The Hilton Surpass is not Worth Getting

So far, I've written about my experience with, and observations of Delta Skymiles; and while I've also talked generally about loyalty program points, I've stayed away from getting into the discussion around earning points from credit cards given the sheer volume of that information available on the Internet from sites looking for referral bonuses. American Express is renaming their Hilton Ascend card to the Hilton Surpass1, is offering a rather attractive sign-up bonus. The referral sites are enthusing over the card right now, and even with my recent experience with Hilton, it was enough to get me to take a look at the card. I have a difficult time seeing any value in holding the card itself for all but a very niche population, and in the current hysteria of best-ever bonuses I feel there's room for publishing a contrarian analysis.

The rest of this article is going to make some assumptions about the value of Hilton points, which I think is reasonable, and perhaps a few less-reasonable assumptions about travel patterns. I do hold the point of view that the American Express Platinum card makes sense with its collection of credits and benefits, which makes other means of getting Hilton Gold redundant, but I do ignore that in the calculations. If you don't have Hilton Gold through other means, and think you'll get $95 out of free-breakfasts before achieving Gold, then the Hilton Honors Surpass may be for you. If you plan on spending over $2,700 at non-resort Hilton hotels, and not making use of the $100/stay credits at Hilton's luxury properties, then the Hilton Surpass might be for you. For everyone else, either one of the other two Hilton credit cards will fit your travel better, or perhaps even a non-branded card.

Hilton Garden Inn Long Island

There's nothing wrong with spending 25+ nights in a Hilton Garden Inn, but wouldn't you want to cash-in the points some place nicer?

Background: Credit Card Rewards

The modern credit card came-about following World War II, in 1950's New York city2. The aptly-named Diner's Club charge card aimed to be accepted by restaurants across the city, charging a 7% commission on sales.3 Credit cards have gotten more complex, and the commission has come down (despite additional middle-men being involved), but the basic business model is the same. Sears launched the Discover card in 1986, which earned a percentage of money spent as a refund.4 Starting in 1987, Citibank partnered with American Airlines to issue the first credit card tied to an existing loyalty program.5 The card was tied to American Airline's loyalty program and would earn redeemable miles which could be redeemed on future American flights. The funding for these rewards comes as part of the commission (usually called the interchange fee) the card issuer gets for each purchase.

Comparing the Hilton Credit Cards

Hilton branded credit cards were issued by both Citi6 and American Express in the United States through the end of 2017. Beginning January 1st, 2018, American Express became the exclusive issuer, at which point it provided three Hilton credit card options for earning Hilton Honors points7: a no-fee card simply branded Hilton Honors, a middle-tier Hilton Honors Ascend with a $95 annual fee, and the high-end Hilton Honors Aspire with its $450 annual fee. Hilton and American Express have recently rebranded the Ascend as the Surpass (formerly the name of the equivalent Citi card), probably because it was hard for people to keep straight the similarly sounding Ascend and Aspire cards, but otherwise the offerings are still the same.

Earning Rate, Fees, and Credits

Hilton Honors Hilton Honors Surpass Hilton Honors Aspire
Anual Fee$0$95$450
Free night annually?noafter $15,000yes; second after $60,000
Points/$ normal spend333
…at Hilton hotels71214
…at US restaurants567
…at US supermarkets563
…at US gas stations563
…on flights8337
…on car rentals9337
Annual Hilton resort credit$0$0$250
Annual airline credit$0$0$250
Annual fee-Annual credits $0$95-$ 50

Additionally, the Aspire card allows you to book a special rate at participating Waldorf Astoria and Conrad hotels which includes a $100 credit. Anecdotally, these rates match the flexible rate offered to members, unlike anecdotal remarks about the similar offer from Marriot's credit card at St. Regis and Ritz Carlton hotels. It's also worth noting that the $250 Hilton credit on the Aspire is valid at hotels Hilton has classified as resorts, which may or may not match your travel and stay preferences.

The Value of a Hilton Honors Point

The value of a point should be roughly the value you will eventually get for redeeming it, minus a discount for how long you expect to hold it. If you're spending a lot of time at Hilton hotels, the discount for holding Hilton points may be substantially less than someone who will collect them over a longer period of time before amassing enough for an award. The more you are staying at Hilton hotels, the greater the likelihood that you will be able to find a better redemption rate than someone who might visit one Hilton property a year. Generally speaking, in my observation and opinion, the standard award rate is always a significantly better value than any other room: two rooms might have very similar cash prices, but a standard redemption would be 95,000 points and the other room would be 423,000 points for one night.

You should understand the expected value that you'll get for a Hilton point if you're considering any of these three cards, but the generally accepted ballpark for a Hilton Honors point is half of a US cent ($0.005/point) and I'll use this value throughout the rest of this article. Some people value it slightly less, some people have been able to get redemptions for three-times that value, but I've found 0.5¢ to be reasonable for assessing the cost of rewards. That puts the earnings chart at:

Hilton Honors Hilton Honors Surpass Hilton Honors Aspire
Points/$ normal spend1.5%1.5%1.5%
…at Hilton hotels3.5%6%7%
…at US restaurants2.5%3%3.5%
…at US supermarkets2.5%3%1.5%
…at US gas stations2.5%3%1.5%
…on flights101.5%1.5%3.5%
…on car rentals111.5%1.5%3.5%

The absolute minimum value you should be getting from credit-card spend is 2%, as there are several no-fee cards offering 2% cash back, including even a few with no foreign transaction fees. There are cards that, in my valuation, offer much better value for US gas stations and supermarkets, but 2.5% on a no-fee card is pretty good. There are many more cards offering better returns on restaurants, but 2.5% is still better than 2%, so if you want to collect Hilton Honors points and want to keep your wallet simple and without fees, he basic Hilton Honors card has some redeeming qualities; I just wouldn't use it on anything returning 3x points.

Hilton Honors Hilton Honors Surpass Hilton Honors Aspire
"Free night" cost (based on normal spend)n/a$75(second) $300

Granting Elite Status

Each of these cards either directly grants, or provides a way of achieving through spend, elite status in Hilton's loyalty program. Hilton's elite status begin with Silver, which allows for redeeming a five-night stay with only four-nights worth of points (which Marriott offers to all members) and two bottles of water per stay at most properties. The mid-tier level is Gold, which notably adds free breakfast at most brands and the opportunity for getting upgraded to any non-suite room as a stated benefit. Diamond is Hilton's top tier, which guarantees lounge access, even if you're not upgraded to a room which would otherwise provide access (and upgrades may now include certain suites). Each tier also earns increasing bonus points per stay12.

The following is how much needs to be spent on the card in calendar year to obtain a status level.

Hilton Honors Hilton Honors Surpass Hilton Honors Aspire
Silverincluded
Gold$20,000included
Diamond$40,000included

Silver

One earns Hilton Silver status each year by having four distinct stays at Hilton properties, or by staying at least ten nights, or by earning 25,000 base points (spending $2,500 at most Hilton properties). This is easy to achieve as hotel loyalty status tiers go, and confers fairly weak benefits. Many people interested in Hilton status have never been Silver elites, instead getting Gold status right away, often through possessing a credit card which conveys the status.

The non-fee card confers Silver status automatically.

Gold

The American Express Platinum card provides Hilton Honors Gold elite status, as does the mid-tier Hilton Honors Surpass (formerly Ascend). The main benefit is free breakfast at most properties, but you also nominally have the opportunity to get an upgraded room. I've not found this to happen with frequency in my limited full-service stays at Hiltons as a gold member, but it certainly does happen sometimes.

The non-fee card has the option to spend $20,000 to get Gold status. If this is spent on non-bonused categories, you would be paying $100 to get Gold status, and you'd be slightly better with the Surpass.

One would earn this status tier through the Hilton Honors program by making 20 stays, or by staying 40 nights, or by earning 75,000 base points ($7,500 spend at most Hilton properties).

Diamond

Hilton Honors Diamond elite status is Hilton's top named tier in their program. 30 stays, or 60 nights, or 120,000 base points ($12,000 spend at most properties). Hyatt's program also issues top-tier status at 60 nights, while Marriott waits until you get to 100 nights with $20,000 spend (it's second-from-the-top tier requires 75 nights). Hilton Diamond is comparatively weak in what it provides compared to those two programs, and given that Gold has traditionally been so easy to get, many people never gave Diamond too much thought. The Hilton Honors Aspire card grants it just for holding the card, so frequent Hilton guests will want to consider the value proposition offered by that card.

The Hilton Honors Surpass offers Diamond status after $40,000. Depending on how you look at that spend, assuming it's all base-spend, you'd be buying status for $200 (or $295 if you count the annual fee). If you figure you'd spend $15,000 ($75) for a free Weekend night certificate on the surpass, you'd only be spending $125 for status ($220 with the annual fee).

For Whom does the Surpass Make Sense

I think the no-fee Honors card has a market, and I think the $450-fee Aspire has a market. I see the Surpass as simply not being a good value; at least for the audience that's reading the blogs pushing the card.

The American Express Platinum card offers Gold status and comes with many more benefits than the Surpass, albeit with a higher annual fee than even the Aspire. Assuming you are devoted to Hilton, but not enough to earn Gold on your own, and wouldn't use either the hotel or airfare credits with the Aspire, does the Surpass make sense?

If you will spend enough to just make gold, and put $7,500 of Hilton spend on the Surpass, you would be getting a total of 225,000 Honors points (with card and stay point combined). This same amount on the Aspire would get you 255,000 points. Ignoring the non-earning benefits of the Aspire, such as the free Weekend Night for just having the card each year, we're giving-up 30,000 points or $150 in points if we stayed enough to make Gold. The non-fee card would have earned you 142,500 points on your way to earning gold, giving-up 82,500 points ($412.50).

Assuming you make no use of the credit, the Aspire makes sense if you can get back your $355 gap in annual fee via the 4points (2%) difference in earnings, or $17,750 in Hilton spend which would have comfortably gotten you Diamond already. The no-fee card makes more sense if the 7points (3.5%) difference doesn't hit the annual fee of $95 ($2,714, or a little more than you need earn silver naturally).

Now, how many people spending over $2,700 at a single Hotel chain are not going to find a way to use the credit associated with the Aspire? You'd have earned about $54 more in points from the Aspire, meaning you only need to find $300 worth of extra value from $250 in airline credit, $250 in Hilton resort credit, $100/stay credits at Hilton's luxury hotels, improved purchase protections from the card, and the free stay certificate.

Hilton Go Green! placard


  1. which was the old name for Hilton's credit card

  2. https://www.experian.com/blogs/ask-experian/the-history-of-credit-cards/

  3. ibid.

  4. https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/credit-cards/history-credit-card/

  5. https://viewfromthewing.boardingarea.com/2016/07/12/american-strikes-new-credit-card-agreement-winner-citi-barclaycard/

  6. As a potentially interesting footnote, Hilton had launched a credit card which became Carte Blanche, and was eventually acquired by Citi.

  7. These are recorded as bonus points which means they do not contribute towards elite status, but can be redeemed for award stays.

  8. booked directly from the airline

  9. select car rental companies

  10. booked directly from the airline

  11. select car rental companies

  12. Most hotels begin with 10 base points, but Tru and Home2 earn half as many; silver earns 20% bonus, gold earns 80% bonus points, and diamond earns 100% the base points as bonus points