What’s A Free Hotel Night Actually Worth? And Is It Worth It?

Many of the co-brand hotel credit cards offer a free night as a yearly benefit for paying the annual fee for the card. For almost all cards, this night is capped and leaves out the best hotels (IHG cardholders just lost their unlimited free night with the relaunch of the IHG Rewards Club Premier card). You’re often left trying to decide when’s the best time to use the free night and maximize the value. Problem is, you never know when you’ll be able to get the max value and suffer from FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). I’ve changed to the mindset of using these free nights wherever I can. I don’t need many single night stays so staying for free is better than paying and I don’t want to end up wasting one at the end of the year.

Here’s an example to show why only looking at the price of the hotel you’re booking might not be an accurate way to judge the value of the free night certificate. 

I recently needed to book a one night stay near Newark Airport. I didn’t necessarily have to be at the airport but I since have an early flight, being close would be an advantage.

I looked at my free nights and remembered I have a Marriott certificate that’s good at any hotel bookable for 25,000 points a night or less. Note: Marriott has gone to limiting the available hotels by the point value instead of category because next year they’ll have three tiers of pricing. That means at some hotels you may be able to use a certificate during off season and not during peak season.

Given the uncertainty of using this free night next year, I decided to see if I could find any Marriott hotels near Newark Airport.

The main Marriott hotel is right on the airport property but costs 35,000 points a night, so that was out. There were several Fairfield Inn, Residence Inn and Springfield Suites properties around the airport that all cost 17,500 points a night and would be options. Since I was looking to maximize my free night, I looked for something else.

Maximizing Marriott Free Night Certificate

I found the Renaissance Newark Airport. It currently costs 25,000 points a night so I could use my free night, and a one night stay cost $300 if I was paying cash.

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That’s a pretty good value for a credit card that costs $99 a year. I almost tripled my money. Or did I?

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I’m going to have a rental car this trip and the Renaissance charges $16 a night for parking. So I’m already out $16. Still doing good.

I started to think about where I might have stayed if I didn’t have the free night certificate. Since I’m going back to where I grew up, I know the local hotels pretty well. Two of them were options. Neither is by the airport, but within a 30 minute drive. I’ve stayed at both hotels before and would have no problems staying at them again.

What if I just paid cash for another hotel instead?

The Hampton Inn was going for $166 and doesn’t charge for parking.

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The Holiday Inn in Clark NJ would cost even less, at $136.85, and also doesn’t charge for parking. I could redeem 15,000 IHG points for a free night but I try to only use those when I get at least 1 cent each per point.

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How great is my redemption value now?

It’s really easy to fall into the trap of trying to maximize the value you get from a free night. There’s nothing wrong with it and that’s one of the things that I get the most fun from when booking with points and miles However, it’s necessary to keep a frame of reference to see what you’re actually saving.

I’d be just as happy staying at any of these hotels. If I were paying cash, I’d have a reservation at the Holiday Inn and have a wonderful view of suburban Clark, NJ.

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Since the Marriott card costs $99 a year and I’m paying $16 parking, I’m really only saving $20 on this room. For that, I needed to pay $99 up front and be locked into staying at a Marriott hotel that costs 25,000 points per night or less and has award availability.

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Is that worth it?

I’m staying at a nicer hotel, closer to the airport but that doesn’t matter all that much to me. This is the main reason I’m skeptical when I reading credit cards reviews that say getting a free night each year makes keeping a card for the long term is a no brainer. Their logic is you’ll always be able to use it and at least break even. I’m beginning to question the absoluteness of that statement. I’ll be giving my hotel credit cards a hard look this time around to see if I’m still getting the value for flexibility I’m giving up.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

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