The Best Credit Cards for “Free” Hotel Status

Hotel co-branded credit cards are pretty much the only example I can think of where a company defines its card benefits by just giving you elite status or progress toward it. Airlines, by contrast, pick and choose, diluting the benefits of true elites while frustrating credit card holders who forget detailed terms and conditions. (Example: a free checked bag only applies if you buy the ticket with the co-branded card.)

Easy access to elite status as well as other generous perks keep me motivated to hold several hotel credit cards in my wallet. I don’t even have to use them to buy anything with them. Many times just paying the annual fee will earn a more valuable free night. Here are some of the best examples:

Hyatt Gold Passport

The Hyatt Visa from Chase comes with automatic Platinum status, which I find is the best compromise between qualification criteria and benefits. Often Hyatt will also give its cardholders a 50% bonus on points earned during quarterly promotions. You can also get automatic Platinum status with the United MileagePlus credit card.

If you really want Diamond status (25 stays or 50 nights), I think it’s a great goal. The Hyatt Visa will give you 2 stays and 5 nights toward elite status when you spend $20,000 in a year, and another 3 stays and 5 nights after you reach $40,000. However, I think there are other cards with better bonuses for big spenders.

Hyatt Visa from Chase – $75 annual fee

  • Sign-up Bonus: 2 nights at any Hyatt after spending $1,000 in 3 months. Already have Platinum status? Your card includes two suite upgrades for paid nights. Diamond? Your two free nights will be in a suite.
  • Annual Bonus: 1 free night (category 1-4) starting year 2, and Platinum status every year

United MileagePlus Club Visa from Chase – $395 annual fee

  • Sign-up Bonus: $95 credit your first year, or follow these instructions to try to get the entire fee waived
  • Annual Bonus: United Club membership, Hyatt Platinum status, and Avis First status

Starwood Preferred Guest

SPG Gold status is included in the benefits of any American Express Platinum Card. This includes the Business and Mercedes-Benz versions of this card. Some say you have to write-in to SPG and send them a copy of your American Express card statement to verify your eligibility. I found it easier to just call American Express and ask them to connect me to the SPG help desk.

The Platinum Card is pricey, with an annual fee starting at $450, but you also get benefits like $200 in airline fee credits each calendar year and reimbursement of one Global Entry application. Since United already paid for mine, I’ll use it to pay for Megan’s application.

Platinum Card from American Express – $450 annual fee
Mercedes-Benz Platinum Card from American Express – $475 annual fee

Note: Only the Mercedes-Benz card offers a public sign-up bonus at the time this post was published. You can get 50,000 Membership Rewards points for spending $1,000 in 3 months.

If a Platinum card is outside your budget, consider the personal or business versions of the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express cards. They won’t get you elite status, but each one will give you 2 stays and 5 nights toward elite status each year. If you have both (like I do), that is an easy 4 stays and 10 nights to get you started. Gold status is obtained after a total of 10 stays or 25 nights.

Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express – $65 annual fee

  • Sign-up Bonus: 25,000 Starpoints after spending $5,000 in 6 months.
  • Annual Bonus: 2 stays and 5 nights credit toward elite status every year, or buy up to Gold each year you spend $30K.

Priority Club

Priority Club recently devalued its loyalty program for points earned in 2013. It used to be you could just buy points and those would count toward elite status. Odd, I know, but buying 60,000 points at 0.7 cents each was just $420 and that could get you Platinum status. Then you turn around and redeem them for a free night. Well, no longer. Priority Club will begin distinguishing between elite-qualifying and non-elite-qualifying points.

You can get top-tier Platinum status more easily by just signing up for the credit card. The benefits, even at the Platinum level, are pretty weak, but it can be better than nothing if your travels take you places with a Holiday Inn may be your only option. A few times I’ve found myself in the only suite in the entire hotel.

Priority Club Visa from Chase – $49 annual fee (waived first year)

  • Sign-up Bonus: 80,000 Priority Club points after first purchase
  • Annual Bonus: 1 free night at any Priority Club hotel starting year 2, and free Platinum status every year

Marriott Rewards

Marriott has insane qualification requirements for its loyalty program if you ask me. No option to earn status through points or stays. Nights are the only way. And you need a friggin’ lot of them to reach the top tier. Make it easier on yourself by getting a Marriott credit card. With 15 nights credit each year, you can make the bar much easier to reach. I don’t know if holding a personal and business card together will give you even more nights toward elite status, but I am guessing it will, similar to the SPG American Express cards.

Marriott Premier Rewards Visa from Chase – $85 annual fee (waived first year)

  • Sign-up Bonus: 50,000 Marriott Rewards points and 1 free night (category 1-4) after spending $1,000 in 3 months
  • Annual Bonus: 1 free night (category 1-5) starting year 2, and 15 nights credit toward elite status every year

Hilton HHonors

Hilton can be found everywhere, and it’s often a step up from Priority Club. Although I find that their points aren’t very useful for short domestic stays (40,000 points for a generic Hilton in downtown Philadelphia?) they can be very useful when combined with specific promotions. For example, American Express Hilton cardholders have access to discounted AXON awards, and Hilton HHonors elites (which you can get with some cards) have access to GLON awards. Check out Deals We Like for more information about these two award types. The exact elite status you get varies with each card, offered by either Citi or American Express.

Hilton HHonors Reserve Visa from Citi – $95 annual fee

  • Sign-up Bonus: 2 free weekend nights at any Hilton after spending $2,500 in 4 months
  • Annual Bonus: 1 free weekend after spending $10,000 each year. Complimentary Gold status every year. Buy up to Diamond status each year you spend $40,000.

Hilton HHonors Visa from Citi – no annual fee

  • Sign-up Bonus: 40,000 Hilton HHonors points after spending $1,000 in 4 months
  • Annual Bonus: Complimentary Silver status every year. A great no-fee way to get status!

Hilton HHonors Surpass from American Express – $75 annual fee

  • Sign-up Bonus: 60,000 Hilton HHonors points after spending $3,000 in 3 months
  • Annual Bonus: Complimentary Gold status your first year and Silver status after that. Buy up to Gold status each year you spend $20,000.

Hilton HHonors from American Express – no annual fee

  • Sign-up Bonus: 40,000 Hilton HHonors points after spending $750 in 4 months
  • Annual Bonus: Complimentary Silver status every year. Buy up to Gold status each year you spend $20,000.

Club Carlson

Club Carlson has tons of promotions giving away boatloads of points. This credit card is no different. You get almost enough points for two nights at any Club Carlson hotel in the world, as well as free Gold status. There have been a few hotels I’ve visited where I check in with Gold status and the clerk starts trying to chat me up because I must be some international globetrotter (I am, but that’s not how I earned the status…) To sweeten the pot, when you redeem points for two consecutive nights, every third night is free!

Club Carlson Premier Visa from US Bank – $75 annual fee

  • Sign-up Bonus: 50,000 Gold Points after first use + 35,000 Gold Points after spending $2,500 in 3 months
  • Annual Bonus: Complimentary Gold status

Scott created Hack My Trip after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • http://twitter.com/Mileage_Update Mileage Update

    $450 in annual fees to get SPG Gold seems like a bad deal. As with most deals “Free” is the best way to go but with the ability to earn lots of Hyatt points the $75 for Plat might be a worthy cause.

    • Noah Kimmel

      its more than just SPG Gold, though. AMEX Plat includes $200 incidental credit, access to Fine Hotels and Resorts (which in Orlando/Vegas/NYC and others would mean free money on a vacation between included perks, meals, and room upgrades). You get Hertz Gold, Avis Preferred, Access to Delta Sky Clubs, US Air clubs, and AA Admirals Clubs (each membership is over $300 annually w/o the card) as well as a Priority Pass membership for hundreds of other clubs including most Alaska Boardrooms “for free”. You get AMEX concierge and early/priority tickets and seating to tons of shows and concerts. You get PreCheck / Global entry for faster security and customs at airports and borders…The Platinum card may not be the best card for spending, but if you travel a reasonable amount, and like to go in style, it is a MUST.

      • Rob

        Does anyone know if you keep SPG Gold for the full year cycle even if /after you cancel the Amex Plat card?

    • Scottrick

      Noah is correct. I wouldn’t get an AmEx Platinum card just for the status. On the other hand, I didn’t feel like Priority Pass was something I would use. Without Priority Pass, it began to feel like paying $450 to get $500 back in rebates, which seemed silly (although the Membership Rewards points are worthwhile). It was the Gold SPG status that convinced me to apply.

  • http://www.facebook.com/clare.neuman Clare Neuman

    Actually the Club Carlson card free award night is better than what you mentioned. If you book 2 award nights, they rebate the points for the last night, and you don’t need all the points for 2 free nights in your account either at the time of booking.

    • David

      I can confirm this. Just stayed two nights for the price of one at a Park Inn, now that I have their card. Good stuff!

    • Scottrick

      Thanks!

  • Sarah

    For Club Carlson, is it third night free for only standard award nights or can this be applied to 50% off redemption night awards too?

    • Scottrick

      I believe standard awards only, but I can’t confirm.

  • Hilton

    No, Hilton Reserve Card doesn’t give you “4 more free weekend nights” even when you spend $40,000. It’s just one free weekend night.

    • Scottrick

      Thanks, I misread something. Apparently I thought it was a free night for *every* $10,000 spent.

  • http://twitter.com/reykjeff Jeff Kay

    Which ones get affiliate?

    • Scottrick

      The Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve. At the moment, the rest are not affiliate links.

  • http://twitter.com/TravelSummary Travel Summary

    The SPG Amex gives you Gold status after $30K in annual spend as well.

  • http://twitter.com/TravelSummary Travel Summary

    2 notes on the Hilton Amex Surpass card also: 1) it’s a 60K bonus after $3k (I checked and your link leads to that offer as well), and 2) Can earn diamond status after $40K spend on this card also.

    • Scottrick

      Thanks. I was a bit bleary eyed when I wrote this.

      • http://twitter.com/TravelSummary Travel Summary

        When I click on the “Rewards” tab of the offer page of the surpass card, it says “Enjoy an automatic upgrade to HHonors Diamond Elite status when your total eligible spend reaches $40,000 or more during a calendar year.”

  • Diana Wu

    We’re considering a Hyatt Diamond challenge since we have a lot of Hyatt nights in Asia coming up. I was reading through the archives about your experiences with the challenge to figure out an approach since we don’t have elite status with other hotel chains. Thinking of applying for the PC or Hilton Reserve Visa. We had 2 nights at Holiday Inn in the past year, but more than 180 days ago, and no nights at any Hilton property except for one through Priceline. Both chains have properties near us for about $90/night so a mattress run is possible. Thoughts?

    • Scottrick

      Basically, Hyatt wants to see that you (1) have equivalent status with another program and (2) actually earned with stays. I provided a mix of information that wasn’t perfect, but was convincing enough. I had Priority Club Platinum status, which is not comparable but is top tier. I had Hilton Gold status, which is more respectable but isn’t top-tier. And I had one or two stays with each.

      It doesn’t matter if a stay was booked with Priceline as long as it shows up in your account statement. Find an old statement if it’s not in the current one.

      I’m not sure if you want to book a mattress run to get something visible in your record. On the surface, it’s a great idea and the best one available. It is better than nothing. But I can’t guarantee it will work.

      • Diana Wu

        Well, it took a little bit of work but I was able to enroll in the Hyatt Diamond challenge. Went back and forth with Hilton for a bit to get my stay to show up in my account and signed up for the Hilton Reserve Visa. What was interesting when I contacted Gold Passport was that they only asked for evidence of at least one stay with a competitor in the past 12 months, but I’m not going to complain! Thanks for all your input!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002458125096 Momo Levi

    thanks

  • ben

    IIRC, the Chase United Club card also comes with instant Hyatt Status

  • Mohan phansalkar

    With the JP Morgan ritz credit card you basically get gold status in the ritz/Marriott program, for free in the first year and once you spend 10,000 in the following year. Annual fee for credit card $395(with a lot of good benefits included)

  • Swizard210

    Just had a few questions since I am trying to get involved in the Hotel Statuses realm.

    1. For the Hyatt Visa, it’s 2 stays/5 nights for the first $20,000 in spending and another 3 stays/ 5 nights for the next $20,000 ($40,000 total), but do I get anything if I spend yet ANOTHER $20,000 or more ($60,000 total)?

    2. For the Hyatt the 2 free nights (sign up bonus), do they have an expiration date or can I use them anytime even past 1 year from signup? I have the same question regarding the SIGN-UP 2 suite upgrades (with platinum status)?

    3. For Hyatt the 1 annual free night, and the 4 suite upgrades you can get if you’re a DIamond, do they expire in 1 year or can I save them beyond 1 year to use. I am planning for a large trip in a couple years and want to maximize my benefits during that trip.

    4.For Hilton HHonors Reserve Visa, the 2 free weekend nights (sign up bonus), do they have an expiration date or can I use them anytime even past 1 year from signup? How about the annual 1 free weekend night (after $10000 spend)

    Thank you for your blog, it’s helped me so much!

    • Scottrick

      (1) No, it stops at $40K.

      (2) Yes to both. They expire 1 year from sign-up.

      (3) Yes, they expire 1-year from deposit.

      (4) Yes, they expire 1-year from sign-up. The additional night expires 1-year from deposit. The card account must still be active at the time you wish to use them since these are linked to your credit card with Citi, not with Hilton’s loyalty program.

      • Swizard210

        Awww man that’s unfortunate, maybe I’ll have to wait till the year I’m planning traveling before signing up for some of these. Thank you for the prompt reply though!

  • richard

    is there an update to this?

    • Scottrick

      This is still largely accurate. One change is that the Amex Hilton Surpass card now offers Hilton HHonors Gold status every year, not just the first year.