There are many hotel credit cards out there that allow you to earn points, which you can in turn use for free hotel stays. However, some hotel credit cards offer free night certificates instead, which can be used to cover a free night stay at a hotel.
Free night certificates may seem straightforward, so it's easy to be tempted by credit cards that offer them.
However, cardholders might overlook how difficult it can be to use these free night awards. They expire. They’re mired in limitations, as some properties are entirely ineligible, and other bookings are also ineligible for certain nights. And they’re often subject to blackout dates.
Before you decide to pursue a hotel card with this perk, regardless of whether it’s offered in a sign-up bonus or as a standing benefit, here’s what you need to know — and, perhaps, what to do instead.
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Hotel programs that offer free night certificates
Hilton Honors, Marriott Bonvoy, World of Hyatt and IHG One Rewards all offer a co-branded hotel credit card with a free night certificate perk.
Drawbacks of free night certificates
Here are the unintentional downsides you may face if you add credit cards with free hotel nights to your wallet.
Expiration dates on free night awards cannot be extended
It’s relatively easy to keep hotel points active since any earning or redeeming activity will extend their expiration date. However, free night awards at Hilton, Hyatt, IHG and Marriott all expire 12 months after issuance. Period. Nothing will extend their expiration date.
Note: There have been reports of customer service representatives making exceptions, but this is not the norm, and you shouldn’t expect it.
Hilton’s COVID-19 policy is still in effect, so if you still have a free night certificate issued from May 1, 2020 through Dec. 31, 2020, your certificate is valid for 24 months. Any certificates issued in 2021 will expire on Dec. 31, 2022. Once those certificates are gone, Hilton’s free night award expirations will revert back to 12 months from the date of issuance.
No refunds for cheaper stays
When you book award nights with travel rewards, the cost of the room in points is exactly what you’ll pay when redeeming. So, if a room costs 30,000 points, you will pay that exact amount.
However, when you use a free night award, you won’t get any points back if you use the award for a hotel night that costs less in points.
Let’s use Marriott as an example. Depending on which Marriott credit card you have, you might either have a free night certificate worth 35,000 points or 50,000 points. If you use a 50,000-point certificate for an award night that costs 40,000 points, you won’t get 10,000 points refunded back to you.
This can make it feel like you’re not getting your money’s worth.
Rita King, a traveler who lives in Warrensburg, Missouri, found herself in a similar situation with her IHG anniversary night certificate.
“Some of the problem is that I want a great redemption, so I don't think to use the certificates when we’re staying a night at, for instance, the airport — even though I realize saving the money or points is better than missing out on using the perk,” she says.
Limitations with standard rooms, dates and certain awards
Hilton and Hyatt free night awards can only be used on standard rooms, which are more basic than deluxe or premium offerings. What’s more, certain brands don’t allow you to use a free night award during a popular time (i.e., the holiday period or another peak travel season). Lastly, different hotel brands offer varying "award types," which can further limit your free certificate redemption options.
Let’s take a closer look at Hyatt award stays. Only standard rooms can be booked, and only during off-peak and standard award pricing nights. Say you want to stay at the Andaz San Diego (a Category 4 hotel) in July 2023. Hyatt Category 4 hotels are priced at 12,000, 15,000 and 18,000 points for Off-peak, Standard and Peak nights, respectively.
Since the free night certificate can only be used on standard rooms for off-peak and standard award pricing, you can only use it when the hotel is priced at 12,000 or 15,000 points per night.
So, if you have two Hyatt free night awards and want to stay at the Andaz San Diego for three nights starting on July 13, 2022, you could only use your free night award on the first night. The other nights would have to be paid for with points or cash.
“The other problem with free night certificates is finding a hotel that’s both under the 40,000-point price mark and available on the dates that we need,” says King.
You might also run into a situation in which the hotel will simply not allow you to use the free night award, which is exactly what happened to Florida-based Angela Sparks. She accumulated several Marriott free night awards but wasn't able to use them during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although Marriott extended the certificates, by the time the new expiration date rolled around, Sparks and her husband still didn't feel comfortable traveling.
When they were finally ready to take the trip, the hotels they chose wouldn't accept the free night awards.
“Though the certificates were good for 50,000 and 60,000 points each, and the nightly rate at the hotel was 50,000 points, the property flat-out wouldn’t accept the free night certificates, wanting us to use points instead,” Sparks says.
Dreamy redemptions might still be out of reach
Hilton credit card holders who earn free night certificates can use them at any eligible property as long as a standard — not premium — award is available. These credit card offers generally grant one free night award per year unless you meet high spending requirements to earn additional certificates.
Hilton brands range from basic to luxury, so when applying for Hilton-branded credit cards, you might be quick to daydream about aspirational redemptions at properties like the Conrad Bora Bora Nui or the Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi.
A nightly rate at the Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi can cost over $2,000 a night, or 150,000 points per night. Hilton’s free night award will cover that, as long as a standard award is available.
Although using your free night certificate at this hotel can be a great way to splurge, what are you going to do after one night — head home? The Maldives are in the Indian Ocean, so it's not exactly an ideal choice for a short weekend getaway from the U.S. Plus, drinks and food at such luxury properties are going to be expensive, so while a nightly rate is covered, you’ll still need to spend money.
Although this is just one example, consider how realistic it will be for you to use the certificate at a high-end hotel (if that’s your goal) — not to mention what other costs you’ll incur to enjoy this “free perk.”
Instead, earn hotel points
Hotel points generally don’t have any limitations beyond possible expiration. If you have the points, you can use them to pay for a room. Free night certificates, meanwhile, always have an expiration date and are subject to many limitations.
Instead of applying for hotel credit cards that offer free night certificates, opt for those that offer a welcome offer of hotel points, which are way more flexible. Plus, there are several ways to earn extra hotel points after getting the sign-up bonus, so it will be much easier to put your points to use for free night stays.