The Starwood Hotel Group has been an international chain of luxury hotels that has served its customers for more than 20 years. While you may not have heard of Starwood, a subsidiary of the famous Marriott brand, you are likely to have heard of at least one of these Starwood individual brands: St. Regis, The Luxury Collection, W Hotels, Sheraton, Westin, Le Meridien, Tribute Portfolio, Design Hotels, Four Points, Aloft, Element
While there have been some recent changes in the branding of the Starwood Preferred Guest Program, the reasons and benefits that you can accrue with the program remain largely the same. You will want to read on to learn about how the program can benefit you. At the end, the details of the branding changes will be discussed to give you the whole picture of how the Starwood Preferred Guest program (SPG) can fit into your lifestyle.
To begin with, the SPG is not an airline frequent flyer card but it can be that – and more. The primary purpose of becoming an SPG member is so you can accumulate points to get free nights at any one of the Starwood brand hotels throughout the world. The program is especially useful if you stay at Starwood hotels on a regular basis regardless if you are flying internationally or have a long road trip that takes you from city to city. Loyal guests have the opportunity to get additional bonus points ranging from 10 to 75 percent of their base number of reward points. More on this later.
First, we will cover how you can earn SPG points. Your first step is to apply for a SPG membership. Membership is free, and when approved you will received the Starwood card and a welcome package on how to use your card to maximize your SPG rewards. You will be introduced to Base Points. Base Points are the lowest level of points you can earn by staying at any of the more than 29 eligible hotel brands around the world. There is the opportunity to get additional Base Points by making qualifying purchases during your stay. The bonus percentages will either be 2.5, 5, or 10 times the number of Base Points, depending on the specific Starwood property you stayed at.
If you will be using the SPG card for less than 10 nights per year, you will not move out of the Basic Member status, and you will not be eligible for any additional Bonus Points regardless of the price of the hotel you choose. You will also get free in-room Internet access, Starwood member rates for all your purchases, and have access to mobile check-in services.
Staying 10 or more nights per year will immediately move you into Bonus Point territory, starting with a 10 percent bonus when you stay between 10 and 24 nights per year. When you stay that 10th night you will be able to access other Starwood benefits, including their Ultimate Reservation Guarantee and late checkout option without penalty. Their Ultimate Reservation Guarantee means that if you should check into a Starwood hotel with a reservation and the reservation confirmation number, and there are no rooms available (due to over booking or an error) Starwood will put you up at a hotel of equal or higher quality (usually higher) and “compensate you for the inconvenience.”
- The first tier beyond Basic Member is Silver Elite which carries a 10% bonus; next is Gold Elite status which carries a 25% bonus; and then the Platinum Elite which offers a 50% bonus. The minimum number of nights required to earn the Gold Elite status is 25, while the Platinum Elite requires a minimum of 50 nights.
- Two other tiers remain, both which offer a 75% bonus on your Base Points. When you stay more than 75 nights a year you earn the Platinum Premier Elite card, and anything more than 100 nights a year will get you the Platinum Premier Elite with Ambassador status. Both of these tiers allow you to extend your checkout time to as late as 4 p.m.
- Regardless of the level of your SPG membership, if you are active on any of these three social media accounts – Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter – you can get 250 Rewards Points simply by connecting your account to each of these networks. That’s a total of 750 points just for letting people know you are an SPG member.
Converting Points to Cash
Most people who apply for the SPG card want to know if the points earned can be converted into actual cash money. The answer is yes, but there are some conditions that need to be met to determine how much an individual SPG Reward Point is worth. There are a number of factors that are taken into consideration, including the property you stayed at. The basic range can be as much as .9 cents per point or as low as .3 cents per point. If you are a Silver Elite member or higher, you will want to pay attention to those bonus points.
When it comes to the earned points expiring, you will have to use your card at least once within a 24 month period to retain any accumulated points. If your card remains inactive for a period of 5 years, you likely will be removed from the program and any accumulated points will be forfeited. One of the easiest ways to keep your card active is to redeem any number of your earned points.
The main reason members who travel regularly accumulate points is to stay at a Starwood hotel for free. If you stay at a hotel for 50 nights a year, that can add up to as much as $10,000 or more just for a basic room. In the SPG program, your card status is not as important as the number of points earned as a result of your status. The points required for a night are the same regardless of your Elite status.
Hotels are divided into categories ranging from 1 to 8, with 1 being the lowest cost hotel and 8 being the most expensive. There is also a difference if you make a reservation during off-peak demand hours or during peak demand times. As a general rule, peak demand times will require an additional 5,000 Rewards Points per night to reserve a room. On average you can expect to use between 20,000 and 50,000 points for a single night’s stay at a mid-level Starwood’s property.
The Real Power of the SPG Program
Yes, the SPG program has some very excellent benefits for frequent travelers, but if you don’t fall into that category why would you consider taking up the program, even if it’s free? The answer is that you can connect your SPG with an American Express card and combine your stay-points earnings with the money you spend on everyday purchases. This makes the program practical no matter how often you use the Starwood card or the tier you are on.
There is extra purchasing power to be had if you are a frequent flyer. Most frequent flyers will be using their SPG card to stay at hotels, so by having the Starwood SPG American Express card you can integrate you flight and hotel expenses into a single account statement, making financial tracking easier. There also is the number of SPG Rewards Points you can rack up to elevate you to the next tier.
But the biggest advantage is that the SPG Amex card lets you transfer points from a large number of airlines to the Starwood program. Many competitors have programs that will let you transfer frequent flyer points, but there are a limited number of airlines that they have agreements with. This is a problem for the customer in many ways. First, it limits the opportunities for selecting the lowest cost fare when flying. Second, if a customer uses the same airline out of loyalty and convenience, those accumulated points may not be transferrable on to their hotel’s program card. The long list of airlines SPG covers can be seen here.
While some people consider the fact that the SPG credit card brand is American Express and is not as widely accepted as a VISA or MasterCard, the practical benefit is that when traveling your airline and hotel reservations can always be made with the SPG Amex card. All travel and business-related expenses can be found in one place, making the accounting process much easier. Retirees who are globetrotting can use the card to maximize their Starwood Rewards Points and get additional free nights along the way.
A business version of the SPG Amex card is available, with benefits that are similar to the standard SPG card. One of the additional perks is the cardholder’s ability to access the Sheraton Club Lounge while staying at a Sheraton hotel. Access gives you the opportunity for a free breakfast and hors d’oeuvres as a lunch option. There is also space for casual business conversations with computers and printers ready and at-the-waiting if needed. There are other benefits, but to get the card you will need to have a FICO score of about 700 minimum, and be willing to pay out $95 for an annual fee (after the first year). The APR’s are variable, ranging from a low of 15.49% to 19.49% depending on your overall credit evaluation.
No objective article would be complete without hearing from the people who actually have used the card. What follows will be a combination of positive and negative reviews, so you can decide for yourself if the pros outweigh the cons. Afterward, there will be some notes about recent developments regarding the program, so you will likely want to continue reading until the end before making a decision to apply.
When researching the online reviews, there were far more reviews that connected the SPG American Express card with the SPG card than the Starwood’s card alone. As was mentioned earlier, the power of the SPG program lies in being able to apply for and getting accepted for both cards. However, a fair number of reviews for the Starwood’s card along were found and should provide enough of a sample to help you decide what you are going to do.
The first standalone review gives the card high grades for the selection of hotels the member’s Reward Points will get them and their travel packages available as an SPG member. The majority of Starwood’s hotels are of the luxury variety, so being able to stay in a quality hotel for a night or two using your Rewards Points is a far better alternative than most other hotel cards offer. That carries over to the vacation packages, all which feature Marriott/Starwood options to use on your vacation. This particular review also offers some tips on how to get to an Elite tier faster.
A second standalone review is from a specific Starwood location in Cancun and illustrates several benefits mentioned earlier in this article. One of the first things that stands out is that the expectation of a certain kind of hotel experience as an SPG member made the member disappointed. This shows that an SPG status is definitely something desired, especially when travelling to a foreign destination. One floor was exclusively reserved for SPG members – a huge perk. And there was a complaint about the travel package, which the previous reviewer had touted as one of the best benefits of being an SPG member.
But what can be overlooked in this review is the fact of the absence of any mention of the SPG American Express card. They said, “try to pay in cash whenever possible” in part because they were charged twice at the bar, spa, and gym. The hotel restaurant got a lukewarm review, though it is not clear if that was the only available eatery in the hotel. Whether having an SPG Amex card would have made a difference is not clear, but the reviewer would have another avenue to possibly get some type of compensation for mediocre food and service.
We can use this last review as a way to compare reviews from people who used the SPG program combined with the American Express card.
This first review of the Starwood Preferred Guest credit card has some interesting pros and cons for you to consider. The website review gave the card a perfect 5/5, citing its high value to frequent travelers and placing it equal or superior to competitors such as the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and Chase Sapphire Preferred card. One if its top benefits to owners is the first year $0 annual fee. The ability to transfer points between the large number of airlines was also cited as a top reason to prefer the SPG Amex card.
What you will find in the comment section are the major criticisms against the card, primarily aimed not at Starwood, but American Express customer service. Several people complained that the customer service reps were not helpful and in one case, claimed they lost their SPG Rewards Points as well. The latter complaint is contradictory to Starwood’s 24 month point expiration policy, so needs to be taken with a grain of salt. As for the poor customer service, the number of reviews about American Express customer service have been largely positive.
The final review to be mentioned here is one done by a popular and well-received travel reviewer – The Points Guy. He compares the SPG Amex card to a different list of competitors: the Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card, The World of Hyatt Credit Card, and the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card. One of the biggest differences is that while the SPG Amex card is slightly behind its competitors in some areas, it is the specific advantages provided by the American Express card separately from the SPG card itself. Of the three competing cards listed, Hyatt and IHG are both connected to Chase Bank, so it appears that for the frequent traveler the American Express card is to be preferred.
The Points Guy review mentions towards the end that Starwood’s SPG program will be merged with its parent company, Marriott, and the SPG program will no longer exist after February 19, 2019. However, there are no significant changes to the features and benefits presented in this article. What follows is the effect the merging of the SPG program will have on existing and future SPG card holders.
Welcome to the Marriott Bonvoy Brand
To avoid ending the review with a negative tone, the issue of the Starwood data breach will be addressed first. Marriott reported the data breach in November of 2018, only two months after merging the Starwood brand with its own. Whether the data breach took place before or after the announced brand takeover is unknown, though a recent study indicated that the average amount of time it takes to identify a data breach is six months. The investigation continues into the source of the data breach, and Marriott continues to move forward with its rebranding of the SPG program.
As for the Bonvoy program, Marriott decided that the aforementioned popular American Express card will be the go-to card on every Marriott high end rewards program cards, while adding Chase Bank as the choice of credit card for their no-fee cards. The latter is intended to appeal to Starwood hotel users who were not previously able to afford the hefty $95 – $450 annual fees associated with the former SPG Amex cards.
With the revaluation of the Starwood Reward Points comes an actual loss in value of those points by moving over to the Bonvoy program. The loss is estimated to be as high as 1.5 cents per point on average, a disappointing result of the rebranding. Also lost is the acceptance of new applications for the old SPG credit card from American Express, though there are alternatives available. The divvying up of Marriott’s remaining co-branding of their Bonvoy brand with American Express and Chase Bank leaves fewer options but addresses a wider customer audience.
Marriott has announced new benefits and the opportunity to earn free rewards points, but they are still working out the details. Projections are that by the end of the year there will be several announcements on the new and improved Marriott Bonvoy Rewards program.
Is the New Marriott Bonvoy Program Worth Serious Consideration?
If you are currently an SPG Rewards Card holder, these changes cannot make you happy. The loss of value of your accumulated rewards points and the likely replacement of the SPG American Express credit card are two of the major reasons SPG customers may look elsewhere to find a better deal. Yet when considering that the new Marriott Bonvoy program is focused on rewarding its frequent travelers and higher end customers, it is likely this group will remain loyal to the brand.
If you are considering the Starwood Hotel brand as your first choice of lodging, it is likely you will want to apply for the Bonvoy card and its benefits. One reason is it continues to lead the competition in offering equal or better card benefits, particularly when it comes to flexibility of rewards points between its brand and the 44 airlines it has agreements with. Another reason is its decision to include the Chase brand with its credit cards. Chase has established a foothold in the travel industry, and based on the reviews above, it targets travelers who need a more affordable option to combine with their Marriott Rewards Program Cards.