Towards a theory of hotel points and cash redemptions


Regular readers know that I use the concept of "imputed redemption values" to calculate the relative value of manufactured spend on co-branded hotel credit cards. I've also written about the difficulty of thinking about "points and cash" redemptions conceptually.

Today I want to make a preliminary attempt at reconciling the concept of imputed redemption values and points and cash redemptions, something I've never seen attempted before in a comprehensive way.

I looked at five hotel loyalty programs that offer points and cash redemptions:

  • Marriott Rewards
  • Hyatt Gold Passport
  • Starwood Preferred Guest
  • Wyndham Rewards
  • Hilton HHonors

For each program, I used the following assumptions:

  • For Ultimate Rewards transfer partners (Marriott and Hyatt), I used a value of one cent per point (the value of the corresponding Ultimate Rewards points when redeemed for cash);
  • For the other programs, I compared each card's earning rate on spend to a 2% cash back card. The Starwood Preferred Guest American Express earns one Starpoint per dollar spent everywhere (2 cents per point), the $69-annual-fee Barclaycard Wyndham Rewards Visa earns 2 Wyndham Rewards points per dollar spent everywhere (1 cent per point), and the Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express earns 6 HHonors points per dollar spent at gas stations and grocery stores (0.33 cents per point).

I used these assumptions to investigate two questions:

  1. When do points and cash redemptions make sense compared to award nights?
  2. When do points and cash redemptions make sense compared to cash nights?

Marriott Rewards

Starting in "early 2016," Marriott Rewards will allow cash and points redemptions based on the following chart:

I used those values to calculate under what circumstances it would be worth making a cash and points redemptions, instead of a points redemption or paid stay:

This chart illustrates two points:

  • if your primary source of Marriott Rewards points is Ultimate Rewards transfers, cash and points stays are cheaper for all Category 3-8 properties, when compared to a points-only award stay;
  • but cash and points stays, just like points-only award stays, are extremely expensive, so unless your Category 8 stay costs more than $390, you're still better off paying with cash than transferring Ultimate Rewards points to Marriott Rewards.

Hyatt Gold Passport

Here's Hyatt's points-only and Points + Cash award chart:

And here's the same information, interpreted through a lens of Ultimate Rewards point transfers to Hyatt Gold Passport:

As this chart shows, there are no circumstances under which Cash + Points redemptions are cheaper, on a cash basis, than point-only redemptions (although you may still want to pay with cash in order to save your Ultimate Rewards points for other, higher-value redemptions).

Starwood Preferred Guest

Starwood produces the opposite situation. If you're earning 1 Starpoint per dollar spent on a Starwood Preferred Guest credit card, you will under virtually all circumstances save money using cash and points compared to a points-only redemption:

Wyndham Rewards

Wyndham Rewards is unique for having just one price point for points-only ("Go Free") stays: 15,000 Wyndham Rewards points per night.

For points and cash ("Go Faster") stays, all hotels in the chain cost 3,000 Wyndham Rewards points, plus a variable amount of cash.

Wyndham Rewards doesn't publish, as far as I can tell, a list of the variable cash amounts required by the hotels in their program, so this chart is based on my very extensive searching, but I can't promise it's totally comprehensive:

As you can see, at all but the most expensive properties (like the Wyndham Garden Long Island City Manhattan View), you'll pay less with a "Go Fast" cash and points stay, when available, compared to a "Go Free" points-only stay.

Hilton HHonors

Hilton HHonors, like Wyndham Rewards, doesn't publish a list of their points and cash award levels, so the following chart is based on my own extensive research, and its accuracy is not guaranteed:

This chart makes clear that if you're manufacturing spend on a Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express instead of a 2% cash back card, you'll come out ahead saving your HHonors points with cash and points redemptions at hotels priced in the 30,000-to-70,000-point range.

A note on the final column

The neatly highlighted calculations above are helpful, but I want to draw particular attention to the far right columns, showing the imputed redemption value of cash and points stays at each chain.

This column is relevant because in contrast to points-only award stays, which hotels are often required to offer as long as they have standard rooms available, cash and points stays are offered at the discretion of the property, and are generally made available only when rates are already unusually low.

The "Cash + Points" imputed redemption values I included for each chain is the price point above which cash and points redemptions become cheaper than cash-only stays, given the assumptions I outlined in the introduction. If you can find cash-only rooms at that price point or below, you're generally better off booking the cash rate rather than any cash and points or points-only rates available, unless you're particularly points rich and cash poor or have other extenuating circumstances.