Hotel stays should be part of your travel strategy even if you don’t usually stay in hotels. Just as you should earn airline miles in a few different programs (usually one in each of the three alliances), so too should you earn hotel points from a few different sources.
Last year during the “Make Your Dream Trip a Reality” course, we featured an interview with Drew and Carrie Macomber, a couple who travels the world and lives full-time in hotels. They aren’t the only ones who do this, but the way they do it is very impressive. In short: they are extremely frugal, living on something like $25,000 a year, yet most of the time the hotels they stay in are quite nice.
Their whole story is interesting and well worth studying for anyone interested in travel hacking.
I often write about the Chase Sapphire Preferred and other credit cards that help you earn airline miles. This post features hotel cards that can help you stay for free like Drew and Carrie (and like me, except I’m not as frugal as them and I don’t live full-time in hotels).
If you’re not immersed in this world, you may not realize that some hotel cards offer both an initial signup bonus and an annual renewal bonus that usually comes in the form of more free points or nights. This is a great way to earn points or free stays immediately, and then continue earning them year after year.
Lastly, if you can’t get credit cards and are willing to put in some effort, there’s another way to get free stays—skip to the bottom for that.
The Best Opportunities
Note: some of these references include affiliate links and others don’t. I always try to recommend the best available offers, regardless of any personal benefit—and for the affiliate offers, if you prefer you can always apply directly through the bank.
Earn 60,000 IHG Points (Up to 10 Nights!)
This card offers a great initial signup bonus and a free annual night (valid at any property) every year you remain a cardmember.
Initial bonus: 60,000 points
Annual bonus: One free night, valid at any property worldwide
Annual fee: $0 the first year, then $49
Earn Two Free Hyatt Nights Anywhere
Link: The Hyatt Credit Card
Unfortunately for me, there’s no affiliate link for this card, but I have it myself and continue to recommend it almost every day as a great entry-point to free stays. It’s definitely a keeper.
Initial bonus: Two Free Hyatt Nights Anywhere (!)
Annual bonus: Free Night at a Category 1-4 property
Annual fee: $0 the first year, then $75
Earn a Free Hilton Weekend Night
Another non-affiliate link for a card that I recommend all the time. Overall the IHG and Hyatt offers are slightly more valuable, but this one is good, too
Initial bonus: 2 Weekend Night Certificates
Annual bonus: Free Weekend Night every year you spend $10,000 or more on the card.
Annual fee: $95
Weekend nights are valid for check-in on Friday through Sunday nights, at any property subject to availability. I usually use mine at the Sydney Hilton (before moving over to the Park Hyatt), although recently I stayed at the New York Hilton and also liked it.
It shouldn’t be difficult to get $200-300 value out of this card every year, which more than justifies the annual fee.
Earn Stays and Nights Toward Your Starwood Elite Status
Link: Starwood Preferred Guest (Personal)
Link: Starwood Preferred Guest (Business)
This card has a lower signup bonus than some cards, yet I end up using it as my go-to card for most spending that isn’t dining or travel (which goes to my Chase Sapphire Preferred for double points). This is because SPG points are transferrable to many different airline partners, usually with a 25% bonus, and they’re also great for hotel stays.
Note that there are two versions, personal and business. You can get both, and each one will give you stay and night credits toward elite status. Some people keep one for long-term use, then get the other for the additional signup bonus, then canceling the second one before the annual fee comes due at the end of the year.
Initial bonus: 25,000 points (enough for at least one stay, and potentially more)
Annual fee: $0 the first year, then $95 (the same for each card)
Annual bonus: Earn 4 stay credits and 5 night credits toward elite status
Earn Starwood Elite Status Right Away
Initial bonus: 40,000 points
Annual fee: $450
This card is expensive and doesn’t come with an annual hotel bonus. So why is it here? Mostly because of the additional travel benefits it provides. Among other things, it includes complimentary Starwood Gold status, as well as a Priority Pass membership that can be used for airline lounge access worldwide.
I spent at least three years looking at this card before finally making the leap and applying for it myself. I’ve had it for more than two years now, and I’m still satisfied with the value.
General Tips & Principles
These tips are universal and can help you regardless of which hotel properties you prefer or where you choose to travel.
1. Use your certificates wisely!
If the certificate is valid for a free stay throughout the entire network of properties, use it for an aspirational, expensive property.
This should be common sense, but I have no doubt there are people who redeem an IHG annual night at a Holiday Inn Express that costs $59 a night. I suppose that’s better than letting it go to waste, but with a tiny amount of planning, you can probably do better. The Intercontinental London Park Lane regularly costs $400-600 a night, for example. Lesson: pay for the Holiday Inn Express, use the certificate at the Intercontinental.
2. Make renewal decisions based on the value of the free item compared to what you pay to keep the card.
Again, I’m happy to pay $49-79 a year to keep something that I can use for $500 in value. But even if using a more conservative estimate (say $200-250 a night), it’s still worth it.
If you don’t see yourself using it at all, of course, then you probably won’t want to keep a particular card. Always do what’s best for you and your situation.
3. Can’t get cards at all, or just have more time? Use the “Best Rate Guarantee” to get stays that are completely free and don’t require cards.
This is a big topic, so I’ll do another post about this at some point. For now, check out Drew and Carrie’s detailed rundown on it. Basically, it’s a way where if you can do some research and find discrepancies in hotel pricing, some hotel chains will give you the room for free. Drew is the master of this and regularly stays for weeks at a time using this strategy.
Just as Frequent Flyer miles help you fly, hotel points can help you stay. Even if you prefer Airbnb, Couchsurfing, camping, or some other alternative form of lodging, most people find that it’s still nice to have a hotel option once in a while. This post can make that happen—have fun!