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. I think with all cards nowadays, this night is capped and leaves out the best hotels. IHG’s free night used to be good anywhere and Hilton’s free night only has a small list of excluded properties but is only good for a weekend stay. That means you’re often left trying to decide when’s the best time to use the free night and maximize the value. The problem is that you never know if the redemption you’re looking at is the best value or if you’ll be able to get a better value later on, leading to a case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). I’ve changed to the mindset of using these free nights wherever I can. I don’t often need 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’ll use the example of when I needed to book a one night stay near Newark Airport. I didn’t necessarily have to be at the airport but since I had an early flight, being close would be an advantage.

I looked at my free nights and remembered I had a Marriott certificate that was good at any hotel bookable for 25,000 points a night or less from my legacy Marriott Bonvoy Premier card. Note: Marriott limits a free night certificate by the points needed to book a room since they’ve shifted to having multi-tiered reward pricing. That means at some hotels you may be able to use a certificate during the off-season and not during peak season.

I decided to see if I could find any Marriott Bonvoy hotels near Newark Airport.

The main Marriott hotel is right on the airport property but costs between 30,000 to 40,000 points a night, so that was out. There were several Fairfield Inn, Residence Inn and Springfield Suites properties around the airport that all cost 15,000 to 20,000 points a night and were viable options. Since I was looking to maximize my free night, I looked for something else a little nicer.

Maximizing Marriott Free Night Certificate

I found the Renaissance Newark Airport. It currently costs 20,000 to 30,000 points a night so I could use my free night as long as the hotel wasn’t showing peak pricing, and a one night stay would 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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Since I had a rental car and the Renaissance charged $16 a night for parking, I’m already out $16 but still doing good.

Then I started to think about where I might have stayed if I didn’t have the free night certificate. Since I was going back to where I grew up, I knew the local hotels pretty well. Two of them were options. Neither was 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 have redeemed 15,000 IHG points for a free night but at the time I was trying to only use those when I got at least 1 cent each per point of value. I’ve since started using IHG points when the redemption value is over 0.6 cents because it’s easy to buy points for 1/2 cent each.

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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 by looking at what the reward night would cost if you would have paid cash. 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’d be paying $16 parking, I’d really only save $20 from what I would have paid if booking the cheapest acceptable alternative. For that, I needed to pay $99 upfront and be locked into looking for a Marriott Bonvoy hotel that costs 25,000 points per night or less and had award availability.

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Is that worth it?

I stayed at a nicer hotel, closer to the airport but that didn’t matter all that much to me. This is the main reason I’m skeptical when I reading credit card reviews that say getting a free night each year makes keeping a card for the long term is a no brainer. The logic used in that statement is you’ll always be able to use the free night 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

2 thoughts on “What’s A Free Hotel Night Actually Worth? And Is It Worth It?”

  1. I’ve a tendency to “save” my free nights for the best bang for the buck…only to have to scramble at the last minute to use them. This wend I’m in NYC staying @ Gild House, then schlepping uptown to Conrad Midtown in order to use certificates that expire this month. Yes, beginning to think they’re more of a PITA.

  2. I enjoyed reading your opinion piece and some of what you’re saying is valid. However, by having the Marriott Bonvoy card, the main objective is accumulating points at a much higher rate than without it. The “free night” for $99 is not expected to be a great deal. It simply offsets the cost of the annual fee – which even in your example is true. Now Marriott gives 2 nights per year at 35,000 points so in that case it’s clearly a nice perk.
    Anyway, thanks for the interesting and well-written piece.

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