When you travel, you want to be able to stay in style and get rewarded for all the expenses you put on your card.
It's tempting to get every hotel card that comes out promising x, y, and z, but the truth is, some hotel cards are better than others.
If you don't choose carefully, you'll end up with a card that costs you more than rewards you with hotel and travel perks.
Instead of getting a room upgrade on your favorite hotel chain, you'll get a high-interest rate, which can take a bite out of your paycheck for months, if not years. (That's not to mention the ding on your credit score!)
That's why it's so important to know which travel credit card is worth it before you buy in.
We've done all the work to find the best travel credit cards for hotels that maximize the value of what you spend and don't come with huge costs or fees.
Sure, you want a travel rewards card that can be redeemed for a night stay (or more) and other hotel perks, but you'll also want to choose a card with a loyalty program that's strong and foreign transaction fees are weak.
What You Need To Know
Become one with a hotel credit card's point system to earn the most free nights
It's easy to get drawn in by a hotel credit card's huge sign-up bonuses and fast earn rates, but you also need to consider how many points you'll actually need to redeem valuable rewards like a free night at a hotel.
Do your research!
Figuring out a card's "earn" and "burn" rates. Math may be the last thing you want to do when planning a getaway, but it's important to figure it out if you want to pack away some better money habits of your own.
Let's say Hotel Card "A" earns 10 points per dollar spent at their hotels but requires 30,000 points for a free night's stay.
Hotel Card "B" only offers 2 points per dollar spent at their hotels, but free nights start at 5,000 points.
While the earn rate for Card A is much faster, you would need to burn—er, spend—$3,000 in order to earn a free night.
With Card B, however, while you'll earn points more slowly, you only need to spend $2,500 to earn a free night.
What You Need To Avoid
Don't choose a hotel credit card until you consider your own travel habits
Even the most rewarding hotel credit card isn't going to benefit you if it doesn't reflect the way you typically travel.
Be loyal and true—or not. Let's consider the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card, for example, which is (spoiler alert!) one of the top hotel credit cards mentioned below.
It rocks if you're a Marriott lover.
But if you rarely stay at a Marriott, you will likely feel underwhelmed by its benefits.
There are options, though.
How We Picked These Cards
The best hotel credit cards offer more than just free nights
If you've been searching for the best hotel credit card, you know the vast array of options can make the decision a bit overwhelming.
So we narrowed down our top choices based on a few key parameters:
Is it easy to earn enough points? The best hotel credit cards not only earn points fast but make it easy to turn those points into free nights.
For example, the Hilton Honors Card from American Express didn't make the cut because free nights at certain properties require 200,000 points or more, making it hard to cash in your points.
Is it traveler-friendly? This may seem obvious, but credit card issuers for some travel rewards cards charge a foreign transaction fee when used abroad.
So, if you travel out of the country often, those fees can end up canceling out the rewards you earn.
The five cards on this list do not charge foreign transaction fees.
Is the annual fee worth it for the average cardholder? Make sure the rewards you earn will offset the annual fee—and then some.
For example, the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card edged out the Ritz Carlton Rewards Credit Card on our list because the Ritz's $450 annual fee may be hard to recoup unless you're a frequent luxury traveler.
How useful are the rewards? The cards on this list can either be redeemed at worldwide locations, or with a flexible variety of airlines or hotel brands.
Are there additional perks? This can be a tiebreaker between similar cards.
For example, the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card is a solid choice for earning star points quickly, but cards with sweeter perks ultimately won out.
The Top 5 Cards
1. Chase Sapphire Preferred is the best overall travel rewards card for flexibility and fast rewards
The best choice for earning free nights isn't actually a hotel credit card at all—it's a flexible travel rewards card that makes it easy to earn points and cash them in for travel.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card offers a 1:1 point transfer to other loyalty programs, so you're not bound to a particular brand.
Hot tip: With our super guide, you can learn more about all of Chase's travel rewards cards, including the Preferred.
Earn a free night stay along with other hotel rewards with the company's Chase Ultimate Rewards program.
It's ideal if you like variety. Do you enjoy searching around for the best bargains at your destination?
Is the perfect location more important to you than brand loyalty?
If so, you'll appreciate the flexibility of the Chase Sapphire Preferred.
The annual fee is reasonable—and worth it. Chase offers a $0 introductory fee, and a $95 annual fee after the first year.
Consider that your sign-up bonus of 50,000 points is equivalent to $625 toward travel—and that alone will recoup the first 7 years' worth of annual fees.
Points are worth more when redeemed for travel. Get a 25% redemption bonus when spending points on travel.
For example, the 50,000 bonus points you receive for signing up—typically worth $500—are enough to earn a $625 statement credit when redeemed for travel.
The earning structure is simple. Earn 2 points per dollar on travel and dining purchases and 1 point per dollar on all other purchases.
1-to-1 point transfers offer maximum flexibility. Chase Sapphire Preferred allows you to transfer your points to other airline and hotel loyalty programs.
So if you're a member of a free loyalty program or frequent flier program and you just need a few hundred extra points to earn a free flight or a free night, you can transfer points from your Chase Sapphire Preferred card.
People love the top-notch customer service
If you hate wading through automated phone menus before you can speak to an actual human, you're not alone.
Chase Sapphire Preferred cardholders appreciate that representatives answer calls promptly.
But watch out: The high APR can chip away at your rewards
The Chase Sapphire Preferred's APR varies from 16.99-23.99% based on your credit history when you apply.
If you typically carry a balance, you'll likely save more with a lower-APR card than you'll earn with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.
Time it with your next travel booking when you apply
To earn 2 points per dollar—and meet the required $4,000 spend in three months for a 50,000-point signup bonus—apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred right before booking a vacation.
It's a quick online process.
2. The Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card is the best hotel card for earning free nights right from the start
With the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card, you'll start reaping the rewards right away thanks to a huge signup bonus (enough for a weekend getaway!) and an easy earning system.
The card is the clear choice for loyal Marriott guests
If you stay at Marriott properties often (which include the Renaissance, Ritz Carlton, Fairfield Inn, and Springfield Suites), this card is a no-brainer.
Excellent signup bonus and instant gratification! Spend $3,000 in the first three months and you'll earn a whopping 80,000 bonus points.
Add an authorized user and you'll earn another 7,500 bonus points when they use the card.
Along with the 3,000+ spending points you'll earn, that's enough for two nights at a top-tier property—or a longer stay at a more basic property.
People love getting Silver Elite status through Marriott's loyalty program.When you open a Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card, you'll automatically get bumped up to Silver Elite status in the Marriott Rewards loyalty program.
That scores you priority late checkout, free in-room WiFi, and a 20% earning bonus on every stay.
Free night stays are subject to availability and blackout dates, which can be frustrating. As the Marriott Rewards FAQ explains: "Although every participating hotel makes standard rooms available for redemption every day, there may be times when a room is available for cash sale but not for point redemption."
Plan beyond the disclaimer. In other words, even if a Marriott property still has rooms available, you may not be able to use your Marriott Rewards.
If your travel dates typically aren't flexible, you may be better off using a more flexible card, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, which offer more options for redeeming points.
Marriott Rewards points convert to other loyalty programs
This point comes up often as a question.
To settle the matter, you should know that Marriott Rewards points can be applied toward the purchase of airline miles, but transfer rates vary between frequent flyer programs.
- 16,000 Marriott Rewards points will get you 5,000 United MileagePlus miles
- 20,000 Marriott Rewards points will get you 5,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards points.
Get out the calendar, and then apply
It can take up to 8 weeks to receive your bonus points after applying for the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card, plus your card must remain open for 6 months or the points will be deducted from your Marriott Rewards account.
Timing is everything. Allow ample time to spend $3,000 and wait for the bonus points to clear your account before you book your trip.
3. The Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature lets you earn points quickly
The Carlson Redizor Hotel Group includes the Radisson and Country Inn brands—and if you stay at either of those hotels often, the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature lets you earn points at a breakneck pace.
The card piles on the bonus points. There's a hefty signup bonus, an annual renewal bonus, and bonus points for everyday spending.
That means you can rack up big point totals throughout the year, even if you don't travel often.
Earn bonus points on all purchases. Most travel rewards cards offer bonus points when you spend within the brand or in specific categories, like travel or dining.
But the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature card gives you 5 points per dollar on all purchases and 10 points per dollar spent within the Carlson brand.
The signup bonus is big. Earn up to 85,000 bonus points (50,000 when you sign up, and another 35,000 if you spend $2,500 in the first 90 days).
You also get a bonus every year. You'll receive 40,000 bonus points when you renew your card each year.
It's sort of like getting a signup bonus every time you renew and can make the annual fee less painful.
Earn a free night after your first year. If you spend $10,000 on your Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature card in the first year and renew it for the following year, you'll receive an e-certificate for a free night at a Carlson hotel.
The APR is relatively low. The rate varies from 13.99-22.99%, which is a bit lower than its competitors.
People love the added perks
To reach the Gold tier of the Club Carlson loyalty program, guests would typically have to stay at a Carlson property 35 nights per calendar year.
But cardholders automatically earn Gold elite status and enjoy the perks that come with it—like a 15% discount on food and drinks at the hotel, an in-room welcome gift, free room upgrades, and a 35% point bonus on hotel stays.
But… it can be hard to find hotels to cash in your points
With the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature card, free nights start at 9,000 points for a Category 1 hotel—but you may have a difficult time actually locating a hotel in that bracket.
"The main drawback of this card is the lack of Category 1 hotels in the United States," J. R. Duren writes at Highya.com.
"While Category 2 hotels can be booked for 15,000 points a night, it would be nice for budget travelers if there were more 9,000-points-a-night Category 1 hotels."
"Is the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature card worth the annual fee?"
Yes. In the first year, the free anniversary night alone will recoup the $75 annual fee. Plus, the 40,000 renewal points you'll receive each year are good for another free night or two.
When applying, leave time for bonus points
Apply online at the Club Carlson Visa website, keeping in mind you'll need 6-8 weeks after you hit the spending threshold for the bonus points to kick in before using them to book your next trip.
4. The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard is a solid choice for earning flexible travel rewards
Much like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard is a smart choice for travelers who aren't loyal to any particular hotel brand or airline.
Miles (they're not really miles, but we'll talk about that in more detail below) can be used to book vacation rentals, timeshares, and even campgrounds—basically, any business that lists travel as its category code.
The Arrival Plus card lets you redeem miles for unique travel experiences
While most travel rewards cards are linked to a hotel or airline loyalty program, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus stands out because cardholders can redeem their miles on any travel expenses, anywhere, anytime.
Cash in on that charming B&B or rented beachfront bungalow you've had your eye on. After booking, redeem your miles for a statement credit.
The earning structure couldn't be simpler. Earn 2 miles per dollar on every purchase, no category confusion or questions asked!
Earn a 5% bonus when you redeem for travel. The 40,000-mile signup bonus is equivalent to $400, but if you spend that money on travel, you'll get an extra 5% back (which amounts to $20 in this case).
Earn miles for sharing stories. If you love swapping stories with other travelers, the Barclaycard offers a unique—and completely free—way to earn miles by sharing travel tales at BarclaycardTravel.com.
Save on balance transfers. The Barclaycard Arrival Plus offers a 0% introductory APR on balance transfers made within 45 days of opening your account, which can help you lower your credit card debt.
Redeem what you want
The ability to spend your miles anywhere—not just with a short list of partner hotels or airlines—is the most popular feature among Barclaycard customers.
If you see a great deal on a hotel or super-low airfare, you can snag it without worrying about whether your miles will cover it.
However, the "Miles" thing can be confusing
While the earning structure is easy, the "miles" concept can be trickier.
As we mentioned in a recent review of the Barclaycard Arrival Plus, Barclaycard miles aren't really miles in the truest sense of the word because they don't transfer directly to any airline.
To redeem your Barclaycard miles for airfare, you need to book your plane ticket using your Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, then apply your miles as a statement credit for the purchase.
Effectively it's the same, but some users may prefer the thrill of getting something for free rather than waiting for a credit.
"Is the Barclaycard Arrival Plus hard to qualify for?"
Yes, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard requires excellent credit.
According to MileCards.com, you'll need at least a 680 to qualify, and the average credit score among people who were approved is just under 740.
Don't expect to "stack" your benefits with multiple Barclaycards
You can apply online at the Barclaycard website, but if you already have another Barclaycard, be aware that the company is reportedly cracking down on "churning"—applying for multiple cards to collect signup bonuses.
The IHG Rewards Club Select is ideal for customers who want loyalty perks with a low annual fee
InterContinental Hotels Group—the company behind popular chains like Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, and Kimpton boutiques—offers a credit card with a strong rewards program and a relatively low annual fee.
There's a lot of competition among travel rewards cards.
Here's how the IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card nabbed the final spot on our list of the best hotel credit cards:
It's loaded with perks
Do you like getting VIP treatment, even when you're staying at a budget-friendly hotel?
If so, the IHG Rewards Club Select, which offers a signup bonus of TK points for the very-low spend of $1,000 in the first three months, could be the best hotel credit card for you.
Get a free night right away. Free nights range from 5,000-60,000 points—which means the signup bonus is enough for a free night at a top-tier luxury property.
Earn points quickly. Get 5 points per dollar spent at IHG hotels; 2 points per dollar at gas stations, grocery stores, and restaurants; and 1 point everywhere else.
Automatic status upgrade to Platinum Elite. Platinum Elite status is yours just for being a cardholder!
Earn a free night every year. Each year, when you renew your IHG Rewards Club Select credit card, you'll receive a free night at any of more than 5,000 properties worldwide.
The annual fee is low—and therefore, lovely. At $49, this annual fee is much lower than most competitors, especially after you factor in the value of the annual free night. There's also a $0 introductory rate the first year.
People love the free-night anniversary bonus, year after year
Cardholders appreciate that the free anniversary night isn't a one-time offer—you'll get a free night, every year, at any IHG property.
"The absolute best perk of the IHG Rewards Club Select credit card is that you receive a free night every single year that can be used at any IHG hotel," notes a blogger at BoardingArea.com.
"This includes anything from a $79/night Holiday Inn Express airport hotel to a $800/night InterContinental Hotel in Bora Bora!"
The high APR can offset your rewards if you carry a balance
While cardholder reviews for the IHG Rewards Club Select credit card are overwhelmingly positive, it's worth noting that the high APR—which varies from 16.99-23.99%—means this isn't a good card if you carry a balance from month to month.
To maximize your rewards, you'll need to pay your statement balance every month.
"Is the IHG Rewards Club Select credit card worth the annual fee?"
No question. Between the annual free night and the Platinum status perks, you'll recoup the $49 annual fee almost immediately.
Don't look to "double dip" when you apply
Apply online at the Chase website.
Keep in mind you can't "churn" this card—the signup bonus is not available to current IHG cardholders or to anyone who's received a signup bonus for this credit card in the past 24 months.
When choosing the best hotel credit card, decide which perks are most valuable to you
Are you loyal to one particular brand, or would you rather have the flexibility to book anywhere?
Is elite status important to you?
Do you spend a lot of money on travel each year, or do you spend the bulk of your budget elsewhere?
Once you know what you're looking for, you'll be able to find a credit card issuer that offers a hotel card with the perfect balance of flexibility, fast rewards, and enticing extras.
Since you're interested in hotel credit cards, then you may want to check out these reviews and articles.
Do you have a hotel credit card?
How did you choose the best hotel cards for your needs?
Any great tips (or nightmares) to share with the rest of us?
Let us know in the comments below.