Using Manufactured Spend for Hilton Award Nights

Recent changes to enable PINs with prepaid gift cards have made manufactured spend more viable with a greater range of credit cards. At the same time, changes by American Express are about to eliminate the drugstore category bonus on its Hilton and Hilton Surpass credit cards coming May 1.

Altogether this makes me think the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve card has promise as a tool for manufactured spend despite devaluations of Hilton’s loyalty program and my previous criticisms of free night awards (which often face greater restrictions than points-based awards). I’ll walk through the different spend requirements needed to get up to four “free” nights and explain which I think are worthwhile.

Note: Check out my summary page for more up-to-date offers on credit cards mentioned here.

Link: Hilton HHonors™ Reserve Visa Signature®

Two Free Nights for $2,500 Spend

I have waffled on this issue, but I have settled for now on the idea that most free nights are used for aspirational travel — the kind you would never buy — and so the increased cost of points redemptions is less important. You are still getting a free night at a hotel you’ve previously only seen in glossy magazines and other people’s trip reports.

The Hilton HHonors Reserve card offers two free weekend nights for $2,500 spend in the first 90 days. These free nights can be used at any category hotel, including the new Categories 8-10. However, the restriction again Waldorf-Astoria hotels and resorts without standard rooms remains in effect.

This $2,500 spend requirement is a greater requirement than most cards’ sign-up bonuses, but manufactured spend has become easier and easier with options like Vanilla Reloads, gift cards, and Amazon Payments. You’ll see similar spend requirements for cards like the Ink Bold/Ink Plus, Amex Platinum Card, and ThankYou Premier Rewards card. I’m not sure the game has really changed that much at this level since you could reach $2,500 for free in three months using Amazon Payments.

Third Free Night for $10,000 Spend — Great Value!

You can get a third weekend night if you spend $10,000 in one year. (I had heard reports you get it pretty soon after, but apparently others are saying it takes until the end of the cardholder year, like an anniversary bonus.) I will admit that $10,000 is a lot even with a whole year to work on it. You may have other cards you want to apply for.

Let’s assume you have access to Vanilla Reloads at your local CVS. You can buy $500 cards for a $3.95 activation fee and then load and empty them with a Bluebird for free. The cost to manufacture $10,000 in spend is only $79. If you don’t have Vanilla Reloads and need to buy gift cards somewhere else, the cost is usually $5.95 each, raising your cost to $119.

Fourth Free Night for $30,000 Spend — Good Value

The Hilton HHonors Reserve card offers 10 points at Hilton, 5 points on airfare and car rentals, and 3 points everywhere else. That means buying $30,000 of gift cards will earn 90,000 Hilton HHonors points plus more for the cost of the activation fees. Not bad! You’ll have enough bonus points to get a fourth free night at any category hotel, and it won’t have the weekend use restriction.

(I’m fudging the numbers here because the new award chart maxes out at 95,000 points in peak season, so you’d actually need $31,667 in spend — but that doesn’t really roll off the tongue. There are only ten Category 10 hotels, and not everyone will travel at peak times, so I’ll stick with $30,000 for the rest of this post.)

Buying $500 Vanilla Reload cards with a $3.95 activation fee for each one would cost only $237 to manufacture $30,000 in spend. Without Vanilla Reloads, Visa and MasterCard gift cards that can be assigned a PIN cost $5.95 and would cost $357. But you already have the sunk costs of that first $10,000 to get the third free night award. Therefore, the incremental cost for the fourth free night using points is only $158 with Vanilla Reloads and $238 using gift cards.

Hilton Reserve earning

Free Nights with Ongoing Spend — Bad Value

I don’t recommend going beyond the first $30,000. That $30,000 earns you four free nights: two as a sign-up bonus, one from an annual spend bonus, and one from accumulated points. Maybe you value those at around $1,000-2,000. Your total cost will be the card’s $95 annual fee plus $237 to $357 in activation fees for your manufactured spend.

Each additional $30,000 of manufactured spend only earns you another ~90,000 points for one more free night–maybe two if you favor cheaper properties–valued at $250-500. You would be better off putting the second $30,000 on a different card. Spend $30,000 on gift cards at a grocery store, for example, and you could earn 60,000 Membership Rewards points with the Amex Premier Rewards Gold card or 30,000 Starpoints with the Starwood Preferred Guest Amex.

Diamond Status for $40,000 Spend — ??? Value

Finally, the $95 annual fee gets you Gold status in Hilton HHonors, the most lucrative mid-tier of any hotel loyalty program thanks to the free WiFi and breakfast benefits. A few readers have asked before about this breakfast benefit. Although it isn’t outlined as a specific benefit of Gold status, it is a benefit of the My Way program that allows you to choose a benefit at check-in. These benefits vary at different properties, but an example at Hilton properties is daily continental breakfast for two or 1,000 bonus points per stay.

If you were to spend $40,000 in one year on the Hilton HHonors Reserve card, you could get bumped up to Diamond status, but I don’t think this is worthwhile unless you are already a frequent Hilton customer. I am assuming here that many of you will get this card for two or three free night awards, and maybe you’ll get one or two more through points earned with manufactured spend. Heck, maybe you’ll even transfer points form Hawaiian or other programs.

But the more expensive award chart means you are unlikely to book as many nights as you would have in the past, reducing the opportunity to use the greater benefits of Diamond status. My advice is to stick with Gold and put any spend above $30,000 on a different card.

Scott created Travel Codex after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • Troy

    Uhmm scott, can you give a specific link where your read that the $10,000 annual weekend night is given right away??? I got this card in january and hit over $10,000 in about 40 days. My 2 nights from the $2500 were given a week after the treshhold however i have not rec’d any additional night for the $10k. Im almost 100% that they will give you the $10k night on the anniversary as they want you to pay the annual fee-$95. Thanks.

    • Scottrick

      Thanks for sharing your experience. It wasn’t what I heard from others, but I’ll update the post.

  • Adam

    Troy is correct. The voucher for the $10k spend free night is awarded on your anniversary. I hit my $10k and waited two statements before sending them a secure message asking about the status.

    They said I was enrolled in a program to receive the free night on my anniversary? Sounds like the Hyatt or Priority Club card benefits, but with a minimum spend of $10k per year.

    • Adam

      This is the Citi response to my question of where my cert is after $10k spend:

      “Our records show that your account is enrolled in an Anniversary bonus promotion that rewards you with a 1 Free Night certificate on your anniversary date after your Annual Membership Fee is paid. Your anniversary month is September; your certificate will be issued by Hilton HHonors after your membership fee is paid in September 2013. The delivery method of the certificate depends on the mail preference that you established with Hilton.

      Please allow me to apologize for any confusion and additionally, any delays in responding to you.”

  • Dave

    Hyatt is offering a similar deal- 2 free nights anywhere with a $1000 spend on a Gold Passport card…….

    • Scottrick

      Yes, but you can’t earn nights three and four quite so easily. That would require $44,000 in spend to earn 44,000 points. You can get a third night with the Hilton Reserve card for only $10,000 spend, and I think $30,000 is a stretch but might make sense if they are also after the Diamond status.

  • ddrum2000

    So there is one 1 free weekend night in the Waldorf Astoria?

    • Scottrick

      For a stay earned with points, yes. And you wouldn’t necessarily need to manufacture $30,000 to get there — not all W-A hotels are Cat. 10, and you wouldn’t necessarily stay at peak times.

  • Grant

    Is the $10k free night available on the Surpass or only the Reserve? Couldn’t remember

    • Scottrick

      I don’t believe the Surpass card offers an extra free night for reaching a certain spend threshold, but it does offer Diamond status for spending $40K.

      • Grant

        Thanks Scott

  • SJCRussell

    Here is the text from the citi landing page. Very clear it is an anniversary night:

    “earn an anniversary bonus of ONE WEEKEND NIGHT
    certificate good for one weekend night (standard room, double
    occupancy), at select hotels and resorts within the Hilton HHonors
    portfolio when you spend $10,000 or more on eligible purchases each
    cardmembership year”.1,4

    note 4 = At the end of each Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve card account
    membership year (your membership year begins the date you became a Citi
    Hilton HHonors Reserve cardmember and resets each year on that date), if
    you have made $10,000 in eligible purchases on the card during that
    membership year, you will earn one (1) weekend night certificate as an
    anniversary bonus. Please allow 6 to 8 weeks from your membership
    anniversary date to receive your certificate.

    • Scottrick

      I’m not disputing what is written, I just said that I had seen reports of some others receiving their third night a little earlier. The post has already been updated to reflect the wording of the T&C.

  • Erik

    How long does it take for the initial 2 weekend night stay certificate to show up after hitting the $2500 mark? I’ve hit that/paid it off a few times over since I’ve had the card and nothing has showed up at my door as of yet.

    • Scottrick

      These things usually take one or two statement periods. I would call Citi if you have questions about fulfillment. They may be able to expedite your request.