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The Ultimate Guide to Hotel Credit Cards

“Ultimate” is a word that gets thrown around a lot. At BestCards.com, we pride ourselves on offering the most comprehensive reviews on credit cards from issuers of all sizes and locations. Are you considering getting a hotel credit card? Or, maybe you already have one and are looking for tips on how to maximize your points or award redemptions? No matter what you are after, you’ll find it here in our ULTIMATE guide to hotel credit cards.

One of the most popular uses for credit cards is booking vacations. Travel – and especially hotels – is expensive. Fortunately, there are loyalty programs that help customers earn rewards and book free nights.

These programs also offer co-branded credit cards with some of the largest credit card issuers in the industry. These cards allow account holders to make purchases that earn additional rewards – and may even offer extra perks during their stays.

Not sure exactly what to look for in a hotel credit card? Not sure what features fit your needs? Maybe you just don’t know where to start? Worry not! This comprehensive guide to hotel rewards credit cards provides everything you need to know to choose the best card for you.

What Credit Score Do You Need to Get a Hotel Credit Card?

Hotel cards differ from other types of co-branded rewards credit cards in that there are no secured credit card options. Unlike airline cards, for instance, there are no hotel cards for people with bad credit – or fair credit. A good credit score is a minimum to receive a hotel card. In reality, however, most card issuers require an excellent credit score.

An excellent credit score varies depending on the scoring model. According to FICO Score – the credit scoring model that more than 90% of issuers use – “excellent” is any score between 800 and 850.

The VantageScore model is the option commonly used scoring method. Under this model, an excellent credit score is between 781 and 850.

Tips for Raising Your Credit Score

If your credit score isn’t high enough to get a hotel card just yet, don’t worry. Millions of Americans struggle with bad credit and low credit scores.

There are several steps you can take today to help raise your credit score, including:

  • Always paying your bills on time
  • Reducing your credit card use to under 30%
  • Monitoring your credit reports

These steps are easy to implement and can show results in as little as a month. Realistically, however, these best practices may take three-to-six-months before your score rises significantly.

Related Article: What’s the Fastest Way to Repair Bad Credit?

Card Issuer Features to Look for with Hotel Rewards Credit Cards

Card issuer features are credit card perks, benefits, and security protections specific to the bank or credit card type. American Express, Visa, and Mastercard all offer unique in-house features to cardholders. These features also vary depending on the level – or tier – of credit card in the payment network hierarchy.

credit card

Visa Credit Card Features

For more information on Visa Platinum, Visa Signature, and Visa Infinite features, please check out our dedicated Visa credit cards page..

credit card

Mastercard Credit Card Features

For more information on Mastercard, Mastercard World, and Mastercard World Elite features, please check out the Mastercard credit card page.

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Amex Credit Card Features

For more information on Amex credit cards and the protections they provide, please visit our dedicated American Express credit cards page.

Here are some of the more critical features to look out for when deciding on a co-branded hotel credit card:

No Annual Fee

Many co-branded credit cards come with a “free” version and a “premium” version. Premium versions come with an annual fee of between $50 and $495, with the average yearly charge around $95.

Free versions are also known as no annual fee hotel cards. These cards offer rewards at a lower rate than premium cards, but without a yearly membership fee.

Should you apply for a no annual fee hotel card or opt for the premium version?

No annual fee credit cards offer a hassle-free way to expedite your earnings within your favorite hotel loyalty program. Since they don’t require any out-of-pocket fees, these types of cards are perfect for folks who may not travel enough to warrant paying for hotel-related perks.

The easiest way to determine whether applying for a card with an annual fee is right for you is to:

  1. Examine your current traveling habits
  2. Check if your spending levels match the minimums that premium card requires to qualify for bonuses

How to downgrade to a no annual fee version of a hotel credit card

An alternative reason why you might consider a hotel card with no annual fee is that your travel needs are changing. Whether you were traveling for business or pleasure, if you’re not flying to destinations as often, you may find no longer need the premium paid version of a hotel credit card or that you are unable to take advantage of the perks the card offers you.

If you find yourself in this boat, downgrading to a no annual fee card is an excellent alternative to closing a credit card – the account stays open (which is good for your average age of credit). Still, you are no longer obligated to pay the costs of the premium card.

Whether you want to upgrade or downgrade your credit card, simply call the card issuer and let them know. The one caveat, however, is you may not be eligible to earn the signup bonus of the card to which you are switching.

Interest Rates and 0% Intro APR

APR (or annual percentage rate) is the annual cost of borrowing, which also includes additional fees associated with the credit procuring process (processing fees, late fees, etc.). Interest rates, on the other hand, are simply the cost of borrowing money. As such, APRs are usually higher than interest rates.

The average APR for credit cards falls between 16 – 23%, although rewards credit cards typically have the highest rates of all credit card types.

What are the different types of APR?

Credit cards might have several types of APRs, depending on the types of transactions. Standard credit card APRs include:

  • Purchase APR
  • Balance Transfer APR
  • Cash Advance APR
  • Introductory APR

What is 0% Intro APR?

Credit cards that offer an introductory 0% APR period allow cardholders to carry a credit card balance without incurring interest-related fees. Once the promotional period has run its course, all future balances moving forward will be charged interest.

While the length of time on a 0% APR introductory offer will vary from card to card, the typical 0% APR offer usually extends to 12 months. This zero-interest-rate doesn’t only apply to purchases, as many credit cards feature 0% APR on balance transfers as well. Keep in mind that balance transfer fees may still apply unless the terms explicitly say that these fees are waived.

Also, bear in mind that just because interest isn’t accrued, you still need to make the minimum payment on your card. Card issuers can end the promotional period if you fail to do so.

What are the benefits of a credit card with a 0% promotional interest rate?

Since most credit cards only offer interest-free APR for a limited time, these cards are great options for those planning a large purchase – or vacation. Beyond travel, introductory interest-free credit cards are a great option for:

  • Freelancers, entrepreneurs, and others with irregular income with high overhead and need time to ramp up their generation of revenue
  • College students who need to purchase school supplies before their student loan funds are dispersed
  • The holiday shopping season, which could easily result in higher than average spending
  • Unexpected medical costs for those without enough savings to cover the charge

No Foreign Transaction Fees

If a significant source of your credit card bonus points come from a hotel stay or travel-related purchases that are generated abroad, then choosing a hotel credit card with no foreign transaction fees is a necessity. Credit cards with this feature allow international travelers to work – or play – and swipe outside of the United States without any penalty charges.

What are foreign transaction fees?

Foreign transaction fees are charges from card issuers for transactions at non-U.S. retailers. However, these fees occur for more than physically paying with your credit card overseas. Foreign transaction fees include online purchases to foreign companies, ATMs, or currency conversion fees.

Currency conversion fees occur when the payment networks (Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover, etc.) charge the card issuer (Capital One, Chase, Wells Fargo, etc.) a processing fee. Typically, 1% of each U.S. dollar spent. While currency conversion fees are not the same as foreign transaction fees, they are often included together on a credit card statement.

Tips for Using Credit Cards Abroad:

  • Be careful of foreign ATMs as they sometimes carry an international surcharge in addition to the ATM fee
  • Notify your card issuer before your departure, the unfamiliar location could be flagged as suspicious activity and potentially cause your card to be canceled – leaving you financially stranded in a foreign country
  • Check whether your card allows you to earn rewards for international purchases

What Hotel Benefits and Perks Should You Look for In a Hotel Credit Card?

Hotel-centric perks and benefits are another aspect of a hotel credit card. These perks come from the hotel itself – and not the card issuer. These benefits allow account holders to enjoy an exceptional array of amenities and luxury – at no additional cost.

Here are some oft eh most popular features to look out for:

Signup Bonus

Signup bonuses are the rewards card issuers provide when opening a new account. These bonuses might be available without any additional conditions, meaning when you open the account – you get the reward. In most cases, however, signup bonuses require meeting a minimum spend within a set period.

Signup bonuses for hotel cards typically fit into one of the following categories:

bonus points

Reward Points

free_nights

Free Nights

0% Intro APR

Note: These rewards usually have a spending requirement and a time-sensitive deadline of between three months (or 90 days) and six months.

Targeted Offers

Credit card companies, as well as hotel and airline loyalty programs, often offer exclusive promotions to their customers that are invite-only. Card issuers offer these discounts on criteria including:

  • Credit history
  • Spending habits
  • Geographical location
  • and more.

The metrics used to determine who gets what offer vary by credit card company, but unless you have an excellent credit score, clean credit history, and are actively using revolving credit (and are a member of the rewards program that’s being targeted), you may not see a targeted offer in your mailbox.

Complimentary Stays

Hotel brands have long been in the business of providing their customers with exemplary service, and attention to detail is often key to their reputation. Competition is fierce, and hotels often look for ways to stand out. One way these companies set themselves apart is by offering a free night stay as an incentive for loyal guests to book a room with them.

“Complimentary” is a term that is often used in the tourism and hospitality industry; complimentary services (or products) are essentially services, such as a hotel room, that are given to a customer without charge. A free night stay means that a hotel’s client does not need to pay for one (or more) nights with Cash or points; the hotel provides a room as a courtesy.

A complimentary night can be achieved in multiple ways. Some hotels offer limited-time campaigns that function like a coupon – “Book two nights, get the third free!” Other ways to score a complimentary stay include:

  • Joining a hotel loyalty program
  • Opening a co-branded hotel rewards credit card account
  • Booking a hotel using rewards points

A co-branded hotel rewards credit card is a great way to earn rewards points towards a complimentary stay; some cards even offer complimentary nights as part of their signup bonus.

Anniversary Bonus

An anniversary bonus is a perk that is granted to a qualifying cardholder or rewards program member on the anniversary of their program activation. Each calendar year, the card issuer gives the cardholder this special bonus,

Room Upgrades

The word “upgrade” evokes a feeling of excitement when it’s heard in the world of travel; synonymous with “bigger” and “better,” when you are offered an upgrade while boarding a plane, for example, usually you find yourself in business or first-class. The word “upgrade” is also synonymous with better service.

Free room upgrades through loyalty programs

Hotel rewards programs offer a host of great perks and benefits, ranging from early check-in and late check-out to free breakfast or room upgrades. A room upgrade is always a pleasant surprise, especially when it’s free; nothing says “VIP” treatment like enjoying the suite perks that come with a bigger room, or a stunning ocean view.

A hotel upgrade can mean anything from a larger room to tickets for complimentary breakfast, free access to the spa, or perhaps a credit towards a meal at the hotel’s on-site eatery.

which can vary from extra rewards points to discounts not available anywhere else or, in the case of many hotel co-branded credit cards, it can take the form of one or more free nights.

room upgrades

Tips for getting room upgrades

There are many strategies that travelers employ to score a free room upgrade; sometimes, all you need to do is ask nicely! Fortune favors the bold – hotels often reserve special treatment for guests who are polite when requesting their upgrade, and it never hurts to ask – if you don’t ask for a room upgrade, odds are you won’t automatically be given the keys to that penthouse suite.

While it pays to be proactive, your best bet when looking for a room upgrade is to participate in that hotel’s loyalty program.

Some hotels will automatically bump you up to a higher room category based on your membership to their rewards program, while others allow you to cash in points in exchange for a nicer room.

Early Check-in and Late Check-out

Flexibility is important when traveling, as itineraries can change due to flight delays, traffic, or bad weather. Missing a flight or a connection, or a train that’s running late can mean you miss the window you’ve scheduled to check-in at a hotel; perhaps you spent the evening enjoying a few drinks, or after celebrating a friend’s wedding and you got back to your room.

Common Hotel Check-In Policies

On average, hotel guests can expect to arrive at their hotel and check-in to the room they’ve booked beginning at 3 or 4 pm. Hotels typically require guests to vacate the room they are in by noon on the day they are scheduled to check out, and each room needs to be cleaned and “turned over” by the hotel staff to ensure the next occupant (you) receives a room up to the hotel’s standards.

When you arrive at your hotel before your scheduled check-in time, you’ll likely want to check in to your room so you can drop off your bags and relax a bit. Unless you’ve called ahead, odds are you will not be able to access your room immediately.

Although you can leave your bags with the hotel concierge and explore your destination while you wait for your room to be ready, you’ll need to return at your scheduled time in order to get into your room. This inconvenience can be avoided with proper planning – and by leveraging hotel loyalty programs, along with co-branded credit cards.

When you join a hotel rewards program, either via a co-branded credit card or directly, you open the door to a variety of suite, exclusive benefits not available to the average customer – and depending on the program, early check-in (when available) is at the top of that list.

Common Hotel Check-Out Policies

As mentioned above, noon is a standard check-out time with many hotels, although technically guests will notice that unless they request a later check-out time they will be asked to turn in their keys as early as 10 am. A late check-out time is not standard fare for most hotel guests and must be requested at check-in. However, participation in hotel loyalty programs often will grant members automatic late check-out times as a perk not available to guests who are not a member of the rewards program.

If you have a co-branded credit card that offers rewards points for spending money, you may also be eligible for a late check-out time, if the hotel whose card you use offers it as part of their loyalty program. Check the fine print for your co-branded credit card for more details.

Free Breakfast

The only thing better than waking up in a hotel swathed in the buttery soft sheets with sunlight poking through the window in a beautiful new place is starting your journey with a delicious free breakfast provided by your hotel.

Hotel Loyalty Programs that Offer Free Breakfast

If you’re already salivating in your mind’s eye at the thought, turn complimentary breakfast into a delicious reality by applying for a hotel credit card with complimentary breakfast.

While this perk may not be explicitly offered as one of the card’s features, many co-branded hotel cards provide automatic membership upgrades within their loyalty programs.

In the circumstance where the membership upgrade doesn’t include breakfast, those who own hotel credit cards will still find themselves with a head start to earn those higher tiers of membership.

Best Western doesn’t require a specific level of membership to score breakfast. Enjoy your first meal of the day on the house whenever you book at a Best Western breakfast. Their options typically include an assortment of pastries, cereals, and oatmeal, as well as hot breakfast options such as eggs and waffles.

Gold status required

The third tier of the Hilton hotel loyalty program. To earn the Gold level of membership within the Hilton Honors membership program requires:

  • 20 stays within a calendar year
  • 40 nights within a calendar year
  • 75,000 Hilton Honors Base Points within a calendar year

Globalist status required

Only the most frequent of Hyatt hotel-goers are eligible to receive complimentary breakfast as Globalist status is the 4th and highest tier of World of Hyatt membership. Earning Globalist status requires either:

  • 60 qualifying nights
  • 100,000 Base Points
  • Hosting 20 qualifying events/meetings per year
  • Hyatt patrons can earn a lifetime Globalist status after earning one million base points throughout their membership.

Sadly, even elite IHG cardholders and customers aren’t guaranteed complimentary breakfast through the IHG loyalty program. The Intercontinental Ambassador tier, which can be purchased for a flat rate of $200, offers complimentary breakfast for stays in Greater China – and unless your travels frequently take you to Asia, this membership perk would be hard to take advantage of.

However, IHG’s Holiday Inn Express and Staybridge Suites offer free breakfast to all patrons regardless of the length of stay or membership level.

Platinum Elite status required

Platinum Elite status is the upper mid-tier level of the Marriott Bonvoy loyalty program. Achieving this status is refreshingly straightforward; however, it does require a significant number of a hotel stay to earn.

  • 50 nights per year

Note that complimentary breakfast might vary based on the hotel brand or availability. In the case that breakfast is not available, points or a welcome amenity may be given instead.

Platinum status required

Free breakfast during your hotel stay requires the highest membership tier of the Radisson Rewards program, which in turn requires a minimum number of:

  • 60 nights within a year
  • 30 stays within a year

Depending on the continent where your Radisson booking is taking place might affect the specifications of your complimentary morning fare:

  • North America: One continental breakfast per Platinum member for each night stay
  • Latin America/Asia Pacific: Breakfast buffet per Platinum member for each night stay
  • Europe/Middle East/Africa: Two breakfasts available per Member per night of stay

Sadly, no level of elite status or the sheer number of hotel reservations will yield free breakfast within the Wyndham rewards program. Fortunately, several Wyndham hotels brands offer this amenity for merely making a reservation.

When it comes to making their customers feel at home, Drury Hotels does more than talk a good talk. Their trademark ‘The Extras Aren’t Extra®’ freebies include a host of hotel perks that don’t require a credit card or a specific membership level in their reward programs to receive free hot breakfast with every stay.

What Are Hotel Rewards Points Worth? 

The value of a hotel card is only as great as the worth of the points they offer. Here are the latest point valuations for the major hotel loyalty programs.:

Best Western Reward Points – 0.6 cents/ point

Caesars Reward Points – 1 cent/ point

Choice Reward Points – 0.6 cents/ point

Hilton Honors Reward Points – 0.6 cents/ point

IHG Reward Points – 0.5 cents/ point

Marriott Bonvoy Reward Points – 0.75 cents/ point

MGM M Life Points – 1 cent /point

Radisson Rewards Points – 0.4 cents/ point

Sonesta Travel Pass Points – 0.75 cents/ point

VOILÀ Rewards Points – 0.7 cents/ point

World of Hyatt Reward Points – 1.7 cents/ point

Wyndham Rewards Points – 1.1 cents/ point

These valuations change depending on how you redeem points, or which partners you choose to transfer point to.  For more information on loyalty program partners, keep browsing to explore partners with the leading loyalty programs.

Browse Our Ultimate Hotel Loyalty Program Guides

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About: Cory
Cory Santos

Cory is BestCards.com's "Jack of all trades" and resident rewards expert, covering all facets of the points game – especially travel, hotels, and airlines. In addition to credit cards, Cory finds that jogging, cats, and memes are essential parts of a balanced day.