American Express's new co-branded Hilton credit cards

I've been reading with interest this morning about the revamped lineup of co-branded Hilton Honors credit cards American Express will be launching soon. Since I earn a lot of Hilton Honors points with my current Surpass card (and I stay at a lot of Hiltons), I have some quick reactions to share (all of this is based on reported details; I haven't seen an official announcement from American Express yet).

Aspire for high-spending reimbursed business travelers

Note that I always differentiate mere business travelers from reimbursed business travelers. The former can still earn lots of points and elite status benefits on their employers' dime, but it's the later that are truly fortunate since they're also able to maximize the value of their personal credit card rewards with purchases that are later reimbursed by their employers.

For high-spending reimbursed business travelers, I think the Hilton Honors Aspire card may be a pretty good deal. If you spend $60,000 during the calendar year on reimbursed meals (in the US) and flights, you'll receive:

  • two free weekend nights at any Hilton property in the world;
  • 420,000 Hilton Honors points (good for at least 4 nights at any Hilton property in the world);
  • a $250 Hilton resort statement credit;
  • a $250 airline incidental fee credit;
  • unlimited Priority Pass lounge access.

Of course you can't analyze the Aspire card in a vacuum; you have to compare it to your next best option to identify the opportunity cost of putting that much spend on it instead of a rival card. The obvious candidate is the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which also has a $450 annual fee, and also earns bonus points on travel and dining (worldwide, not just in the United States). It also offers a $300 travel statement credit instead of a $250 airline fee credit.

So, how do they compare? A reimbursed business traveler who spent $60,000 on the Chase Sapphire Reserve in bonus categories would earn 180,000 Ultimate Rewards points, worth $1,800 in cash, $2,700 in paid travel through the Ultimate Rewards portal, and potentially much more than that if transferred to a partner program.

420,000 Hilton Honors points, meanwhile, are worth perhaps $2,100 if you're able to get half a cent in value per point. Assuming you use your two annual free weekend night certificates at mid-tier 45,000-point properties, and get the equivalent of half a cent per point in value, that adds another $450 in value, for roughly $2,550 total stay value. Assuming you can use the $250 Hilton resort statement credit on award stays, I don't see any reason not to value that close to face value. If you have to use it on paid stays, of course, you should assign it no value at all because you'll never use it.

So I think a fair prospective estimate of the value of the Aspire card to a high-spending reimbursed business traveler would be between $2,550 and $2,800, basically within a margin of error of the value of Chase Sapphire Reserve Ultimate Rewards points used to book paid travel.

That being the case, I think the strongest argument for picking the Aspire card over the Sapphire Reserve is not strictly the value of the points, but rather the value of diversifying into a rewards currency besides Ultimate Rewards. That's because there are other ways to earn Ultimate Rewards points (Chase Freedom and legacy Ink Plus cards spring to mind), so you may already be earning enough Ultimate Rewards points to meet the travel needs they're best suited for. In that case, earning Hilton Honors points instead may reduce your dependence on Chase's travel partners.

Anyway, I don't pay $450 annual fees, so I won't be getting an Aspire card anytime soon.

Business card for resellers?

American Express is also adding a business credit card to the Hilton Honors lineup that will offer 6 Honors points at a variety of merchants, including "wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service producers." The card will offer a free weekend night after spending $15,000 and $60,000 each calendar year.

Some reseller may have to jump into the comments to correct me on this, but I think the obvious brute force way to maximize this card would be to buy $60,000 in iPhones from one of the mobile phone companies and resell them for as small a loss as possible.

I don't know if that would successfully earn 6 Honors points per dollar, and I don't know how much would be lost in transaction costs, but you'd get 360,000 Hilton Honors points and two free weekend nights, worth $2,250 using the same math as above. That means you'd need to keep your reselling transaction costs below 3.75% to break even (of course it would be even better if you turned a profit). You'd also receive Diamond elite status and 10 Priority Pass passes each year.

Rebranded Surpass: still good for manufactured spend

I put a lot of spend on my current Hilton Honors Surpass card, which I gather will become an "Ascend" card sometime in the next few quarters. I'll keep doing so, earning 6 Honors points per dollar spent at grocery stores and receiving Diamond status after spending $40,000 during the calendar year, but now I'll also get a free weekend night once I hit $15,000.

Unfortunately, after the transition I'll also have to pay $20 more per year for the privilege. As far as I'm concerned, that's a small price to pay for the free weekend night and 10 Priority Pass lounge passes.

If you want to lock in the $75 annual fee on the Surpass card I have a personal referral link on my Support the Site! page (shameless, I know).