Hotel co-branded credit cards are pretty much the only example I can think of where a company defines its card benefits by just giving you elite status or progress toward it. Airlines, by contrast, pick and choose, diluting the benefits of true elites while frustrating credit card holders who forget detailed terms and conditions. (Example: a free checked bag only applies if you buy the ticket with the co-branded card.)
Easy access to elite status as well as other generous perks keep me motivated to hold several hotel credit cards in my wallet. I don’t even have to use them to buy anything with them. Many times just paying the annual fee will earn a more valuable free night. Here are some of the best examples:
Hyatt Gold Passport
The Hyatt Visa from Chase comes with automatic Platinum status, which I find is the best compromise between qualification criteria and benefits. Often Hyatt will also give its cardholders a 50% bonus on points earned during quarterly promotions. You can also get automatic Platinum status with the United MileagePlus credit card.
If you really want Diamond status (25 stays or 50 nights), I think it’s a great goal. The Hyatt Visa will give you 2 stays and 5 nights toward elite status when you spend $20,000 in a year, and another 3 stays and 5 nights after you reach $40,000. However, I think there are other cards with better bonuses for big spenders.
Hyatt Visa from Chase – $75 annual fee
- Sign-up Bonus: 2 nights at any Hyatt after spending $1,000 in 3 months. Already have Platinum status? Your card includes two suite upgrades for paid nights. Diamond? Your two free nights will be in a suite.
- Annual Bonus: 1 free night (category 1-4) starting year 2, and Platinum status every year
United MileagePlus Club Visa from Chase – $395 annual fee
- Sign-up Bonus: $95 credit your first year, or follow these instructions to try to get the entire fee waived
- Annual Bonus: United Club membership, Hyatt Platinum status, and Avis First status
Starwood Preferred Guest
SPG Gold status is included in the benefits of any American Express Platinum Card. This includes the Business and Mercedes-Benz versions of this card. Some say you have to write-in to SPG and send them a copy of your American Express card statement to verify your eligibility. I found it easier to just call American Express and ask them to connect me to the SPG help desk.
The Platinum Card is pricey, with an annual fee starting at $450, but you also get benefits like $200 in airline fee credits each calendar year and reimbursement of one Global Entry application. Since United already paid for mine, I’ll use it to pay for Megan’s application.
Platinum Card from American Express – $450 annual fee
Mercedes-Benz Platinum Card from American Express – $475 annual fee
Note: Only the Mercedes-Benz card offers a public sign-up bonus at the time this post was published. You can get 50,000 Membership Rewards points for spending $1,000 in 3 months.
If a Platinum card is outside your budget, consider the personal or business versions of the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express cards. They won’t get you elite status, but each one will give you 2 stays and 5 nights toward elite status each year. If you have both (like I do), that is an easy 4 stays and 10 nights to get you started. Gold status is obtained after a total of 10 stays or 25 nights.
Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express – $65 annual fee
- Sign-up Bonus: 25,000 Starpoints after spending $5,000 in 6 months.
- Annual Bonus: 2 stays and 5 nights credit toward elite status every year, or buy up to Gold each year you spend $30K.
Priority Club recently devalued its loyalty program for points earned in 2013. It used to be you could just buy points and those would count toward elite status. Odd, I know, but buying 60,000 points at 0.7 cents each was just $420 and that could get you Platinum status. Then you turn around and redeem them for a free night. Well, no longer. Priority Club will begin distinguishing between elite-qualifying and non-elite-qualifying points.
You can get top-tier Platinum status more easily by just signing up for the credit card. The benefits, even at the Platinum level, are pretty weak, but it can be better than nothing if your travels take you places with a Holiday Inn may be your only option. A few times I’ve found myself in the only suite in the entire hotel.
Priority Club Visa from Chase – $49 annual fee (waived first year)
- Sign-up Bonus: 80,000 Priority Club points after first purchase
- Annual Bonus: 1 free night at any Priority Club hotel starting year 2, and free Platinum status every year
Marriott has insane qualification requirements for its loyalty program if you ask me. No option to earn status through points or stays. Nights are the only way. And you need a friggin’ lot of them to reach the top tier. Make it easier on yourself by getting a Marriott credit card. With 15 nights credit each year, you can make the bar much easier to reach. I don’t know if holding a personal and business card together will give you even more nights toward elite status, but I am guessing it will, similar to the SPG American Express cards.
Marriott Premier Rewards Visa from Chase – $85 annual fee (waived first year)
- Sign-up Bonus: 50,000 Marriott Rewards points and 1 free night (category 1-4) after spending $1,000 in 3 months
- Annual Bonus: 1 free night (category 1-5) starting year 2, and 15 nights credit toward elite status every year
Hilton can be found everywhere, and it’s often a step up from Priority Club. Although I find that their points aren’t very useful for short domestic stays (40,000 points for a generic Hilton in downtown Philadelphia?) they can be very useful when combined with specific promotions. For example, American Express Hilton cardholders have access to discounted AXON awards, and Hilton HHonors elites (which you can get with some cards) have access to GLON awards. Check out Deals We Like for more information about these two award types. The exact elite status you get varies with each card, offered by either Citi or American Express.
Hilton HHonors Reserve Visa from Citi – $95 annual fee
- Sign-up Bonus: 2 free weekend nights at any Hilton after spending $2,500 in 4 months
- Annual Bonus: 1 free weekend after spending $10,000 each year. Complimentary Gold status every year. Buy up to Diamond status each year you spend $40,000.
Hilton HHonors Visa from Citi – no annual fee
- Sign-up Bonus: 40,000 Hilton HHonors points after spending $1,000 in 4 months
- Annual Bonus: Complimentary Silver status every year. A great no-fee way to get status!
Hilton HHonors Surpass from American Express – $75 annual fee
- Sign-up Bonus: 60,000 Hilton HHonors points after spending $3,000 in 3 months
- Annual Bonus: Complimentary Gold status your first year and Silver status after that. Buy up to Gold status each year you spend $20,000.
Hilton HHonors from American Express – no annual fee
- Sign-up Bonus: 40,000 Hilton HHonors points after spending $750 in 4 months
- Annual Bonus: Complimentary Silver status every year. Buy up to Gold status each year you spend $20,000.
Club Carlson has tons of promotions giving away boatloads of points. This credit card is no different. You get almost enough points for two nights at any Club Carlson hotel in the world, as well as free Gold status. There have been a few hotels I’ve visited where I check in with Gold status and the clerk starts trying to chat me up because I must be some international globetrotter (I am, but that’s not how I earned the status…) To sweeten the pot, when you redeem points for two consecutive nights, every third night is free!
Club Carlson Premier Visa from US Bank – $75 annual fee
- Sign-up Bonus: 50,000 Gold Points after first use + 35,000 Gold Points after spending $2,500 in 3 months
- Annual Bonus: Complimentary Gold status