Which Hotel-Branded Credit Cards Are Worth Getting?

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Picking up a gallon of milk at the store? Taking in the car for that long overdue oil change? Every dollar you spend on mundane purchases could be bringing you that much closer to a free resort stay in Hawaii. Just as airlines are, hotel chains around the globe are also in the credit card business, and, considering how many travel reward credit cards are out there, you can bet it's a competitive scene.

How it works

Whether you're a frequent traveler or hoping to be one, every dollar you put on a hotel-affiliated credit card can earn travel rewards. Stay disciplined and use the card for every possible purchase, whether it's coffee at your favorite café or a tank of four-dollar gas, and you'd be surprised at how quickly the rewards can rack up. To tempt you in, these cards tend to have great signing bonuses that get you on your way to free hotel stays almost instantly. And each hotel stay earns points, too. Since hotel rates are going up, a one-night stay can sometimes cost more than your airfare.

Sounds great - what's the catch?

Unlike general rewards cards, with the branded cards loyalty is a must in order to get the most out of your spending. Make sure there isn't an overly steep annual fee for the card - if you're not going to get your money's worth out of holding the darned thing, then maybe a more general reward card (or at least one without an annual fee) is best for you.

And, of course, read the fine print

As with any credit card, if you travel overseas frequently, or make charges with companies based outside the U.S. (even when you're at home) make sure there aren't any potentially prohibitive foreign transaction fees.

So, where do you want to be?

When choosing allegiance to a hotel conglomerate like Marriott or Hilton, first make sure that you're covered in the destinations that you visit regularly - or would like to visit. Better still - and we shouldn't have to say this, but we will anyway - make sure that the hotels in these destinations are actually good, by using sites like TripAdvisor. There are destinations where you'd expect, say, Starwood to have good coverage and a strong reputation, but then you take a closer look and find out - oops! - that they don't.

Make sure to evaluate the point system

How are you being rewarded for your loyalty? Say a card gives you 60,000 bonus points for signing up. What does that actually mean? Are bonus points as valuable as regular points? If a night at a decent hotel within the group runs you 25,000 points - or, worse, more - then 60,000 points isn't exactly an embarrassment of riches. Of course, each rewards program is structured differently. Which leads us to...

Get to know the rewards system. Really well

The more you know, the better you can assess just how much a card is worth to you. Let's take a look at Marriott for example. Say you stay at a property for $119 per night. You'll earn 1,190 points; more if you have elevated status. Redemption with Marriott starts at 7,500 points per night for its lowest tier hotels - sometimes you'll be lucky enough to find these for as few as 6,000 through Marriott's PointSavers program. Taking into account Marriott's Fifth Night Free deal, if you strike it right, you're looking at nearly 10 free nights with the 50,000 bonus points you get when you sign up for the Marriott Rewards Visa. That's a lot of free hotel.

Of course, it all depends on what you want

If your objective is to just get free stuff, a hotel credit card is definitely for you. But if you like your free stuff on the fancy side, the card may definitely be for you, you'll just have to give it more of a workout in order to get the points you'll need to fund a dream vacation. In which case, a more general rewards card might be better. After all, 7,500 points won't get you into the Ritz-Carlton, the brand that sits on top of the Marriott heap. For example, a night at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua in Maui, Hawaii, is 50,000 points. That's a lot of milk and oil changes.

Know when to move on

Nothing is forever, and neither should your credit card be. Get it, get the benefits, have fun, but know when it's time to walk - even if it means switching loyalty to a new chain, or branching out to a general rewards card, or an airline-branded card. Introductory deals are great, but keep close tabs on your rewards and make sure that when its time to seek greener pastures - or the next great deal - that you don't miss the opportunity. There are so many other fish in the sea.

For a close look at some popular hotel branded cards - and which ones are winners and which ones are more like losers - consult this chart.