As travel rewards credit cards go, hotel rewards cards are often overshadowed by their glitzy cousins, the ubiquitous airline rewards cards.
However, in the hands of a savvy consumer, the value of hotel rewards earnings often exceeds that of airline credit cards, with redemption rates easily running at 2 to 4 cents per dollar spent.
The best hotel rewards programs, according to blogger Daraius Dubash of MillionMileSecrets, are those that enable cardholders to redeem earnings for both hotel stays and for free flights, giving you maximum flexibility. Some hotel credit cards also allow cardholders to earn elite status faster at the affiliated hotel chain, getting you access to choice rooms and elite guest services without having to spend a lot of nights at the hotel chain every year.
Last, but not least, in the always-crowded travel rewards segment, hotel rewards cards compete for consumers’ attention by offering attractive sign-up bonuses — in some cases, those bonuses can be worth up to five free hotel nights. Here are CreditCardGuide.com’s picks for the best hotel rewards credit cards for 2012:
1) American Express Starwood Preferred Guest credit card
The Amex Starwood Preferred Guest card retains its leadership position as one of the most attractive hotel rewards credit cards. SmarterTravel recognized it as well in its 2011 Editor’s Choice rewards.
The Starwood hotel chain operates more than 940 hotels around the world, including brands like Westin Hotels, Sheraton, Four Points by Sheraton, W Hotels and more. The AmEx Starwood card comes with a $65 annual fee, waived the first year.
What makes it rewarding: Why is this card so popular? It’s flexible. You can use your points for hotel stays — or for airfare.
“The Starwood Preferred credit card could be considered more valuable than airline miles because you can transfer points into many different airlines at a 1-to-1 ratio,” wrote Dubash in an email. “You also get a 25 percent bonus for transfers to airlines in increments of 20,000 points.”
Earning points: The AmEx Starwood card earns you 2 points per dollar on Starwood hotel stays and 1 point per dollar on all other charges.
Bonuses and extras: New cardholders currently get a 10,000 Starpoints bonus with their first purchase and another 15,000 Starpoints if they spend $5,000 within the first six months. Points can be redeemed for a free hotel stay starting at 2,000 Starpoints for a weekend night (3,000 for a weekday night) in a standard room at a category 1 hotel (the equivalent of a $70 to $80 per night room).
To maximize redemption value, cardholders can mix and match cash and Starpoints. A one-night stay in a New York City hotel at $350 per night will cost you 20,000 Starpoints, a redemption value of 1.75 cents per Starpoint. However, use the “Cash and Points” option, and the same room will cost you $150 plus 8,000 Starpoints, a redemption value of 2.5 cents per Starpoint.
The Starwood Preferred Guest website makes it easy for cardholders to research hotel rewards redemption options, another plus of the card.
2) Marriott Rewards Premier credit card
The points you rack up with this card can be redeemed at Marriott properties, such as Renaissance Hotels, Courtyard, Residence Inn and Fairfield Inn & Suites. You can also redeem them for airline miles, Marriott Elite guest services and more.
What makes it rewarding: If sign-up bonuses are your thing, the Marriott Premier card comes with a 50,000 point bonus, rewarded after your first use and redeemable for up to five nights at a category 2 hotel. Like AmEx, Marriott divides its properties into categories that vary based on location, price, amenities and brand. To find out how far your points will get you, visit Marriott’s point redemption site.
Earning points: Cardholders earn 5 points per dollar for Marriott hotel stays, 2 points for dining, airline and rental car purchases and 1 point for everything else.
Bonuses and extras: Cardholders get a free one-night stay every year for eligible hotels in categories 1 to 4. The card also enables cardholders to build up Elite membership faster by giving you a 15-night credit toward Elite membership every year on the account anniversary.
Such perks make the card well worth the $85 annual fee (waived the first year). If the $85 annual fee is a bit steep for you, opt for the Marriott Reward Card, which has a $45 annual fee (waived the first year). It offers a sign-op bonus of 30,000 bonus points and a 10-night credit toward Elite membership every year.
3) Hyatt credit card
Hyatt has nearly 500 properties worldwide, including some pretty luxurious ones. The rewards you earn with the Hyatt card could put them within your reach for a $75 annual fee.
What makes it rewarding: For world travelers fond of living it up, the Hyatt credit card is hard to pass up. The Hyatt offers a no-nonsense two Award Night bonus after new cardholders make their first purchase — redeemable at any of Hyatt’s hotels. That includes the $900-per-night Park Hyatt in Paris, the Hyatt Regency in London ($500 a night) and the Park Hyatt in Maui at $400 a night.
Earning points: Cardholders earn 3 Hyatt Gold Passport points for every dollar spent on the card at all Hyatt properties, and 1 point for all other purchases.
Bonuses and extras: Cardholders get a free anniversary award night each year, redeemable at category 1 to 4 Hyatt hotels. Find out which category your desired hotel is in by visiting Hyatt’s site. Award nights come without resort, Internet or redemption fees.
Even after you burn through the free nights, redemption value on the Hyatt card is great for the chain’s top-of-the-line hotels. According to Dubash, for example, 22,000 Hyatt points will get you a $700 per night stay in Paris. Assuming all those points were earned via Hyatt hotel stays, that means a rate of return of about 9 cents back per dollar spent.