Many co-brand hotel credit cards offer a free night as a yearly benefit once you pay the annual fee. All of the cards cap the hotels you can book, leaving out the best properties. Hilton’s free night only has a small list of excluded properties but is only good for a weekend stay. When using a free night, you’re often left trying to decide when’s the best time to redeem it and maximize value. The problem is that you never know if the redemption you’re looking at is the best deal or if you’ll get a better value later on. This leads to 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 again because I was always holding onto it for a better redemption.
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 a free night certificate.
I’ll use an example for a possible trip to New Jersey this fall for my high school reunion. I picked a random Saturday night this fall. For convenience, I looked at hotels around Newark Airport which I’ve stayed at before. The hardest free-night to use is a Marriott certificate capped at 25,000 points a night from my legacy Marriott Bonvoy Premier card.
The main Marriott hotel is on airport property but costs between 30,000 to 40,000 points a night, so that’s out. Several Fairfield Inn, Residence Inn and Springfield Suites properties around the airport 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 between 15,000 to 20,000 points a night so I could use my free night and a one-night stay would cost $195 if I were paying cash.
That’s a pretty good value for a credit card that costs $99 a year. I almost doubled my money. Or did I?
I’ll need a rental car and the Renaissance charges $18 a night for parking, but I’m still getting a good value.
Then I checked out other hotels I’d stay in if I didn’t have the free night certificate. Since I’m going back to where I grew up, I know the local hotels. I looked at two options within a 30-minute drive where I’ve stayed before.
What if I just paid cash for another hotel instead?
The Hampton Inn would cost $127 and doesn’t charge for parking.
In Clark, the Holiday Inn would cost even less, at $125.64, and doesn’t charge for parking. I could also redeem 12,500 IHG points for a free night, getting 1 cent each per point of value.
How great is my free night redemption value now?
It’s easy to fall into the trap of valuing a free night by looking at what the room would cost if you needed to pay 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.
Since the Marriott card costs $99 a year and I’d be paying $18 parking, I’m only saving $7 from what I would have paid if booking the cheapest acceptable alternative. I paid $99 upfront for that return, and I’m locked into looking for a Marriott Bonvoy hotel that costs 25,000 points per night or less and has award availability.
Is that worth it?
The Renaissance is a nicer hotel and it’s closer to the airport. In this case, I’m about breaking even on a cost basis but I’m getting more for my money by using the free night. But it doesn’t always work out that way if you have to stay at a less convenient hotel with your free night.
I currently have the first-world-problem of having too many hotel free night certificates. But even before now I was skeptical when reading credit card reviews that say getting a free night each year makes keeping a card a no-brainer. The logic used 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 because it ignores the cost of losing flexibility in your travel plans.
I’ll be giving my hotel credit cards a hard look 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