Starwood Preferred Guest – is it as good as its reputation?

Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) is the rewards program of the Starwood Group of hotels  and one of the most popular among US business travelers and US bloggers. While I’ve been a member for many years, enjoy some of their brands and reached the top-level Platinum status in the past, the more I traveled globally and the more I learned about the different reward programs, the less I valued SPG. Now, Starwood is being acquired by Marriott and many SPG fans fear that the SPG program might go the way of the Dodo bird. Read on to find out, what you should do!

SPG Overview TableWho are they? Starwood is one of the smaller US hotel chains with 1,271 hotels, a fraction of what Hilton, IHG or Marriott have – which probably has contributed to them being acquired by Marriott. One thing that makes them so popular is that they have the highest percentage of luxury and upscale hotels, compared to those larger chains, and they also have a relatively higher share of their hotels in Europe and Asia, making for many aspirational award redemptions at luxurious hotels around the world. You can check all the numbers at Starwood Group – Facts & Figures!

Why should I care?  With so many upscale and luxury hotels as part of their portfolio, including brands like St. Regis, W, Westin or Le Meridien, and with many in popular tourist destinations, there are a lot of great hotels you’d want to redeem your points earned business travel.
SPG also has one of the oldest and very popular credit card affiliations with American Express. While other credit cards today offer better earnings and perks, it is still in a lot of wallets and very popular.
SPG also has some innovative partnerships, like Crossover Awards with Delta Airlines, allowing to earn points on flights (for Gold and Platinum members) and elite benefits for Platinum members.

Earning Points:  SPG members earn 2 points per US Dollar spent at any of their hotels.  Gold and Platinum members receive a bonus of 50% for a total of 3 points. While SPG points are very valuable at 2 cents/point, that earning ratio is one of the worst in the industry – you will earn 50-100% more for your money spent at hotels of any of the other chains I have reviewed!
Through their innovative partner programs, you can also earn points on Delta or Emirates, once you achieve the higher elite levels.
And you can transfer points from American Express’ Membership Rewards program – a good way to top up your points balance to book a hotel reward stay!
All this together makes it a lot more difficult to earn SPG points than Hilton or InterContinental group. It will take you a lot longer to earn a night at that Starwood luxury hotel than any of the other chains!

SPG Hotels by CategoryRedeeming Points: Similar to other reward programs, the number of points required for a free night depends on the hotel category. All SPG hotels are assigned to one of 7 categories, with a free night starting at 3,000 points for a category 1 hotel and going up to 35,000 points for a top category 7 hotel. About 20% of hotels fall into category 1 & 2, so they are frequent enough and can make for good redemptions. The top 2 categories 6 & 7 make up less than 10% of properties.
You can redeem points for any Standard room. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as straightforward, there are a few extra rules:

aloft KL3The good news is that you can redeem a category 1 or 2 hotel for 1,000 points less on weekends when many business hotels have lower occupancy and cheaper rates. You can also save on longer redemption stays – the 5th award night is free. You can also save some points by using their Cash & Points combination rates, which – when available – can get you a better deal!
But there are some bad news as well: As if the redemption rate of 35,000 points (a cash value of $700 – higher than any other program) isn’t bad enough, the rates are only for “Standard Rooms”. Some of the most desirable hotels, like on Bora Bora or the Maldives, only have Villas. Despite being the lowest room in those resorts, they are not considered “Standard Rooms”, requiring even more points for redemption and not available online at all. No other chain does that and it makes the very hotels that (appear to) make the SPG program attractive unachievable for most members! In most hotel rewards programs you can get great value for your points by booking some of the most expensive hotels on points – while difficult,
LeMeridien PoolI’ve done it many times getting exceptional deals from programs like InterContinental. With SPG, it’s a lot harder to find those great value deals at aspirational properties…
In addition to hotel stays, you can also redeem points for gift cards or airline travel – in each case not as good value as for hotel stays, similar to other reward programs.
One of the better features is the option to transfer points to other family members, so you can “top up” an account for a redemption.
And, if you have more points than what you know to do with, you can redeem SPG points for special events, like music concerts or sport events. They will cost you a staggering amount of points, but can create a very special memory – it’s a very personal decision whether that’s worth it or not!

Elite Membership Levels & Benefits:  Similar to the other big chains, SPG offers 3 levels of elite membership, with “Preferred” being available by signing up, with little benefits. You can earn “Gold” status by staying 10 times or for a total of 25 nights. That will earn you a 50% bonus on points, late check-out if available and a welcome gift of points, internet access or a free drink – most chains offer internet and a welcome drink for free these days to all members and $5 of points is not much at the middle level! You can earn the top “Platinum” level with 25 stays or 50 nights. While that is a common requirement, the benefits are again not great. You’ll get free internet, a choice of points or free continental breakfast and upgrades (which Hilton and Marriott over already to mid-level members). While the upgrades for Platinum members include the possibility of Suite upgrades, that was very, very rare in my years as Platinum. Most often, I was “upgraded” to a room on the SPG Floor – which was the exact same room, but with an “SPG Floor” sign by the elevator and a bottle of water in the room! You can see all the benefits in the table below:

SPG Benefits TableWho should sign up? With the worst earning ratio in the industry, some of the most expensive redemptions and mediocre benefits for loyal elite members, there is very little that explains the enthusiasm of many SPG members and bloggers. Based on my analysis there are few facts that would support it and I figure, it is mostly a mix of the glory of past years (when SPG was one of the best hotel rewards programs) and some of the best marketing in the hotel industry! With the acquisition of Starwood by Marriott, it’s unclear what will happen to the SPG program. If you are not an SPG member today, there is little reason for you to sign up, unless your company has contracts with SPG. If you are a member, I’d recommend that you look at some of the other programs that have overtaken SPG in the last few years to find a new program of choice! If you are a big SPG fan, feel free to comment below why you think SPG is a program worth joining!

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