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Although inflation is on the retreat, the high prices left in its wake continue to affect the way we spend our money. And it’s not just the essentials — like supermarket spending or gas purchases — it’s also taking a toll on our travel plans. A September 2023 survey by Bankrate found that inflation is causing 77 percent of holiday travelers to modify their plans.
One of the most popular money-saving strategies is opting to drive instead of fly, which 27 percent of holiday travelers say they’re doing this year. Choosing local destinations within driving distance is fairly simple, like choosing Mexico City over San Francisco for a winter escape. But no matter where you travel, finding affordable accommodations can greatly reduce the financial burden of your holiday trip.
Fortunately, with the right travel rewards credit cards in your wallet, you can maximize their perks and benefits to score cheaper lodging this year. Here’s how to do it.
Maximize your points
There’s no sense in sitting on a big stash of points, just waiting for the right time to spend them. Now’s that time! In fact, points are most valuable when cash prices are high, which is usually the case on peak holiday travel dates. And many travel and hotel co-branded cards have hefty point bonuses that can earn you a few free nights at a hotel.
Flexible point currencies
Flexible point currencies such as Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou points and Capital One Rewards are some of the most useful point currencies to have, as they each offer various options for transferring to hotel programs or booking travel via credit card travel portals.
Transferring credit card points to hotel programs
Flexibility is what makes these points the most valuable. For example, Chase has three hotel partners: Marriott Bonvoy, IHG and Hyatt. If you have Chase points, but Marriott hotel points rates are sky-high — and there aren’t any IHG hotels in your chosen destination — you can still transfer them to Hyatt for a redemption.
Make sure to find your chosen redemption before transferring your points, as you won’t be able to move them back once you’ve initiated your transfer. Here’s a cheat sheet for transferring flexible reward currencies to hotel points.
- Chase Ultimate Rewards: IHG One Rewards (1:1), Marriott Bonvoy (1:1) and World of Hyatt (1:1)
- Amex Membership Rewards: Marriott Bonvoy (1:1), Choice Privileges (1:1) and Hilton Honors (1:2)
- Citi ThankYou Points: Choice Privileges and Wyndham Rewards (ratios vary depending on which Citi card you hold)
- Capital One Rewards: Choice Privileges (1:1) and Wyndham Rewards (1:1)
These ratios indicate how many credit card points make up a hotel loyalty point when you transfer them (unless there are any active transfer bonuses in play). For example, the 1:2 ratio associated with transferring Amex points to Hilton Honors means that 50,000 Amex Membership Rewards points would equal 100,000 Hilton Honors points.
You may also encounter transfer minimums that require you to transfer a certain number of points at once. Transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards to any partner has a 1,000-point minimum, for example.
Using points to book travel in travel portals
You can also book hotels using points through each issuer’s travel portal. While this option may not always offer the best value for your points, it does allow you to book hotels that don’t participate in loyalty programs, boutique hotels, B&Bs, hostels, home rentals and more.
This can create a lot of flexibility for travelers who need a vacation rental for a large family or group, as well as those who are visiting a destination that may not have any large brand hotel properties like Hilton or Marriott.
Co-branded hotel credit card points (and perks)
Those who hold co-branded credits with large hotel chains like Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt and IHG can use these points for free or discounted hotel stays. Some programs also offer a ‘Pay with Points and Cash’ option if you don’t have enough points to cover your whole stay.
Note that programs such as Marriott, Hilton and IHG offer free nights when booking with points, though each program has its own rules and limitations.
For example, Hilton’s program offers the fifth night free on the average nightly rate to members with elite status who are booking stays with points (up to a 20-night stay). IHG offers every fourth night free, though you’ll need to hold a co-branded card for this perk. Marriott offers a fifth night free on all points stays, but comps the most affordable night.
Use hotel elite status perks
Many credit cards offer cardholders elite status — both co-branded hotel cards and flexible travel rewards cards. Some of the most popular are the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card, which offers Platinum Elite status, and the IHG One Rewards Premier Credit Card*, which also comes with automatic Platinum Elite status. The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card* offers Hilton Diamond elite status and The Platinum Card® from American Express offers both Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite and Hilton Honors Gold status.
Although elite perks vary by program and status level, some of the advantages are listed below. Make sure to check the specific programs for exact details.
- Free breakfast or dining credits
- Early check-in/late check-out
- Room upgrades
- Additional points earnings
- Lounge access
- Free Wi-Fi
While elite status won’t necessarily get you a free stay, you can definitely take advantage of money-saving benefits like dining credits and room upgrades.
Know your card benefits
There are numerous one-off credit card perks that can make lodging more affordable. Here are some money-saving benefits you should look for:
Annual travel credits and free night certificates
Many travel cards offer annual discounts or free stays. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® comes with a $300 travel credit, meaning if you spend $300 on a hotel, vacation rental (or airfare, or anything else travel-related), you’ll see it refunded on your statement as a credit.
Additionally, the Amex Platinum offers a $200 hotel credit on hotels in the Fine Hotels & Resorts Program and the Hotel Collection. Many co-branded hotel credit cards offer a free night certificate each year, like the IHG® Rewards Club Select Credit Card*, which offers cardholders a free night certificate (capped at 40,000 points) each year on their cardmember anniversary.
Keep an eye on your email inbox and rewards portal for any limited-time promotions your issuer may be offering. Many American Express cards feature Amex Offers, which offer perks like statement credits for spending a certain amount on specific hotels and other retailers. Other cards, like the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card, also have occasional promotional offers, such as a credit for 5 percent back on VRBO rentals.
The list goes on, but there’s no need to have it memorized. If you have a travel credit card — especially one you pay an annual fee for — be sure to log in to your account and investigate what benefits are available to you. A few minutes of research may save you hundreds.
The bottom line
It’s true that many of the aforementioned credit cards have annual fees. But if you work to ensure you obtain the full value that comes from each card’s perks and benefits, you can really come out on top when it comes to savings on accommodations, especially during an expensive holiday travel season.
*The information about IHG One Rewards Premier Credit Card, the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card and the IHG® Rewards Club Select Credit Card has been collected independently by Bankrate.com. The card details have not been reviewed or approved by the card issuer.