When you see pictures of friends and family traveling to places like Hawaii and the FOMO (fear of missing out) kicks in, you may wish you could afford to take such amazing vacations. Maybe you actually could afford it — but you just don’t realize it yet.
You may not have to spend thousands of dollars to travel each year. With the right credit card strategy, you could find ways to stay at hotels for free (or almost free).
If you’re looking for a way to travel more and pay less to do it, here are some simple credit card strategies that can change the way you vacation.
How to stay at hotels for free with credit cards
Using a credit card can come with plenty of rewards — as long as you’re strategic about it. For example, I use a travel rewards card for pretty much all of my regular spending. When I buy groceries, gas, or other items in my spending plan, I put it on a travel rewards card. I pay off the balance each month so I’m not accruing interest, and because all my regular spending is on the card, I earn rewards much quicker.
There are different ways to use rewards cards to earn more — and receive a free hotel stay. Here are some of the ways you can use credit cards to your advantage.
1. Use a hotel-branded credit card
If you’re loyal to a particular hotel chain, getting their branded card can make a lot of sense. Staying at a branded property usually provides you with extra reward points.
For example, with the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card, you earn 17X points at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy (when coupled with your complimentary Marriott Bonvoy membership and Silver Elite status) and 2X points per $1 spent on all other eligible purchases. Depending on the property and date of your stay, you could get a free night for as few as 6,000 points.
The Boundless Card also offers a free night’s stay on a property (worth up to 35,000 points) on your card membership anniversary. Because it’s easy to rack up points and you get a free night’s stay each year, this card could be worth the $95 annual fee for some. Some of the other cards offering an annual free night stay that you might want to put on your list of the best hotel credit cards include:
- IHG Rewards Club Premier
- The World of Hyatt
- Hilton Honors American Express Surpass
- Radisson Rewards Visa
For these types of cards to be worth it, however, it’s typically best to be loyal to a specific hotel brand.
2. Use a general travel card and book a hotel using points
You can also use a card that focuses on more flexible travel rewards to book your stays. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred offers 5X points on Lyft rides (through March 2022) and travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards; 3X points on eligible dining, select streaming services, and online grocery purchases; 2X points on travel; and 1X points per $1 on all other eligible purchases. You can use your points to book hotels and get free nights, plus you get 25% more value when you book through Chase Ultimate Rewards.
Similarly, the Capital One Venture allows you to earn extra miles on each purchase and then redeem them for hotel stays. No matter what card you use, earn points on regular spending. When you’ve saved up enough points, you could book free hotel nights.
3. Transfer credit card points to a hotel rewards program
Some credit card rewards programs are so flexible that you can transfer your points on a 1:1 basis to partner hotel rewards programs. For example, if you use a Chase card with Chase Ultimate Rewards, you can transfer those points to Marriott Bonvoy’s loyalty program — then use your Bonvoy points to claim a free night at a Marriott hotel.
American Express also offers its Membership Rewards program, which allows 1:1 points transfers to some hotel brands, including Marriott and Choice hotels. You can book travel using your points and save money.
4. Book your stay strategically
It’s also possible to use strategy when you book your stay. For example, the Citi Prestige allows you to get your fourth night free twice each year. So, if you’re planning a vacation and you plan to stay four nights, use your Citi Prestige card to book — and get that last night free of charge. This card is also well-designed for travel, offering 3X points on hotels, so the nights you do pay for earn bigger rewards.
You can also be strategic with promotions offered by your hotel. Marriott Bonvoy regularly offers promotions that allow you to earn double rewards starting with your second stay.
5. Amp up your stay with your card’s hotel network
Even if you can’t stay at hotels for free, it’s possible to get extra perks based on your card’s rewards program. For example, American Express Platinum cardmembers can book through the Fine Hotels & Resorts program and receive 5X the points, plus get a free room upgrade, daily breakfast, and a late check-out when available.
With the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass, you automatically get Gold Status in the Hilton Honors program. This status comes with a fifth night free when you have longer stays, an automatic room upgrade when available, and a complimentary breakfast at all the hotels.
The Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Card from Chase provides you with Silver or Gold status, based on your spending. Plus, using this card gives you 10% bonus points with Silver status on your stays. You also get priority late checkout, early check-in, and exclusive member rates. If you spend enough to get Gold status, you can get room upgrades and 25% bonus points on stays.
FAQs about staying at hotels for free
What’s the best way to get a free or discounted hotel room?
One of the best ways to get a free or discounted hotel room is by using hotel credit cards for their hotel points and benefits. Hotel points, like Marriott Bonvoy points or Hilton Honors points, can be used for award stays at hotels worldwide.
In addition, many major hotel chains work with credit card issuers to provide cardholders with valuable benefits, like free night certificates. These certificates can also be used for award stays at hotels worldwide.
How can you find cheap hotel rooms?
One of the best ways to find cheap hotel rooms is by comparing rates from different booking sites against each other. So if you use Expedia for booking hotels, compare its rates with rates from Hotels.com, Kayak, Booking.com, and other popular booking sites. Also, be sure to check the hotel’s website to see whether it has any better deals or promotions.
Can you negotiate hotel rates?
Hotel rates aren’t set in stone. For instance, you might see different prices when comparing rates for the same hotel on multiple booking sites, like Expedia or Hotels.com. However, if you want to negotiate hotel rates with a specific hotel, you likely need to speak with the hotel’s general manager.
You can do this by contacting the manager before your stay (their contact information is often available on the hotel website) or by speaking with them in person at the hotel. Other managers at the hotel may also be able to offer you a discounted rate. It never hurts to ask for a discount, especially if you aren’t traveling during peak times. But remember to be polite and clear about what you’re looking for.
Is it cheaper to book directly with a hotel?
In some cases, it can be cheaper to book directly with a hotel than with an online travel agency like Orbitz or Booking.com. However, this depends on each hotel reservation. If you want to save money on the hotel reservation itself, online travel agencies often have the best rates. But many hotels will match their prices or give you a better rate.
In addition, booking directly with a hotel often makes it easier to cancel or change reservations than booking with an online travel agency. So if you want to avoid a hassle and possibly save money should your plans change, a direct hotel booking might make more sense.
By carefully choosing a card that works well for you, it’s possible to earn rewards — and earn them quickly. You can then use those rewards to stay at hotels for free — or at least save money on your hotel stays.
I’ve had a lot of success with Marriott Bonvoy, since that’s a brand I’m loyal to. However, it’s also possible to have success with other hotel rewards programs when you combine them with a credit card. And if you’re not loyal to a particular brand, a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card can help you earn points quickly and then turn around and redeem them for free hotel rooms at any chain.
Carefully consider your travel needs and preferences, and then apply for the best travel credit card most likely to help you earn and redeem points.