The Ultimate Mattress Run | Hacking Hotel Rewards for Free Rooms with Hilton!
Learn how we took travel award hacking to the extreme and got 41 hotel room nights free with Hilton using hotel rewards and promotions. And, we’re not just talking zero cash out of pocket, we used less than 65 reward points per night on a normally 5,000 point room. Not only did we essentially stay free, we also extended our Hilton Honors Diamond Status for another year!
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It's all too easy to speak award travel industry jargon without considering if your audience understands it. So, to assume nothing, let’s brush up on some key definitions of industry terms we use often in this article.
Award Travel – Is the redemption of miles and points for free or heavily discounted travel.
Churning – Is a practice of utilizing credit card rewards to earn points, miles, and cash back. This usually refers to opening credit card accounts to receive signup bonuses and usually canceling them within a year, to then apply and open them again. Make sure you proceed with caution and do research ahead of time, as the benefits of this practice are undeniably attractive; however, there are downsides and ‘rules’ that vary across issuing banks.
Hilton Honors Diamond – The top-level tier of the Hilton Honors Rewards Program. A Diamond member receives exclusive benefits that include executive lounge access, free and upgraded internet access, free water bottles, a 48-hour room guarantee, fifth night free on award nights, room upgrades, and more! See everything included with Hilton Honors, at each of the four levels on the Hilton Member Benefits webpage.
Hotel Category Levels – Branded hotels generally categorize their hotels by levels, which correspond to the number of reward points needed to book an award/free night. For example, a standard room at a category one Hilton hotel costs 5,000 Hilton Honors points per night, while a category two Hilton hotel costs 10,000 Hilton Honors points per night.
Hotel Nights - Each night you stay at a hotel is considered a hotel night. For example, if you check into a hotel on Monday and checkout on Friday, you’ve completed four ‘nights’. As a second example, if you check into a hotel on Monday and checkout on Friday, and then check back in the following Monday and checkout the following Friday, you’ve completed eight ‘nights’. This may seem simple, but can become confusing when compared to the term 'Hotel Stays'. Knowing the difference between the two is important when reviewing the fine print of a promotional offer.
Hotel Rewards Program – A loyalty program that incentives guests to stay at and spend money with the hotel brand through rewards and benefits. Every hotel rewards program offers different benefits, but can include free room upgrades including suites, free meals, free hotel lounge access, free or upgraded internet access, free parking, welcome gifts, the ability to earn extra points, guaranteed availability, free reservation cancellations, etc.
Hotel Status – Members of a hotel rewards program earn tiered status based on the amount of money, nights, or stays completed within a calendar of the same hotel brand. Naturally, the more elevated a member’s status the more benefits they’re awarded.
Hotel Stays – Each check-in and checkout of a hotel room counts as a single stay. For example, if you check into a hotel on Monday and checkout on Friday, you’ve completed one ‘stay’. Additionally, if you check into a hotel on Monday and checkout on Friday, and then check back in the following Monday and checkout the following Friday, you’ve completed two ‘stays’. This may seem simple, but can become confusing when compared to the term of 'Hotel Nights'. Knowing the difference between the two is important when reviewing the fine print of a promotional offer.
Mattress Run – The basic concept of a mattress run is booking a hotel room that triggers a promotion in which you earn points or elite status with the hotel's rewards program. However, depending on who you ask the execution can vary greatly. On one side of the spectrum, you have people who book a hotel room with no intention of actually sleeping in the room. On the other side, you have people who take full advantage of the room and stay for the duration of the booking (e.g. stay-cation, vacation abroad).
Status Challenge – Some hotel companies offer you the ability to match status you hold at a competing hotel brand. However, rather than offering equal status outright, some brands require guests to complete a challenge. A challenge usually requires a hotel rewards member to complete a minimum amount of stays or nights within a predetermined amount of time. For example, you may have Diamond status with Hilton and after contacting Starwood Preferred Guest (888-625-4988) or Marriott (801-468-4000) they may agree to match you to SPG/Marriott Platinum Elite status but only after you complete 16 nights within 90 days at their branded hotels.
Status Match – When you hold status with a hotel, sometimes other hotel brands will outright grant equal status in their hotel rewards program in hopes of winning over your business and loyalty from a competitor.
The First Steps to Award Travel
For any type of award travel, whether it be hotels, airlines, or rental cars, the first thing you need to do is sign up for the applicable reward programs. We have memberships to multiple programs, although one of our favorites is Hilton Honors (with SPG/Marriott taking a close second). For us, the elite benefits of Hilton's program make it worth not only signing up, but since we're budget travelers we also feel we get some of the best award redemption value with Hilton properties.
We recommend signing up with Hilton Honors right away to start earning award points and status. Plus, sign up through our link and get a head start with 2,500 Hilton Honors bonus points (awarded after your first completed stay before December 15, 2018). That's halfway to a free night at a category one hotel!
Once you've signed up for the applicable reward program, the next step is to get a branded credit card that offers points or miles for everyday spend. Many programs offer additional perks with their branded credit card. We not only genuinely use our Hilton Ascend for everyday purchases, but we also love the benefits that come with the card. It's the benefits that easily make the annual fee worth it.
Up to a 100,000 point sign up bonus (that's 20 free nights at category one hotels!)
Automatic Gold Status (late checkout, free bottled water, 5th award night free, milestone bonuses, room upgrades, free breakfast, and more!)
Priority Pass Select, with 10 free visits per calendar year
12x points per dollar spent at Hilton properties
6x points per dollar spent at gas stations and supermarkets
3x points per dollar spent everywhere else
No foreign transaction fees
When we break it down, the value we get from the card far outweighs the $95 annual fee. In fact, the signup bonus alone is valued between $500 to $1,000+ (depending on where you redeem your points)! We keep the card year after year because both the Priority Pass Select and the complimentary Gold Status individually provide far more than $95 in value.
Lodging While Traveling Long-Term as Digital Nomads
One of the most expensive parts of life is the cost of putting a roof over your head at night. This holds true when staying in one place and paying a mortgage or rent each month, as well as when traveling long-term and staying in a hotel, guest house, short-term rental, etc. for days, weeks, or a few months. Before we embarked on our financially independent, retire early (FI/RE), long-term travel, and digital nomad lifestyle, we’d done research to come up with an assortment of cheap and alternative lodging options.
As we’ve put these options into practice over the last couple of years, there are a few that we utilize more often than others, as they work well with our travel style and digital nomad needs. We write often about our long-term house sitting and how much we love it, but scheduling back-to-back house sitting assignments can be a challenge and therefore we’re often left with a gap in between house sitting jobs.
So, what better way to fill these gaps than with free hotel room stays?!
Word of Caution: Extremes in Award Travel
Collecting miles and points for award travel runs on a spectrum of intricacy and effort, from quick and relatively effortless to complex and multi-staged. Of course, like most things in life, the more time and effort you put in, the better the results are.
With that being said, it takes a certain type of person to go 'all-in' and familiarize themselves with the rules, maintain the records, track the points and miles, read the fine print, and follow up to ensure they obtain the best results. If you aren’t this type of person, that’s okay, you can still benefit greatly from a less ‘intense’ type of award travel. If you've been following us along for any time you'll know that we’re usually the type that aspires for maximum returns and go 'all-in' (About Us)!
Tip: We highly recommend and use AwardWallet to manage all of our travel hacking points and miles from one sleek dashboard! AwardWallet securely stores our account information, auto-updates our account balances weekly, alerts us three months before our points/miles expire, and sends us travel itinerary reminders and updates. To top it off, we can also track accounts of friends and family members with a single login.
Additionally, there’s a spectrum of redeeming points and miles for free or heavily discounted award travel. On one extreme, you have those who use their points primarily for aspirational experiences. Think nonstop first class flights, luxury rental cars, and suites within downtown and in expensive cities. Generally, the idea is that points can always be made, and if you have them, you might as well spend them (burn baby burn!) for experiences you normally couldn’t afford and before the points are ‘devalued’.
On the other hand, you have those who are primarily focused on value. Think coach flights, economy rental cars, category one hotels, and functionality over luxury. On this side of the spectrum, the idea is to be opportunistic and always aim to get a better value for each point used, making them last longer and in turn limit the need to earn more points as often.
Frankly, most people fall somewhere in between these two extremes. The goal is to save money traveling, so our advice is to have fun and match award travel and churning with your lifestyle and personality. For us, we’re the outliers. We fall on the extreme side of value and prefer to get the best return for our points, allowing us to travel longer for less.
Tip: Being budget travelers, we seek out the best redemption values when staying at hotels. This means we generally stay at category one or two hotels, with the occasional category three. If you're like us, then you're tired of searching for the best award redemption value hotels on each branded website. So, we made it a whole lot easier and made an inclusive map of all award properties in the United States and internationally for Hilton, SPG/Marriott, Radisson, and Hyatt, that are category one, two, and three hotels!
Another level to award travel is earning status, and in the case of this particular article, hotel status. Status enables you to take advantage of certain benefits (hotel room upgrades, free breakfast, faster internet, welcome gifts, extra points, etc.) without needing to spend extra money or points to have them.
Traditionally, you earn status with a brand through loyalty that's demonstrated by spending a predetermined amount of money with them and/or by staying a certain number of nights or stays with them. Additionally, hotels often have a branded credit card that grants holders elite status automatically. Furthermore, once you have elite status with one hotel brand, you can then status match or status challenge to several other brands. There are also a few cases when earning top status with a hotel brand can get you elevated status with an airline and/or rental car company.
Earning reward points for long-term travel takes time. We started accumulating points and churning early on, and while we used points for award travel on vacations before beginning our long-term travel in 2016, we started accumulating and stashing points years ago, knowing we’d be utilizing them heavily on our adventures.
On top of creating a nest egg of points, we applied for several branded credit cards, one of those being the Hilton Ascend card. This particular card not only earned us extra points when paying for anything at a Hilton hotel, but also gave us Hilton Gold Status. However, we didn’t stop there, while we were abroad we did a status challenge to match our Hilton Gold Status to a Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) Gold Status. Then, rather than settle with status matching Hilton Gold to SPG to Gold, we continued the challenge and achieved SPG Platinum Status. We then turned around and matched SPG Platinum status with a variety of hotel brands, including the top status level at Hilton: Diamond. That match in 2017 gave us Diamond Status until March 2019, which we’ve since used extensively.
As you might imagine, our long-term travel lifestyle really makes points/miles, airport lounge access (Priority Pass), and hotel status (Diamond Hilton, SPG/Marriott Platinum, etc.) lucrative for us. Especially since we're mobile consultants (IT and Project Management) and a comfortable and quiet work environment with fast and reliable internet are critical for staying productive.
Note: Elite status in a rewards program isn’t always as lucrative as it seems. Most, if not all of the benefits aren’t guaranteed, and usually available at the discretion and availability of the hotel, airline, etc. Unless you're willing to advocate for yourself (and sometimes even then) this often results in a hit or miss of receiving elite status benefits.
Tip: Don’t be shy when it comes to your elite status, you've earned and/or paid for it! The best managed hotels give you upgrades, welcome gifts, and expedited benefits commensurate to your status without having to say a thing. However, we’ve found that some hotels don’t even acknowledge status (for whatever the reason) until we bring it up. Therefore, we make it customary to mention our status at check-in and kindly ask if an upgrade is available during our stay.
A Hilton Honors Promotion That Could Mean Free Hotel Rooms
Fast forward to early January 2018 when we'd just confirmed a house sit in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico for March of the same year. Unfortunately, we found ourselves having a significant unplanned gap between that house sit and our then current Portland house sit. So, we needed to fill our time by finding another house sitting job, or possibly arriving in Mexico early and exploring.
As you can imagine, house sitting in general is a wonderful way to travel the world but finding a house sit in a particular region, for specific dates, and keeping in mind specific parameters (e.g. number of pets to care for, high speed internet, is a car required, etc.) can often be a challenge (if not impossible).
Therefore, when we came across the Hilton Unlimited Points Promotion that said that we’d earn 2,000 bonus points (on top of other points) on every stay, including award stays (stays paid with points). We most definitely took notice!
Tip: The Hilton Unlimited Points offer is no longer valid, but like most brands, Hilton has a new promotion running every few months. Check the Hilton promotions page regularly to stay updated with their current promotions.
We immediately started thinking about the point earning possibilities. Per the promotion, we’d also earn an additional 10,000 points on every five stays and there was no limit on the amount of bonus points we could earn. Plus, recent 2018 Hilton program changes made it so that after 40 nights we’d earn an additional 10,000 bonus points for every 10th night. To top it all off, after 60 nights we’d earn an additional 30,000 Hilton bonus points on top of the 10,000 points we’d earn for nights 30, 40, and 50!
As if all that wasn’t too good to be true, the cherry on top was that if we decided to participate in the promotion, since we already held Diamond Status with Hilton, we’d receive the benefit of even more bonus points for every stay we completed within the Hilton portfolio. The number of additional points earned as a Hilton Diamond member varied from 250 points to 1,000 points per say, depending on the brand (e.g. Hampton, Double Tree, Homewood Suites, etc.).
Lastly, we knew that if we completed 30 stays or 60 nights within a calendar year at Hilton properties we’d extend our current Honors Diamond Status for another year. We already had our status secured through March of 2019, but if we moved forward, we could extend our Diamond status with Hilton until March of 2020!
Tip: We called Hilton customer service to confirm the fine print of the promotion and all of the details that went along with it. The last thing we wanted was to book our rooms, complete the required stays, and then find out we misunderstood something and not receive some or all of the points that we planned on receiving.
We tend to proceed with the mindset that due-diligence is our responsibility, so we read the fine print carefully and double and triple confirmed the information with customer service. Sometimes we even go as far as asking customer service to make appropriate notes on our account(s) per the conversation.
Should We Mattress Run?
Naturally, when considering doing a mattress run, we of course plan things out carefully. Our goal isn’t to chase status for the sake of merely having it, it needs to make holistic sense. We’re not about to spend much over what we would if we simply stayed at an Airbnb/non-branded budget hotel/etc.
We knew we already had a house sit lined up in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and would be flying into neighboring Santiago de Queretaro (QRO) on our American Airlines award tickets. But we still needed to secure/pay for lodging for a significant amount of time before the house sit job started.
The stars aligned and we decided to jump on the aforementioned Hilton promotion and book category one hotels in Santiago de Queretaro, Queretaro, Mexico for 41 days at the tune of 205,000 Hilton points!
Tip: San Miguel de Allende is about 75-90 minutes by bus from Santiago de Queretaro, Queretaro, Mexico and a round trip bus ticket is eight USD per person (as of the time of our visit).
Nearly Free Hotel Rooms: The Facts Behind Our Mattress Run
Hilton Rewards Program
Hilton allows you to book award stays (stays paid with points) and still participate in their promotions and bonus offers.
A category one hotel costs 5,000 reward points per night.
Starting at 40 nights, Hilton Honors gives 10,000 Hilton 'milestone' bonus points for every 10th night stayed within the same calendar year.
Hilton Honors gives an additional 30,000 Hilton 'milestone' bonus points for the 60th night stayed (on top of the 10,000 'milestone' bonus above) within the same calendar year.
Existing Hilton Honors Diamond members earned (and typically do during Hilton's promotions) additional points for every stay completed (between 250 and 1,000 points depending on the hotel brand) as follows:
For every fifth stay, earn an additional 10,000 points.
Tip: Sign up through our link and get a head start with 2,500 Hilton Honors bonus points (awarded after your first completed stay before December 15, 2018). That's halfway to a free night at a category one hotel!
Nearly Free Hotel Rooms: The Math Behind Our Mattress Run
So, as an example of how lucrative this promotion could be, let’s do the math! For simplicity, we’ll assume we’re booking each stay at a DoubleTree by Hilton.
Book five one night stays at a category one DoubleTree by Hilton. At 5,000 points a night, this would cost 25,000 Hilton Honors points.
Per the Hilton Unlimited Points Promotion, each stay at a Hilton hotel gives you 2,000 bonus Hilton Honors points, reducing the cost of each stay to 3,000 Hilton Honors points. Therefore, the total out of pocket cost for five stays is reduced to 15,000 Hilton Honors points.
Also, per the current promotion, an additional 10,000 Hilton Honors bonus points are awarded for every five stays. This would further reduce your total out of pocket cost to only 5,000 Hilton Honors points.
Finally, as a Diamond (or Gold) member an additional 1,000 Hilton Honors bonus points are awarded per stay at DoubleTree by Hilton, reducing your total out of pocket cost to zero Hilton Honors points!
In Other Words
Total points needed to book five one night Hilton stays: 25,000 points
Total points earned after all bonuses are applied (assuming you’re already a Hilton Diamond/Gold): 25,000 points
Total Hilton Honors point cost for five one night stays at a DoubleTree by Hilton Category one hotel: 0 points!
Nearly Free Hotel Rooms: It’s Not That Simple!
While the aforementioned breakdown is a cool example, it’s much harder to carry out in the real-world.
First, since the promotion clearly requires stays, not nights, you can’t book multiple nights in a row at the same hotel. You have to either find a city where there are two close-by DoubleTree by Hilton category ones (we think Istanbul might be the only option) that you can check-in/check-out day after day, alternating between the two, or you have to pay out of pocket for alternative lodging every other night.
Second, DoubleTree by Hilton rewards 1,000 Hilton Honors points per stay for Diamond and Gold members, but other hotels award fewer points. This means that a mattress run with a mix of different hotels (like Hampton by Hilton or Hilton Garden Inn) wouldn’t cost zero points.
Finally, the deal is sweetened further with milestone points. So, when you complete 40 nights and then every subsequent 10 nights completed you'll receive additional points. For example, if you were to repeat the above example eight times, and book five one night stays with DoubleTree (for a total of 40 nights) you’d end up earning an additional 10,000 milestone points.
Moreover, repeat the process two more times (for a total of 50 nights) and you’d earn an additional 20,000 milestone points, or four more times (for a total of 60 nights) and you’d earn and additional 60,000 milestone points!
Don’t get too excited though, as mentioned above, this is more theory than reality, as finding two category one DoubleTree by Hilton properties to alternate between for 60 nights is nearly impossible.
Note: When this promotion was announced, some speculated that a charge to the folio of the room had to be made in order to trigger the bonus points of the promotion. Fortunately, this wasn’t our experience. We simply booked 41 one night award stays, checked-in/checked-out, rinsed and repeated, and received all our bonus points!
Nearly Free Hotel Rooms: How the Math Worked Out on Our Mattress Run
During our Mexican Hilton mattress run, we decided to do a revolving door of 41 one night stays by booking at four different category one properties (DoubleTree by Hilton, Hilton Garden Inn, Homewood Suites by Hilton, and Hampton by Hilton) all within the same city. If we’re not mistaken, Santiago de Queretaro, Mexico was the only place in the world that had four category one Hilton properties all within about 4-10 miles of each other, making it ideal for mattress running with this type of promotion. The downside is that only the DoubleTree by Hilton offers 1,000 bonus points per stay to Diamond Members; while Hilton Garden Inn is 750 points per stay (or free breakfast), and the Hampton by Hilton and Homewood Suites by Hilton are 250 points per stay.
Note: As of March, 2018 Hilton changed all Santiago de Queretaro, Mexico category one properties to category two (10,000 Hilton Honors points per night).
Our mattress run totaled 41 nights and because we rotated through all four hotels and not just DoubleTree by Hilton, we didn’t expect it to be as lucrative as the free example above. Before booking we did the math on our 41 day mattress run and between all the hotels including our Diamond status and the Hilton promotion, we determined that we’d spend a total of 2,500 Hilton Honors points instead of the 205,000 Hilton points it should have cost. That’s an average of 61 points per night, which is a huge savings!
However, in the end due to some recurring maintenance issues at the Hilton Garden Inn Queretaro, Hilton awarded us an extra 15,000 Hilton Honors points for our troubles. So, what was originally going to cost us 2,500 Hilton Honors points ended up not only being completely free (no money and zero points), but we made an extra 12,500 Hilton Honors points!
Although the complexity of a mattress run varies, in general mattress running isn’t for the faint of heart. In our case, we checked in and out of a different hotel every day for 41 days! This means we packed and unpacked our bags daily, traveled between 4 and 10 miles (by public transportation) each day, shopped for and prepared food every day (not all hotels had a refrigerator and microwave), and got to know the hotel staff in each hotel very well.
Before embarking on this adventure, we weren’t sure how we’d handle it, but in the end, after about a week of settling into a routine, we genuinely started to enjoy our time. Although, we must admit that once we were able to spend a week and a half in a single place when doing a house sitting job in San Miguel de Allende, we enjoyed the feeling of being settled!
Ultimately, when we weighed everything out, it made sense for us to undertake the mattress run. We were already going to be in the area, we needed lodging, we appreciated that we’d extend our Hilton Honors Diamond Status for another year, and we couldn’t pass up the allure of the adventure and free hotel rooms!