Key Link: Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card
Starwood Preferred Guest isn’t an especially rewarding program for earning points based on the money your spend at its hotels.
It is, however, an exceptionally generous program for earning points from the money you spend on its credit card.
Starwood hotels are your Westin, Sheraton, Le Meridien, W, St. Regis, and other associated brands. A non-elite member earns 2 points per dollar spent at a Starwood hotel property. It’ll take $5000 spending (without elite bonuses) to earn a free night at a medium category (four) hotel. Leaving aside even the top of the top hotels in the chain, it’ll take $15000 spent at a hotel to earn a free night at their very expensive properties.
Compare that to Hyatt where a non-elite earns 5 points per dollar spent at a hotel. A mid-tier property (call it category 4 as well) takes 15,000 points per night — or just $3000 in spend rather than $5000. (Update: type fixed, I hate written ‘$500’)
A top-end property is 22,000 points per night. That’s $4400 in spend, a whole lot less than $15,000 at Starwood (and Starwood charges even more points for some hotels, the comparison gets even more extreme truly top-end to truly top-end).
I love Starwood’s elite benefits, not as much as Hyatt’s, but more than Hilton, Priority Club, an Marriott.
But where things really shine is with the Starwood American Express. Earning 1 Starpoint per dollar spent is huge. The points are really valuable on hotel stays, and also hugely flexible transferring points into miles. I’ll deal with points to miles in a separate post, but it does set Starwood apart.
- Starwood set the standard for room availability. They introduced ‘true redemption’ — no blackout dates or more importantly, capacity controls on award nights. If there is a standard room at a hotel available, you can have it for points. That’s industry norm now, but only over the past 3 years. For nearly a decade Starwood was the pioneer in this, mostly alone in the field.
- Starwood has really great aspirational properties. They aren’t as big a chain as Marriott, Hilton, or Priority Club. But at the top end — hotels you really want to stay at — Starwood has more than anyone else.
- Cash and points awards let you stretch your points even further. They were the leader in this category as well.
- They offer the best value for free nights from credit card spend. It may take $5,000 in-hotel spend to earn a free mid-tier redemption. It takes only $10,000 in spend on the credit card, while it would take $15,000 spend on the Hyatt category for a similar room and perhaps double that with Marriott or Priority Club.
Here’s the Starwood free night and cash and points award chart:
With each of the free night (not cash and points night) awards, category 1 and 2 hotels get a 1000 per night discount on the weekends, and in addition the fifth night is free on all free night (not cash and points) awards. So a 5-night stay at a category 3 property costs 28,000 points rather than 35,000. Or — one of my favorite resorts is the Le Meridien Chiang Rai, a category 2 property — a 5 night stay where 2 of the first 4 nights are on the weekend would cost just 14,000 points. So you could stay more than 10 nights there with just the signup bonus on their credit card.
Cash & Points awards stretch your points, looking at it a different way they are letting you buy some of the points for your award night at a discount. Category 3 and 4 cash and points awards you’re basically buying points at a penny apiece (plus tax), other categories it’s more like 1.25 cents (plus tax). The new Category 7 cash and points awards it’s over 1.8 cents during ‘low season’ when an award would cost 30,000 points, it’s about 1.4 cents when the award night would have been 35,000 points.
Cash and points awards are capacity controlled. Starwood was able to get full availability for standard rooms on free night awards because they will pay a hotel its average daily room rate for those free nights whenever the hotel winds up at 90% occupancy. Basically when the award night potentially squeezes out a paid night, Starwood pays full price for the room instead of its own internal deeply discounted price. Cash and points awards don’t come with that extra payment, so hotels only make the awards available when they don’t expect to sell out.
Starwood was also a pioneer of premium room awards, the ability to spend additional points t confirm an upgraded room. This is great for non-elites especially, or for the special occasion, you save all your points for a special getaway…. an ocean resort you actually want to see the ocean… and you don’t want to leave it to chance.
Depending on the hotel category and the room type you want (and not all hotels offer premium room awards, or make all rooms available with this option), you can spend 1000 to 2750 points per night for an upgrade, or double points for a suite.
Priority Club doesn’t offer this at all. Hilton offers it but you’re basically using points at an unfavorable valuation to buy the higher-category room.
Starwood offers fixed prices which means that it’s often a good value. And a way for non-elites to use points and make their stay special. (Hyatt has a similar option, also at a fixed points price, and suites in their program are about 50% more than a regular room.)
A less-remarked on redemption option, but that provides tremendous value in a variety of circumstances, is the Nights & Flights award. If you are going to redeem for a 5 night hotel stay at a category 3 or 4 property you can spend a few more points and also receive 50,000 airline miles with most of their transfer partners.
- A 5-night stay at a category 3 property normally runs 28,000 points. For 60,000 points, or 32,000 more, you get 50,000 airline miles — a discount of 8,000 points compared to redeeming Starpoints for airline miles directly.
- A 5-night stay at a category 4 property normally runs 40,000 points. For 70,000 points, or 30,000 more, you get 50,000 airline miles — a discount of 10,000 points compared to redeeming Starpoints for airline miles directly.
So very useful whenever you have a 5-night stay planned at a category 3 or 4 hotel.
All great redemption options. But whatever you do, though, don’t be tempted by SPG Flights — the ability to use your points to straight up pay for an airline ticket. You’ll get a bit better than a penny a point, one of the least valuable redemptions on offer. If you want to get an award ticket, you’re usually better off transferring points to an airline rather than buying the ticket with points as cash. And if it’s not a good value to redeem an award ticket, then you should probably just be buying the flight. Your Starwood points are a valuable currency, don’t waste them!.
I’ve been carrying the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express top of wallet since 2001. I didn’t get any signup bonus back then, although I did message Amex once or twice and tell them that I felt like these big bonuses they were giving out meant that they valued new customers without any history as a cardmember more than me, and they gave me some points as a courtesy.
(Note that the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express provides me with a referral credit if you choose to use my link to sign up. I genuinely appreciate it if you do. And the link offers the best signup bonus I am aware of.)