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If you're in the market for a personal Hilton credit card and are willing to pay an annual fee to receive a great welcome bonus and benefits, you may be wondering whether to apply for the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card or the benefits-heavy Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card.

(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)Source: The Points Guy

Both cards are offering excellent welcome bonuses of more than 100,000 points, but you'll have to keep in mind that TPG only values Hilton points at .6 cents each. Beyond that, these two cards exemplify the conundrum of deciding between a premium and entry-level credit card better than any other pair I can think of. The Aspire has an incredibly compelling value proposition and can pay for itself (and then some) over time, but there's no way around the upfront $450 annual fee (see rates and fees). Meanwhile, the Hilton Surpass offers solid rewards for less frequent travelers at a much more manageable price. Today we're going to walk through the ins and outs of both cards to help you decide which one is right for you.

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Limited-time coronavirus related perks

The basis of most travel rewards cards, especially premium options like the Hilton Aspire, is that in exchange for an upfront annual fee, you can expect to enjoy luxury travel and lifestyle perks for the duration of your card membership. With worldwide travel essentially ground to a halt due to the coronavirus, Amex and other issuers have had to make adjustments to keep their cards relevant and valuable to consumers. Here are the limited-time perks that have been added to both cards:

Both the Surpass and Aspire are seeing a new temporary bonus category, a shortcut to lifetime elite status and an extension of unused free night certificates:

  • Earn 12x Hilton Honors points at U.S. supermarkets through July 2020
  • Bonus points earned through eligible purchases, if they post to the card member's Hilton Honors account between May 1 and Dec. 31, 2020, will be considered base points and will count towards elite tier qualification and lifetime Diamond status
  • Unexpired free weekend night certificates — plus those issued through Dec. 31, 2020 — can now be used on anynight of the week, and those issued between May 1 and Dec. 31, 2020, will be valid for 24 months from the date of issuance (rather than the usual 12 months).

In addition, Amex has expanded the eligible uses of the Hilton Aspire's up to $250 resort credit. From now through August 2020, eligible purchases at U.S. restaurants, including takeout and delivery, will now qualify toward the up to $250 Hilton resort credit on the Aspire.

Which card is right for you?

The first thing to look at when considering a new credit card is the welcome bonus it offers. From a pure points perspective, the premium Hilton Aspire comes out ahead with its 150,000 point welcome bonus, worth $900 based on TPG's valuations. The Aspire has a higher spending requirement to earn the bonus ($4,000 vs. $2,000 with the Surpass), but in exchange, you get an extra 25,000 points, worth $150 based on TPG's valuations.

Even beyond the bonus, I still think the Aspire offers a better first-year value proposition. The big reason why is that you'll get a free weekend night certificate when you open your account (and each year on account renewal) that can be used at just about any Hilton property in the portfolio. This means you could treat yourself to a free night at the aspirational Waldorf Astoria Maldives, which is enough to instantly erase the difference in the card's $450 annual fee.

Beyond that, the Aspire offers a number of ways to recoup its $450 annual fee. The Hilton Aspire Card offers an up to $250 annual credit for airline incidental fees, an up to $250 resort credit each card member year, Diamond elite status and a free weekend night after you are approved for the card and every year after you renew. So, you'll easily get more value than the $450 annual fee if you're able to fully use the credits. Even if you can't, you may find the value you get from the elite status, free weekend night reward and other card benefits justify the annual fee.

If that sounds like you, the Aspire is an easy choice. I could certainly get at least $1,000 of value from the card each year between the credits and the free weekend night.

(Photo by Samantha Rosen / The Points Guy)Source: The Points Guy

So you might be surprised to hear I applied for the Hilton Surpass Card instead. Here's why:

Nearly all Amex cards, including the various cobranded Hilton cards, all include the following language when you click on "Offer & Benefit Terms" from the application page:

Welcome offer not available to applicants who have or have had this Card. We may also consider the number of American Express Cards you have opened and closed as well as other factors in making a decision on your welcome offer eligibility.

This means you can only receive a welcome offer for a particular Hilton card once in your lifetime. Once you apply, Amex will warn you before pulling your credit if you aren't eligible to receive the welcome offer. If you've ever held either of these Hilton cards in the past, your only option moving forward is to apply for one you haven't had yet. This is also a good reason not to upgrade or downgrade your Amex cards unless there's a hefty bonus involved.

Bottom line

Frequent readers of TPG know that I believe the benefits offered by the Hilton Aspire more than justify its $450 annual fee for travelers that can use the free-weekend-night reward, up to $250 annual Hilton resort credit and up to $250 annual airline-fee credit. Even if you take just one trip a year, you may find that you can get more than $450 of value from the weekend night and credits. And, more frequent travelers will have even less trouble taking advantage of the free weekend night, statement credits and Hilton Diamond status.

When you combine this all with the higher bonus on the Aspire, and the temporary expansion of the resort credit to include U.S. restaurants through August 2020, the Aspire remains one of the most compelling premium credit cards to ever hit the market. In fact, the card is so valuable that if you're starting from scratch, it's all the reason you need to pick Hilton over another hotel chain.

Ready to apply? Here are the official application links for the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass Card and Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express

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

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

Featured photo courtesy of American Express.

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