Exceptions, exemptions, and exclusions from hotel rewards and benefits

After 4 years involved in travel hacking, I still find myself learning something new almost every week. For example, since until this year I'd never had Hyatt Gold Passport Diamond elite status before, it had never occurred to me to dive into the gritty details of Suite Upgrade Awards.

There are in fact quite a few popular benefits of hotel loyalty programs that have cavernous exceptions you may not know about. Here are four.

Hilton HHonors elite 5th night free exceptions

Elites in the Hilton HHonors loyalty program get their 5th night free on all-points award stays (not on "points and money" awards).

But the Hilton HHonors terms and conditions conceal a landmine: the 5th-night-free benefit "[d]oes not apply when stay is booked as part of a Reward Stay offer, package, or promotion offered by Hilton or any of its partners, or at All-Inclusive properties or Distinctive properties."

"All-inclusive properties" is simple enough, although I consider it a bit cheap since there are non-all-inclusive properties that cost more points per night than Hilton's all-inclusives while still managing to honor the 5th-night-free benefit.

That leaves the question: what are "Distinctive" properties? Amazingly, the Hilton HHonors terms and conditions don't say. For that, we'll need to turn to Citibank.

Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve weekend night exemptions

You may have heard of the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve weekend night certificates offered as a signup bonus after spending $2,500 on the card within 4 months and on each account anniversary if you spend $10,000 during the membership year.

What you may not have heard about are the properties that are exempted from having to honor those free night certificates! Citi excludes all-inclusive properties and distinctive properties, and handily provides us with an actual list of the excluded properties. Besides the all-inclusive properties, they also list all the "Distinctive" properties that are excluded. Most of these are simply timeshare properties operated as Hilton Grand Vacations properties, but the last one, the Qasr Al Sharq, appears to me to just be a very luxurious hotel that managed to carve itself out an exemption.

Hilton HHonors breakfast and upgrade policy exclusions

If you're used to receiving a complimentary continental breakfast when staying at Hilton and Conrad properties, you might be surprised to discover that Waldorf Astoria Hotels and Resorts are excluded from that benefit. Your "My Way" benefit choices are limited to upgrades to preferred rooms and your choice of 1,000 HHonors points, a free in-room movie, or a spa, golf, or restaurant discount.

Speaking of those upgrades to preferred rooms: the Napua Tower at the Grand Wailea and the Imperial Floor at Rome Cavalieri are excluded by name from the preferred room upgrade benefit.

Properties excluded from Hyatt Suite Upgrade Awards

Everyone knows that "Suite upgrade awards are only valid for standard suites, defined as each participating property’s introductory suite category," which can be a real pain when you're trying to figure out which available suites are and aren't eligible for upgrades.

But there are also properties and brands that are completely excluded from suite upgrades!

First of all, "Suite upgrade may not be booked at Hyatt hotels or resorts before they have opened."

And second, "Suite upgrade awards are not available" at:

  • Park Hyatt Beaver Creek Resort and Spa
  • Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa
  • Park Hyatt Sydney
  • Andaz Tokyo
  • Hyatt Regency Kyoto
  • Hyatt Regency Phuket Resort
  • Hyatt Regency Tulsa
  • Hyatt Regency Wichita
  • Hyatt Paris Madeleine
  • Hyatt Herald Square
  • Hyatt Key West Resort and Spa
  • Hyatt Manila City of Dreams
  • Hyatt Santa Barbara
  • Hyatt Residence Club resorts
  • Hyatt Place and Hyatt House hotels
  • and M life resorts.

Some of these properties, like the Hyatt Place and Hyatt House brands, simply don't offer suites. M Life resorts are only bookable as part of a joint marketing effort, so you can imagine some kind of logic behind them not offering free suite upgrades to Hyatt elites.

But the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek and Andaz Tokyo do have suites, and the Park Hyatt Maldives and Park Hyatt Sydney at least have upgraded rooms. They're just extremely expensive and the properties aren't inclined to guarantee them to Diamond elite members in advance, for free.


Travel hacking is the knowledge that the house doesn't always win; it can be beat. But it can only be beat when you know what you're entitled to, and what the loyalty programs and properties can give you at their own discretion.

Optimizing Hilton points and nights earning across cards

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.