Earlier this year, in a report for Airfarewatchdog's sister site, SmarterTravel, I rated the largest hotel chains based on overall program value. Marriott came out on top in my assessment, followed by Hyatt, Wyndham, Choice, Best Western, IHG, Carlson, Hilton, Accor, and Motel 6. The benefits of each chain's co-branded credit card were factored into the final overall score.
But the best overall score doesn't mean the best hotel rewards credit card. A more detailed look at credit cards results in a different set of outcomes. I compiled results for eight of the 10 chains in the earlier report, omitting Accor and Motel 6 as not consistent with the others. All co-branded hotel cards share many similarities and features, including collision-damage coverage (CDW) for rental cars and the common (and trivial) accident insurance.
In addition, most cards offer other features:
Annual fee: Most hotel rewards credit cards charge an annual fee less than $100 per year; some waive this fee the first year.
Bonuses: Most cards offer one-time new cardmember bonuses in the form of either points or complimentary nights, provided you charge some minimum to the card within a specified period. Many also provide a yearly "anniversary" point or free-night bonus.
Status: Several cards confer automatic elite status in the hotel chain's loyalty program; others give elite status only after a certain amount of charges.
Foreign exchange: In common with may other travel-oriented credit cards, many hotel cards promise no foreign transaction fees or exchange surcharges.
Earnings: The big differential among hotel cards is in the earning rate. Most cards award considerably more points for charges at their affiliated chain hotels than for everyday charges. With several cards, this earnings multiplier makes the card very attractive if you charge a lot of hotel expenses. On the other hand, if you don't spend a lot at hotels in one chain, the point value for everyday purchases is usually less than the value offered by many other travel rewards cards.
The Value of Popular Hotel Rewards Credit Cards
I calculated the value of the points earned when you use the card for both hotel purchases and everyday purchases. The differences are stark at some chains. Value of points earned for each $100 charged to the card:
Best Western Rewards Mastercard: $4.20 at hotel; 85 cents everyday
Choice Privileges Visa Signature Card: $10 at hotel, $1.40 everyday.
Club Carlson Rewards Visa Card: $3.79 at hotel, $1.89 everyday
Hilton Honors Reserve Card: $2.07 at hotel, $1.24 everyday
The Hyatt Credit Card: $6.45 at hotel, $2.15 everyday
IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card: $6.49 at hotel (at temporary rate; $3/25 at usual rate), 65 cents everyday
Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card: $4.55 at hotel, 91 cents everyday
Wyndham Rewards Visa Signature Card: $4.08 at hotel; 82 cents everyday.
Among the upscale chains, the Hyatt Credit Card rises to the top for its combination of a great point earning for hotel charges, a better than average everyday earning rate, plus a robust insurance package including cancellation and delay coverages.
At its temporary rate, the IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card also earns impressive credit at hotels, but lags the Hyatt Credit Card on everyday purchases. Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card also does well on hotel charges.
Despite the point earning differences, your best bet among the three top upscale-chain cards is probably the one from the chain you use most frequently. All three offer typical benefits, including no surcharge on foreign charges. Earning values on all three are high enough to justify using the card just for hotel charges even if you use a different card for airline and cash-back or everyday charges. The Hilton Honors Reserve Card relatively low and non-competitive showing is a bit of a surprise—its card even adds a foreign surcharge.
The Choice Privileges Visa Signature Card is a runaway winner for hotel-charge point value; automatic gold status is a plus, too, but its 3% foreign surcharge is a defect in any travel card. It's a clear choice if you spend a lot of nights in Choice's primarily budget and midscale branded hotels. On the other hand, if you use BestWestern, Carlson, or Wyndham hotels frequently, go with that chain's card. Best Western Rewards Mastercard and Wyndham Rewards Visa Signature Card do not surcharge foreign charges; Club Carlson Rewards Visa Card does.
I did not include one often-cited hotel card, the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express. Its hotel benefits are about average; the card's big attraction is that you can transfer the Starpoints you earn at 1 point/dollar to miles in some airline programs at a 1:1 rate with a 5,000-point bonus when you transfer 20,000 points. As a result, you can earn miles in the programs of Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, United, and two dozen foreign airlines at a better rate than you can with the airlines' own co-branded travel rewards credit cards. Given the merger with Marriott, there is some question how long this card will remain in its present form.
Editor's note: This content is not provided by any bank, credit card issuer, airline, or hotel chain. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed here are those of the author's alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by the aforementioned entities.