honors American Express Card
Base
Dine
Gas
Grocery
Brand
Earning rate: ⚬ 7X Hilton spend ⚬ 5X US restaurants, US Supermarkets, and US gas stations ⚬ 3X on all other eligible purchases
Hilton Honors American Express Surpass Card
Base
Dine
Gas
Grocery
Brand
Earning rate: ⚬ 12X Hilton spend ⚬ 6X U.S. restaurants, US Supermarkets, and US gas stations ⚬ 3X on all other eligible purchases

Cards that earn Amex Membership Rewards points are included next because Amex points transfer 1 to 2 to Hilton (and sometimes more when Amex offers a transfer bonus).  To calculate the number of Hilton points earned with each card, simply double the card’s earning rate.  For example, the Amex Gold Card earns 4X points at restaurants and so you can say that it earns 8X Hilton points at restaurants:

American Express® Business Gold Card
Base
Travel
Dine
Gas
Biz
Earning rate: Earn 4X on the two categories where your business spends the most each billing cycle from the following categories: ⚬ US purchases at restaurants ⚬ Airfare purchased directly from airlines ⚬ U.S. purchases for advertising in select media ⚬ U.S. purchases at gas stations ⚬ U.S. purchases for shipping ⚬ U.S. computer hardware, software, and cloud computing purchases made directly from select providers. 4X applies to first $150,000 in combined purchases in your two categories each calendar year, 1X point per dollar thereafter and on other purchases. Terms apply.
American Express® Gold Card
Base
Travel
Dine
Grocery
Earning rate: 3X points for flights booked with airlines or on amextravel.com ⚬ 4x points at US Supermarkets (up to $25K in purchases, then 1x) ⚬ 4x at restaurants worldwide ⚬ 1X points on other purchases. Terms apply. (Rates & Fees)
American Express® Green Card
Base
Travel
Dine
Earning rate: ⚬ 3X on travel & transit (including flights, hotels, taxis, and rideshares) ⚬ 3X dining ⚬ 1X points on other purchases. Terms apply. See
The Amex EveryDay Preferred Card (with 30 purchases per billing cycle)
Base
Gas
Grocery
Earning rate: Earn 50% more points: Use your Card 30 or more times on purchases in a billing period and get 50% more points on those purchases less returns and credits. With 30 or more purchases, earn: 4.5x points at US supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1.5x) ⚬ 3x points at US gas stations ⚬ 1.5x points on other purchases.
The Blue Business℠ Plus Credit Card
Base
Earning rate: 2X Membership Rewards points on all purchases, up to $50K spend per calendar year (then 1X thereafter). Terms apply. (Rates & Fees)
The Platinum Card® from American Express
Base
Travel
Earning rate: 5X points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel ⚬ 5X points for prepaid hotels booked through American Express Travel

Hilton Best Options for Spend

  • No Category
    • 4X: Blue Business Plus (2X Amex, Up to $50K/year)
    • 3X: Everyday Preferred w/ 30 purchases per billing cycle (1.5X Amex)
    • 3X: Any Hilton card
  • Grocery (US supermarkets only)
    • 9X: Everyday Preferred w/ 30 purchases per billing cycle (4.5X Amex, up to $6K/year, then 1.5X)
    • 8X: Amex Gold (4X Amex, up to $25K/year, then 1X)
    • 6X: Hilton Surpass
  • Gas (US gas stations only)
    • 8X: Business Gold (4X Amex)
    • 6X: Everyday Preferred w/ 30 purchases per billing cycle (3X Amex)
    • 6X: Hilton Business card, Hilton Surpass
  •  Dining
    • 8X: Gold Card (4X Amex)
    • 7X: Aspire
  • Travel (airfare + hotels booked through Amex Travel)
    • 10X: Platinum Cards (5X Amex)
    • 8X: Business Gold (4X Amex)
    • 7X: Hilton Aspire

Marriott Point Earning Cards

Chase Marriott Bonvoy Premier
Base
Travel
Dine
Brand
Earning rate: ⚬ 2X airline, car rental, & restaurants ⚬ 5X Marriott.
Chase Ritz Carlton Rewards Visa Infinite
Base
Travel
Dine
Brand
Earning rate: ⚬ 6X Ritz & Marriott.⚬ 3X airline tickets purchased directly with the airline, at car rental agencies and at restaurants ⚬ 2X everywhere else
Marriott Bonvoy Bold Credit Card
Base
Travel
Brand
Earning rate: ⚬ 3X Marriott Bonvoy ⚬ 2X travel ⚬ 1X everywhere else
Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit Card
Base
Brand
Earning rate: ⚬ 6X Marriott Bonvoy ⚬ 2X everywhere else
Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card
Base
Travel
Dine
Brand
Earning rate: 3X airfare charged by airline, US restaurants, 6X Starwood and Marriott Properties; 2X on all other eligible purchases
Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card
Base
Dine
Gas
Phone
Biz
Brand
Earning rate: 6x at Marriott Bonvoy properties ⚬ 4x U.S. restaurants, U.S. gas stations, wireless telephone services purchased from U.S. suppliers and on U.S. purchases for shipping ⚬ 2x on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply. (Rates & Fees)
Marriott Bonvoy Premier Plus Business
Base
Gas
Phone
Biz
Brand
Earning rate: 6X Marriott ⚬ 4X dining, internet, cable and phone service ⚬ 4X gas stations and shipping ⚬ 2X everywhere else.
Marriott Bonvoy™ American Express® Card
Base
Brand
Earning rate: 6X Starwood and Marriott Properties ⚬ 2X on all other eligible purchases

As with Hyatt, Chase Ultimate Rewards cards can be used to earn Marriott points (but in this case I don’t particularly recommend it). And, like Hilton, points can be transferred from Amex Membership Rewards to Marriott (but only 1 to 1 unless a transfer bonus is in effect).  I don’t recommend transferring points from these programs to Marriott since you’ll generally lose value in doing so, but this post would be incomplete without considering it.  You can see the eligible Chase Ultimate Rewards cards in the Hyatt section above, and the relevant Amex Membership Rewards cards in the Hilton section above.

Marriott Best Options for Spend

  • No Category
    • 2X: Blue Business Plus (Up to $50K/year)
    • 2X: Most Marriott cards
  • Grocery (US supermarkets only)
    • 4.5X: Everyday Preferred w/ 30 purchases per billing cycle (Up to $6K/year, then 1.5X)
    • 4X: Amex Gold (Up to $25K/year, then 1X)
  • Gas
    • 4X: Amex Business Gold (US gas stations only)
    • 4X: Bonvoy Premier Plus Business, Bonvoy Business Amex (US gas stations)
  • Office Supply Stores
    • 5X: Ink Business Cash (Up to $25K/year)
  • Dining
    • 4X: Gold Card
    • 4X: Bonvoy Business Amex (US restaurants)
  • Travel
    • 5X: Amex Platinum Cards (airfare + hotels booked through Amex Travel)
    • 4X: Amex Business Gold (airfare + hotels booked through Amex Travel)
    • 3X: Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Ink Business Preferred (Up to $150K/year 3X categories)
    • 3X: Ritz, Bonvoy Brilliant Amex (airfare charged by airline)
  • Rotating Categories
    • 5X: Freedom (Up to $1,500 per quarter)

Points Required for Free Nights

The following table shows the number of points required for a free night with each hotel chain:

Hotel Type
Marriott Hyatt Hilton
Bottom Category Off-Peak 5,000 3,500 10,000
Mid Category Standard 35,000 15,000 50,000
Top Category Peak 100,000 45,000 95,000

Let me explain…

  • Hyatt will be adding peak and off-peak rates starting in 2021.  I used the award prices expected to kick in then.
  • Hyatt has some specialty properties that price even higher than 45,000 points per night (Mirival resorts, for example, cost 65,000 points per night for 2 adults).  On the other hand, most of their best properties top out at 30K standard and 35K peak.  So, one can easily make a convincing argument that I picked a top category peak price that was either too high or too low.  I picked 45K because I expect that more Hyatt properties will move into this category in the next year or two.
  • Hilton doesn’t technically have an award chart nor peak/off-peak pricing per se, so I used the “usual” award prices for standard awards.  On the bottom end, there exist some Hilton hotels priced at only 5,000 points per night, but those are extremely rare.  Instead, I went with 10,000 as the bottom.  On the top end, there is at least one property in which standard prices are above 95,000 (Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi), but most of the best properties top out at 95K standard.  Use Hilton’s Points Explorer (found here) to get an idea of what a property might cost.
  • I somewhat arbitrarily picked a mid tier category for each brand.  In my experience, 35K Marriott hotels are roughly equivalent to 15K Hyatts and 50K Hiltons.

Credit card spend required for free nights

Using the best available credit card for each type of spend, let’s look at what how much credit card spend will get you a free night:

Base Spend (No Category Bonus)

This chart shows the results of credit card spend at places that don’t offer category bonuses on any of the hotel cards listed above. Examples of such spend include shopping malls, drugstores, miscellaneous online shopping, tax payments, etc.

Hotel Type
Marriott
Hyatt Hilton
Spend Multiplier 2X 1.5X 4X
Bottom Category Off-Peak $2,500 $2,333 $2,500
Mid Category Standard $17,500 $10,000 $12,500
Top Category Peak $50,000 $30,000 $23,750

At the bottom end, the chains are roughly equal.  For mid-tier hotels, Hyatt has the edge with Hilton close behind.  And for top tier hotels, Hilton has the edge with Hyatt close behind.

Supermarket Spend

This chart shows credit card spend using the best available card at supermarkets. This does not account for the fact that the Chase Freedom card sometimes offers 5X at supermarkets.

Hotel Type
Marriott
Hyatt Hilton
Spend Multiplier 4X 1.5X 8X
Bottom Category Off-Peak $1,250 $2,333 $1,250
Mid Category Standard $8,750 $10,000 $6,250
Top Category Peak $25,000 $30,000 $11,875

Hilton appears to be a very good choice for mid category hotels and an outstanding choice for top category hotels.

Note that for Marriott and Hilton, I assumed the use of the Amex Gold card which offers 4X at US Supermarkets on up to $25K spend per year.  Technically, you can do even better with the Everyday Preferred card which can earn up to 4.5 points per dollar (9X Hilton), but that is capped at $6,000 spend per year so it is only practical for manufacturing bottom category free nights.

Gas Station Spend

This chart shows credit card spend using the best available card at gas stations (US only for Hilton). This does not account for the fact that the Chase Freedom card sometimes offers 5X at gas stations.

Hotel Type
Marriott
Hyatt Hilton
Spend Multiplier 4X 2X 8X
Bottom Category Off-Peak $1,250 $1,750 $1,250
Mid Category Standard $8,750 $7,500 $6,250
Top Category Peak $25,000 $22,500 $11,875

Hilton is again looking good in the middle and great at the top end.  One caveat: some stores that code as gas stations with Visa/Mastercards do not necessarily code that way with Amex cards (Marriott & Hilton).

Office Supply Spend

This chart shows credit card spend using the best available card to pay at office supply stores (e.g. Staples, Office Depot, etc.).

Hotel Type
Marriott
Hyatt Hilton
Spend Multiplier 5X 5X 4X
Bottom Category Off-Peak $1,000 $700 $2,500
Mid Category Standard $7,000 $3,000 $12,500
Top Category Peak $20,000 $9,000 $23,750

Wow.  Thanks to the Ink Business Cash card and Hyatt’s better award chart, Hyatt stays require far less spend than Marriott or Hilton at office supply stores.

Accounting for 4th Night Free

It’s worth noting that Hyatt does not offer a 5th night free on award stays whereas Marriott and Hilton do.  If you assume that you will always spend 5 nights at hotels on award stays (seems unlikely to me!), then you can multiply all of the Marriott and Hilton spend totals above by .8 to get a more fair comparison.  For example, here’s the base spend (no category bonus) chart again after correcting for 5th night free:

Hotel Type
Marriott
Hyatt Hilton
Spend Multiplier 2X 1.5X 4X
Assume 5th Night Free? Yes No Yes
Bottom Category Off-Peak $2,000 $2,333 $2,000
Mid Category Standard $14,000 $10,000 $10,000
Top Category Peak $40,000 $30,000 $19,000

Now Marriott and Hilton look slightly better than Hyatt at the bottom, Hilton catches up to Hyatt in the middle, and Hilton pulls further away from the competition at the high end.

Let’s now look at this again with supermarket spend:

Hotel Type
Marriott
Hyatt Hilton
Spend Multiplier 4X 1.5X 8X
Assume 5th Night Free? Yes No Yes
Bottom Category Off-Peak $1,000 $2,333 $1,000
Mid Category Standard $7,000 $10,000 $5,000
Top Category Peak $20,000 $30,000 $9,500

Hilton was already looking great with supermarket spend, but when accounting for 5th night free awards, Hilton looks even better.

And let’s see if Hyatt can maintain its superiority for office supply spend:

Hotel Type
Marriott
Hyatt Hilton
Spend Multiplier 5X 5X 4X
Assume 5th Night Free? Yes No Yes
Bottom Category Off-Peak $800 $700 $2,000
Mid Category Standard $5,600 $3,000 $10,000
Top Category Peak $16,000 $9,000 $19,000

Hyatt still looks good with office supply spend despite not offering 5th night free awards.

Methodology Issues

This post does not take into account varying annual fees or category bonus caps.  For example, a lot of the advantage Hilton has over the competition has to do with the great category bonuses on the Amex Gold Card.  But the Gold Card only earns 4X at US Supermarkets on the first $25K of supermarket spend each calendar year.  And it has a significant annual fee ($250 at the time of this writing).

Another big miss in the methodology is that there is no consideration of earning cash back and using that to book nights.  Nor is there consideration of using Chase points, for example, to book nights through Chase’s travel portal.

A related miss is the fact that Hilton points can often be bought for half a cent each when Hilton offers a point sale (which they do often).  If we took this into account, Hilton would look even better.  At office supply stores, for example, you’d be able to earn 5X Chase points and covert that to 5% cash back and then to 10X Hilton points (by buying points for a half cent each).  Another play is to get the Schwab Platinum card which allows cashing out Amex points at 1.25 cents each.  When you combine this card with bonus categories on other Amex Membership Rewards cards, you can indirectly earn even bigger Hilton multiples.  For example, you can turn 2X everywhere into 2.5% back everywhere, which becomes 5X Hilton points everywhere!  Or, you can turn 4X supermarket spend into 5% back, which becomes 10X Hilton points at supermarkets.

Conclusion

If you have the Chase Ink Cash card, which offers 5X at office supply stores (up to $25K spend per year), and if you spend a lot at those stores, then that’s a fantastic way to earn Hyatt stays.  The same can be said for earning 5X with Chase Freedom’s rotating categories.  In either case, you need to have a Chase Ultimate Rewards card with an annual fee in your household so that you can move the points to that card and then to Hyatt to book your awards.

With almost any other category of spend, you’re probably better off looking to earn Hilton stays.  A lot of this is driven by the fact that Amex Membership Rewards points transfer 1 to 2 to Hilton and that Amex has some great category bonuses on their cards.  For example, the Blue Business Plus card earns 2X Amex points everywhere (4X Hilton) on your first $50K of spend each calendar year.  Similarly the Amex Gold card earns 4X Amex points at US Supermarkets (8X Hilton) on your first $25K of spend each calendar year.

All of that said, transferring Amex points to Hilton is not a recommended approach except when Amex offers a big transfer bonus.  Since Hilton regularly sells points for only a half cent each, transferring Amex points 1 to 2 to Hilton gives you only 1 cent per Amex point value.  That’s not very good compared to outsized value that is possible when transferring to certain airline programs for sweetspot awards.

 

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