What Is the Best Hotel Rewards Program for Earning Free Nights?

When it comes to the ease of earning free nights based on paid stays, people always scoff when I cite Hilton HHonors and Club Carlson as the best hotel rewards programs. “What about Hilton’s inflated award chart?” “Club Carlson hotels suck!” These are actual quotes from readers and people I’ve talked to (the last one may have been paraphrased). The fact is, there are a lot of misconceptions out there about which hotel rewards program is the best in terms of earning free nights. Hyatt Gold Passport is very popular, but if you’re booking lots of paid stays, Hyatt doesn’t give you the most bang for your buck. Club Carlson and Hilton HHonors give non-elite members the biggest return for their money. Below is a breakdown of what every major hotel rewards program pays out to non-elite members, and the amount of paid stays required to earn a free night at each hotel category:

Grand Corporate Suite at the Grand Hyatt Singapore

Club Carlson

  • Non-elite point earning rate: 20 points per $1
  • Club Carlson Award Chart
    • Category 1 = $450
    • Category 2 = $750
    • Category 3 = $1,400
    • Category 4 = $1,900
    • Category 5 = $2,200
    • Category 6 = $2,500
    • Category 7 = $3,500

Hilton HHonors

  • Non-elite point earning rate: 10 points + 5 points per $1 spent (Points + Points option)
  • 5th night free on award redemptions
  • Hilton HHonors Award Chart
    • Category 1 = $333.33
    • Category 2 = $666.67
    • Category 3 = $1,333.33
    • Category 4 = $1,333.33 – $2,000
    • Category 5 = $2,000 – $2,666.67
    • Category 6 = $2,000 – $3,333.33
    • Category 7 = $2,000 – $4,000
    • Category 8 = $2,666.67 – $4,666.67
    • Category 9 = $3,333.33 – $5,333.33
    • Category 10 = $4,666.67 – $6,333.33

Hyatt Gold Passport

  • Non-elite point earning rate: 5 points per $1
  • Hyatt Gold Passport Award Chart
    • Category 1 = $1,000
    • Category 2 = $1,600
    • Category 3 = $2,400
    • Category 4 = $3,000
    • Category 5 = $4,000
    • Category 6 = $5,000
    • Category 7 = $6,000

IHG Rewards Club

  • Non-elite point earning rate:
    • 5 – 10 points per $1 spent
    • 600 – 2,000 points per stay at ANA partner hotels
  • IHG Rewards Club Award Chart
    • Pointbreaks = $500 – $1,000
    • Category 1 = $1,000 – $2,000
    • Category 2 = $1,500 – $3,000
    • Category 3 = $2,000 – $4,000
    • Category 4 = $2,500 – $5,000
    • Category 5 = $3,000 – $6,000
    • Category 6 = $3,500 – $7,000
    • Category 7 = $4,000 – $8,000
    • Category 8 = $4,500 – $9,000
    • Category 9 = $5,000 – $10,000
    • Category 10 = $5,500 – $11,000
    • Category 11 = $6,000 – $12,000

Marriott Rewards

  • Non-elite point earning rate:
    • 5 – 10 points per $1
    • 2.5 points per $1 at ExecuStay and Marriott Executive Apartments
  • 5th night free on award redemptions
  • Marriott Rewards Award Chart
    • Category 1 PointSavers = $600 – $1,200 
    • Category 1 = $750 – $1,500
    • Category 2 PointSavers = $750 – $1,500
    • Category 2 = $1,000 – $2,000
    • Category 3 PointSavers = $1,000 – $2,000
    • Category 3 = $1,500 – $3,000
    • Category 4 PointSavers = $1,500 – $3,000
    • Category 4 = $2,000 – $4,000 
    • Category 5 PointSavers = $2,000 – $4,000
    • Category 5 = $2,500 – $5,000
    • Category 6 PointSavers = $2,500 – $5,000
    • Category 6 = $3,000 – $6,000
    • Category 7 PointSavers = $3,000 – $6,000
    • Category 7 = $3,500 – $7,000
    • Category 8 PointSavers = $3,500 – $7,000
    • Category 8 = $4,000 – $8,000
    • Category 9 PointSavers = $4,000 – $8,000
    • Category 9 = $4,500 – $9,000

Starwood Preferred Guest

  • Non-elite point earning rate: 2 points per $1 spent
  • 5th night free on award redemptions
  • Starwood Preferred Guest Award Chart
    • Category 1: $1,000 – $1,500
    • Category 2: $1,500 – $2,000
    • Category 3: $3,500
    • Category 4: $5,000
    • Category 5: $6,000 – $8,000
    • Category 6: $10,000 – $12,500
    • Category 7: $15,000 – $17,500

Wyndham Rewards

  • Non-elite earnings rate: 10 points per $1 or 1,000 points
  • All hotels 15,000 points per night = 15 paid stays or $1,500

As you can see, Hilton HHonors requires the lowest amount of paid stays ($333.33) to earn a free night at a Category 1 hotel. Compare that to Starwood, which requires $1,000 – $1,500 in paid stays before members earn the 2,000 – 3,000 points required for a Category 1 stay. In terms of earning award nights at top-tier hotels, Wyndham wins out because they require just 15,000 points per night for all award redemptions, regardless of hotel category. Since Wyndham pays out 10 points per $1 or 1,000 points per stay (whichever is higher), it takes just 15 paid stays or $1,500 to earn a free night at any hotel. Obviously, you’ll want to put this free night to use at a top-tier hotel to get the biggest return on your investment.

Wyndham has a unique reward program that’s tough to compare to others since all hotels require the same number of points for a free night. When it comes to reward programs with different hotel categories, Club Carlson requires the lowest amount of spend for top-tier award nights at just $3,500. Factor in the 10 points per $1 earned through the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature card and you’re down to spending just $2,333 for a top-tier Category 7 award night. Hilton comes in second, requiring $4,666.67 – $6,333.33 worth of paid stays for a free night at a top-tier Category 10 hotel.

The worst program for earning a top-tier award night based on paid stays is Starwood Preferred Guest, which is often cited as one of the best hotel reward programs. Starwood requires a massive $15,000 – $17,500 spent to earn a free night at a top-tier Category 7 SPG hotel. Trailing behind Starwood is IHG Rewards Club, which requires $6,000 – $12,000 in paid stays to earn a top-tier Category 11 award night. These numbers are lowered when you factor in bonuses from credit card spending, but when it comes to earning free nights purely based on bonus points earned from a hotel rewards program, IHG and Starwood don’t fare so well.

While Hilton and Club Carlson’s seemingly inflated award charts are less than appealing, their comparatively higher earning rates on paid stays ranks them above every other rewards program when it comes to earning free nights. 

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Ariana Arghandewal


  1. Thank you for this. I looked at your archived Club Carlson list and have an update for Category 1. Having just returned from Bratislava, I can tell you that the Park Inn is undergoing major renovation and is closed. It has quite a good location, being just a couple of blocks from the Radisson Blu with the US Embassy between them.

  2. Thanks for the analysis. This is very helpful. You commented: “As you can see, Club Carlson requires the lowest amount of paid stays ($333.33) to earn a free night at a Category 1 hotel.” However, in your chart it’s Hilton that has this amount listed. Which is correct?

  3. I noticed choice hotels is not in there. I have their card and I believe its 15 points per dollar spent on stays. Some of their high end resorts (Cambria, Ascend) run from like 20k to 30k points.

  4. You lose me with this post, Ariana — beginning with your rather quaint title & implied question. How many folks in this miles & points hobby do you know of who actually rely primarily on the amount of points earned per paid stay in their hotel selection strategy?

    Kinda of a “no duh” to say that you don’t get as many points for Hyatt stays…. do far better with Chase transfers to Hyatt to pay/supplement stays there…. And how many folks stay at lower tier IHG properties in order to stay at a top tier IHG Cat. 11 property whatever? Really now? (You get one of those nights each year with the IHG card still — and annual fee is still just $49 — contrasting rather well with the CC card and it’s 40K of Club Carlson pesos….)

    And it’s just beyond credible to keep hawking the increasingly run-down and dilapidated Club Carlson brand…. Have you done an inventory lately of your now dated CC lists by category? (I stopped running the award mapper screens for Club Carlson, as time and time again I come across CC properties where I’m going — only to find out that the property is now “off line and no longer accepting reservations” — translated, they were either shut down or sold)

    My wife and I have a stash of over 300k Club Carlson points — mainly because we’re having trouble finding decent deals on CC places stateside we’d want to actually USE club carlson points. The available options in the US tend to be grotesquely over-priced…. (38,000, 44,000 and more for properties costing maybe $100 a night often)

    Yes, we’ve done the Melbourne, Fl Radisson — twice now… getting old. (as is that building….)

    Sure, there’s some Rad Blu’s we’d like to stay at — in North Africa, esp.. First, we’d have to get there, then second, we’d have to forget the all-too plausible fears of the beaches blowing up again…. (sadly)

    I often sing your praises Ariana, but here, you’re eloquent post is just not credible substantively…. classic case of selectively invoking misleading statistics to prove an outlier….. No doubt Club Carlson (or their new owners) will be delighted to see this post….

    Serious readers will add a few of their own laugh-test real-world screens and just move on…..

    Alas, knowing your patterns now, expect we’ll continue to see more posts from you pushing Club Carlson….. There’s a place for off-the-beaten path posts, to keep us cross checking and revisiting bad assumptions…. Drew, bless his memory, was a master at them, though he’s now long abandoned us….. for greener pastures.

    By chance are you consulting for HNA — CC’s new owner?

    • Thanks for your feedback, Will. This post is targeted towards people who do have a lot of paid hotel stays and don’t rely exclusively on credit card rewards to pay for travel. With hotel loyalty award charts devaluing, a lot of people are finding more value in paid stays covered with flexible reward currencies (i.e. Barclay Arrival Miles) or cash back rewards. You’d be surprised at how many people have asked me what the most “rewarding” hotel rewards program is and the numbers don’t lie.

      Should other factors be considered? Of course. Most people have the common sense to consider things like room rates, hotel quality, and even number of properties worldwide before committing to a single loyalty program. Club Carlson was never a big player in the U.S. luxury hotel market, but that didn’t stop a lot of people from collecting hundreds of thousands of points for hotel stays abroad, where they’ve continued to expand. I know tons of people who’ve been able to put their Club Carlson points to great use abroad. None of them were consultants for HNA.

  5. ps, and no, I’m not being “snobbish” here….. happens I did add Wyndham Rewards to my arsenal this past year (and even Choice) — for when doing the national park circuit…. (you’ll find far more Days Inns in the middle of nowhere than Hyatt or even IHG…) You’re right about Wyndham though being hard to value/compare, with the 3k “Go Fast” awards — and even more so with the current VERY interesting promotions that stack… (3 ongoing at the moment)…. But yes, the laugh test kicks in here too…. we stayed at a 70 year old Howard Johnson’s last week near a place called “peaks of otter”…. ok, they’d done their best to refurbish it, but oh my…. might have been better to just do the proverbial mattress run….. And then there was the Rodeway Inn OceanSide, by a sleazy casino, betwixt San Diego & LA…. over $250 per night — (or 3k plus $55 GF)….. the creepiest, most unsafe place ever…. Can only handle so many of those bottom teir stays per year…. per lifetime.

    Ok, we endure it for a cause…. We’ll soon be trying out the Wyndham Viva All-inclusive resorts in Mexico…. but much of what I’m reading in reveiws tells me to keep expectations low…. These top tier Wyndhams aren’t Ziva or even IHG class. Not many of us around who’ve done both ends…. Will see.

  6. Just a note that your comparison makes the high end of Marriott look better than it is, as it does not include Ritz Carlton properties.

  7. What’s the best hotel reward card for everyday credit card spending? Not hotel paid stays.

  8. Would love to see how these same hotels compare, based on how much Credit Card spending required to earn free nights. With MS in mind of course. ( 6X on Hilton Surpass, maybe 5X on Hyatt on Ink – office supply. 1X SPG Amex. Are the Wyndhan and Club Carlson just 1X for MS categories?

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