American Express and Hilton have a portfolio of co-branded credit cards, all targeted at different consumer bases. Personally I think there’s an “obvious” winner when it comes to the personal cards, though I was surprised recently by some comments from readers who have a different take.
In this post I wanted to provide an in-depth comparison of the Hilton Aspire and Hilton Surpass.
Comparing the Hilton Aspire & Hilton Surpass
The two premium Amex and Hilton personal credit cards are as follows:
- The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card (review) has a $450 annual fee (Rates & Fees)
- The Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card (review) has a $95 annual fee (Rates & Fees)
There are pros and cons to both cards, but which card is better all around? Let’s compare various aspects of the cards, and then I’ll share my take. Upfront I should mention that the Surpass has a much lower annual fee, giving it an obvious advantage in that regard.
Here’s how the welcome bonuses on the two cards compare:
- The Hilton Aspire Card is offering a welcome bonus of 150,000 Hilton Honors points after spending $4,000 within three months
- The Hilton Surpass Card is offering a welcome bonus of 130,000 Hilton Honors points after spending $2,000 within three months
Winner: The Aspire has a bonus that’s 20,000 Honors points better, though with double the minimum spending requirement.
While the cards offer the same return on “base” spending, the bonus categories differ.
The Hilton Aspire Card offers:
- 14x points on Hilton spending
- 7x points on flights booked directly with airlines, car rentals booked directly with select car rental companies, and US restaurants
- 3x points on all other purchases
The Hilton Surpass Card offers:
- 12x points on Hilton spending
- 6x points on US restaurants, US supermarkets, and US gas stations
- 3x points on all other purchases
For context, I value Hilton Honors points at ~0.5 cents each, if you’re trying to do the math on the return on spending you get with these cards. By my math:
- Both cards offer an excellent return on Hilton hotel spending
- Both cards don’t offer terribly compelling returns on everyday spending
- I’d say right now the Surpass 6x points categories are more useful than the Aspire 7x points categories (since travel spending is down)
Winner: I’d say this is roughly a tie. The Aspire offers a better return on Hilton spending, while the Surpass has more useful bonus categories for 6x points. Personally I wouldn’t be using either card for everyday spending, though.
One of the most valuable perks of each card is the ability to easily earn Hilton Honors status. What status do the cards offer?
- The Hilton Aspire Card offers Hilton Honors’ top-tier Diamond status for as long as you have the card, with no spending requirement
- The Hilton Surpass Card offers Hilton Honors’ mid-tier Gold status for as long as you have the card, with no spending requirement; on top of that, you can earn Diamond status by spending $40,000 on the card in a calendar year
Both of these are valuable perks for the respective annual fees. Gold status already gets you many great benefits, like free breakfast and lounge access subject to availability. I would note that the Amex Platinum also offers Hilton Gold status, so that’s another pathway to status.
There are some incremental benefits to Hilton Honors Diamond status, like more bonus points, potentially better upgrades (including to standard suites), and guaranteed lounge access (rather than subject to availability).
Winner: The Aspire offers top-tier Diamond status just for having the card, which is awesome. However, given the significant annual fee difference, the Gold status offered with the Surpass is great as well.
Free night certificates
One of the other most valuable benefits of co-branded Hilton credit cards is the potential to earn weekend free night certificates. How does the potential for that differ across these two cards?
- The Hilton Aspire Card offers a free night certificate annually just for having the card (this includes the year where you get the card), plus a second free night certificate when you spend $60,000 on the card in a calendar year
- The Hilton Surpass Card offers a free night certificate when you spend $15,000 on the card in a calendar year
Note that free night certificates issued through December 31, 2020, are valid for 24 months, and can be used any night of the week, which is awesome.
Winner: The Aspire offers a free night certificate just for having the card, with no spending requirement. Since I primarily have this card for the perks rather than spending, that’s ideal. However, if you do have the Surpass, it could be worth spending $15,000 on the card per year to earn a free night certificate.
While the primary benefits of both of these cards is status (and in the case of the Aspire, the free night certificate), the Hilton Aspire Card, in particular, has some additional perks that really set it apart, including:
- A $250 annual Hilton resort credit
- A $250 annual airline fee credit
- A Priority Pass membership
Winner: The Aspire has some incredible additional perks, though they’ll be of different value to different people. The Hilton resort credit is good as cash if you stay at a Hilton resort at least once a year and spend $250, while the airline fee credit can be tougher to maximize, given the restrictions.
Which Hilton credit card should you apply for?
The Hilton Aspire Card is my single favorite hotel credit card, and in my opinion, offers an unbelievable amount of value. However, many disagree with me and think the Hilton Surpass Card is the better option. So let me address that.
Yes, there’s some “sticker shock” with the $450 annual fee Hilton Aspire Card, but let me share how I’ve done with the card so far this year.
I’ve taken full advantage of the $250 Hilton resort credit for a hotel stay, as even room rate at a Hilton resort qualifies towards this. Through August 31 you can even use this credit towards restaurant spending, given you even more flexibility.
Then I also got $240 worth of value out of the airline fee credit. While there are restrictions placed on the airline fee credits (and typically upgrades don’t qualify), I ended up buying some American Airlines “stickers,” and those were automatically reimbursed.
I’m already at $490 worth of value on my $450 annual fee, and that’s not even accounting for:
- Hilton Honors Diamond status, which typically gets me excellent treatment, especially outside the US
- The free night certificate, and those issued in 2020 are valid for 24 months and for stays any day of the week, making them more flexible than ever before
While I haven’t used my free night certificate for this year, late last year I used it at the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills, where a night would have otherwise cost $700+.
While there’s never going to be “one size fits all” advice, let me say that I think the Hilton Aspire card makes perfect sense if:
- You could use the $250 resort credit (which can be used towards any spending at a Hilton-family resort)
- You can use the free night certificate at any nice hotel that would cost $200+ per night; many of us use it at hotels that cost significantly more than that
Between those things you’re “breakeven” on the $450 annual fee, by my math, and that doesn’t even account for the Diamond status, the airline fee credit, the Priority Pass membership, and more.
That being said, I understand there are people who are put off by high annual fees. In those situations getting the Hilton Surpass Card to get Gold status could make sense. If you’re someone who does a fair bit of credit card spending, it could even be worth spending $15,000 to get a free night reward.
Personally, I think the Aspire is almost across the board the better option, assuming you can get good value from the free night certificate. While the $450 annual fee might sound like a lot, the card offers top-tier status, up to $500 in credits, and an annual free night, and between those you can get outsized value.
There aren’t many cards that I put in the “too good to be true” category, but for me, that’s exactly where the Hilton Aspire falls.
Where do you stand on Hilton cards — do you prefer the Aspire or the Surpass?
The following links will direct you to the rates and fees for mentioned American Express Cards. These include: Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card (Rates & Fees), and Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card (Rates & Fees).