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As you may have noticed, I've certainly been writing a lot of these "complete guides to points programs" recently. The reason I've been focusing my energy on these guides so much is that I wanted to cover what are, in my opinion, the top three points programs in Canada for avid travellers: American Express Membership Rewards, Aeroplan, and now Starwood Preferred Guest, or SPG.
The SPG program is especially important to learn about now, since your time left to make use of it may be limited. Marriott has purchased Starwood in a deal that closed back in 2016, and SPG is on track to combine with Marriott Rewards at some point in 2018.
Since SPG is such a valuable and generous program, whilst Marriott Rewards is decidedly less so, there's been lots of speculation that the combined program will lose most of the standout benefits that SPG offered. While we don't know for sure what will happen, it's always good to be prepared for the worst. In that case, the next year or so might indeed be your last chance to make use of the outstanding value that SPG offers.
Before we talk about that outstanding value, let's go over some of the ways to earn points in SPG (known as "Starpoints") in Canada.
The Chase Marriott Rewards Premier Visa offers 50,000 Marriott Rewards points upon your first purchase, which can be converted at a 3:1 ratio into 16,667 Starpoints during the lead-up period to the Marriott–Starwood merger.
SPG is also a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, and you can transfer your MR points to Starpoints at a 2:1 ratio. While it isn't the best use of MR points, it can be worthwhile to make this transfer if the circumstances are right, such as topping up your account for a big redemption.
Another way to earn Starpoints is, of course, by staying at Starwood hotels. You earn 2 points per 1 USD spent at Starwood properties; that includes room charges and incidentals, such as food and beverages at the hotel or spa charges.
Finally, SPG has a few cool partnerships with Delta, Emirates, China Eastern, and – uniquely in the miles and points space – Uber, allowing you to earn Starpoints on flights with those airlines or Uber rides.
Redeem for Rooms
Naturally, a great way to redeem your Starpoints is to cash them in for hotel stays at Starwood hotels:
Hotels are divided into seven categories, which cost the following number of Starpoints for a free night:
For Categories 5, 6, and 7, the number of Starpoints required for a "Free Night Award" varies within the range provided as above based on whether you're travelling in peak or off-peak season.
The value you get for your redemption depends on how much a night at that hotel would otherwise cost if purchased with cash. As you can probably guess, cash rates in popular places at popular times, such as major holidays or when there's a major event in town, can be sky-high. Redeeming your points for free nights in these situations can get you some of the best value around (for an example, see my friend PointsNerd's recent experience looking for a hotel in Sydney over New Year's Eve).
The great thing about SPG is that while some of their top-notch properties (such as the St. Regis Maldives Vommuli or the W Verbier) look absolutely stunning, their lower-end hotels also can make a fantastic use of Starpoints. As an example, there's many airport hotels in Categories 1-2 that can regularly go for $150+ a night, but only cost 2,000-3,000 Starpoints! That's amazing value of up to 7cpp if you ever need a quick overnight stay somewhere between flights (and chances are, as a frequent traveller, that you'll eventually need one).
One last thing to love about redeeming for Starwood hotels: there's no "award availability" that's separate from regular availability. Unlike many other hotel programs that only allow a certain number of rooms to be redeemed with points per night, SPG doesn't limit the number of Free Night Awards available, and lets you use your points for any standard room that's available at the time of booking.
Make the Most of Marriott
As I mentioned previously, for the next year or so before the program merges with Marriott Rewards, Starpoints can be transferred to Marriott Rewards at a 1:3 ratio. This means that you can also redeem for stays at hotels under the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton umbrellas.
If you're looking to stay at high-end hotels in particular, transferring your Starpoints to Marriott can be a fantastic proposition. To see why, note that the highest-category Starwood hotels cost 35,000 Starpoints a night, whereas Marriott charges at most 45,000 Marriott Rewards points (which equals 15,000 Starpoints) for a night at their top-end Category 9 hotels.
I was recently choosing between the W Hong Kong and the JW Marriott Hong Kong – both high-end hotels in their respective programs. For a three-night stay, the W would have cost me 60,000 Starpoints (20,000 × 3), whereas the JW Marriott would've cost 135,000 Marriott Rewards points (45,000 × 3), equivalent to only 45,000 Starpoints in total. I wanted to check out the W, but not so much at the incremental cost of 15,000 Starpoints. Needless to say, I went with the latter option.
Therefore, when you're shopping around for hotels in a particular city, make sure you compare the two programs to see if either chain has properties whose redemption rate offers outsized value.
Just like American Express Membership Rewards, SPG allows you to transfer points to other frequent flyer programs. In fact, SPG's list of transfer partners is one of the longest out there:
Transfer ratios are 1:1 except for United MileagePlus (2:1), Air New Zealand Air Points (65:1), and LATAM Pass (1:1.5).
The best part about turning your Starpoints into airline miles is that whenever you transfer Starpoints in 20,000-point increments, you'll get an extra 5,000 miles as a bonus. So you can transfer 20,000 Starpoints to any of the above programs and receive 25,000 miles in that program.
What makes this option even more attractive is that some of these programs have very compelling sweet spots of their own, and there may be very few ways to earn points in those programs outside of actually flying a lot. The ability to transfer Starpoints offers an "inroad".
Here's an example: Asiana Club, the frequent flyer program of Asiana Airlines, allows you to spend just 50,000 miles for a flight on Lufthansa First Class from North America to Europe. (For comparison, Aeroplan charges 70,000 miles and United MileagePlus charges 110,000 miles for such a flight.)
The only easy way to earn Asiana Club miles if you're based in Canada is to transfer them from SPG; thanks to the 5,000 mile bonus, transferring 40,000 Starpoints will get you 50,000 Asiana miles. That means that two easy credit card signups (grab the personal and business versions of the American Express SPG card) can get you on a luxurious flight that normally retails for up to $15,000.
With SPG, you can effectively earn miles with any of the transfer partners that would suit your travel needs, while still retaining the versatility of keeping your points banked in SPG, in case your circumstances change. That's one of the prime reasons why Starpoints are so highly valued among those who take their point game seriously.
Tips & Tricks
SPG Benefits: Elite status with the program can be extremely useful, especially since SPG Gold is automatically granted by holding the American Express Platinum Card (normally requires 10 stays/25 nights annually). Enjoy an extra Starpoint earned per 1 USD spent at Starwood properties, a one-category room upgrade, and other benefits. Stay enough nights to reach Platinum (25 stays/50 nights annually) and you'll get perks like complimentary suite upgrades and free breakfast.
5th Night Free: Redeem for a four consecutive Free Night Awards at any participating hotel and get the fifth night free! Another excellent perk that makes it easy to get incredible value out of your points. Here's a tip: using points, but only need a four-night stay somewhere? Book a five-night stay anyway, for no extra cost, to get an extra night's elite credit plus what is effectively guaranteed late checkout, as late as you want!
Cash & Points: Some hotels allow you to book nights for a combination of points and cash. You can leverage this to stretch your points across more hotel stays or to help complete an expensive redemption if you're short a handful of Starpoints. Make sure you do the math, though, to check if the points you're spending are worth the amount you're saving off the full cash rate!
SPG Moments: You can trade in your Starpoints for cool one-off events, such as box seats at sporting events or concerts, specialty stays at iconic Starwood hotels around the world, and premier culinary experiences with the world's top chefs. Some Moments can be redeemed for a fixed amount of Starpoints; others are auctions in which the highest bidder wins. Anything is possible – someone recently redeemed 1,060,500 Starpoints to throw the first pitch before Game 7 of the World Series!
All things considered, SPG is a fantastic program. It's pretty much conventional wisdom in the miles and points community that 1 Starpoint is worth more than 1 of any other kind of rewards currency, and it's not hard to see why. With a sizable global footprint of hotels (currently gigantic thanks to the ability to redeem at Marriott properties) and a plethora of airline transfer partners that offer immense versatility, you can't go wrong earning Starpoints even if you don't have an immediate plan on how to use them. Best of all, SPG is an easy program to get into as Canadians, so grab the American Express SPG Card and start racking up those Starpoints.
The only drawback to the program is the unfortunate reality that it may be coming to an end soon. Therefore, if you haven't been making full use of the outstanding value that SPG can bring, there's no better time to get started than now.