In general, I prefer the American Express Hilton HHonors Surpass to the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve. To review, the American Express card's three big advantages are:
- issuance by American Express, so the primary user's card and all authorized users are eligible for American Express Offers for You;
- Better bonus categories (gas and grocery versus airline and car rental) and higher earning in bonus categories (6 HHonors points instead of 5);
- Lower annual fee ($75 instead of $95).
Both cards grant Diamond elite status after $40,000 in purchases each calendar year.
The comparison isn't completely one-sided, however. In addition to the fact that some people have success making payments against Citi credit card accounts over the phone using debit cards, the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve card also grants an annual weekend night certificate each cardmember year you spend $10,000 or more with the card.
What's the imputed redemption value of a free weekend night?
Since the card earns 3 HHonors points on purchases outside of bonus categories, we can find the imputed redemption value of the annual free night certificate by comparing it to earning 6 HHonors points per dollar at grocery stores or gas stations with the Surpass card. Assuming you value HHonors points earned with the Surpass card at precisely their imputed redemption value (0.35 cents each), you have to get at least $105.25 in value from the free night certificate in order to justify earning it instead of 30,000 additional HHonors points or $210.50 in Arrival+ miles.
That is relatively easy. There are only 3 Hilton HHonors price points (5,000, 10,000, and 20,000) lower than 30,000 and 7 HHonors price points at 30,000 or above. That would imply that under most circumstances, if you value HHonors point enough to earn them in the first place, it's worth carrying the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve card.
Keep in mind how imputed redemption values work: they show the breakeven point that justifies earning hotel points instead of cash back, not the actual value of the points when redeemed. The more value you typically get from your HHonors points above and beyond their imputed redemption value, the higher the value you need to place on the free night certificate to justify earning it instead.
And then there's the annual fee
If the Citi HHonors Reserve card didn't have an annual fee, the analysis would end there — the free night certificates would be so valuable it would be worth carrying multiple copies of the card and earning as many free nights as possible.
But there is an annual fee, and not a cheap one. Adding back in the $95 annual fee raises the breakeven imputed redemption value from $105 to $200, the equivalent not of a 30,000-HHonors-point hotel redemption, but a 60,000-point one!
That leaves the free weekend night certificates competitive with HHonors point redemptions at many high-end properties, but it makes them much less competitive with the typical mid-tier urban properties I stay at.
And of course weekend night certificates can only be redeemed over the weekend. That doesn't radically reduce the value for me (since I like taking trips over the weekend), but it's something to keep in mind.
The Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve card can provide a value competitive with the American Express Hilton HHonors Surpass card under two conditions:
- during the first year, thanks to its signup bonus of 2 free weekend night certificates and a $100 statement credit;
- and during subsequent years, if the cardholder has a plan to work the free weekend night certificate into a redemption at Hilton properties costing 60,000 or more HHonors points per night.
Of course, if you can talk Citi into waiving the annual fee in subsequent years, the value proposition reverts to the first one I outlined above.
Otherwise, the Surpass card's increased earning rate in lucrative categories makes it my go-to card for manufacturing HHonors points.