I always enjoy helping friends and family get into the mileage game. But, it can sometimes be difficult to get started. Generally speaking, most people don’t travel enough to earn the type of status that makes for an awesome experience.
That’s where credit cards come in. There are a number of different ways to play the credit card game. You can choose a card that’s well-rounded and gives you flexibility to redeem points lots of different places. My favorite there is the Chase Sapphire card, which View From the Wing touts. I carry it in my wallet and rely on it heavily. But, I already have the status levels I want.
You can also choose a card that earns you points (and status) in a program you feel is going to serve you well. I talk about the various hotel programs enough that I decided it would be worth spending some time detailing the different offerings. We’ll start with my favorite:
Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) American Express: I’ve had this card in my wallet for at least 5 years now. I got the card originally for the ability to transfer points to an airline because I was trying to attain lifetime status on American Airlines. Starwood has continued to add benefits to the card over the years that make it the gold standard of hotel credit cards:
- SPG awards 2 stay credits or 5 night credits to your SPG account each year to help qualify for elite status. Since Gold status is attained at 10 stays or 25 nights, SPG is giving you a 20% headstart to Gold status. These same credits get you 10% of the way to Platinum status, which is still one of my favorite top-tier statuses. (Hyatt Diamond is my absolute favorite).
- If you spend $30,000 on the card in a calendar year, SPG will award you SPG Gold status.
- The single best benefit of the SPG program, IMO, is the bonus you get when transferring points to various airlines. SPG points transfer at a 1:1 ratio to a bunch of major airlines including American, British Airways, Delta, Lufthansa, and US Airways. Plus, any time you transfer 20,000 points SPG gives you a 5,000 point bonus. This means you get to a free ticket 25% faster using SPG than using some airline’s own credit cards.
I’m pretty sure View From The Wing still has the best sign-up offer.
Hilton HHonors American Express Surpass Card: To my knowledge, this is the only card that can earn you top-tier status with Hilton HHonors. $40,000 may sound like a steep amount to spend on a credit card, but it’s easier than you think if you put on recurring bills like cell phones and cable bills. Hilton has a number of other cards associated with the program, but if you can meet the spending requirement, this is your best bet. Diamond is their top-tier status and usually requires 28 stays or 60 nights. Here are a couple of the benefits you’ll earn:
- Complimentary high-speed internet.
- Complimentary room upgrades, sometimes to a suite.
- 50% bonus points for all paid stays and a 1,000 point welcome amenity for each stay.
- Free continental breakfast.
I don’t consider the HHonors program as rewarding as SPG, but if you can spend $40K on the card there are some worthwhile benefits.
Priority Club Select Visa: Priority Club covers a number of brands under the Intercontinental Hotel Group, the most popular name being Holiday Inn, but also including such brands as Crowne Plaza and Intercontinental which can be a lot more aspirational than your local Holiday Inn Express.
The Priority Club Select Visa comes with Platinum Elite status in the Priority Club program. Platinum Elite entitles you to priority check-in, guaranteed room availability and some upgrades. The terms and conditions of the program specifically state that properties don’t need to include suite upgrades. Some properties do, but from what I’ve heard many don’t. Finally, you also get 50% bonus points on all paid reservations.
Not a lot of benefits here to be had, but the fee is pretty low. The first year of the card is free and currently year two is $49. Normally this level requires 50 nights in a hotel or 60,000 points earned at properties, so this is a good jumpstart to status.
Hyatt Visa: This is a recent addition to the marketplace (under 2 years old). Hyatt is a smaller chain than others listed here, but they’re actually my favorite for delivering on benefits. The Hyatt Visa grants Platinum status in the Hyatt Gold Passport program, which is their middle level. For mid-tier status, there are some pretty healthy benefits here. Free internet, 2pm late check-outs (which they’re great at delivering on), and periodic awards based on number of stays that include extra points and free meals.
This level normally requires 5 stays or 15 nights at Hyatt properties on an annual basis, so the card is providing a level of service that would cost some considerable dollars to acquire if you don’t travel a lot.
Additionally, I think the sign-up bonus for this card is pretty valuable. 2 free nights at any Hyatt property worldwide. When you consider such properties as Park Hyatt Aviara, Park Hyatt Tokyo (one of my favorite properties), Park Hyatt Paris-Vendome, and Park Hyatt Maldives (read a great review about this property on View From the Wing), and the fact that room rates at these properties regularly exceed $500 USD, 2 free nights have a ton of value. The card does have an annual fee ($75), but it’s offset with a free night at any Hyatt property up to a category 4. When you consider that the Park Hyatt Melbourne is a category 4, it’s easy to see how you can get your money’s worth here.
Marriott Rewards Premier Card: Marriott takes a tiered approach in how you can earn elite status through credit card purchases. By signing up for the card, you get 15 elite nights credit every year you renew the card. Since Silver (their bottom elite level) requires 10 nights, the card essentially grants you Silver status which includes benefits like late checkout and 20% bonus points on paid stays. While I don’t consider it the best value of credit card spend, you can also earn another elite night for every $3,000 you spend on the card. So, it is possible to earn mid- or top-tier status through spend, but since their mid-tier (Gold) requires 50 nights, that’s an awful lot of spend.
There used to be a 70,000 bonus point offer when you signed up for the card, but it’s currently 50K. Marriott also has a benefit unique to the big domestic US programs where they will “rollover” nights above your status level each year. For example, if you are Silver and have 15 elite nights this year, they will let you rollover 5 nights for next year towards status qualification. This can be another useful benefit for cardholders and patrons of Marriott, but I still think there are better values if you’re going to put a ton of spend on a credit card.
Summary: Looking at this just from the standpoint of elite status and benefits within the various chains, I would rank the credit card offerings as follows:
4. Priority Club
I’m sure many will argue with my logic, but I based it on not only how easy it was to achieve the status each hotel chain offers you but also how valuable the status is. I consider top-tier status with Hilton more valuable than the same at Priority Club. I consider mid-tier status at Hyatt better than top-tier at PC (and potentially Marriott) and probably on par or just below Hilton Diamond. If you consider how valuable the sign-up bonus is for the Hyatt card, I’d pick that one hands down over everything else here. If you transfer SPG points to airlines, there’s huge value in the SPG program.
The downside to Hyatt is that they don’t give you credit towards Diamond status, just give you Platinum status. So, you still need 25 stays or 50 nights to hit Diamond, whereas SPG gives you actual stay or night credits (albeit a nominal amount) that gives you a headstart.
There are LOTS of ways to look at the various programs. I happen to be a huge Hyatt fan, so would always lean there. I also do a ton of overnight travel, so I’m able to use more conventional means to attain status. That’s why I thought it would make for an interesting post to look at this just from the standpoint of someone who wants status but doesn’t have the time on the road to attain.
Some people (myself included) rate status too highly. I know some people who travel quite a bit and don’t have top-tier status with chains like SPG, but have enough points there to make the types of reservations they want at aspirational properties. In some of those cases (resorts and all-suite properties), the possibility of a suite upgrade is less relevant.
I’m curious to hear what others think, and hope someone will jump in if I’m factually incorrect anywhere. Without using the “what’s in your wallet” tagline, what do you think about gaining status through credit card spend? Is it worth it? Are there other programs to consider?