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Up Your Travel Game: Use Hotel Credit Cards for Rich Rewards

You have been faithfully using your credit cards to earn miles on your favorite airline. Your account keeps growing, yet when you want to use miles, the rewards tickets are just not there or are way too expensive for the miles you have. So you step back and start wondering whether you should be focusing on hotel credit cards to make your vacation more enticing. After all, if you can’t use your miles, isn’t this a good alternative?

Does this sound like you? Well, it sounds like me. So I spent some time investigating hotel credit cards to see if there was a better reward program available.

Hotel Credit Cards Options

I started with the Ritz-Carlton® credit card for no reason except that it sounded nice to be able to vacation at the Ritz®. This card allows you to “splurge on a fancy hotel without breaking your piggy bank.” After spending $5,000 in purchases during the first three months, you earn two nights at a Ritz-Carlton® hotel. Plus, when you get there, you get a $100 credit. But you have to use the room within 12 months and the card costs you $450 for the annual fee. So, before you latch on to this card, it makes sense to check the hotel where you want to stay and make sure it is generally available for the dates you want to stay. You do get 5x the points for each dollar spent at a Ritz® and you can use your points for a Marriott® hotel and transfer points earned to the Starwood® Rewards Program. But this card seems only feasible for those who travel a lot and really like to stay at Ritz® hotels (although it comes in a snazzy box).

If you are more likely to want to stay at a Marriott® hotel rather than a Ritz® (but have the flexibility to use or transfer your rewards for use at a Ritz® or a Starwood® property), you should consider the Marriott Rewards® Visa as your choice for hotel credit cards. You get 75,000 bonus points if you spend $3,000 in your first three months. This is enough for three free nights at a Category 5 Marriott® hotel (the top category). You also get one free night on every account anniversary. You accrue five points for every $1 you spend at a Marriott® or Starwood® hotel and 2 points for every $1 spent to purchase airline tickets. There is no fee the first year, then the fee is $85 per year. Also, there is no need to have separate cards for Marriott®, SPG® and Ritz®. You can link your cards and use your points in any of the programs. You can’t be a member of both Marriott® and Ritz®, but you can be a member of SPG® and either Marriott® or Ritz®. Got it?

I continue to think that the Starwood Preferred Guest from American Express® offers some interesting options to holders even after the Marriott® acquisition. You can transfer your Marriott® points to the SPG® program at a rate of three Marriott® points for one SPG® point, but the SPG® points are actually worth more (less points needed for stays at covered hotels). And SPG® has some good options in their program (St. Regis®, Sheraton®, W and Westin®) and you can transfer SPG® points to airline programs. You get 25,000 Starpoints® when you make $3000 of purchases in the first three months. You earn 2 Starpoints® for each dollar you spend at a Marriott® or SPG® hotel and there is no annual fee for the first year, then $95 per year. You can use Starpoints® on Delta® or Emirates® too, or transfer to other programs (not as good of a deal).

So, what if you like to stay at Hilton®? You might consider the Hilton Honors American Express Card. It’s the only one on this list of hotel credit cards that has no annual fee. And, you can earn seven bonus points for each dollar spent at a hotel in the Hilton® portfolio. You can also earn five bonus points for each dollar spent at certain restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations. The welcome bonus is 50,000 bonus points for $1,000 in purchases during the first three months. But be careful here. When checking for rewards, you will need to use more points than other credit cards for free stays (depending on where you book). This card makes sense only if you like to stay at Hilton® properties. You do get “silver” status which gives you one free night if you use rewards for four nights.

The best of the hotel credit cards if you don’t stay at specific hotels and want the ultimate flexibility is probably the Capital One® Venture Rewards Card. This card boasts a high reward rate of 10 points per dollar when purchasing hotel stays at hotels.com/venture. Plus your points never expire. There is currently a 50k mileage signing bonus when you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months. There is also no annual fee during the first year. You can use your miles to points to erase a payment for a previously made travel purchase (Uber is included), book travel online using points, or get cash back. This provides maximum flexibility for those who like to travel. Airline, hotel or cash: what could be better?

If you like to travel and are frustrated with the credit card mileage program, consider one of these alternatives. I know it is a very complex game where strategy and planning is necessary. Some may get frustrated with the game and others, like me, enjoy the challenge. If you just can’t see yourself reading all the fine print, you might consider just a cash back credit card. You know you can always use the cash! If you have excellent credit, the Citi Double Cash® card is one that may interest you and if you are not into high level purchasing, look at the Chase Freedom® card. Not as much fun—but the rewards can always be used.

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