Obviously it’s great to have a travel rewards card that earns valuable points — and lots of them. But I also try to focus on cards that provide multiple benefits. Things like helping me earn elite status, find award space on more exclusive carriers, and save money on travel. I argue that the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express has helped me do more creative things to save money on travel than any other credit card in my wallet.
Valuable, Flexible Points
The SPG Amex doesn’t look impressive on its surface. You earn 1 point per dollar on most purchases and 2 points per dollar at Starwood hotels. The sign-up bonus is “only” 25,000 points — 10,000 up front and another 15,000 after you spend $5,000 in six months. (A big hurdle, but still less than $1,000 a month.) The $65 annual fee is waived the first year.
When several other cards are offering 50,000 points, why should you settle for 25,000? Because Starpoints are generally considered more valuable. A single mile from United Airlines might be worth 1.6 cents, and a point earned with the Barclaycard Arrival 1.1 cents. Each card offers 40,000 points at sign up, so those are benefits of $640 and $440 respectively. But I value Starpoints at around 2.5 cents, for a comparable benefit of $625. You can also combine balances in the same household for big-ticket awards.
Starpoints deserve this higher valuation for three reasons:
You can redeem relatively few points for an award night, e.g., 12,000 points for a Category 5 hotel vs. 20,000 points at a comparable Category 5 hotel with Hyatt Gold Passport. And your fifth night is free!
You can stretch points further by booking Cash & Points awards. That Category 5 hotel (let’s estimate $300) now costs only $110 and 6,000 points. Both Cash & Points and Free Nights earn credit toward elite status.
You can transfer points to a large number of airlines, getting 25% more when you transfer blocks of 20,000 points → 25,000 miles. If an airline mile is worth 2 cents (not all of them are), then you’re getting 2.5 cents in value from each Starpoint.
Access to Better Award Flights
Holding the SPG American Express card by itself does provide you with any better access to award flights. However, the flexibility and transferability of its points does open up new opportunities.
Let’s say you want to book a ticket on Singapore Airlines. They are incredibly difficult to book with United Airlines’ miles. And even if award space were available, United won’t display that award space or let you book it online. Also consider Lufthansa. Business class isn’t too hard, but if you want first class, don’t plan far in advance. Lufthansa typically releases award space to its Star Alliance partners just two weeks before departure, and only if the cabin is mostly empty.
But like most airlines, Singapore and Lufthansa offer more award space to their own program members. Transfer your Starpoints to Singapore’s KrisFlyer or to Lufthansa’s Miles & More and you will see plenty of opportunity to book the award ticket you were dreaming of. In fact, Lufthansa requires fewer miles than United to book the same business class and first class award seats.
SPG has its own table, or you can look at mine to see how many miles you get when you transfer your Starpoints to dozens of different airline programs.
Easier Elite Status
Starwood Preferred Guest already makes it fairly easy to earn elite status by providing credit when you book award stays. You even get credit for up to three rooms booked as part of the same reservation (so book an extra room for the kids and get two nights’ elite credit for each night you stay). Furthermore, Starwood provides additional benefits to its top-tier Platinum members when they stay 50, 75, or 100 nights in a year, creating an incentive to qualify with nights rather than just 25 individual stays.
To help you out, the SPG American Express card boosts your account with 2 stays and 5 nights toward elite status each year. If you get both the personal and business cards, you get a total of 4 stays and 10 nights. That means you’re roughly 20% of the way toward top-tier Platinum status (including complimentary suite upgrades and breakfast) without staying at a single hotel!
Cash Back on Travel
If you get the business card, you can also take advantage of OPEN Savings, which offers discounts at a variety of retailers. My favorite is Hyatt. You can receive a statement credit of 5% at many U.S. Hyatt properties (excluding Hyatt Place and Hyatt House) when you pay with your SPG Business Credit Card. Ironically, this helps make the SPG Amex the best way to pay for your Hyatt hotel stays, not the Hyatt Visa.
More Discounts and Promotions
Like other cards issued by American Express, the SPG Amex is eligible for a number of discounts and promotions throughout the year. Small Business Saturday let’s you get a $10 credit for a $10 purchase — buy a gift card at your local restaurant and it’s like free money. A recent offer from Amazon.com provided $25 back after spending $75 — again, buy an Amazon.com gift card and save 33%. Link, Like, Love offers a variety of similar deals with merchants throughout the year.
And the best part? Nearly all of these offers are assigned to the individual card, not the account. You can authorize two additional cardholders for each SPG Amex for free, giving you three cards and three potential savings opportunities. It’s not difficult to earn back more than your annual fee.