If you’ve ever Googled “How to sleep in my car” because you couldn’t afford a hotel room or simply felt like staying in one wouldn’t be worth the money, we’ve got some must-read info for you below. Many people in situations just like yours find that they enjoy having a hotel credit card for their local, cross-country, or overseas vacations. Keep reading to learn more about what hotel credit cards do, as well as why and where people use them.
Let us know if you have any other questions - we’re always happy to help!
Hotel Credit Cards: The Basics
What is a hotel credit card?
A hotel credit card is a card that offers a line of credit for travelers who frequent specific hotels. As with most credit cards, hotel credit cards are usually compact pieces of rectangular plastic that feature a 16-digit number on the front and a 3-digit credit card security code on the back. American Express cards have a 4-digit security code on the front rather than a 3-digit code on the back.
You can use many hotel credit cards for purchases other than vacation-related goods and services. However, you may miss out on points or other perks if you go this route. You can find more info about card benefits under the heading titled “Card Fees and Rewards.”
Why do people get hotel credit cards?
There are tons of reasons why someone might get a hotel credit card, including one (or more) of the following:
- They want to boost their FICO score by adding a new line of credit
- They need help funding business trips or personal vacations
- They prefer to pay off a vacation on a monthly basis rather than upfront
- They want to take advantage of the generous perks commonly associated with hotel credit cards (free hotel stays!)
- They hate carrying cash or debit cards during trips
There are also people who apply for hotel credit cards simply because a hospitality rep at the front desk encourages them to do so. We don’t recommend this, which is why we have thoroughly explained the pros and cons of various hotel credit cards above.. We at Faveable want you to make informed choices when it comes to your credit.
What does it mean if I get a cobranded hotel credit card?
A cobranded hotel credit card is a credit card that’s associated with multiple companies, typically a hotel brand and a credit card provider or bank. The Starwood Preferred Guest from American Express is one popular example of a cobranded hotel credit card.
If you get a hotel credit card that isn’t cobranded, you can only use the card at a specific group of hotels. A cobranded hotel credit card is accepted at participating businesses around the world if it has a Visa, MasterCard, or American Express logo. You can use it to get gas, eat at restaurants, or even pay your rent or electric bill.
Is a hotel credit card the same thing as a travel credit card?
Nope, but that doesn’t stop people from using the terms interchangeably. A hotel credit card, as we explained earlier, is a line of credit for a specific hotel brand. You can use the card other places if it’s a cobranded card, but its rewards are still geared toward the hotel brand.
A travel credit card focuses on traveling in general rather than targeting a specific hotel brand. You can rack up rewards for free hotel stays and flights with a travel credit card, and you often have more choices for hotels and airlines than you do with a hotel credit card. However, keep in mind that you may have fewer rewards.
How many hotel credit cards do I need?
There’s no cookie-cutter answer to this question because all of our readers have different financial situations and goals. However, we want to encourage you to ask yourself the following questions before you apply for one - or more - hotel credit cards:
- How often do I travel?
- Do I prefer a specific hotel brand, or can I happily stay at any hotel?
- Do I usually stay in hotels, or am I more an Airbnb person?
- How much can I afford to spend on monthly credit card bills?
- Is my credit poor, fair, good, or excellent?
The answers to these questions play an important role when it comes to determining how many hotel credit cards you should get. If you don’t travel very often, it doesn’t make much sense to get a hotel credit card - unless you’re planning to take more vacations in the near future. If you typically choose Airbnb rentals over hotel rooms or you don’t care which hotel you visit, you might do better with a travel credit card than a hotel credit card.
Assessing your budget is a must so you don’t get stuck with more monthly credit card statements than you can handle. Your credit score matters because it generally affects each card’s APR, so you might end up paying hundreds - or even thousands - of extra bucks for each trip you take.
What’s the best hotel credit card?
We love the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express - it was our top pick on our list of the best hotel credit cards. It’s a popular card that’s also a favorite with well-known websites like NerdWallet, The Points Guy, ValuePenguin, and The Simple Dollar.
We also recommend the Stash Hotel Rewards Visa, American Express Hilton Honors, U.S. Bank Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature, and Best Western Rewards Secured MasterCard. However, while we’re certain you’ll find a card you like on our list of favorites, we want to remind you that our best card might not be your best card. You have to consider factors like the annual fee and the hotel(s) where you can use the card, as well as whether the card is geared toward folks with a credit score similar to yours. That’ll help you find the hotel credit card that’s perfect for you.
The Application Process for Hotel Credit Cards
How do I get a hotel credit card?
Apply at a hotel, contact a company via phone, or fill out an online application if you want a hotel credit card. Some hotels let you apply at the front desk and then use your card to pay for your stay, but that’s not always the case - so bring a backup payment method just in case. Ask the hospitality specialist behind the counter if you don’t see any signs advertising hotel cards. Even if they don’t have any applications on hand, they can probably tell you where to get one.
Am I more likely to get approved if I apply directly at the hotel?
Nope, probably not. Credit card companies generally use a computer-generated approval system that considers factors such as your credit score, previous history with the company, and debt-to-income ratio. If you get denied, you can request a manual review by an employee at the credit card company, but this doesn’t take place at the hotel.
Do I have to join a hotel’s rewards program before I apply for their credit card?
Generally the answer is no, but we’ve heard some reports that Wyndham properties try to make you join their rewards program prior to applying for a card. You can often earn points from a rewards program and points from a credit card, so it’s smart to join anyway.
Notice we didn’t mention combining the points, though. Some companies let you combine or transfer points, but many of them don’t. That means you may earn a free room from a rewards program and a free room from a credit card, but you can’t transfer 5,000 points from a hotel’s rewards program to increase the point balance on your hotel credit card.
Do I need good credit to get a hotel credit card?
Yes, most of the time you do. We’ve found that most hotel credit cards expect you to at least have a credit score in the high 600s or low 700s, although some lucky folks score approvals with scores in the low-to-mid 600s.
The exception is if you apply for a card like the Best Western Rewards Secured MasterCard. It’s a secured credit card, so you’re funding the credit limit yourself. However, you still get some of the awesome perks - like free and discounted hotel rooms - associated with unsecured hotel credit cards.
I got a message that says the card company couldn’t reach an immediate decision - does that mean I got declined?
It’s common to assume the worst when you get hit with a “Sorry, we couldn’t reach an immediate decision,” but that generic message isn’t always a polite way of rejecting you. Basically, this message means the computer couldn’t decide whether to approve you or not, so a real person has to take a look at your app. You’ll probably get an answer via postal mail in a couple weeks, but you can contact the company by phone if you want to speed up the notification process.
Using Your Hotel Credit Card
Can I use my hotel credit card at any hotel?
Yes, as long as you have a cobranded card and not a card that’s issued by the hotel itself. We talked about cobranded cards in the section titled “Hotel Credit Cards: The Basics”. If you don’t have time to scroll back up and read that info, just remember that cobranded cards are backed by two companies/agencies. That means if you have a cobranded card, it probably has a Visa, MasterCard, or American Express logo on the front.
But hey, just because you can use your credit card at any hotel doesn’t mean you should. You typically get the most bang for your buck by visiting hotels that are associated with your credit card. You earn higher points and qualify for deeper discounts, which makes it easier to rack up points for free hotel stays. If you don’t like staying at a particular hotel brand, you should probably use a travel credit card rather than a hotel credit card.
Can you book a hotel without a credit card?
Sometimes, but we don’t recommend it. TripSavvy agrees, explaining that it’s risky to book with a debit card rather than a credit card. Hotels often place an authorization hold on cards, and sometimes that amount is higher than the cost of your actual stay. If you use a debit card, you may end up overdrafting your checking account or losing access to necessary funds.
Paying with cash might be an option, but many hotels require payment via a debit or credit card. Even if they accept your cash, they may still ask you to give them a card in case you trash the room or raid the mini bar.
Can I pay with cash and my hotel credit card?
Yes, you can pay with cash and a hotel credit card as long as the hotel allows it. Some hotels don’t like cash payments, so check with the manager or a front desk agent before you arrive.
Keep in mind you only earn points for the amount you put on the credit card. If your room costs $500 for 2 days and you pay $450 cash, you only earn points for $50 of your purchase.
Can I only use hotel credit cards in the United States?
What’s the best hotel credit card for international use?
The Stash Hotel Rewards Visa has no foreign transaction fees, so it’s a great option if you travel abroad regularly and stay at boutique hotels. We also love the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express - like the Stash Hotel Rewards Visa, it has no foreign transaction fees.
Do I need to carry a balance on my credit card?
No, you’re welcome to pay off the card each month. In fact, we recommend it! Over time, high interest rates can turn a cheap getaway into a pricey vacation.
Some people leave a small balance because they feel like it helps them build credit. If you decide to go this route, try to keep your balance lower than 30% of your credit limit. That means if you have a $2,000 limit, you shouldn’t have more than $600 on your card.
Card Fees and Rewards
Are hotel credit cards worth it?
For some people, yes. Is a hotel credit card worth it for you? Ask yourself the following questions, and we’ll help you decide:
- Do I travel regularly or take infrequent but long vacations?
- Do I prefer a specific hotel brand?
- Do I want free nights at my favorite hotels?
- Will I probably earn enough rewards to balance out the card’s annual fee or a high APR?
- Can I handle the monthly payment for a hotel credit card?
- Do I have decent credit?
If you answered yes to all of the questions above, congrats - you’re an excellent candidate for a hotel credit card!
Do most hotel credit cards have an annual fee?
Yes, nearly all hotel credit cards require members to pay an annual fee. We consider it a necessary evil that gives us exclusive access to things we want - like free hotel rooms and airline miles.
Can I get my annual fee waived?
It certainly doesn’t hurt to ask the company that issued your card. Honestly we haven’t heard reports from anyone who has managed to avoid the fee for any hotel credit card, but that doesn’t mean you won’t succeed at getting it dropped. If you do, please come back and let us know so we can update our response.
How do I earn points with my hotel credit card?
Well, it depends on which hotel card you have. You can generally earn points by:
- Qualifying for sign-up bonuses
- Meeting annual goals set by the company, such as “Spend X dollars every 12 months to get extra points”
- Staying at approved hotels
- Buying goods and services from participating businesses
- Linking your credit card to a hotel’s rewards program
Cardholders typically earn more points for staying at approved hotels than they do for visiting other vacation properties.
Do my points expire?
Sometimes, but there are credit cards (like the Stash Hotel Rewards Visa Card) that offer expiration-free points. If you’re not using a card like that, you should still have plenty of time to redeem your points - typically a minimum of 12 to 24 months.
Some cards offer transferable points. If you think you won’t stay at a participating hotel in the near future but need points for flights or other vacation-related essentials, consider a card like the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express.
What can I do with my points?
Whatever you want! Well, as long as you don’t violate the terms of your credit card agreement.
Some credit card companies only let you redeem points for hotel stays, but you may also have the chance to trade your points for airline miles or cash. If you don’t have to redeem all of your points at once, you can potentially fund an entire trip if you have a card with a transfer-friendly points program.
How can I get extra points with my hotel card?
You can maximize the number of points you rack up with your hotel credit card by paying attention to special offers and primarily using your card at participating hotels. Most hotel cards we’ve researched offer a generous sign-up bonus, and some of them have an annual bonus. These bonus offers typically require you to spend a specific amount of money in a certain time frame in exchange for extra points.
When you book a hotel room, make sure you’re at a participating hotel. You can stay at any hotel unless your card restricts you from doing so, but cardholders usually earn more points at approved vacation properties.
If you have an issue during a hotel stay, politely yet firmly state your complaint to a customer service rep for your credit card. You may receive some extra points for the inconvenience you experienced, but there’s no guarantee.
Choosing the Right Card for Your Needs
Why should I choose a hotel credit card over a travel credit card?
You don’t have to choose - it’s okay to have one of each. However, you may not feel comfortable doing that. If that’s the case, you should choose a hotel credit card over a travel credit card if you:
- Prefer chain hotels (unless you apply for the Stash Hotel Rewards Visa Card - it’s good for boutique hotels)
- Tend to stick with a specific hotel brand
- Regularly stay in hotels rather than crash with friends/family or book Airbnb homes
Also, make sure you travel enough to make the annual card fee worth it. Hotel credit cards are notorious for having hefty - yet justifiable - annual fees. Travel credit cards also have annual fees, but the majority of them waive the annual fees for the first year. If you’re unsure whether you’ll do better with a travel credit card or hotel credit card, look for one with a waived fee. That gives you time to test drive the card and figure out if it’s a good match for you.
What’s the best credit card for business travel?
The best travel credit card for your colleague might not be the best business card for you. The card you choose should reflect your personal preferences and fit your budget, especially if your company requires you to pay business-related expenses yourself and then submit a request for reimbursement.
If you like chain hotels, get a card that reflects that. If you need a card that transfers points so you can pay for flights, apply for one.
A lot of business travelers like the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express. It’s not a business card, but it has no foreign transaction fees, making it a popular option for business travelers who conduct business overseas.
The company also offers an official business credit card, the Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card, that might be a better fit for you. We discuss it in our list of the best business credit cards as well.
What’s the best credit card for all types of travel?
We feel like the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express is the overall best hotel credit card for travelers. You can use it at hotels around the world, and there are no foreign transaction fees. Points are transferable to participating airlines, and the APR is on the lower end (well, at least for hotel credit cards).
What is the best credit card to accrue points for flights?
Okay, we know you might be sick of hearing about the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express by now, but we think it’s the best for earning airline points (and pretty much the best for everything else, too).
You can redeem points through Delta, British Airways, and more than 150 other trusted airlines. Oh, and did we mention American Express hooks you up with a 5,000 point bonus if you transfer 20,000 points to an approved frequent flyer program? Pretty sweet!
Should I only get a credit card at a hotel I frequent?
Possibly. Find out which brand owns the hotel you frequent so you can decide whether it’s smart to get a card with them. That way, you can stay at any hotel associated with the brand.
Most hotel credit cards work pretty much anywhere, but you can apply for a cobranded card if you want to make sure you aren’t locked into a specific hotel brand. However, it’s important to remember that you typically score more perks and points at participating hotels.
What if I don’t like the credit card I choose?
Get rid of it or stop using it. You don’t have to use a credit card unless you want to or your credit card agreement states otherwise.
There are drawbacks to cancelling a card, so you might do better just keeping it tucked away for safekeeping. If you cancel a card, your FICO score can drop because the cancellation decreases your overall available credit and impacts the part of your score that’s factored by how long you’ve had different types of credit.
If you do cancel a card, try to get rid of it before you get hit with an annual fee. If you forget, you’ll still have to pay the fee - for a card you don’t even want to keep.