Don’t Fall Into The Free Night Certificate Fuzzy Math Trap!

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Free Night Certificate

Don’t Fall Into The Free Night Certificate Fuzzy Math Trap!

That fuzzy math, it gets you every single time. I just ran into a situation of fuzzy math with a buddy when dealing with free night certificates.  I talked about something similar with travel eraser points in the past but I have noticed it, and even fallen victim to it, when dealing with hotel free night certs as well.  I’ll give you a run down of what happened and why we need to avoid this pitfall.

Points > Free Night Certificates

Before we get into our case of fuzzy math we should talk about why points are better than free night certificates. Because of this simple fact I am in the boat of burning my certificates as quickly as possible.

Points > Certificates Because Certs have more stringent requirements, such as:

  • Some certificates only work on certain days etc.
  • They only work when standard room award space is available.
    • You could use points to book a higher category room if you really needed to stay at that hotel.
  • Free night certificates have a shorter shelf life and often can not be extended.
    • Sometimes a program will offer some points after expiration (Hyatt) or extend them for you if you ask enough (Marriott) but they are more stringent than points overall.  It is fairly easy to extend the life of your points balances. That is not always the case with certs.
  • They can not be combined with points for offers like 5th night free stays with Hilton or Marriott.
  • You can not upgrade them to larger rooms or suites with points.
  • Lastly, the certificates are best used for expensive properties and you are not able to maximize their value otherwise.
    • A category 7 cert can get you a 30,000 point room with Hyatt but 30,000 World of Hyatt points could get you up to 6 nights though at a category 1 hotel. Points are more versatile.

Free Night Certificate

Fighting Against Fuzzy Math

Now that we have established why points are better than free night certificates let’s fight that fuzzy math.  I think people grow this unnatural attachment to their free certificates and hoard them for aspirational properties. We, of course, want to get the maximum value possible out of them, and there is no shame in that. It just isn’t always possible. People also tend to lock these mentally into favorite locations, hotels or destinations they normally wouldn’t want to blow points at.  Think Hawaii or Paris etc. where hotel award stays get super pricey.

Good Is Often Good Enough

But you also have to remember that certificates have a shorter shelf life and using them when you can is better than waiting for your optimal trip that may never come.  I can’t tell you how many times have I have seen people post in the Facebook Group that they are doing a staycation to burn a cert before it expires.  They waited for optimal instead of pretty good and got stuck with below average because of it.

Maybe they had a stay at a 70K Hilton hotel or 25,000 Hyatt hotel earlier in the year they could have used that cert at but wanted to max it out.  Well, now they are hanging out 30 minutes from home because of that need to max it out.  Unless you have sure travel plans use it when it is good enough because you never know if you will actually use it in the future.

Leaping Over Those Mental Hurdles

Back to my buddy, he was planning a future trip and had a hotel stay at a higher end Hilton hotel.  There was a 95K a night hotel right near a 60K a night hotel and he was trying to decide between the two. He asked if I thought it was worth spending the extra 35K or not to move to the better hotel.  I said go for it and burn those certs you are sitting on while you can.  He responded, I save my certs for Hawaii. Well, that is great if you have a Hawaii trip planned already but a maybe Hawaii trip before the end of the year is not as good as the here and now.

That is the mental block right there.  Even though it is a max redemption at 95K night it would be going against his norm of using them in Hawaii.  You could make the argument that it is really only getting him 60K in value (the lesser option available) if you want as well.  Even at 60K, it is a worthwhile redemption if you don’t have for sure plans to use the certificates before they expire. Using the cert would save him 60K in Hilton points but also gets him an upgrade to a better hotel with bigger rooms etc. so it is 60K+ at worst.  That is better than trying to burn it in December because you really wanted to use it somewhere else.

Free Night Certificate Fuzzy Math – Final Thoughts

I think avoiding the hotel free night certificate fuzzy math is more important now than ever.  Partly because we are sitting on heaps of them and partly because travel is so up in the air these days.  In the old times, way way back in 2019, we could probably throw together a cool / quick trip just to burn these things at the end of the year.  That is not guaranteed these days so don’t let great be the enemy of good. We don’t have to maximize every. single. thing. Sometimes good really is simply good enough.

Mark Ostermann
Mark Ostermann is a father, husband and miles/points fanatic. He left the corporate world after starting a family in order to be a stay at home dad. Mark is constantly looking at ways to save money and stay within budget while also taking awesome vacations with his family. When he isn't caring for his family or taking a weekend trip, Mark is working towards his goal of visiting every Major League Baseball ballpark.

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  1. Is it fair to say that in order of value, Marriott free night certs are the least valuable, followed by IHG, then Hyatt and Hilton? I suppose you could argue IHG is less valuable than Marriott, but it seems harder to find 25K or 35K Marriott rooms than 40K IHG, so maybe the value I speak of includes ease of finding a room that matches. I need to burn some of these, and I think I’m going to use my Marriott ones first.

    • I think it depends on the Marriott cert you have (50K etc.) but for their lower end ones I would put them as the lowest although when IHG reverts back to their devaluation from a month or so back then that would be the worst.

      Then Hyatt 1-4 cat cert and then Hilton. My take on it at least.

  2. I am finding that Hyatt properties are going up in price considerably, raising the value of the Cat 1-4 certs. I had a summer trip that I planned 6 months ago. The cash cost at the time was $160/nt. I was on the fence, but burned 2 certs for it. I watched the price go up to $400/nt, then it sold out. I feel so lucky I nailed it down when I did. CASH THOSE CERTIFICATES, PEOPLE! Hyatt has so many certs outstanding it is going to be a free-for-all in the 2nd half of 2021.

  3. Great advice. I have unfortunately had a few expire because I was unable me to use them as intended.
    Just burned a free night at Hyatt LAX v $125nt. That’s lower than many Cat 4 properties, but not at all clear if I will be able to burn my remaining stash before Dec 31 given this years travel restriction. Better safe than sorry.

  4. Good advice. A [decent property redemption now] bird in the hand is worth [a pie-in-the-sky redemption that never comes to fruition] two in the bush.

  5. I think you are saying “Don’t let the great be the enemy of the good” rather than how you stated it.

  6. I did a long weekend trip using 3 free night certificates. I’m still sitting on a bunch. Was it a bad value. During normal times I would say yes. But these are not normal times so I’m going to make sure I can redeem them all. Even though I know I could have done better, it’s still nice to walk away from $475.00 worth of hotel charges. Living in Maine, I traveled along the coast, ate at a few good restaurants and accomplished it without all the hassles and congestion of summertime crowds.

  7. I agree with the article, so many people end up wasting certs looking for the perfect value, especially when travel becomes more challenging.
    I’m also a Mariott vicitim for at least one more cert. The biggest issue for me is not just are the certs really only good for airport hotels but also outside of the Four Points, I really don’t like any of their mid-tier brands like Fairfield, Springhill etc, when comparing to Hyatt Place, HGI or similar.

    • That is true – their low/mid tier properties are not as good as the competition. They shine on the high end with the SPG holdovers but it does make the certs tougher to swallow.

  8. My wife and I cancelled our Hyatt and Marriott cards because of the lack of options available to use the free night certificates. There were no good places close enough to stay at (we don’t want to have to fly somehwere just to use a FNC), or the choices were not nice enough. When on vacation we want to stay at a nice place and don’t want to stay someplace just because of a FNC. We have retained our IHG cards because we have consistently been able to use them and have never had any expire yet.
    Even though we can’t upgrade using points, I regularly pay cash to upgrade if it makes sense. Even when I get upgraded for free due to status, I usually still ask them if they have any special upgrade deals that they can give me.

  9. I’m using 2 Marriott 35k FNC’s on rooms that cost 25k soon. I would love to get full value out of them but there are so many hotels that are now charging 40k instead of 35k it is so hard to use them.

    • Marriott destroyed the value of those certs for sure – if you aren’t outside the US it is essentially good for an airport hotel 🙁

      • I used 4 certs at the sherton keahou on Kona. Was a decent redemption.

        But I do agree these certs are generally only good for airport or lackluster city hotels. But there are times when you need those too. I’d much rather pay a $50 or $75 or $95 AF for a decent Hyatt/IHG/Marriott hotel rather than paying a $100 cash for a crappy bed for a night.

  10. Agree completely- I try to get value for certificates but have used many Marriott ones at a Fairfield Inn across the street from a casino I frequent (35,000 redemption property).

    Now I am using a Hilton certificate and an IHG one at 2 great properties in Phoenix for a May golf/gambling trip and feel I’m getting great value but agree you need to use them relatively quickly and develop a plan so you aren’t stuck w them or, God forbid, they expire!


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