If your goal is earning free hotel stays, it’s hard to know which type of rewards card to get. While co-branded hotel credit cards are an obvious pick, general-purpose travel credit cards that let you redeem points for different kinds of travel rewards can work well for free hotel stays, too.
Which card is best? It depends on your travel style and vacation goals. Let’s dig into both types of cards to see how they work, whom they’re best for, and where they fall flat.
Co-Branded Hotel Credit Cards
Each major hotel chain — Hyatt, Carlson, Marriott, IHG, Hilton, and the like — offers a unique set of options. Some hotel brands offer several options for credit cards, and even co-branded business cards, too, giving you even more ways to rack up points.
These co-branded cards have several benefits and drawbacks, compared to more flexible travel rewards cards.
Focused Strategy Generally Nets Extra Points and Perks
Hotel credit cards can offer great value if you’re an enthusiast for a specific chain. Some offer automatic elite status just for being a cardholder. Co-branded cards generally offer very high bonus points for stays at its properties. They also often feature generous sign-up bonuses that can cover free stays for a few nights. (See also: Tips for Using Hotel Reward Points to Get the Most Value)
You’re Stuck With One Chain
The downside with hotel credit cards is that they aren’t as flexible as general travel credit cards. With a co-branded hotel credit card, you can only book free nights at a hotel within that chain. So, if your travel plans change or you want to try a different hotel brand, you might be out of luck.
Award Availability May Be Limited
Another downside with hotel credit cards is that even though most major hotel brands advertise “no blackout dates” for award nights, they still may limit award availability. So, even if you have the points to burn, you may not be able to use them for the exact dates you want.
Hotel Credit Cards Are a Good Fit for You If:
- You like to stay with the same hotel chain. This is a particularly good strategy if you travel for work and are able to book your own room and then get reimbursed by your employer.
- You love earning special hotel status and room upgrades.
- You tend to have flexible travel dates when you want to redeem rewards.
(See also: Benefits and Value of the Best Hotel Rewards Cards)
General-Purpose Travel Credit Cards
General-purpose travel cards come in a couple of different flavors, but they all offer one trait that co-branded hotel cards simply cannot — flexibility. With flexible travel cards, you can usually use reward points to book nearly any hotel you want.
Statement Credits Make Rewards Redemption Simple
One type of flexible travel card lets you use points to get a statement credit for a travel purchase you’ve already made. You earn points with your purchase, and to redeem, simply book any hotel you want with your card, then use your points as a statement credit toward your travel purchases. You can book directly or through a booking site. Most travel purchases are eligible. Each point is usually worth one cent.
Travel Booking Portals Let You Book at Multiple Hotels
Other cards have their own travel portal that allows you to use points (or cash) to book travel, usually at a nice discounted rate. The benefit here is that you can use your points to book a room with any hotel chain of your choosing, from high-end luxury hotels to cheap roadside motels, and you’ll usually get more value per point than just one cent. Often these portals can even allow you to transfer points to hotel partners at a 1:1 ratio.
Flipside of Flexibility: Earning Less Concentrated, Extra Perks Scarce
The main drawback of these more flexible cards is points accrue slower. The rewards you get for your hotel stays will be much lower, but generally you do get more rewards for other purchases than you would for hotel specific cards. You also won’t get the free anniversary award nights, or the upgrades and other special treatment that come with many hotel cards.
General-Purpose Travel Cards Are a Good Fit for You If:
- You don’t spend a lot at a particular chain and don’t want to be tied down to only staying at one.
- You don’t have flexible travel dates — you can use your points regardless of award availability or blackout dates.
- You spend in categories that other rewards cards offer higher bonuses for.