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With nonessential travel on hold due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, now is the perfect time to plan your credit card strategy for the next year or so so you're flush with points and miles when it's safe to travel again.

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There are plenty of limited-time bonus categories and statement credits to take advantage of now due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But if you're able to focus on delayed gratification, a year from now you can be sitting on more than 300,000 Hilton Honors points, two valuable free weekend night certificates, and top-tier Hilton Diamond elite status to help you enjoy it all even more. Here's how to set yourself up for a ton of free hotel stays by using two of Hilton's top credit cards.

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Comparing the Hilton Surpass and the Hilton Aspire

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Hilton has a decently large portfolio of cobranded credit cards, all issued by American Express.  While they've undergone some branding changes in recent years, the two cards that are most attractive to the average traveler are the premium Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card and the mid-level Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card.

Here's a high-level overview of how these two cards stack up against each other, although you can also check out this guide for a more detailed comparison:

With both of these cards offering strong welcome bonuses of more than 100,000 points, there's an argument to be made that Hilton loyalists should pick up both of these cards. Normally that's the exact recommendation I'd make, although the lack of current travel definitely changes the calculus a bit. Instead, the best strategy may be to open the Surpass now, start building your Hilton points balance, then add the Aspire in a year or so once travel (hopefully) returns to normal.

Why you should start with the Hilton Surpass

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Premium credit cards such as the Hilton Aspire often rely on stronger welcome offers to differentiate themselves, but in this case, the gap between the Surpass and Aspire is relatively narrow. TPG values Hilton Honors points at .6 cents each, making the 125,000-point bonus on the Hilton Surpass worth $750 and the 150,000-point bonus on the Hilton Aspire worth $900, a small gap. Note that you'll end up with at least 130,000 points after completing the minimum spending requirement to earn the bonus on the Hilton Surpass.

If you're looking to stock up on Hilton points, the Surpass has two strong things going for it right now. First, you only need to spend $2,000 in the first three months to earn the welcome offer as opposed to $4,000 on the Aspire. This is especially useful if you've recently lost your job or are simply cutting expenses due to the uncertain economic outlook. $2,000 in three months, or just ~$666 a month, should be much more manageable.

The second reason to start with the Surpass now is that it has a much lower annual fee of just $95 (see rates and fees) versus $450 (see rates and fees) on the Hilton Aspire. Normally it would be easy to argue that the Aspire pays for itself with its host of travel credits and benefits, and while that's still true, cash is king during a recession. Keeping your fixed costs as low as possible is a good idea right now.

It's worth noting that Amex has made some of the benefits on the Aspire easier to use, such as expanding the up to $250 annual Hilton resort credit to cover purchases at U.S. restaurants, including takeout and delivery through August 2020, but you still need to spend more cash upfront to get these benefits.

If you decide to use the Hilton Surpass regularly, especially at U.S. restaurants, U.S. supermarkets and U.S. gas stations, where the card earns 6x points per dollar, you may be able to hit the $15,000 a year spending threshold and earn a free weekend night certificate while your points balance continues to grow. This is where the Aspire makes its entrance.

Adding the Hilton Aspire to the mix

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While no one knows for sure what will happen next with this pandemic, I think it's safe to hope that a year from now travel will be starting to return to normal. At that point you should have well over 150,000 Hilton points from your Surpass card, and hopefully a weekend free night certificate as well.

At that point, you should go ahead and apply for the Hilton Aspire as well. Assuming the welcome offer hasn't changed much, you'll almost instantly double your account balance to more than 300,000 points. You'll also get automatic top-tier Hilton Diamond status, and a second weekend free night certificate you can stack with the one earned on your Surpass. This is to say nothing of the Aspire's up to $250 annual Hilton resort credit which can help offset food, drink or spa treatments on your stay.

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Hilton's weekend free night certificates are rather unique in the points and miles world in that they aren't really capped. You can use them at properties such as the Waldorf Astoria Maldives that would normally cost over $1,000 a night, as long as you book on a weekend. When you add Diamond status to the mix, you'll enjoy free breakfast and upgrades at many properties. It's up to you whether to use your massive haul of Hilton points to extend your stay at a luxury hotel beyond the free weekend nights or to save them for more budget-friendly trips in the future. Either way, you'll be well set.

Bottom line

Now is the perfect time to work on your points earning strategy so that you'll be ready to travel for free again as soon as it's safe to do so. That might mean, counterintuitively, waiting to get some of the more valuable cards that offer travel-specific benefits and instead focusing on amassing as many points as possible. The Hilton Aspire and Surpass make an extra powerful duo, because after earning copious amounts of points with the Surpass, you can add the Aspire for automatic top tier Diamond status and a free weekend night certificate (oh, and 150,000 more points).

For rates and fees of the Hilton Surpass card, click here.

For rates and fees of the Hilton Aspire card, click here.

Featured image by John Gribben for The Points Guy

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