These are the best new credit cards for hotel junkies

Forget the Chase Sapphire Reserve. As long as you’re ready to commit to a hotel loyalty programme, these new offerings may be more powerful

by ERIC ROSEN

When it comes to hotel brands, it’s become a dog-eat-dog world. Ever since Marriott International Inc acquired Starwood to create the world’s biggest hotel company in 2016, consolidation has been the name of the game. And while no other company has come close to matching Marriott’s size, that’s not for lack of trying.

Intercontinental Hotels and Resorts (IHG), for instance, has scooped up big luxury names such as Regent and Six Senses. Hyatt Hotels Corp has beefed up its portfolio, acquiring boutique hospitality ventures Thompson and Alila, and partnering with Small Luxury Hotels of the World. And while it hasn’t exactly been on a buying spree, Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc has been busy spinning off new brands Motto, Signia and Tru.

What does all that add up to? Bigger, better loyalty programmes whose members can redeem their points almost anywhere in the world. Now, by extension, more powerful credit cards with valuable, spending-based perks are aiming specifically at high-yield customers.

Here’s everything you need to know about the shifting landscape of luxury hotel credit cards — and how to maximise your earnings, based on your traveller profile.

Conrad’s underwater Muraka suite at the Maldives Rangali Island

Big Fees and Big Perks

If you’re less of a points hound and more interested in tangible perks or VIP status, you’re in luck. That’s exactly the kind of value being built into the top-tier hotel cards today. This comes at a cost — generally, a higher annual fee. For the two standouts, Marriott’s Bonvoy Brilliant American Express and the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire, that’s US$450 (RM1,856) a year.

“We wanted to offer a credit card that reflected the incredible breadth of the Marriott Bonvoy loyalty programme,” says Marriott’s Global Card Programme VP David Patron. “By listening to customer feedback and working collaboratively with American Express, we created a suite of offerings that would be especially attractive to those who value a luxury travel experience.”

Released in January, the Bonvoy Brilliant costs the same amount annually as the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Luxury Card and US$55 more than the old Ritz-Carlton Rewards credit card from Chase, which it’s intended to replace.

The benefits, however, pay for themselves. They include a 100,000-point sign-up bonus, up to US$300 in statement credits for purchases at Marriott properties annually, another US$100 for dining and spa purchases at Ritz-Carlton or St Regis hotels, an anniversary free night at higher-category resorts and complimentary Marriott Bonvoy Gold elite status instead of lower-range Silver status. If you spend US$75,000 on the card per year, you’ll get bumped up to Platinum status, which buys you the possibility of suite upgrades and lounge access at some properties.

Like other cards in this price range, it comes with a TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application fee credit every four years (worth up to US$100), plus access to Priority Pass airport lounges around the world. And in addition to earning six points per dollar at Marriott hotels, it gets triple points on airline tickets and US restaurants. (You’ll get two points per buck spent anywhere else.) While not incredibly high, these travel bonus categories and earning rates do mean cardholders can rack up a free night at a mid-tier property such as the Westin Hapuna Beach Resort in Hawaii (35,000 points) with a few months’ spending.

The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire, which debuted in January 2018, has a similar approach to lure luxury travellers. With a sign-up bonus that has occasionally been as high as 150,000 points (guaranteed if you spend US$4,000 in the first three months), it’s making a play both to win back longtime Hilton Honors members who might be bored with the chain and appeal to younger, affluent frequent travellers who need big numbers and big benefits to commit to a single brand.

For the same US$450 fee, cardholders get top-tier Hilton Diamond status, including free room upgrades and complimentary breakfasts, a free weekend night each year upon renewal, US$250 in resort credits across all Hilton properties, an additional US$100 toward purchases at Waldorf Astoria and Conrad hotels, an annual US$250 airline fee credit and Priority Pass airport lounge access. All together, Aspire’s benefits are comparable to, if not slightly better than Bonvoy Brilliant’s — the only catch being that Hilton rewards tend to require more points to redeem.

A private plunge pool at the Park Hyatt St Kitts in Saint Kitts and Nevis

The Mid-Range Options Worth Considering

If earning potential is more important to you than tangible perks, you might prefer a mid-tier card. With better points multipliers, they can compensate for the fact that many hotel loyalty programmes have recently devalued their awards charts.

The new World of Hyatt credit card by Chase, for instance, earns four bonus points per dollar at Hyatt properties, instead of just three with the old card. It also nets double points on a broader range of categories that might appeal to younger audiences, such as restaurants, airline tickets, on ride-share services such as Uber, and fitness club memberships, which is unique. (You’ll pay a US$95 annual fee for it, up from US$75 in its previous incarnation.)

“We continue to see that wellness is a growing focus for business and leisure travellers, which is why we created a specific bonus category for spend on fitness clubs and gym memberships,” explained a Chase spokesperson.

The card also throws in a complimentary night at a mid-range hotel each year, plus a new opportunity to earn an additional free night once you’ve spent more than US$15,000 on annual purchases.

Compare that to the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card released nearly a year ago. Its fee almost doubled to US$89, but now includes TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application fee credits (worth up to US$100), while offering 10 points per dollar spent at IHG hotels — that’s double the old multiplier — and two points per dollar on such everyday categories as restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations. This earning scheme, along with sign-up bonuses that regularly hit 120,000 points, means you can easily earn free nights at a luxury property such as the InterContinental Paris le Grand by spending just a few thousand dollars strategically.

If points multipliers are your thing, don’t overlook Hilton’s new mid-range card, the US$95-per-year Hilton Honors American Express Ascend — it earns 12 points per dollar at Hiltons, six at restaurants, gas stations and supermarkets in the US, and three on everything else. (You’ll also get upgraded from Gold to Diamond status after spending US$40,000.)

Marriott’s new Bonvoy Brilliant card focuses on travellers who are inclined to stay at its luxury brands, such as St regis and Ritz-Carlton

The Bottom Line

If you’re thinking about a premium card, make your choice based on where you actually want to stay, be it the US$600-a-night Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, with its extravagant new underwater suite, or a 40th floor suite at the brand-new Times Square Edition. After all, the annual fee is worth it only if you see these cards as replacements for a more general travel product, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve — viable only if you’re ready to commit to their associated loyalty programmes.

Not ready for that kind of relationship? The expanded bonus earnings associated with the mid-tier cards is worth the small investment, and the elite benefits they confer can be pretty sweet icing on the cake. — Bloomberg