Two Top Credit Cards Duke it Out: Citi® Hilton HHonors™ Reserve Card and the Starwood American Express

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When I attended the launch event for the Citi® Hilton HHonors™ Reserve Card at the Conrad in New York at the end of last month, the senior team member from Visa who was there was telling me he thought they had a “Starwood killer.” I told him that they had built a great card, but that I didn’t agree.

The Starwood Amex has been set the standard for most rewarding card for a decade or more.

In the very first month of this blog, in May 2002, I wrote:

[T] he credit card I recommend most often for earning miles is the Starwood American Express, because points transfer 1:1 into most airline programs and you get a 5k mile bonus for transferring 20k points — equivalent to earning 1.25 miles per dollar on all purchases.

Simple value proposition: 1 Starpoint is worth more than the 3 Hilton HHonors points per dollar that the Hilton Reserve Visa earns on un-bonused spend. The basic value on a non-bonused dollar of spend is higher with the Starwood card.

Starwood points are the single most valuable points currency. I value a Starpoint at somewhere between 2.2 and 2.4 cents apiece. Lucky thinks a Hilton point is worth 0.8 cents apiece (so each dollar of spend on the Hilton Reserve Visa would be worth 2.4 cents). I disagree — I value a Hilton point somewhere between 0.5 and 0.6 cents each.

Now, the Hilton Reserve Visa is actually better than that.

There’s no question that the Citi Reserve Visa has better benefits. I plan to get it myself (next year, since I’ve already put $40,000 in spend on my American Express Hilton Surpass card to earn Diamond status). I think every business traveler should have it, it’s worth a $95 annual fee to have Gold status with Hilton. It really is a business travel killer app.

I’ve frequently written that there are 3 basic types of cards:

  • Those you get for the signup bonus, there’s an incredible upfront offer that’s tough to say no to. But you don’t want to put more spending on the card than necessary to earn the bonus, because the card itself isn’t that rewarding. Both cards come with good signup offers–the Hilton Reserve comes with 2 free weekend nights at most any Hilton property after $2500 spend, the Starwood Amex has up to 25,000 points as a signup bonus.
  • Those you get for the benefits. Citi® Hilton HHonors™ Reserve Card is a no-brainer here. Probably the king of this category is American Express Platinum (primarily for the airport lounge access). But that gets you to carry the card, to keep it on an ongoing basis, not to useit.
  • Those you get because they reward your spending. Here are the most rewarding cards for different kinds of spending. But for spending that isn’t in a bonus category, and isn’t being used to earn a signup bonus, there’s no card more rewarding than the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express.

I believe every frequent traveler should get the Citi® Hilton HHonors™ Reserve Card. The Hilton Gold status that comes just from having the card and which you keep as long as you are a cardmember is worth the $95 annual fee, spend a handful of nights each year with Hilton and you’ve got yourself covered with free breakfast, free internet, and the occasional upgrade. (You can then concentrate on Starwood and Hyatt’s elite tiers which are the most rewarding but which don’t have properties everywhere the way that Hilton, Priority Club, and Marriott do.)

But whether everyone should use it instead of the Starwood Amex? That’s a more complicated question. For the first $10,000 in spend, yes, if you are going to put $10,000 on the card in a cardmember year — no more, no less. It’s also better for foreign spend since it has no foreign currency transaction fees, while the Starwood American Express does.

SIDE-BY SIDE COMPARISON:

  • Signup bonus: 25,000 points vs 2 free weekend nights. Points are always more flexible, they can be used any time versus weekend only and only within a year. They can be transferred to airline miles. Personally I prefer the 25,000 points for the flexibility, but it’s possible to get more value out of the 2 weekend nights if you were to use them at a top Conrad hotel property for instance. Winner:SPG Amex, by a little.
  • Benefits: Hilton card gets you an annual free night after $10,000 spend, there’s no annual free night with SPG Amex (as you’ll also find with Hyatt, Marriott and Priority Club, the first two of which cap the redemption category of their annual free night). Automatic Gold status for having the Hilton card, have to spend $30,000 on the SPG Amex for Gold, and SPG Gold isn’t as valuable as Hilton Gold. You can earn top tier status after $40k in spend on the Hilton card, the Starwood card just gives you 2 stays and 5 nights towards status. Hilton Reserve has no foreign currency conversion fees, SPG Amex does, that means I’d rather put spending on the Hilton card when traveling abroad – even if I was paying a bill at a Starwood hotel. Winner:Hilton Reserve, by a wide margin.
  • Rewards spending: 1 Starpoint is worth more than 3 HHonors points. Whether it’s comparing similar hotels, and with the exception of a handful of hotels at the very top of Starwood’s pyramid, you’re going to get better value out of a dollar of spend with the Starwood Amex. Starpoints are the gold standard, the most valuable currency there is. Part of that is the flexibility. If you want airline miles there’s generally no better card for earning than the SPG Amex. $20,000 spend on the Starwood Amex earns 25k miles in most airline programs you’d be interested in. You’d have to spend over $50,000 (excluding bonus categories) on the Hilton Reserve card to earn the same number of airline miles. Now, if you include spending the first $10,000 on the Hilton Reserve card to earn the annual free weekend night (something the Chase Hyatt, Marriott, and Priority Club cards throw in without spend) then it’s likely the case that the $10,000 spend is more rewarding on the Hilton Reserve card. Winner: SPG Amex

Bottom-line: The Starwood Preferred Guest American Express is still the go-to every day top of wallet choice. The Hilton Reserve Visa isn’t a “Starwood killer.” But it is a must-have for the serious traveler.

Editorial note: any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer. Comments made in response to this post are not provided or commissioned nor have they been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any bank. It is not the responsibility of any advertiser to ensure that questions are answered, either.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. I whole-heartedly agree that HH points are worth 5¢, not 8¢. I have run the numbers myself, and rerun them each time Hilton makes changes. In any realistic redemption scenario, 5¢ is the max they pencil out at, especially with the loss of Point Stretcher and the introduction of Premium Room Awards.

  2. Although I’m mostly in agreement with your analysis, there are ways to squeeze more value out of your HHonors points. If you own an Amex Hilton card (even the zero fee one) this opens up AXON awards. With the caveat that this only works in Cat 5-7 hotels using blocks of 4 days, which works well for me, I’d add an extra 0.1 c/pt, making it 0.6-0.7 c/pt total.

  3. If you use the AXON reward (for Hilton Amex users),the point value can easily be even higher than 8 cents. In just the past year, we used 145,000 points for a four-night stay at the Trafalgar in London and another 145,000 points for four nights at the Beverly Hilton. Each stay would have cost over $1,200. It’s all about using points judiciously!

  4. I am not entirely convinced that spg is better value than HH. Spg’s redemption goes from 2000 pts for cat 1 to 35000 for cat 7. Hh goes from 7500 for cat 1 to 50000 for cat 7. however the citi hilton card gives you 3 points for each dollar. So the actual dollar spend needed to earn one night goes from 2500 to 16667. Comparing category by category, spg requires slightly less dollar spend for cat 1-3, but HH requires quite a bit less dollar spend for each night at cat 5-7. For instance, at cat 7, HH only needs 16.7k while SPG needs 30-35k.

    I didn’t do a thorough research, so it’s possible that at each category, SPG’s properties are of higher quality than the correponding HH properties. I checked a few random cities in Asia (cat 4 and above), and in many cases HH is of better value.

    The caveat is that HH standard redemption rates are not always available. in some heavily booked dates, there were no standard rates available even when the standard rooms are availabe. They just call the standard rooms another name (like adding the word plus to their room type) and that allows them to charge premium redemption rates.

  5. HH points will still provide pretty decent returns provided you use them only at expensive, 50,000 point hotels (ideally aspirational properties), and provided they don’t mess around too much with limiting standard room availability and the premium room rewards.

    The biggest advantage HH has over SPG is that for the most part, they still charge standard redemption rates for their aspirational properties (where the rooms are all suites or all villas). For example, compare:

    Conrad Koh Samui at 50,000 points (or 16,666 credit card spend), where the base level villas often go for $600-800 a night.

    In comparison, the W Koh Samui is an all villa property, so although it is category 6 (normally 20,000 or 25,000) points, SPG charges either 40,000 or 50,000 points a night (so between 40,000 and 50,000 of credit card spend)

  6. The value of cash and points redemption is what saves SPG in my opinion. This has great benefit for those who can’t spend as much on a card. With Hilton you need 150K to get an sort of value, while Marriott is the same. Even 10K SPG points can go a long way to cutting costs on a European vacation in shoulder season.

  7. You’re missing a pretty important aspect about the Hilton card for business travelers: It means you have to stay in a Hilton. Lame.

  8. You get invited to these shindigs because of all the biz you generate for them through your blog links and publicity you generate for the card through posts like this? They pay for your travel expenses too?

  9. First of all, saying the SPG AMEX is a more valuable card because you’re essentially earning 1.25 pts per dollar assumes you want to transfer those points to airline miles. I’m one of the (seemingly) few people who likes to actually use hotel points for free hotel stays, so when I take that into account, the SPG card loses some of it’s value proposition.

    Additionally, the whole debate about the “value” of a Starwood point vs. a Hilton point that we see Gary, Lucky, etc come up with is generally skewed because they don’t take earning rates into account. Sure, you can value an SPG point more than a Hilton point, but that valuation is meaningless without an accurate picture of earning rates. As a Platinum with SPG, I earn 3 pts/dollar when I stay. As Gold with Hilton, I earn 17.5 pts/dollar (double-dip set to points…SPG has no equivalent program).

    So even if we accept Gary’s valuation that an SPG point is 4 times more valuable than a Hilton point (2.4/pt vs. 0.6/pt), I still earn Hilton points at a far great ratio than the 4:1 valuation, which tips the scale in favor of the Hilton program being more rewarding to me than SPG.

  10. @T – actually I paid my own travel expenses. And I wasn’t invited because of my blog links, but as “media” (invited by the PR shop). When I visited with a loyalty program earlier in the year they offered travel, lodging, etc and I declined, paid my own way.

    We all make our own decisions on how to handle these things, I disclose when I’ve received something (and in that latter case I accepted a sandwich in a conference room over a working lunch).

    But there’s no question that I’ve had access to folks that i wouldn’t otherwise have access to — whether because of this blog, as a founder of milepoint.com, earlier as president of flyertalk’s member-elected board, as one of conde nast traveler’s world’s top travel specialists, what have you.

    I do my best to take that hard-won access and share tips and insights with folks here, hope you find it useful and thanks for reading!

  11. @Andrew – I’m talking about credit card earn rates, not about in-hotel earn rates, have a post coming up on this but Starwood is great for credit card earn and really not very good for in-hotel earn.

  12. Gary, thanks for all the detailed information on the new Hilton card. I appreciate the information and your thoroughness. I applied for the card two weeks ago following one of your earlier posts but still no word. I keep checking the link I was given but it says that they’ve received my application and I’ll know within a week. Does that delay seem odd in your experience?

  13. Is it clear that that the SPG card can be used at all Conrads? There was some discussion that it was blocked from redeeming at certain W=A’s without a list appearing anywhere that I saw.

  14. 500,000 HHonors points = $2,500 – $3,000.00?

    Seems to me like you can get more value than this from 500,000 points…

    Thanks for the analysis.

  15. @Aardvark – I was told specifically that the number of excluded properties is 38 “which are primarily Hilton Grand Vacations (timeshare locations) and a handful of all inclusive resorts”

  16. @Gary @@ Aardvark

    Why have Hilton / Citi not announced excluded properties yet?

    Seems a litte disingenuous…

  17. How about if you want upgraded rooms. I can usually guarantee a better room for about 2500 Starpoints. When I look at the Hilton redemptions for better rooms, I’m astounded – always WELL over 100,000 and sometimes twice that!

    Hiltons breakfast benefit for Golds is wonderful but in every other way, I’ll stick with my Starwood. That said, finally used some of my Hilton points – 145,000 for four nights at the soon to be opened Conrad Algarve – another great yield!

  18. Is the new Citi card worth it if I have 10 – 15 stays a year for work and we always stay at a Hilton property? I also have Sapphire Preferred and I’m wondering if I should just charge it to that instead? Primarily I’m just interested in earning free stays to use for vacation.

  19. @kyle i would get the citi card — and use it to pay for my hilton stays — and possibly up to $10k in spend. but anything above that iw ould put on the sapphire preferred

  20. So am I to assume that these 2 credit cards must offer very high affiliate referral kickbacks, hence the lucky/gleff showdown? Sign up for either, or sign up for both. As long as u sign up from their links, they win either way!!!

  21. @Gregorygrady here’s my first post replying to Lucky:
    http://viewfromthewing.boardingarea.com/2012/08/16/how-much-is-a-hilton-hhonors-point-worth-lucky-isnt-as-rich-as-he-thinks-he-is-edition/

    … and my second post replying to lucky:
    http://viewfromthewing.boardingarea.com/2012/08/17/once-more-unto-the-breach-dear-friends-hilton-hhonors-points-are-not-worth-0-8-cents-apiece/

    Have a look at those. I mention credit cards in those. I do not even include a link to those cards in either post.

    So what do we think the answer to your question is, that the “reason for the showodwn” is to generate credit card signups? When I do not even include signup links in either of the posts where he and I are arguing/laying out our diffferent positions?

  22. @Gary: Sorry, I commented without having yet read your other 2 posts (actually I still haven’t had time to read those posts yet, nor luckys). I have just been conditioned to be negative on bloggers ever since you all started pumping CC referral links incessantly, and then started ruining many good loopholes via all your “FatWallet-effect” type publicity and nonstop hat tips.

    So I just figured this staged “showdown” between you and lucky was to garner more CC referrals. My bad if that’s not the reason. Must be because readers love a good blogger showdown………..so I guess the benefit to you and lucky is instead to get more readers, and/or keep your readers engaged, entertained, and coming back for more. My bad though for my accusation without actually reading all involved posts.

  23. @gregorygrady – Your first theory to disparage me didn’t pan out, so now a new theory for me to disprove…? Geez, I’m not the devil. Really I’m not. This wasn’t ‘staged’. Lucky and I didn’t discuss doing this. And it probably didn’t get more readers or more excitement, either. Actually he and I havevn’t discussed it yet.

    And I don’t get what this hostility to “hat tips” is. Frankly, I think it’s just polite, to acknowledge where you saw something rather than claim it was yours originally.

  24. Wrong. Blogger = Devil. U are automatically the devil based on this blog. Sorry if u can’t tell I hate bloggers. All u are good for is ruining deals by hat-tipping any and every good deal out there and getting it shut down prematurely. Hence the reason I hate hat tipping.

  25. The bogus part about the Citi Hilton Reserve Card is that you receive 2 free nights for signing up but the 2 nights cannot be used together. Also, these free nights can only be used for a standard room, so if you want to use them at a resort, think again. A standard room offers no view and no balcony and you are not able to upgrade to a better room by using more points (bogus)!

    Card looks good on paper but not when you want to cash in on the so called benefits.

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