Award Nights 101: Using Your Hotel Points (2021)
Most hotel points are easy to use. Unlike frequent flyer programs, availability is not an issue. If there is a standard room available, you can almost always book it with your points. And since (with most programs) the number of points you need doesn't change as much based on demand, you can sometimes save a lot of money by using your points when hotel rates are more expensive than normal.
Hotel reward programs: the very basics
If you are truly a newbie to the world of hotel loyalty programs, there are a few things that you need to know. If you already understand the basics of hotel reward programs, feel free to skip to the next section.
- You might not immediately recognize the names of a couple of the largest hotel programs. The largest hotel company in the world is called the “Intercontinental Hotel Group” or “IHG”. They are the parent company of Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, Kimpton, and a few other hotel brands; but are named after their high-end Intercontinental brand. The Marriott program encompasses dozens of different hotel brands that you might not associate with Marriott. Most hotel brands with multiple locations belong to one of a small number of major hotel programs.
- You can earn and redeem points with any of the program's brands. For example, you can use Marriott points to stay at Westins or Delta Resorts and not just at Marriott hotels.
- Some hotel points are much more valuable than others. Different hotel loyalty programs require very different amounts of points for a free hotel night. For example, for a roughly equivalent hotel, Hyatt might require 12,000, Marriott might require 30,000, and Hilton might require 50,000 points. The expected value of different hotel points ranges from a low of about .4 cents per point, to a high of 1.75 cents per point. How Much are Hotel Points Worth?
- Until the last few years, the number of points required was based on the "category" of the hotel. For example, Marriott currently has eight categories of hotels with standard rates ranging from 7,500 to 85,000 points per night. There is often a slightly lower cost during off-peak dates and potentially a slightly higher cost during peak travel dates.
- The recent trend is to vary the award prices for each hotel within a wider range. With Hilton, the most expensive nights for standard rooms at each hotel are capped based on a "hidden award chart". With IHG, award prices vary in a wider range. Starting in March 2022, Marriott will be moving towards very dynamic pricing, but will keep things in a range based on their current award chart for most hotels for the duration of 2022.
- Unlike frequent flyer programs, it is usually easy to redeem your hotel points. If there are standard rooms available, you will almost always be able to book an award night.
- Award nights are refundable. However, just like refundable cash rates, you'll still need to change or cancel your reservation before a hotel-specific deadline. In extreme cases, this could be a month or more before your stay.
- You'll typically receive your membership benefits when you book an award room. For example, if you are entitled to free breakfast at Hilton hotels, you'll receive this benefit, even when you are using points to book your room. Award nights even entitle you to credits towards higher-level elite status.
This is quite different from the world of frequent flyer miles, where most airlines require roughly the same number of miles for the same type of award tickets.
Hotel programs generally kept the point cost for each category constant, but periodically move dthe hotels from one category to another. A hotel that was in category 5 one year, might be in category 6 the next. As you might expect, many more hotels move up to more expensive categories than move down into less expensive categories, so a typical hotel award night has gradually required more points over time.
Of the major hotel loyalty programs, only Hyatt is currently sticking to a traditional award chart, albeit one with peak and off-peak pricing. But several of the next most important programs are sticking with award charts.
You can even use your points during peak travel periods and special events (like New Year's Eve or a college football game weekend), when regular room rates are much higher than normal. During these times, award prices with some programs (like Hyatt) won't be much or any higher than normal. Award prices with other programs (like Hilton) will still be reasonable. But award prices with yet other programs (like Marriott in a few years), may be prohibitively expensive.
If the only thing left at the hotel are deluxe rooms, junior suites, etc., you may not be able to book an award night or you may need to use a larger number of points.
The occasional hotel will "cheat". They will treat most of their regular hotel rooms as special "view" rooms that aren't available for award stays and only have a tiny number of official "standard" rooms. This can make it nearly impossible to use your points, or to use them at reasonable prices, but this is the exception not the rule.
Getting points to use for award nights
Unless you travel a lot for work, you probably aren’t going to earn very many points through actual hotel stays. Sophisticated travel hackers can sometimes take advantage of loyalty program promotions to earn larger than normal amounts of points on their paid stays. But for most people, it takes a long time to earn enough points to be able to redeem a free night the normal way.
So how do you earn enough points to able to get multiple free hotel nights every year?
- The easiest way to earn free nights is to sign up for credit cards. Each time you sign up for a card, you’ll generally receive enough points for one to three nights at a high-end hotel or up to dozen (or more) nights at one of their less expensive locations.
- Unless you have a problem with handling credit, signing up for credit cards just to collect signup bonuses is a sensible thing to do. It won’t kill your credit rating—in fact, it is more likely to improve it. Credit Cards 101.
- You can sign up for multiple of these cards over the next few years and earn dozens of free hotel nights. In this table, you can see how many free nights you can expect to get from the typical signup bonus of each card. Credit Card Signup Bonuses: The Easiest Path to Free Airplane Tickets and Hotel Nights
- Even if you aren't planning on collecting signup bonuses, there is a good chance you'll earn a couple in the course of adding a couple of hotel credit cards to your core credit card collection. If you decide to get one or more hotel credit cards to get an annual free night certificate, to qualify for the Hilton breakfast benefit, or for some other reason, you'll hopefully make the small additional effort to earn the bonus.
- Free Hyatt hotel nights are a great use of your Chase Ultimate Rewards points. One of the reasons that we so often recommend the Ultimate Rewards program is that it is so easy to redeem your points at good values for Hyatt hotel rooms. Each Ultimate Rewards point converts into one Hyatt point and Hyatt requires fewer points than most other hotel programs to book similar quality hotels.
- Free Choice hotel nights are a very good use of your Citi ThankYou points. ThankYou points can be turned into Choice points on a 2 for 1 basis. This isn't quite as great as being able to use Ultimate Rewards points for Hyatt hotels because the Choice program doesn't include nearly as many super nice hotels, but they have some, and they have plenty of solid hotels in convenient locations and an opportunity to book some unique hotels that belong to the Preferred Hotels & Resorts program.
- Free Wyndham hotel nights and even more so, free Vacasa vacation rentals, are good use of your Capital One points. While many Wyndham hotel award opportunities will provide less than 1 cent per point, certain vacation rental values can often be as high or higher than 2 cents per point. The sweet spot are shorter-term 1 bedroom rentals which cost 15,000 points per night and include all of the fees.
- Other than using Ultimate Rewards points for Hyatt redemptions, ThankYou points for Choice redemptions, and Capital One points for Wyndham and Vacasa redemptions, it rarely makes sense to transfer flexible credit card points to hotel programs. For example, you can also convert your Ultimate Rewards points into Marriott points, but Marriott points are typically only worth about .7 cents each, which is lower value than the other uses of your points. Likewise, Membership Rewards can be converted into Marriott, Hilton, and Choice points, which are all worth under 1 cent each. You are better off saving your points for frequent flyer tickets or even using them to purchase travel at 1 cent each. Introduction to 'Transferable' Reward Points.
- You can always book award nights at hotels in the IHG and Choice programs by using the “Cash & Points trick” to purchase points at low prices. Every hotel program allows you to buy additional points. However, the price is normally too expensive to be worthwhile. But with both IHG Rewards Club and Choice Privileges, you can take advantage of the “Cash & Points trick” to buy last-minute points at lower-than-normal rates.
- It can sometimes make sense to stock up on hotel points when they are running good promotions. While the normal purchase prices are too expensive, hotel companies sometimes have sales where you receive bonus points for every purchase. In some cases, this bonus rates can be as high as 100%, meaning that you’ll get double the normal number of points. When they are running a particularly good sale, it can make sense to buy points and have them on-hand for future redemptions. Acquiring More Hotel Points When They are On Sale.
|Card||Typical Bonus||# of Free Nights|
|Least expensive Hotels||Typical Hotels||Most Expensive Hotels|
|Hilton Surpass / Aspire||150,000||30.0||3.7||1.5|
|Marriott / Marriott Biz||75,000||15.0||2.1||.75|
|Radisson Premier Rewards||120,000||13.3||3.0||1.7|
|Wyndham Earner Plus / Business||45,000||6.0||3.0||1.5|
Higher than normal offers are often available, providing even more value.
It isn't hard to get more than 1.75 cents in value when you use your Ultimate Rewards points to book Hyatt hotel rooms, which is more than you can get when you use "cash then out" and often more than you can get when you transfer them to frequent flyer programs to use for award tickets.
While buying points to use for an award isn’t really a free night, it essentially allows you to purchase rooms at what is often a significant discount. You can book an award night at any hotel in the IHG and Choice programs, whenever rates are high, even if you don’t have any points in your account.
For example, using the Cash & Points trick you can purchase IHG points for .575 cents each (and sometimes less). If you are interested in staying at a Holiday Inn that costs 15,000 points per night, the required points would cost around $90. This might be significantly cheaper than the normal price for the room. Get Cheap IHG and Choice Points Using the Cash & Points Trick.
This is often a viable option for Hilton points. During the year, Hilton typically has occasional promotions where you can buy points for about .5 cents each, which is just a little more than they are normally worth. Especially if you don't have a pile of Hilton points from collecting signup bonuses, it is worthwhile to stockpile some points when they are on sale and then use them whenever hotel rates are higher than normal.
Seeing which award hotels are located at your destination
The first step is usually to determine which hotels are available where you are travelling and how many points they cost per night.
Unfortunately, there are no longer any really good tools for finding all the "points hotels" at your destination. There are several different options, but each has their flaws.
Remember that you can look for hotels that belong to any of the hotel programs where you have a point balance. In addition, you can always book IHG and Choice hotels by taking advantage of the opportunity to purchase reasonably priced last-minute points through the Points & Cash trick. And if you have Ultimate Rewards, ThankYou, and/or Capital One points, it also makes sense to look at your Hyatt, Choice, and/or Wyndham options.
- For now, the only truly reliable approach is to individually search each hotel program's website. Marriott, Hilton, IHG, Hyatt, Choice, Wyndham, Accor, Best Western. When searching on Hyatt, their Small Luxury Hotel partners are always located at the bottom of the result list. If you don't scroll down past all the Hyatt-branded hotels, you'll miss them. Hotel Loyalty Program Reference Guide.
- Award Mapper. Award Mapper does a great job of showing most of the possible points hotels on a dynamic map. You can even continuously move the map to see all the hotels in any area. Unfortunately, its database of hotels is out-of-date, so you won't see all your options. And for hotel programs that have variable point costs (such as Hilton and Marriott), it will only show you the range of possible points costs.
- Hotel Hustle. Hotel Hustle searches across all the major hotel programs, rather than requiring you to search them one at a time. Unfortunately, it can be annoying slow and frequently doesn't display the point cost for hotels from some of the programs. So, you can use it to see which hotels exist, but you can't quickly see how many points they will wind up costing.
- Preferred Hotels & Resorts. You can use Choice hotel points to book rooms at many of the hotels in the Preferred Hotel & Resorts program. If you are looking for a luxury hotel, make sure to check the Preferred Hotel directory. These hotels won’t show up in the other tools. Book Independent Luxury Hotels with Choice Points.
Tips for getting good value from your award points
You’ve been building up loyalty points through some combination of credit card signup bonuses, hotel promotions, shopping portals, and hotel stays. Now, it’s time to travel. How do you best use your points to get free hotel rooms?
- Point-based stays, from most programs, are most valuable during periods of top demand, such as during festivals and events, ski season, or school breaks. While some programs require more points during “high season”, award rates in most don’t fluctuate nearly as much as regular room rates or don’t fluctuate at all. As a result, the most valuable time to use your points are when hotel rates are high than normal—during ski season, school breaks, conventions, special events, holidays, and peak travel season.
- Points and Cash awards almost never a good value. Each hotel program allows to use fewer points to book an award night by paying an extra cash fee. Not long ago, using these "Points and Cash" awards was a way to get extra value from your points. In 2017-2018, all the big hotel programs adjusted their programs and these awards are now almost never a good deal. They sometimes make sense for Wyndham hotels with very high or very low prices. Use Points and Cash Awards to Get a Better Deal When You Redeem Hotel Points.
- Marriott and Hilton give you your 5th night free on award stays. Four nights worth of points will get you a five-night stay. For Hilton, you need to have at least Silver elite status to take advantage of this benefit.
- IHG credit cardholders get their 4th night free on award reservations. This is an even better deal than Marriott and Hilton but requires that you have the IHG Premier or Traveler credit cards (cardholders of the now discontinued IHG card are not eligible). The IHG Premier card costs $89 per year, but comes with a free hotel certificate, automatic Platinum elite status, and several other useful benefits.
- Consider staying on the outskirts of cities or by the airport. The required number of points for a typical hotel are usually much lower outside the city center. If you are sightseeing by car anyway, it may not make a big difference for your trip and you’ll usually save even more money by avoiding the need to pay for expensive overnight parking. For example in San Antonio, the Westin Riverwalk and Courtyard Riverwalk cost 35,000 points per night, but the SpringHill Suites San Antonio Northwest at the Rim only costs 17,500 points, the TownePlace Suites San Antonio Airport only costs 12,5000 points, and both hotels still get a 4.5 rating on TripAdvisor.
- You’ll get the most value from your points at a hotel chain’s cheapest and most expensive hotels. The required points for staying at Category 1 or Category 2 hotels can be ridiculously low. While the cash rates for these lower category hotels also tend to be low, the relative point cost is even lower. Bloggers are happy to point out that 95,000 Hilton points will get you a single night at one of Hilton’s most expensive hotels or nineteen nights at one of their Category 1 hotels. Of course, most of the time, you won’t have an opportunity to stay at a Category 1 or Category 2 hotel unless you are visiting a very inexpensive (usually international) destination. Get More for Your Points by Using Them at Inexpensive Hotels .
- Hyatt allows you to book fancy suites using points for only twice the number of points of a base room. These aren't the standard rooms that are available for an approximately 60% premium, but often ridiculously fancy "premium" suites. When the right room is available, this can be a great use of your points.
- Hilton and Hyatt don't charge resort fees on award reservations. This makes points relatively more valuable at any hotel with high resort or destination fees. Note you'll still be charged resort fees if you make a cash and points reservation.
- You can even use your points at an all-inclusive resort. Along with your room, you'll be entitled to free meals, drinks, and other activities. All the major hotel programs (and some of the smaller ones) include all-inclusive resorts and allow you to book them with points. In general, your award reservation only covers the first two people per room. You’ll need to spend more points or pay a cash surcharge to add extra guests. All the All-inclusive Resorts You can Book with Your Points.
- Don't let your points expire. With most hotel programs, if there is no activity in your account for 12 to 36 months, you can lose your points. Fortunately, you usually don't need to spend a night in a hotel to keep your points alive. Any activity that earns or spends points is usually enough. There are typically a bunch of ways to easily earn or spend a few points with a partner. Keep Your Points from Expiring.
We like to calculate an “award room rate” that represents the cost of using your points to book a hotel room (versus using them for a different hotel or trip). The following table shows the award room rates for Category 1 and Category 2 hotels in the largest hotel programs. Even in less expensive locations, these are usually great rates (especially because they include taxes).
|Program||CPP||Award "room rate" for a|
|Cat 1 Room||Cat 2 Room|
|Hyatt||1.7||$61 - 114||$114 - 166|
|Marriott||.7||$40 - $70||$70 - $110|
At the opposite end of the spectrum, room rates at the most expensive hotels in each program can be extremely high, sometimes over $1,000 per night, giving you a very good return on your award points. There is usually a fixed upper limit to the number of points required for a free hotel night, but there is no upper limit to the cash price. Of course, the real value you receive is based on what you would have actually paid to stay at the hotel, not the necessarily the hotel’s listed price.
Determining if booking an award night is a good use of your points
- Assuming you have a limited supply of points, you need to be smart about when to book an award night and when to just pay the regular "cash" rate for your room. Most people are only going to be able to generate a fixed quantity of points from credit card signups and a relatively low number of points from ongoing credit card spend and paid stays. You don’t want to use all your points on lower value redemptions, and then not have enough to use them later, when you could get more value from your points. At the same time, you don’t want to hold onto your points forever, passing up free hotel rooms, while you forever seek out the highest possible redemption rates.
- We recommend converting the required number of points into an “award room rate” that you can compare to the regular rate. Your points have real value. The best way to think about whether it makes sense to book an award night is to convert the required number of points into a dollar value and then decide whether the room is worth “spending” that much money, or whether you are better off taking advantage of another option.
- The point value that you should use should be based on your own individual circumstances, but we provide a set of values that work well for many people. In some cases, you might have an award opportunity that is so good that it makes sense to purchase new points, if you don’t already have enough to make an award reservation.
- Remember that award nights are refundable and, at Hilton and Hyatt, cover any resort fee. Over the past couple of years, the initial rate you see when searching for hotels is usually a non-refundable rate.
- It can be prudent to save some points for times when room rates are exceptionally high. As discussed above, the number of points that is required for a free night doesn't change (or doesn't change very much) depending on supply and demand, but regular room rates do. So, having points is extremely useful during holidays and special events, when regular room rates are exorbitantly expensive. Unless you expect to have a constant flow of new hotel points, it is worthwhile keeping a stash of points around to use when you really need them.
For example, if the points cost of a Sheraton hotel is 35,000 Marriott points per night and you value Marriott point at .7 cents per point, the “cost” of using award points is around $250 per night. If the $250 “award room rate” is lower the regular room rate, you are better off making an award booking, rather than a normal booking. But, if the room still isn’t worth $250 per night (compared to the other options at your destination), you are better off saving your points and booking another hotel instead.
|Program||Typical value per point||Acquisition cost|
See our more in-depth analysis of Determine Whether an Award Night is Worthwhile.
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