As a professional credit card reviewer, I’ve opened nearly 100 cards over the last decade and later closed dozens of them as the costs outweigh the benefits. But there is one type of card I’ll hold on to forever—my hotel cards.
Despite annual fees as high as $650, my hotel credit cards have consistently paid for themselves, primarily through annual “free night certificates”—and the best part is that they don’t ever have to leave my nightstand to do it.
I was approved for my first travel credit card 10 years ago. My income was low at the time, and credit card rewards afforded me an opportunity to travel when my bank account wouldn’t. When I got my first hotel-branded card—the IHG Rewards Select Credit Card—in 2015, I also began to learn about the joy of free night certificates.
So long as you pay the annual fee, many hotel credit cards offer one free night each year. Unlike companion passes offered by airline cards and credits you can get with general travel cards, I don’t have to spend any additional money to enjoy a free night every year. If the value of your stay is greater than the card’s fee, you’ll come out ahead without ever swiping. (The math is in cardholders’ favor, with most hotel cards charging under $100 a year, while the average daily rate at U.S. hotels is more than $150.)
Before discovering free night credits, I stayed at my fair share of motels with rock-hard beds and paper-thin walls. So early on, the biggest appeal was access to a decent hotel room where I could actually get some sleep. As I started traveling more, I added cards to keep things affordable, eventually accumulating eight hotel cards.
Currently, I’m paying $1,632 in annual fees across all eight. In a typical year I book more than $2,500 worth of rooms using my free night certificates, saving more than $1,000 compared with if I paid for the rooms in cash.
However, as my life and finances evolved, the benefit of my free night certificates has become about more than saving money.
Sure, I still use credits for overnight layovers or one-nighters on a road trip, but my favorite use is to take my two kids to a hotel near our home in Sandy, Utah because they love the experience. Last year, I took them to a Hilton resort in Park City, about half an hour away, where they marveled that our room had a full kitchen, living room and loft bedroom.
I’ve been able to create some cherished memories with my kids—swimming at the hotel pool, playing Nintendo Switch in the room or introducing them to my favorite childhood movies—experiences that it can be difficult to make time for in normal life. Every time we drive past a hotel we’ve stayed at, my kids remember that quality time together and I’m grateful.
My hotel credit card collection
You probably don’t need eight hotel cards. As a freelance writer, I have a lot of flexibility in my schedule, allowing me to travel enough to make the fees worth it. Friends and family are always impressed when I share my experiences, but I’m forced to acknowledge that it often requires a lot of planning and research to find eligible properties.
For people who only travel once or twice a year, it may be harder to justify the cost and hassle of numerous cards. But if you’re interested in getting one or two, consider cards from hotel chains you prefer to stay with. Be sure to compare cards based on all features, including welcome bonuses, rewards rates, annual fees—and free night credits.
Also consider hotel elite status perks such as late checkout, free Wi-Fi and complimentary room upgrades, which can make a better overall trip experience. Keep in mind that some cards may require you hit a minimum spend before earning a free night (though none of the ones I use do).
Here are the hotel cards in my wallet, and how I’ve used them.
IHG One Rewards Premier Credit Card
- Base rewards rate: 3x
- Bonus rewards: 10x at IHG hotels; 5x on travel, dining and gas stations.
- Sign-up bonus: 140,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in the first three months.
- Key perks: Annual free night award, fourth night free on consecutive award redemptions, automatic IHG® Platinum status, $100 trusted traveler program application fee credit every four years.
- Annual fee: $99
- APR: 21.49% to 28.49% variable
- Foreign transaction fee: None
I have two IHG credit cards to accommodate for trips that last more than one night. Each card offers an annual certificates worth up to 40,000 points, which is enough to pay for a room that would normally cost $200 or more.
For example, when I took my daughter to Disneyland in early 2020—what I still consider to be one of the best experiences of my life—I was able to use one free night from my IHG Rewards Select card (which is no longer available to new applicants) and another from my IHG® One Rewards Premier Credit Card to stay at a Holiday Inn Express less than a mile from the park. I had book each night separately, but IHG linked the two reservations when I checked in.
Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® Credit Card
- Points: Up to 17x points on purchases spent at Marriott Bonvoy participating hotels; 3x points on first $6,000 spent at gas stations, grocery stores & dining; 2x points on all other purchases
- Welcome bonus: Three free nights award, up to 150,000 point value
- Annual bonus: Free night award every year after account anniversary (valued at 35,000 points)
- Annual fee: $95
Marriott often offers sizable welcome bonuses on its credit cards, which is why I’ve accumulated three of the six cards the brand offers. In April 2023, I used two of my free night certificates to take three friends on a wine-tasting trip in California—Marriott let me use both on a single reservation.
With my $95 a year Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card and Marriott Bonvoy Premier Plus Business Credit Card (no longer available), the annual night certificates are each worth up to 35,000 points. That’s enough to pay for a stay at brands including Residence Inn, Fairfield Inn & Suites or The Westin.
In contrast, the $650 a year Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express Card goes up to 85,000 points, which is enough to pay for a night at the Ritz-Carlton, the Autograph Collection or W Hotels.
Hilton Honors Aspire American Express Card
- Base rewards rate: 3x
- Bonus rewards: 14x at Hilton hotels and resorts; 7x on select travel and dining at U.S. restaurants.
- Welcome bonus: 150,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first three months
- Key perks: Annual free night reward; up to $250 in annual airline incidental fee credits; up to $250 in Hilton Resort credits; complimentary access to Priority Pass lounges; complimentary diamond elite status
- Annual fee: $450
- APR: 20.99% to 29.99% variable
The Hilton Honors credit cards are the only ones that offer free night awards that you can use at any Hilton property (other brands exclude their most luxurious properties from free night eligibility or severely restrict availability).
That’s how I used my Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card to get two free nights at the Waldorf Astoria Las Vegas, which would typically cost more than $500 per night. Because of my elite Diamond status, another benefit of the card, my sister and I were also able to enjoy free drinks and a spectacular view of the Las Vegas Strip.
World of Hyatt Credit Card
- Base rewards rate: 1x
- Bonus rewards: 4x at Hyatt hotels; 2x at restaurants, on airline tickets purchased directly from the airline, local transit and commuting, and fitness club and gym memberships
- Welcome bonus: Up to 60,000 bonus points: 30,000 points when you spend $3,000 in the first three months, plus 2 points per dollar spent in the first six months, up to 30,000 more points.
- Key perks: Free annual night certificate, plus a second certificate after you spend $15,000 in a year; discoverist elite status
- Annual fee: $95
- APR: 21.49% to 28.49% variable
Hyatt doesn’t have nearly as many properties as some other hotel chains, but its hotels are often in prime locations. In early 2021, for instance, I booked one night at a Hyatt House in Seattle on the way home from seeing the northern lights in Alaska and got an impressive view of the nearby Space Needle.
My World of Hyatt Card offers a one-night certificate that I can use at any property in the rewards program’s lowest four of eight categories, which includes brands such as Hyatt Place, Hyatt Regency and Grand Hyatt but not Andaz or Park Hyatt.
Wyndham Rewards Earner Plus Card
- Base rewards rate: 1x
- Bonus rewards: 6x at Wyndham hotels and on gas; 4x on eligible dining and grocery store purchases
- Welcome bonus: 45,000 bonus points when you spend $1,000 in the first three months
- Key perks: Annual 7,500-point bonus; platinum elite status; 10% discount on stays booked with points
- Annual fee: $75
- APR: 20.99%, 25.24% or 29.99% variable
Some cards offer bonus points every year instead of a certificate. For example, my Wyndham Rewards Earner Business Card gives me 15,000 points each year, which is enough for up to two nights at some Wyndham properties. What’s more, Wyndham points don’t expire for up to four years, giving me more time to use them. I’ve used these rewards for budget hotels on road trips when I just need a place to sleep.
Got a money question? Let Buy Side find the answer. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Include your full name and location, and we may publish your response.
More on travel credit cards
The advice, recommendations or rankings expressed in this article are those of the Buy Side from WSJ editorial team, and have not been reviewed or endorsed by our commercial partners.