The 12 Best Hotels We Didn’t Pay for in 2013

One of the perks of the frequent flyer life is staying in hotels you would have never stayed in. At least for me. The nicest hotel I stayed in before getting into this hobby… was… well, I don’t remember anything nice. But 3 star hotels were a treat.

And in the last year we stayed at so many 5 star hotels that it was hard to pick a list. Life is certainly funny. We don’t need this level of luxury. But I don’t complain. :-) Plus, being in the center of a great city like Paris or Vienna is priceless. Well, actually it’s normally pretty expensive. But these were all free.

1) InterContinental Berchtesgaden

InterContinental Berchtesgaden

I just wrote up a big post on how awesome the hotel is and without repeating too much let me say that the hotel has a heated outdoor infinity pool we swam in while it snowed over the alps at sunset.


Since InterContinental is such a big part of our strategy right now, I’ll do a brief section now on how to do it for free.

  • The IHG Best Rate Guarantee is simple- book with IHG and find a free night elsewhere and your first night is free. Even if it’s 1 night, it’s completely free.
  • Read my post on How to Earn IHG Rewards Points on Steroids.
  • Get the IHG credit card (although I strongly recommend airline credit cards first).
  • Afterwords use your points on IHG PointBreaks, the best points sale ever.
  • You can find people who will trade the BOGO (buy one get one free) certs for 5,000 points.

Although, we did spend 35,000 points a night at this hotel, but it’s so worth it for a few nights.

Read more: The InterContinental Berchtesgaden

2) Conrad New York

Conrad New York

We were there last winter before Hilton’s devaluation. In short, this hotel is stunning. One of my favorite hotels for sure. It’s huge, it’s artsy, it’s super modern, it’s beautiful, and I actually like the area. I love battery park and the south side of Manhattan.

Unfortunately, Hilton hates giving points to anyone and charges out the wazoo for a simple redemption. So I may never stay here again, although I have seen the rate for $209/night. Good for a 5 star hotel in Manhattan, but terrible given the reward.

But seriously, it’s my favorite hotel in NYC so far (out of the IC, Ritz, Waldorf, Crowne Plaza and others).

Read more: Conrad New York

3) Park Hyatt Hamburg


It’s impossible to imagine a Park Hyatt that is less than perfect. It’s incredible. My favorite hotel is still the Park Hyatt Shanghai. It’s just so freaking nice.

It might be the nicest hotel on this list. In terms of just how fine it is, how perfect it is, this one is incredible. The fine dark woodwork throughout the entire hotel. The lobby, the room, the lounge. Everything is a perfect modern dark wood.

I’m not in love with Germany, I guess it’s not farflung enough, or I would have ranked this higher. But Hamburg is beautiful and the hotel location is perfect. Near the lake, downtown.

The great news is that this hotel is a Hyatt Category 4. So out of those annual certs one gets from the Hyatt Visa, this is one of the best on the category 4 list.

4) Radisson Blu Vienna Styles


Have I ever told anyone how much I love Vienna. Well, yes. I think it’s a city prettier than Paris. It’s pedestrian friendly and a few hours away from Hallstatt. 😀

The hotel is in the oldest most beautiful part of town. It’s in an old bank from the 1800s and is super modern inside. It’s really small, but is certainly the nicest Radisson hotel I’ve seen. But it’s a magical part of town to stroll at night.

The hotel was 50,000 points but with the credit card I get a free night with every stay. So it was two nights for 50,000 points. Obviously a great deal for such an expensive city.

5) InterContinental Vienna


Again, I love Vienna, and when I’m there I would lean to this hotel because of my RA status and the access to the lounge.

I mean, the hotel is nice and all. But the lounge is maybe the nicest I saw in Europe. Being broke and all, I don’t get to have “truffle soup” or anything with truffle-shrooms or oils otherwise. But the food was not just sufficient but fine. And the soup was out mid day.

Of course, it’s in walking distance to everything in district 1 area.

The first time we stayed at the hotel it was completely free with a BRG. The second time was the first time I ever used a BOGO cert. Justified paying the first night because award nights aren’t available for 3 people and the mom was with us.


6) InterContinental San Juan

InterContinental San Juan

Truth is, I’m a beach person. I’d rather be in Puerto Rico than most of Europe most of the time. The water is much clearer in other parts but the IC is near the airport and next to the Ritz with one of the widest beaches in San Juan. It’s not really near the Old Town area, but you kind of have to choose between beach and Old Town.

It wasn’t hard to choose because the hotel was completely free with a BRG.

Read more: InterContinental San Juan

7) InterContinental Kiev


I swear I gained 15 pounds at this hotel. If the IC Vienna had the finest food, this had the finest desserts. How did they have so many different incredible desserts each night for 17 nights?

But what’s crazier is the lounge in general has a ton of food. Rarely anyone in there but there’s enough food for a feast. One night Salmon, the next night ravioli. Although there are usually 3 hotel dishes, many side dishes, salads, appetizers and the largest dessert section in any hotel.

The hotel is also super fine. It’s luxurious in a grand kind of Ritz Carlton way.

But the best part is, this hotel was on PointBreaks. 5,000 points a night for 17 nights. 85,000 points for 17 nights is less than I spent for 3 nights at the IC Berchtesgaden.

8) Plaza on the River, London


This is a Club Carlson hotel for 50,000 points so we also got the second night free. We ended up booking 4 nights and paid for two.

The hotel is in the Park Plaza across the river from Westminster.

The hotel is 5 star but simple. Not in a Park Hyatt simple luxury way, but more just simple. However, the hotel rooms are very large, with a pull-out sofa and a kitchen. This was super economical for 3 of us in London. Plus we got upgraded to a suite, which really means that we had our own distinct rooms. I would highly recommend this for any family going to London. Otherwise, I’d be a little more central. Although it’s a big city and the hotel is downtown for sure.


9) InterContinental Budapest

InterContinental Budapest

This hotel is on Travel & Leisure’s Top 500 Hotels list for a reason. The view. The hotel has a lot going for it but location is honestly the best in Budapest. And I wrote up a big post on how much we love Budapest, and how to do Budapest for free. But this hotel is a treat.

Unfortunately we ended up staying at the Radisson Blu most of the time because it’s 9,000 points a night. Hard to beat. But we were able to beat it with a BRG that made the hotel free. So for one night we had access to their great lounge and it came with free breakfast.

But our room was facing the river. In fact, it was directly across the Royal Palace. Not a bad view at all.

Read more: Budapest Hotels for Free

10) Renaissance Aruba

Renaissance Aruba Island

As I think about it, this hotel should really be number 4. It’s so awesome. Again, I’m a beach person and the hotel can one-up most any beach hotel with one giant detail.. they have their own private island.

I kid you not, the boat strolls into the hotel, the level below the basement, and takes you away to this beautiful island with flamingos, hammocks and nature trails.

Just, how perfect?

At the time we had Platinum status (when they offered the challenge) and they offered us a room at the nicer property but we declined as we didn’t want to wait. So we took the standard room, and the hotel was still nice. But the island was just super romantic. It also happened to be our anniversary.  So spending the day on a private island, which in the morning barely has any people, is nothing short of stellar.

It’s this far down the list for no reason.

The best part is that we could use a category 5 certificate for the hotel. You earn them through promotions (some MegaBonuses) and through the credit card.

Read more: Renaissance Aruba

11) InterContinental Paris Le Grand

InterContinental Paris

I already wrote about how we stayed at the InterContinental Paris with the President of South Korea. Well, we at least got to be surrounded by security. And Paris has the reputation it does because it’s a beautiful city with great food.

The hotel is luxurious in an antique kind of way, which is my mom’s thing. And if I had to guess I’d say my Grandmother’s as well. While it’s not mine, I recognize nice things. The treatment of RAs is great too.

But the lounge was the worst food of all the lounges on this trip. Just dry sandwiches everyday. Not what I would expect. But of course, the champagne was good.

We used 1 cert from the credit card for a free night, and paid 50,000 points for the other night. Whatever.

12) InterContinental Johannesburg Sandton Towers


The hotel was on PointBreaks yet it was going for $400 a night. It was great timing for us and the treatment was awesome. Our first stay we got one of the nicest suites I’ve been in. Chandeliers, a very large living room and the whole nine yards.

It was the best 5,000 points one could spend.

The breakfast was given to RAs (which was great) and the lounge didn’t have much in the evening so we didn’t spend much time there. But the hotel is still very nice. Sandton is the nicest area of Johannesburg. Looks like a lot of shopping malls to me but if that’s your thing.

If you’re in the area, rent a car and do a self drive safari in Pilanesberg National Park. You won’t regret it.

Other mentions


Waldorf Astoria New York. Being old doesn’t mean that the hotel has to be falling apart.

Also, I learned that a mistake fare at a 4 star hotel in Germany may not be worth it. As 4 star hotels in Germany, (it was a Leonardo in Hamburg) is apparently akin to our 1 star hotels. They had a plaque that all the German 4 and 5 star hotels had showing their rank… but the hotel didn’t have AC (in Summer), there was no internet from the room, and it was in the middle of some industrial park. Bummer. Had a month of mistake fares booked across Germany at Leonardo hotels and we skipped the rest.

Honorable mentions

We paid for the IC Warsaw and San Fran Mark Hopkins out of pocket to complete promotions. The IC Warsaw was 60 Euros on weekends. But both were tall buildings, which I love.

The IC Warsaw had an incredible view from the room facing the Palace of Culture and Science tower.

And from our room in San Fran we could see down to the pier area, see Alcatraz and in the background see the giant Golden Gate Bridge. Both hotels were awesome.

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  1. Awesome, Drew. I just got back from a trip myself, free stays at the Hilton Arcadia Phuket, Millennium Hilton Bangkok, Hyatt Regency Tokyo and Grand Hyatt Tokyo. It was great! Many thanks to your site.

    • Awesome set of hotels for the year!
      I stayed at the Park Hyatt Tokyo but wasn’t a fan of the area, thought about the GH. I assume you like it.

      Wouldn’t mind taking a Hilton Phuket in the spring!

    • Yeah, it was great! I went to the PHT just for the New York bar which was amazing, but location-wise I think the GH takes it.

      Phuket was awesome!

  2. Love, love. Thanks for your post…many aspirational stays. We stayed at Hilton Plaza in Vienna and liked their lounge food.

    • Oh is that the one right across the park from the IC? Maybe Vienna has high standards of food. :-p

  3. can you write a post about how to get free breaksfasts and free hotel lounge food access

    I would like the info on this ok thanks


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We have spent the majority of our marriage traveling full time, living out of hotels.   All the while, we list our expenses publicly, budgeting $25,000 a year for our nomadic life while still staying in mostly 4 or 5 star hotels across ~20 countries a year.
Go to About Me to learn more.