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If your credit card just gives you credit, you're missing out. Hotel credit cards can get you free nights and flights in pretty much any destination you choose. They often don't have annual fees, and their interest rates aren't too bad, either.

Now, let's be clear about one thing: If you're a road warrior who spends a lot of nights away from home, the best practice is always to concentrate your stays at one chain, get that chain's credit card, and use bonuses to really rack up the points. Hotel stays are (obviously) the best way to get hotel points. But road warriors are probably off reading the expect point-gathering tactics on sites like FlyerTalk.com (www.flyertalk.com). This story is for the occasional leisure traveler who wants to get free hotel nights by shopping at the grocery store.

The first question to ask yourself is whether you'd rather go for a hotel credit card, an airline card, or a card that offers generalized reward points like Capital One or American Express. That's a big question, and it's beyond the scope of this story. I'd like to note, though, that Starwood's card lets you transfer points at a 1:1 ratio to several different frequent flier accounts, which is one reason why it's our pick.

Eight hotel chains sponsor credit cards right now: Best Western, Choice Hotels, Hilton, Intercontinental, Marriott, Starwood and Wyndham.

Each of those names unpacks into a wide variety of brands: Wyndham, for instance, covers Wyndham, Ramada, Days Inn, Super 8, Wingate Inns, Baymont, Hawthorn, Howard Johnson, Travelodge, Knights Inn, and AmeriHost, while the more upscale Starwood is the umbrella for Le Meridien, Westin, Sheraton, W, Aloft, Element, St. Regis, and Four Points.

In fact, you can lump those eight chains into two groups -- call them upscale and budget. Hilton, Marriott, Intercontinental, Radisson, and Starwood hang out a little further up the food chain, while Choice, Wyndham, and Best Western focus on value. The three value chains have truly no-fee cards, as do Hilton and Radisson; the other guys charge a fee after the first year, though that may still be worth it if you charge enough money to enjoy free hotel nights.

Hotel chain Card name Annual fee APR (no defaults or late payments)
Best Western Gold Crown Club Platinum MasterCard 0 13.24-16.24%
Choice Hotels Choice Privileges Visa 0 13.99%
Hilton Hilton HHonors American Express Card 0 13.24%
Intercontinental Priority Club Rewards Visa Signature Card $29 after first year 11.24%
Marriott Marriott Rewards Signature Card $30 after first year 13.24%
Radisson Goldpoints Plus Visa Card 0 N/A
Starwood SPG American Express Card $45 after first year 13.24%
Wyndham Wyndham Rewards Mastercard 0 8.99-18.99%

All the cards have similar APRs and policies, though American Express cards generally come with better customer service and a bunch of travel benefits. The main difference is the points, and the cards make it hard to compare. For instance, Starwood gives you one point per dollar on most purchases, and Radisson gives you four. But Starwood points are more valuable than Radisson points, in terms of booking hotel nights, so it actually takes fewer dollars of credit-card spending to get to an equivalent hotel with Starwood.

Two of the cards have noticeably useful signup bonuses. Marriott's card gives you a free night in one of their level 1-4 hotels, and Intercontinental's Priority Club card gives you 30,000 free points, enough for one night in most of their hotels. The Intercontinental card also gives you a year's worth of airline companion flight certificates, but I've generally found those to be a false economy -- they almost always only apply to very high fare tickets.

I decided to find out how many points were needed for a "level 4" hotel in the New York City area, as close to Manhattan as possible. All hotel loyalty programs rate their hotels in various levels of point expense, with up to seven different tiers. Level 4, for most of them, is where you start getting quality hotels near highly desirable destinations. Notice that even here, with some of the chains you get nice hotels smack in the middle of Manhattan, and with some of them, you're out in New Jersey. Radisson couldn't get us anywhere near NYC for their level 4 rate.

Hotel chain Dollars for Level 4 hotel Example Level 4 hotel Dollars per dollar of hotel value
Best Western $12,000 Best Western Fort Lee, NJ $110.09
Choice Hotels $10,000 Sleep Inn Sunset Park, Brooklyn $125
Hilton $8,333* Hampton Inn Manhattan/35th Street $72.46
Intercontinental $25,000 Holiday Inn Manhattan -- 6th Ave $137.36
Marriott $20,000 Fairfield Inn Long Island City $168.07
Radisson $11,250 No level 4 near NYC; used Radisson Baltimore $62.85
Starwood $10,000 Four Points by Sheraton Manhattan SoHo Village $46.51
Wyndham $8,000 Wyndham Garden Manhattan Chelsea $44.44
Note: For Hilton, we used a Level 5 hotel.

To get the "dollars per dollar" number above, I found the hotel's standard rate for an April stay and divided the number of dollars needed for an award stay by the rate. Lower dollars-per-dollar numbers mean a card is worth more.

As you can see, the Hilton, Wyndham, Starwood, and Choice hotel cards let you get to a decent hotel level fastest. Intercontinental, especially, will leave you spinning your wheels for a long time after you get that one free night on signup. All level 4's aren't equal, as well. Starwood's hotels tend to be more upscale than the other chains, which add to the card's value.

The Starwood card is also the only one which lets you transfer points to airline miles at a 1:1 ratio. The typical coach-class airline ticket starts at 25,000 miles, which is equal to $25,000 in spending on most airline credit cards. As you can see from the chart below, most hotel cards are an awful deal if you're really trying to get airline miles.

Hotel chain Miles for 20,000 points Points needed for 25,000 miles
Best Western 4,000 125,000
Choice Hotels 4,000 125,000
Hilton 3000 166,666
Intercontinental 4,000 125,000
Marriott 5,000 100,000
Radisson 2,500 200,000
Starwood 20,000 25,000
Wyndham 5,000 100,000

There's a reason the Starwood American Express card has won the Freddie Award, handed out by frequent flier magazine InsideFlyer, for two years running. It gives you the most for your money. The Starwood card costs a little more than other hotel credit cards, but its points are more powerful -- both in terms of being turned into high-end hotel nights and especially in terms of being transferred to airline miles. The Starwood card is as close as you can get to being a generic frequent-flier credit card, as Starwood points translate 1:1 into miles on Alaska, American, Delta, and US Airways, and 2:1 into miles on Continental and United.

With the purely free cards, you can go two ways. If you're willing to keep a card for only eleven months, the Intercontinental Hotels card gives you a quick free night during its free first year, but the card's utility drops after that thanks to its thin awards. For longer-term use, Wyndham's hotels may not be high-end, but that free card gets you to free stays more quickly than almost any other.

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