The Card I Use for Non Bonus Spend May Surprise You

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Hilton Ascend

Why the Hilton Ascend Is A Great Everyday Spend Card

There are a lot of great non bonus spend cards out there.  The King (or Queen) of non bonus spend for the longest time was the American Express SPG credit card.  Well that card is going to the back of the sock drawer or through the shredder once August rolls around.  That got me to thinking what would be a good replacement.

There are a lot of choices but I plan on putting the next $15,000 in non bonus spend, and probably some bonus spend, on my American Express Ascend card.  Once that is complete I will go back to the American Express Blue Business Plus card.

Ascend Earning Rates

The Amex Ascend card earns the following rates:

  • 12X Hilton Honors bonus points for each dollar of eligible purchases charged on your Card directly with a participating hotel or resort within the Hilton Portfolio.
  • 6X Hilton Honors bonus points for each dollar of eligible purchases on your Card at U.S. restaurants, at U.S. supermarkets, and at U.S. gas stations.
  • 3X Hilton Honors bonus points for all other eligible purchases on your Card.

But the perk of the card I am focusing on is the one weekend night certificate you earn once you spend $15,000 within a calendar year.  This increases the return you can earn from the card.

Crunching the Numbers

Hilton points have a minimum value of $0.004 a piece when you use the pay with points feature.  You can often get more than that but I will set the bar there.  That means you get the following rate of return:

  • 4.8% on Hilton Stays
  • 2.4% on Gas, Groceries, and Restaurants in the US
  • 1.2% on everything else

Once you hit the $15,000 spend threshold you earn a free night.  These are limited to Friday-Sunday stays (when most people travel).  There are a few properties excluded but for the most part you can use them anywhere when there is a standard level award available.  I am using the one from my Aspire card in New York City for a savings of $450.  I will put the value of this at $250 even though most will get much more value from it than that.

That would bring an additional rate of return of 1.67% on that $15,000 in spend. The free night would increase the overall rates to:

  • 6.47% on Hilton Stays
  • 4.07% on Gas, Groceries, and Restaurants in the US
  • 2.87% on everything else

Those are some impressive earning rates.  At the end of the day I will have a free night for practically anywhere and a minimum of 45,000 Hilton Honors points.

CLICK HERE to compare this and other hotel credit cards

Guide: American Express Program Rules Including Application Restrictions, Card Limits and Difference Between Credit and Charge Cards


These are among the best rates you can get for all listed categories.  That is why the Ascend card will be getting a spot in the front of my wallet for the next few months.  Only go this route if you can get use out of Hilton points.  The only truly worthless point is the one that goes unused.

Hilton is probably my second favorite program, behind Hyatt, because of the ease of earning their status.  A nice perk of the Ascend card is the free breakfast you get from receiving Gold Status with the card!

Mark Ostermann
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. Mark, are there limits on usage of the free night certificates? Do they expire like the nights that come with Marriott and IHG annual renewals? Can they be pooled for a Friday and Saturday night stay? I live-it-up as much as possible using certificates but tend to seek value (Hampton Inn) when using points.

    • They expire a year after being issued and you can make a booking with each and then have the hotel combine the reservation etc.

    • If you can do the full 15,000 on mobile wallet without getting shut down – then yes you can. That is a great option if you are able to pull it off each year. But a lot of the places where I have non bonus spend don’t offer mobile wallet so it is a moot point.

  2. My surprise is more people have not figured this out. I am balancing my non-bonus spend with the biz Hilton version and the Amex blue plus. Like you said the minimum is .004 and it is so easy to beat this with a 5-night free stay at a resort property. You then stack the free night cert from the 15k spend and you might get close to doubling your calculations.

  3. Thanks, Mark,
    I have been considering applying for the Ascend card, and your column helped me decide to do it. I currently have the no-fee AMEX Honors card, and I assume I can also apply for the Ascend. Is the best offer for a new Ascend still the 100,000 Hilton pts/free night with $3000 in spending?

  4. After the recent Hilton changes I now have two Ascend cards one from Citi Reserve and one from Amex Surpass. Am I able to earn a free night with $15K on each ?

    • To be honest I am not sure and I don’t think anyone has hit the spend on both yet to find out. May be worth chatting with Amex to see what they say

    • Yes, & there is a $10k “carryover” on the Citi making the $15k spend much easier. Call AMEX for details, must be done before your old Citi anniv date.

      • Right — this is a key point for those of us who got Ascend from the old Citi card having rolled over: This year, if we do our $10K before our anniversary date, then we only have to do another $5K to get *two* certs this (2018) year. Looking forward to starting Ascend spending when I finish up Aspire initial spend later this week!

        Which reminds me — not totally off-topic — that while I believe that in a vacuum the Big Blue for Business Amex card (or whatever we are calling the current version) is the best regular or everyday spend card, many of us are not living in a vacuum. I’m living in a world in which most spend is some function of (a) travel [hotels, planes, trains] and (b) Plastiq-tempting larger items. And then — as per this story (Ascend) — there are a lot of good cards to do spending on for various bonuses (just finished SPG Business), including weird stuff that just pops up (Barclays AA Red card, SPG personal). I can almost imagine not using the Blue for Business Amex card this year.

    • Where are you purchasing them from? Simons Mall or from a grocery store? There are some online gift card purchases that are not working across all Amex cards.

        • I am not sure I don’t have one in my area – maybe a reader can help out though. I think grocery store may be a better option though for a points earning perspective and flying under the radar.

    • Yeah Mike, I’d be very interested to hear where you are purchasing the GC’s? Also, did those purchases still earn Hilton points?

    • No I didn’t calculate that in because Amex offers and Hilton gold status (plus 10 PP entries for me and guests) more than offsets the AF.

      • I don’t think that AmEx offers are worth paying an annual fee. You get the offers on the no annual fee cards too. Hilton gold status is worth something though.

        • That is true but I don’t think anyone is gonna fill up their 5 Amex slots with no annual fee Amex cards.

  5. I swear, I did the same calculus a few days ago, ended up not renewing as my free certificate posted early and I have the blue biz plus which I do not max out. A few comments: the free night posts per calendar year, so you can do this twice the first year. The annual fee reduces the value of the 2 free certificates by 47.50 each, lowering the rate of return, but I also value Hilton points and certificates slightly higher so I ended up a nearly identical rate return. Great analysis overall.

      • The free night from $15,000 in spend is based on calendar year. So if you signed up now you would have until December 31st to spend $15,000 and earn a free night. And then starting January 1st you would have until 6/7/19 to spend $15,000 for a second night.

        • I see. Since I signed up in February this might be tough. It would mean I would have to spend 15k in the first month next year. Correct? Darn I should have planned that better. Thanks for the tip. I can use this information for when my husband applies for this card.

          • Yeah makes it not really plausible. You could always do it on your schedule, get the free night, and then downgrade to the free version and get a prorated refund that way 😉

  6. If I do this by buying visa debit cards, then the cost of those cards for spending $15,000 my cost for the cards, shipping, and flushing is $132. If I can get an outlandish size Hilton room, then I might consider. Even Amex has become so limited with Plastiq, there just are not alot of options to get these points. I miss the days of Citi.

    • You would be best sourcing the gift cards from the grocery store since it earns 6X and then you earn the free night too getting a return of over 4% per dollar. There is always a chance that Amex RAT will deny the 15K free night purchasing gift cards from grocery stores but that hasn’t been the case so far.

      • Gotta have a grocery store that sells GCs with CCs and GCs that can be liquidated. That is hard in many regions.

      • Good to know that there haven’t been issues regarding the free night after $15K. How about the actual Hilton points, any issues with them not awarding the 6X points per dollar?

        • There have not been any reports of issues with it – but that could always change with Amex these days

          • Yeah it sort of feels like playing with fire. Are you taking any precautions I.E. Buying GC’s for slightly odd amounts like $496.23 instead of an even $500?

            Or spreading out MS to just be a couple grand per month instead of having one or two big months and a bunch of low-spend months?

          • I haven’t really dipped into it yet since there hasn’t been a need but I know others have. I would probably make some other purchases with the VGC if possible.

  7. Why use this card when I can just use a Chase unlimited which gives me 1.5 on everything and those points are worth a minimum 1.5 cents for any travel. Giving me back a guaranteed minimum 2.25% and potentially much higher.

    I suppose if you value the free night its worth it, but its rare that I stay at Hilton. For personal cards it seems like the entire Amex portfolio is taking a nose dive.

    I will be cutting up my SPG come august and have no reason to replace it.

    • I think you answered it right there if you don’t stay at Hilton hotels then this probably isn’t for you. But most people are gonna get a better return going this route on their first 15K of spend versus the Chase Unlimited route.

      • Glad you finally came around to a greater than your usual dismal .04 valuation, Mark. Esp that you now have Diamond status,
        you too will be rocking .08 -.10/$ regularly witb outstanding suites/upgrades/$25 breakfasts. Enjoy the ride, best program going.

        • I don’t add the value of suites & upgrades into my valuations because I wouldn’t normally pay for them. I think most people get around .005 per point on average (for standard rooms) but .004 is the min anyone should get so that is what I use for calculations.

    • I consider the AmEx Blue for Business plus card to be a better product than the Chase unlimited card. Why not put your non-bonus spend there instead of the Chase card? Whereas Chase may end the ability to pool UR points, the Blue for Business card earns real membership reward points.

      • If you are using for flights, agreed on MRs. For hotel usage, however, URs are King. No assurances of Chase ending pooling or of AMEX maybe following suit if Chase does, so best to evaluate with what we know for certain today rather than speculation.

        Accumulation, redemption, & perks usage are also hands-down more streamlined with the Chase program over AMEX. Gotta have hands-on knowledge & experience with both to appreciate the nuances & the overall elegance of the Chase program.

        • All Amex MR cards earns transferable points so pooling isn’t an issue with Amex.

          I don’t think Chase is more streamlined either…you don’t need to pool your Amex MR points ever. I think Amex is more streamlined in that regard.

          Chase has more valuable partners for most people though.


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