I’ve written up a summary of the Starwood Preferred Guest program for Webflyer.com’s Head2Head feature. It’s as follows:
Introduction: The Starwood Preferred Guest program began in February, 1999 by combining the old Westin Premier and Sheraton Club International Programs. Its key selling point from the beginning was ease of points redemption: no blackout dates or capacity controls, if a participating hotel had a standard room available you could pay for it with points. Only in 2008 has Hilton begun to follow Starwood’s lead on redemption, and all other programs remain clearly behind.
The Starwood brand includes Westin, Sheraton, Le Meridien, St. Regis, W Hotels, Luxury Collection, and Four Points (and element and aLoft brands on the way). With over 860 hotels, it’s a larger program than Hyatt’s but much smaller than Marriott, Hilton, and Priority Club. Relative to its size, Starwood has a large number of high-end properties and exotic resorts, so there is no shortage of aspirational destinations at which to redeem hard-earned points.
Features: Redeeming points for hotel stays is easy, rooms are nearly always available. Points can also be transferred to a large number of
U.S. and international airline partners, mostly at 1:1 with 5000 bonus miles for transferring 20,000 Starpoints.
Gold status is earned after 10 stays or 25 nights and provides a preferred room as an upgrade (generally a better room within the same room category such as a higher floor or better view). Gold members receive 3 points per dollar spent at Starwood properties, a 50% bonus. They also are provided 4 p.m. checkout at most non-resort properties. Platinum members receive upgrades to the best available room at check-in (including standard suites), guaranteed room availability when booked 72 hours prior to arrival, and a ‘platinum amenity’ which ranges from bonus Starpoints to a food and beverage credit or a local gift.
Formally, members must have an eligible stay at a participating property or earn points via their credit card partner every 12 months to avoid account expiration. In practice this isn’t always enforced. Pros: Unquestionably the unique selling proposition of the Starwood Preferred Guest program is that if a hotel’s standard room is available, you can claim that room with points. Plus when you pay for four award nights in a row, the fifth night at a property is free.
Participating hotels themselves are frequently impressive. Starwood has some of the very best hotels in the world in its program; the kinds of aspirational properties that any seasoned traveler would want to go. Many Starwood properties permit the use of additional points for upgraded accommodations like premium views, club lounge access, and even suites, a benefit which sets the program apart from Hilton and Priority Club.
Starwood also offers “Cash & Points” awards which let you combine a reduced number of points with a cash co-pay. When these awards are available they are an excellent value. Platinum status offers a better upgrade benefit than most competitors who tend to exclude suites from their program terms and conditions. Platinum also offers club lounge access at Sheraton, Westin, and Le Meridien properties which have such facilities.
Hotels have seen high occupancy levels and rising rates over the past several years, and hotel programs across the board have increased the number of points necessary to redeem for free stays as a result. Starwood seems to have gone further than most. In addition to the annual adjustment in the rewards category of each hotel, Starwood has added new redemption tiers twice since the program’s inception. A hotel that might once have topped out at 12,000 points per night in the original category 5 could now be 35,000 points in category 7 during high season. Meanwhile, while the Starwood American Express card offers tremendous points-earning potential, earning rates on hotel spending haven’t aren’t especially generous. It can take as many as 14 nights in a hotel property to earn a free night at that same property, even for a Gold elite member earning 50% more points per dollar spent
Starwood isn’t as ubiquitous as competitors like Marriott and Priority Club. Many smaller towns in particular don’t have a Starwood-affiliated property. And while Starwood offers rich benefits to Platinum members, their Gold elite level isn’t as generous as competitors like Hilton which offers free breakfast.
(I’ve also given Webflyer my take on United and Continental as well.)