When it comes to rewards credit cards, one of our favorites is the Hilton Honors Ascend Card from American Express. Why this card? We love Hilton properties and we love the cost-benefit balance of this card. One of the best perks of the Ascend card is a free weekend night each year. We try to always make the most of our Hilton free night certificate and this year was our best redemption, money-wise, yet!
This year, we took a certificate, which cost us $95 in an annual fee, and turned it into a $1,000+ experience. We stayed at the Boca Beach Club by Waldorf Astoria in Boca Raton, FL and enjoyed serious opulence for not a lot of money.
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Hilton Honors American Express Cards
First, you should know that American Express offers three different Hilton Honors cards. The basic Hilton Honors Card has no annual fee and limited benefits. This is a good card for the occasional traveler just getting into the credit card rewards “game.” If you’re really serious about earning points and rewards, though, you’ll probably be more interested in one of the other two cards.
The Ascend Card, which we have, is the mid-level card. It does have a $95 annual fee but comes with automatic Hilton Honors Gold status and a free weekend night certificate. You can EASILY balance out the annual fee by using the free night certificate. Of course, there is a bit of a catch, in that you only get the free night certificate after you spend $15,000 in a calendar year. If you use the card frequently, though, this typically isn’t difficult.
Additionally, the Gold status gets you free breakfast for two people at most Hilton hotels. That is worth $10-15 per person per stay. Even at a low valuation, we get our money’s worth just by staying at Hilton Garden Inns five times in a calendar year and getting the excellent cooked-to-order breakfast.
If you spend $40,000 on the card, you will get upgraded to Diamond status, which is a huge benefit in terms of earning points and getting upgrades.
For the serious traveler, there is the Aspire Card, with a $450 annual fee. If you’re currently gasping for air over that annual fee, you should know most high-end cards have annual fees in this range. If you factor in the $250 Hilton statement credit, an automatic free night (with the opportunity to earn a second free night) and automatic Diamond status, it’s really not a bad deal.
Currently, we love our mid-level Ascend card and it’s a great card for the average traveler. We have considered the Aspire card, though, and may upgrade to that in the future. For now, we’re loving the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card as our high-end travel rewards credit card.
Using the Hilton Free Night Certificate
Since the free-night certificate is what really makes the Ascend card worth the annual fee, we’re going to break down how to use the certificate, how to get your money’s worth and whether or not free is really free.
We first got the Hilton Honors Ascend Card in 2018 after Citi ended their partnership with Hilton. We had the Citi Hilton Honors Reserve Visa for many years prior to that, which also came with a Hilton free night certificate. So, we’ve actually been redeeming free night certificates with Hilton much longer than we’ve had this specific card. Thankfully, the process and our experience did not change at all with the credit card change.
With the Ascend card, you earn the free weekend night certificate after spending $15,000 in a calendar year. Once you hit the spending threshold, you’ll get an email from Hilton letting you know that you’ve qualified for the free night. The email will provide a certificate number but Hilton should be able to look that up themselves.
Booking Your Free Night
The one frustrating part of using the free night certificate is that you do have to call and speak to a representative. Sadly, you cannot book a night with the certificate online or through the Hilton app. Thankfully, the booking process is still fairy easy.
You probably will want to find the right hotel before calling to book it. Of course, you can do all this research online or through the app. Just look up a hotel as you normally would. If you do need assistance finding the right hotel from a representative, they can help you over the phone.
We had to do this back in 2014 when looking for a hotel in the Denver area after visiting Dinosaur National Monument. For whatever reason, we had a tough time finding a room and had very spotty data coverage. Eventually, we got ourselves to a place where we at least had good cellular service and could make a phone call. The representative was very helpful in finding us a room and getting everything booked.
Once you’ve figured out the hotel you want to book (or at least the city you’re going to), you can just call the normal Hilton Honors line and the booking process is fairly easy. If you are staying more than one night, it will likely require two separate reservations but if you talk to the front desk manager when you check in, you should be able to stay in the same room for the entire stay.
How to Get Your Money’s Worth
Since the annual fee for the Ascend card is $95, you’ll probably want to find a hotel that would normally cost at least that much. Let’s be honest here… That will not be difficult. While it is possible to find Hilton properties under $100/night, it isn’t always easy, depending on the city and the time of year.
If you really want to maximize your benefit, though, you may choose to look for something a bit more expensive. Over the years, we’ve managed a few noteworthy redemptions, most of them worth $200-300. Our best “value” to date was the night at the Boca Beach Club. That stay alone was worth roughly $1,000!
The biggest problem for us is that often we want to stay two or three nights. And the free night certificate is only going to cover one night. If we’re going to have to pay for another night or two, it can’t be an insane price.
Thus, the best opportunity to maximize your benefit is when you’re only spending one night. Otherwise, you’re going to have to be willing to pay for the other nights out of pocket.
Where We’ve Stayed for Free
Over the years, we’ve stayed in many different locations at many different price points using the Hilton free night certificate. Here’s a look at the redemptions that made the most out of a free night.
I should point out that the free night certificate is only good for a “standard” room. You’ll have to check the hotel web sites to know exactly what qualifies as a standard room at each hotel. With Gold status, though, you can often get an upgrade if a better room is available when you check in. With Diamond status, the upgrades are even more likely.
Our first experience using the certificate was for a long weekend at the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort in Phoenix, Arizona back in 2013. We combined the Hilton certificate with a credit on Delta for an inexpensive Spring Break getaway. This trip was before we started blogging so you won’t find any additional coverage of our time in Phoenix, but we enjoyed the trip and it was a great Spring Break destination!
The resort was fabulous and we’d highly recommend a visit. Our room was upgraded to a small casita, which was basically a one-bedroom apartment. The casita had a full living room and a small kitchen and eating area. The bedroom and bathroom were upstairs. Seriously, I think this room was about as big as the one-bedroom condo we currently live it!
The water park on the resort was fabulous and can entertain adults and kids alike for several days. We also enjoyed a day trip north to Tuzigoot and Montezuma Castle National Monuments. A quick warning though… As we drove north the temperatures dropped quickly! One day we were sitting by the pool in bathing suits. The next day we were driving through sleet as the temperatures dropped below freezing!
In September 2016, we chose to use our free night certificate at the DeSoto Hilton in Savannah, GA. We spent two days exploring the city, walking through the squares and driving out to Fort Pulaski National Monument.
To save money, we actually used the free night certificate for one night and spent 40,000 Hilton Honors points for the other night. Considering the room was over $200/night plus taxes, we definitely got our money’s worth here.
The hotel has since left the Hilton chain but is still a great location and a great hotel if you’re ok with not earning Hilton Honors points.
Our 2017-18 winter road trip through the mid-Atlantic landed us in Ocean City, MD on New Year’s Eve. This provided us a great opportunity to use our free night certificate without paying for a second night. Indeed, the Hilton Ocean City Oceanfront Suites was a nice “splurge” for the night.
The hotel is located right on the beach, though that was not a big draw for us at the end of December. Our suite included a separate living room area and a kitchen. The bathroom was huge with a large jacuzzi tub. I do think we got some sort of upgrade, as we had Diamond status at that time. Still, most rooms are oceanfront suites, so I don’t think there is much difference in the various rooms.
Sadly, we weren’t there long enough to really enjoy the amenities or restaurants but we enjoyed the hotel nonetheless. Since we only stayed the one night and had coupons to cover our breakfast, this truly was a free night. With rates in the $200-300/night range, we certainly feel like we made great use of our free night certificate here!
In 2019, we chose to use our Hilton free night certificate following our Bahamas cruise. Since we only needed one night and south Florida can be very expensive, I knew that getting our money’s worth would be easy. We researched hotels in the Miami area and chose the Boca Beach Club, A Waldorf-Astoria Resort in Boca Raton.
The standard room that we booked was worth more than $800 for the one night we were there. We don’t mind splurging every now and then, but I don’t think there’s any way we’d ever spend that much on our own. That made this a great use of the free night certificate.
When we checked in we were able to get an upgrade to a room with a better view. Ultimately, I think the room we were in would have cost about $1,000 for the night we were there.
The hotel itself was free and we didn’t even have to pay the daily resort fee of about $45 (per room, per night). We also got a breakfast coupon for a free drink and pastry at the coffee bar. Alternatively, we could have gotten $15 off the breakfast buffet, though I think that still would have cost us and additional $15-20 each.
Still, this was the one certificate redemption that wasn’t exactly free.
The only true “hidden cost” was parking. And, perhaps, we should have seen that coming. Honestly, though, we seldom stay in big cities and we often forget how much parking can cost. At the Boca Beach Club, parking was valet only at about $45/night. And while the mini bottles of water they left in the car were a nice touch, they weren’t worth $45!
The other somewhat hidden cost was food and drink. These are optional charges, though, so I suppose that I shouldn’t complain too much.
We did hit the pool/beachside bar for a few drinks in the mid-afternoon. We thought that prices were a bit high, but not outrageous for an outdoor bar right on the beach at a resort in Boca Raton.
Dinner, prices, however, were a bit eye-opening. The menu at the restaurant looked good, but honestly not as good as it should have for the prices. And we just didn’t feel like getting the truck out of valet and driving anywhere.
Ultimately, we decided to just grab some sandwiches from the market by the pool. Two pre-made sandwiches, a bag of chips and a couple of drinks ended up costing us about $50. I suppose it was cheaper than the restaurant, but it was still more than we wanted to spend, for sure!
When it was all said and done we ended up spending about $120 during our “free” stay, all on parking, food and drinks. Sadly, there was absolutely nothing special about the food or drinks that we had.
Was it Worth It?
I have to admit, the hotel room at the Boca Beach Club was far and away the nicest room we’ve ever stayed in. The view was fabulous and the furnishings and decor throughout the hotel were definitely high-end. If this is an experience that you’re interested in, using a free night certificate is definitely worth it!
Still, this is definitely one of those places where if you have to ask how much something costs, you probably can’t afford it. Or maybe you just shouldn’t spend that much if you’re truly living within your budget. Still, a splurge can be worth it every now and then.
The only extra expense we couldn’t have avoided was parking. And, overall, $120 for the experience that we had was worth it. It certainly was more than worth the parking fee. If I were to do it again, though, I’d plan ahead and eat dinner out. Or, perhaps, bring some food and drinks with me to save a little money.
Ultimately, though, we enjoyed the stay and the experience and would recommend it for anyone looking to really put the Hilton free night certificate to good use.
Things to Do Nearby
Before checking in to the Boca Beach Club, we stopped at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. This 20-acre nature preserve is located just a few minutes north of the Boca Beach Resort between Highway A1A and the Intracoastal Waterway.
Here you can walk through a hardwood hammock, explore a butterfly garden and learn all about sea turtles. They even have a Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Center and a marine biology laboratory operated by Florida Atlantic University.
There is a nice shaded boardwalk, but much of it was under construction when we were there. Still, we enjoyed our visit and would recommend it for anyone visiting the Boca Raton area. I just wish we had been there during Sea Turtle nesting time – that would be really amazing to experience!
Following our visit to the Nature Center, we stopped in Deerfield Beach for lunch. You’ll find a nice shopping and dining area here with quite a few options of all price ranges. We chose Flanigan’s Seafood Bar & Grill which was just about a block off the beach. The food was tasty and service was good. Prices were a little high but in line with other restaurants in the area.
There is a parking deck just a couple of blocks from the beach. Having a shaded parking area was great! And it was nice to not have to fight for street parking. That said, traffic was a bit heavy at mid-day on a Friday in February. This seemed like a fairly popular area, so I imagine that it can get very busy at times.
If you’re looking for a good place to wander around and grab a bite to eat, though, this would be a good option.
Final Thoughts on the Hilton Free Night Certificate
As you can see, there are many different ways to use the Hilton free night certificate. Of course, first you have to spend the $15,000 to earn the certificate. If you’re not going to use the card enough to earn the certificate, then I’d get a different card. But with the certificate, you can more than get your money’s worth out of the $95 annual fee.
When using the free night certificate, we generally try to look for something a bit nicer than “normal” so that we can really get our money’s worth. But, even if you just use the certificate for a random room you’ll likely get a $95 value. Though it typically isn’t difficult to find something a little more special, especially if you plan ahead.
While we enjoyed our experience at the Boca Beach Club, I doubt that we’ll try to do an “ultra splurge” like this again next year. That said, we now have an idea of what to expect when the time does come to splurge again. It certainly was a nice change from our typical Hampton Inn or Hilton Garden Inn!
My biggest “warning” when using the free night certificate is to consider potential parking charges. The certificate will cover the nightly rate and any resort fees. Having Gold status will almost always get you some sort of free breakfast. It might even get you an upgrade to a nicer room.
I have never seen anything that covers parking charges, though. If you have a car with you, always take that into account. That is really the only required charge that would cause your free night to not really be free.