What your travel rewards points are really worth

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Nearly every major airline and hotel chain has its own rewards program, and it’s often linked to a credit card.

These programs are a great way to earn free stuff for things you’re already doing, but it’s often hard to determine the real value of the rewards because they are usually given in points or miles.

A new study out from NextAdvisor, a consumer-services reviewer, sheds some light by checking out some of the top travel-rewards programs to see what the bang-per-buck value is.

The results: There’s a pretty big difference in value, with a few credit cards far outranking the others.

Starwood Preferred Guest credit card: This American Express card is the top-ranked card because its Starpoints program offers the most value for card-carrying travelers.

Its points for hotel-stay redemptions are worth 2.1 cents, and its air-miles redemption, 1.2 cents.

That might sound small, but the hotel redemption is the highest point value around, and the flight redemption is still higher than some airline rewards cards.

Furthermore, users can collect as many as five points per $1 spent at Starwood Hotels, depending on which brand they choose (it ranges from Sheraton and St. Regis to Westin and W chains).

An additional perk: getting the third night free at participating Sheraton Hotels.

You can also use Starpoints to buy flights on a bunch of major airlines, including Alaska, Hawaiian, United and Virgin Atlantic, and there are no blackout dates. Most airlines offer an even transfer ratio of one Starpoint per mile, except United and Continental, which require two Starwood points for every mile.

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus credit card: This Chase card comes in second for its generous reward of 1.7 cents per point for its flights and one point per dollar on every other purchase.

Cardholders get a free flight after their first purchase.

NextAdvisor couldn’t determine its redemption value for hotel stays but still ranks Rapid Rewards an excellent choice for frequent Southwest fliers.

United MileagePlus Explorer credit card: This Chase card offers a fairly generous 1.1 cents per point payout on flights.

The value of redeeming points for free hotel stays is lower, at 0.7 cents per point, but the program is a good choice for United-favoring fliers who want a range of hotels from which to pick.

You can redeem points for United and Continental flights as well as for flights with Star Alliance partners, such as Air New Zealand and US Airways.

Explorer cardmembers earn two points for every $1 spent on United or Continental tickets and one point for everything else, averaging out to a 1.1-cent value.

Extra card benefits include priority boarding and checking your first bag for free.

As for hotels, MileagePlus users can book free hotel stays at a variety of places, from the Hyatt Regency to the Holiday Inn. But at slightly under a cent a point, you won’t get the best payout.

Citi Gold/AAdvantage World MasterCard: At 1 cent per point value, the AAdvantage program offers a solid payback, as Citi Gold cardholders earn one point per dollar spent on all purchases.

But one big downside is that you don’t get the opportunity to earn extra points for American flight purchases. Another one is that users max out at earning 60,000 points per year.

Like the United program, AAdvantage lets you book free hotel stays at a multitude of places, and at one cent per point, you'll get a fair trade for your miles.

Platinum Delta Skymiles credit card: This card from American Express offers a straightforward program that lets users earn one mile per $1 spent, translating into 1 cent per point value.

Perks include a complimentary Delta companion ticket and a free checked bag.

But it’s disappointing that, unlike most other air-travel cards, Delta doesn’t offer extra rewards for booking its flights. And there’s no option for booking free hotel stays.

Marriott Rewards credit card: This Chase card lets users earn 3 points for every $1 spent at Marriott locations and 1 point per dollar for all other purchases, averaging out to a point value of 0.8 cents for free hotel stays.

You’ll earn 22,500 bonus points after your first purchase. It’s easy to book through the Marriott Rewards website, and you can choose from any Marriott hotel or resort, including the Ritz-Carlton, although the ritzier you go, the more points you’ll give up.

But the airline portion of the card is not so hot.

While you can choose from a variety of major airlines, at a transfer of 3.46 Marriott points per mile, the exchange rate for air miles is poor, and it takes six weeks for miles to be posted to your airline’s frequent-flier account.

NextAdvisor’s take: “It just doesn’t seem like a good deal.”

Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature credit card: Yes, Hilton’s rewards program is generous, giving six points for each dollar spent at a Hilton hotel, three points per dollar spent at supermarkets and gas stations, and two points for each $1 spent everywhere else.

That makes it easier to rack up the points and stay at any Hilton hotel chain, including the Waldorf-Astoria, Hampton Inn and Homewood Suites.

Visa Signature cardholders get a higher point earning, averaging one cent per point.

But in general, cashing in free stays varies by the hotel’s price point, so Hilton’s program actually comes in on the low side, at 0.5 cents per point, half the value most other travel-related cards offer.

And the airline portion isn’t a deal, either.

While Hilton’s partner airlines include JetBlue, Southwest, United and Virgin, an average of eight Hilton points for every airline mile is required, making that a steep exchange rate.

And a delay of up to eight weeks until the exchange goes through “means no instant gratification,” according to NextAdvisor.

Compare these rewards cards with the credit card offers in our extensive database.

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