Signing up for loyalty programs is a crucial step for anyone striving for travel maximization. Loyalty programs allow you to accumulate points and enjoy special perks and benefits if you use their loyalty program services often enough. Moreover, with most loyalty programs, you can move towards their Elite status, which grants additional valuable complimentary services.

The basics

Most of the loyalty programs are free to join, and the trick that makes travel maximization work is hidden in the ability to transfer credit card points to hotel, airline and car rental loyalty programs.

Below is a list of the best hotel loyalty programs together with their point transfer partners and related credit cards. If a hotel loyalty program doesn’t have a co-branded credit card, we picked the best travel credit cards that will maximize your benefits from that particular loyalty program. For each card, you can read a detailed review to decide whether this card is valuable for you.

Chase Transfer Partners

Below we listed the best hotel loyalty programs that are Chase transfer partners—i.e., you can transfer reward points from your Chase credit card to one of these programs. All hotel loyalty programs listed in this section have their own co-branded credit card. Co-branded hotel credit cards allow you to earn additional reward points for particular purchases—usually for purchases within the hotel brand properties.

Hotel Loyalty Program

Best Related Card

Hyatt Gold Passport

The Hyatt Credit Card

Chase Sapphire Reserve℠

Chase Sapphire Preferred® credit card

IHG Rewards Club

IHG® Rewards Club Select Credit Card

Chase Sapphire Reserve℠

Chase Sapphire Preferred® credit card

Marriott Rewards

Marriott Rewards® Premier credit card

The Ritz-Carlton Rewards® Credit Card

Chase Sapphire Reserve℠

Ritz-Carlton Rewards

The Ritz-Carlton Rewards® Credit Card

Marriott Rewards® Premier credit card

Chase Sapphire Reserve℠

For example, the Marriott Rewards® Premier credit card grants you 5(!) reward points for each $1 spent towards purchases within Marriott and SPG properties. You also get 2 reward points for travel and dining out, and 1 point on all other purchases. The same reward rate is offered by The Ritz-Carlton Rewards® Credit Card.

However, co-branded credit cards usually have high annual fees. The Marriott Rewards® Premier credit card has an $85 annual fee, The Ritz-Carlton Rewards® Credit Card costs $450 annually, and The Hyatt Credit Card costs $75 annually. Thus, co-branded cards work well mostly for really dedicated customers of a particular hotel brand. If you value participation in these loyalty programs, but you prefer to earn points on a more diversified list of purchases, consider applying for one of Chase’s travel credit cards.

The best Chase travel cards are Chase Sapphire Reserve℠  and Chase Sapphire Preferred® credit card. They are truly distinctive for their great rewards rate. The Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ gives you 3 points and the Chase Sapphire Preferred® credit card gives you 2 points per $1 spent on travel and dining at restaurants. For all other purchases, you get 1 point per $1 spent. Moreover, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® and Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ grant you a 25% and 50% increase in redemption rate, respectively. So on these cards, you can get a lucrative number of points—especially if you are frequent traveler—to transfer later to one of the hotel loyalty programs with a 1-to-1 point transfer rate.

What is also important is the ownership structure of the Marriott Rewards and Ritz-Carlton Rewards loyalty programs. Ritz-Carlton is a part of Marriott, and Marriott, in turn, is currently merging with Starwood Hotels and Resorts. What does this mean? First, because they are under the same ownership, Marriott and Ritz-Carlton in fact share the same loyalty program, and membership in one program means automatic membership in another. You can therefore spend points earned at Marriott to get certain Ritz-Carlton benefits. Second, sooner or later (according to Marriott statements—no earlier than 2018), a combined loyalty program, shared by Ritz-Carlton and SPG members, will arrive.

American Express Transfer Partners

Below are the hotel loyalty programs that are transfer partners of American Express. These programs, as well as the best cards related to them, are less popular than the Chase transfer partner programs. However, these programs provide valuable benefits and include high-end properties and services.

Hotel Loyalty Program

Best Related Card

Choice Hotels

Choice Privileges® Visa Signature® Card

Hilton HHonors

Hilton Honors™ Card from American Express

Hilton Honors Surpass® Card from American Express

Starwood Preferred Guest

The Starwood Preferred Guest® from American Express

Let’s start with the Choice Hotels program. This program doesn’t offer that much in high quality property options in the U.S., but Choice hotels located in Europe are quite numerous, and this loyalty program offers a magnificent redemption rate on European hotel stays. To boost the quality of properties you use with this program, redeem points for hotel stays at Preferred Hotels & Resorts properties (don’t confuse them with Starwood Preferred properties!). If you are a frequent Choice Hotels customer, apply for a Choice Privileges® Visa Signature® Card, which will give you 5 reward points per $1 spent at Choice Hotels. The card also gives you 2 points per $1 spent on all other purchases, but due to the low redemption rate, it is not the best option for earning points on non-hotel purchases.

Hilton HHonors offers a wide range of high-end properties; this loyalty program includes not only Hilton properties, but also Waldorf Astoria, DoubleTree, Hampton, and many more. This program is distinctive mostly for its in-property benefits and services, such as late and express check-outs, discounts, complimentary services, and others. Also, you can use two co-branded credit cards to move towards Elite status and get even more benefits from the HHonors loyalty program. If you prefer a no-annual-fee credit card, consider the Amex Hilton Honors credit card. This card will earn you 7 points per each $1 spent at Hilton properties, 5 points at gas stations, supermarkets and drugstores, and 3 points on all other purchases. A 50,000-point signup bonus is included. You also get an automatic Silver status if you complete four stays at Hilton properties within three months.

For those interested in faster access to Gold status, the Amex Hilton Honors™ Surpass is a good choice. The signup bonus is much higher (75,000 points), and you automatically get the Gold status. Also, the reward rate is more attractive. You earn 12 points per each $1 spent on purchases within Hilton, 6 points at gas stations, supermarkets and restaurants, and 3 points on all other purchases. However, this card also has a $75 annual fee.

The Starwood Preferred Guest hotel program includes hundreds of premium properties. They belong to such brands as St. Regis, Four Points, Sheraton, Le Méridien, and others. As we noted above, Marriott and SPG are currently in the process of merging. The SPG loyalty program will soon be replaced with a combined program that will unite rewards within Ritz-Carlton and SPG properties. The SPG loyalty program is valuable for a wide list of complimentary benefits, room upgrades, and special services. The only credit card that participates in this program is The Starwood Preferred Guest® from American Express (with the $95 annual fee waived for the first year). You can also apply for a business version of this card, which grants access to the Sheraton Lounge Club.

With this card, you earn 5 points per each $1 spent at SPG properties, 3 points at eligible Marriott properties, and 1 point on all other purchases. Each year you get a credit for 5 nights and 2 stays, and you can use this credit to move towards SPG Elite status. To reach Gold status, you must stay for 20 nights during a calendar year at eligible SPG properties. To reach Platinum status, stay for 45 nights within a calendar year.

The bottom line

Overall, loyalty programs that are Chase transfer partners have more attractive perks and benefits than Amex partners. However, there is no one loyalty program or credit card that is the perfect solution for every customer, as each program and card has its pros and cons. We strongly recommend that you clearly determine your travel goals and understand your travel and spending habits. Only then can you make a decision about any travel card, co-branded or not.