If you are relatively new to the miles and points world in the UK, you might not even have heard of Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) before. Starwood hotels are hugely popular in the (mainly US-based) travel blogosphere, but have a much lower profile in Europe. Most likely, this is simply because they do not have all that many hotels this side of the pond.
You will probably be familiar with at least some of their brands though, even if you didn’t realise they were owned by Starwood. There are currently ten different brands under the Starwood umbrella: Sheraton, Westin, Le Meridien, W, St. Regis, Four Points, Luxury Collection, Aloft, Element, and Tribute.
Starwood have about 1,200 hotels spread out over 100 countries, with a particular strength in the USA and an interesting selection in China. Their hotels in the rest of the world can usually only be found in major cities – in the UK, for example, they only have three hotels outside of London.
Despite the lack of coverage in the UK, there a few reasons why Starwood and their loyalty scheme, SPG, are well worth knowing about:
- They have some truly great hotels, and (with the exception of some Sheratons!) most of their hotels are consistently good.
- ‘Starpoints’ are the most valuable hotel loyalty currency and can be transferred to a wide range of airline partners at a generous rate.
- Loyalty is recognised properly, with excellent elite status benefits.
- Although they do not have many hotels in the UK, they do have a credit card here, and are an Amex Membership Rewards transfer partner – so it is easier to get hold of Starpoints than you might think.
If you do not already have a SPG account you can sign up here.
SPG offers three main status tiers – Preferred, Gold and Platinum.
It also provides ‘Preferred Guest Plus’ for holders of the UK SPG credit card, which grants 4pm check-out and an ‘enhanced room’.
Platinum members who stay very frequently receive additional benefits after 50 nights, 75 nights and 100 nights.
SPG’s entry level status provides free internet, as well as the ability to earn points on your stays. Members also receive a discount and can earn points at restaurants and bars in Starwood hotels, even when you aren’t actually staying there. Not bad just for signing up.
Gold (10 Stays, or 25 Nights)
Gold status grants 4pm check-out, an upgrade to an ‘enhanced room’ and a choice of welcome gift – either a drink voucher or some bonus points (250 at most brands, 125 at Aloft, Element and Four Points). Guests with Gold status also get a 50% bonus added onto the number of points they earn.
The upgrade to an enhanced room can mean as little as a high floor or slightly better view, but sometimes hotels go above and beyond – particularly if you are celebrating a special occasion and let them know in advance.
Guests who have elite (gold or platinum) status for five years and have stayed at least 250 nights in total are granted gold status for life.
Platinum (25 Stays, or 50 Nights)
SPG platinum status recognises loyalty properly.
Platinum guests enjoy an upgrade to the best available room including standard suites (if available), and executive/club lounge access (which usually means free breakfast, soft drinks and snacks during the day, and alcoholic drinks and canapes for 2-3 hours in the evening).
Guests can also select breakfast in the hotel restaurant, 250-500 bonus points (depending on the brand), or a local amenity (often some sort of food and/or beverage), as a welcome gift.
Platinum status claims to offer guaranteed room availability, if a reservation is made by 3pm, 72+ hours before the stay. In reality though this is rarely useful. You have to pay the full rack rate (which is often roughly double normal rates), AND hotels are allowed to impose blackout dates and minimum stay requirements as well. It’s a pretty odd use of the word “guaranteed” to be honest, but might occasionally be useful so is just about worth mentioning.
SPG does a good job of understanding that some of their most loyal customers actually stay with them a lot more frequently than the 25 stays required for platinum status, and offer additional perks to recognise this.
After 10 years of platinum status and 500 nights in total, guests are granted platinum status for life.
How long do I get to keep elite status?
Once status has been earned in any calendar year, you keep it for the rest of that year, the whole of the next calendar year, and then until the end of February the year after that. So, for example, if you qualified for platinum status in June 2016, you would keep it for the rest of 2016, all of 2017, and for the first two months of 2018.
Do award nights count towards status?
Yes, nights booked using points (or cash and points) count towards earning status in exactly the same way as paid nights.
It is also worth noting that SPG counts up to three rooms booked on the same account as all qualifying towards status stays/nights. So, if you go on a week-long family holiday and book two rooms on your account, you would get 2 Stay credits (1 for each room) and 14 Night credits (7 for each room). If you are booking multiple rooms anyway, this can really help you gain elite status faster!
Once you have joined SPG, you will earn 2 Starpoints for each US dollar you spend – so about 3 Starpoints per £1.00. You earn points on items charged to the room (food & beverage, laundry, movies etc) as well as on the room rate.
SPG also allows you to earn Starpoints when you buy food and drinks at bars and restaurants in their hotels, even if you are not actually staying as a guest. There is a $10.00 minimum spend requirement, but otherwise all you have to do is let them know your SPG number. Bonus point promotions for dining are quite regular, and the bars and restaurants provide members with a 10-30% discount (food only) too.
Gold and platinum members receive a 50% bonus, and platinum members who stay 75 nights or more receive a 100% bonus on points earned.
Although these earning figures sound low compared to the other major chains, it is important to bear in mind that Starpoints are a lot more valuable, as using them for hotel stays usually requires considerably fewer points than the other chains charge, and the transfer rate to frequent flyer programmes is much more generous.
In addition to the usual methods outlined above, SPG currently has four special partnerships that can help you earn some extra Starpoints (and receive some other benefits too). Follow the links to find out more about their partnerships with Emirates Skywards, Delta SkyMiles, Uber, and Caesars Entertainment.
SPG divides their hotels into seven categories. For a standard room the number of points required are as follows:
- Category 1: 2,000 points for Fridays + Saturdays, and 3,000 the rest of the week.
- Category 2: 3,000 points for Fridays + Saturdays, and 4,000 the rest of the week.
- Category 3: 7,000 points
- Category 4: 10,000 points
- Category 5: 12,000 – 16,000 points (generally 12,000 in low season, 16,000 when busy)
- Category 6: 20,000 – 25,000 points (generally 20,000 in low season, 25,000 when busy)
- Category 7: 30,000 – 35,000 points (generally 30,000 in low season, 35,000 when busy)
An additional bonus with SPG is that when you redeem points for any Category 3-7 hotel you get five nights for the price of four. So, if you redeemed for five consecutive nights at a Category 3 hotel, you would only need 28,000 points (4 x 7,000) rather than 35,000 (5 x 7,000). Sadly this does not apply to Category 1 and Category 2 properties.
A very small number of hotels actually require more points than category 7, because they do not have any standard rooms (all rooms are suites), or because they are all-inclusive resorts. You can find out more about the points required for these hotels by taking a look at point three in the Ts&Cs on the “Free Nights” section here.
Using your points is very easy. Simply search on the SPG website as usual, and the points rate should be listed automatically underneath the lowest standard rate. If for some reason it does not come up automatically, all you need to do is click on the “Compare Rates” button, then click on any of the types of rates shown along the top and change it to “SPG Free Nights”. Once you have decided on your hotel, just select the points rate for it and complete your booking like normal.
SPG advertises a ‘no blackout dates’ policy, meaning they do not stop you using your points on expensive nights like New Year’s Eve, as long as there is standard room availability when you book. Unlike some of the other major chains, SPG is actually pretty good at enforcing this policy, so if you do have any issues redeeming your points when you can see that standard rooms are available for cash, get in touch with Customer Service or use the online chat feature and they should be able to resolve things for you.
The other element to consider when it comes to spending points, is deciding when to use them and when to just pay cash instead. Everyone’s circumstances are different and therefore this is a very subjective decision, but I think it is still possible to set a conservative valuation for Starpoints – a level below which, in most circumstances, most people would rather save their points for a time when they will get better value from them. I set that value at about 1.5p.
SPG Moments is an innovative programme, that allows you to spend your points on things like concert tickets at the O2 in London with a seat in the SPG box. There are some genuinely excellent events and experiences offered from time to time, and the number of points required can be quite reasonable, so it’s well worth keeping an eye on.
Starwood points expire after 12 months without any account activity. That sounds quite harsh but is actually easy to avoid. ANY account activity counts and resets the clock, not just stays. Points earned from spending on the SPG credit card, or transferred from Amex Membership Rewards count, as do points earned from eating or drinking in a Starwood hotel (even if you’re not staying there, as mentioned earlier).
Alternatively, you can transfer points to someone who has the same address as you for free, or redeem 500 points as a donation to one of SPG’s charity partners here.
Upgrades using points
Members can use points to upgrade, regardless of whether the initial reservation was made using cash or points. You do have to wait until five days before your stay though, until you can confirm your upgrade.
There is no way to book upgraded rooms on the website, so you have to get in touch with SPG Customer Service to do it. Their UK number is: 0203 5646335.
The number of points required to upgrade is between 1,000-1,500 for category 1- 4 hotels, and between 1,500-2,750 for category 5 – 7 hotels. Suite upgrades are also possible, and require double the number of points of a standard room
‘Cash and points’ redemptions
For standard rooms, the redemption rates are as follows:
- Category 1: 1,500 points + $30
- Category 2: 2,000 points + $35
- Category 3: 3,500 points + $55
- Category 4: 5,000 points + $75
- Category 5: 6,000 points + $110
- Category 6:10,000 points + $180
- Category 7:15,000 points + $275
‘Cash and points’ rates are not always available, but for standard rooms you can easily check on the SPG website to see (just select the cash and points rate when searching, if it doesn’t come up automatically).
It is also important to point out that there is no fifth night free when using ‘cash and points’, unlike if you just use points – so do bear that in mind when calculating what your best option is.
It is also possible to use ‘cash and points’ for upgraded rooms and suites too.
Cash and points can be a great way to stretch your points (particularly in the UK where Starpoints can be relatively difficult to get hold of in large quantities), but it certainly isn’t always a good idea.
Airline redemption options
One of the things that makes Starpoints so unique (and valuable) is the ability to transfer them to a very wide selection of frequent flyer schemes at a rate of 1 Starpoint = 1 frequent flyer mile.
There is even a 5,000 miles bonus when transferring blocks of 20,000 Starpoints. So, for example, if you transfer 20,000 Starpoints to British Airways Executive Club you would actually get 25,000 Avios in total; or if you transferred 40,000 Starpoints you would get 50,000 Avios. This is, by far, the most generous transfer ratio from hotel points to frequent flyer miles offered by any of the major hotel chains.
The rules state that you can make one transfer every 24 hours and that it can be of up to 79,999 Starpoints. To best take advantage of the 5,000 bonus miles for transferring in multiples of 20,000 though, it obviously makes sense not to transfer more than 60,000 at a time.
The range of frequent flyer programmes you can transfer to is exceptional (34 in total, including good value programmes like Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, which are otherwise quite difficult to earn miles with from the UK). All the usual suspects like American Airlines, BA, Singapore Airlines, KLM/Air France etc, are also there.
The only airline that readers might realistically wish to transfer to that has a different ratio is United, which requires 2 Starpoints for each United mile (bad value).
There is a minimum transfer requirement of 2,500 Starpoints for members without elite status, 1,500 for members with gold status, and no minimum transfer for platinum members.
Nights and Flights
It would be remiss to write about SPG’s airline transfer partners, without at least briefly mentioning ‘Nights and Flights’.
In essence, this allows you to book five nights at a category 3 hotel AND get 50,000 frequent flyer miles, for just 60,000 Starpoints – rather than the 68,000 it would cost if done separately.
Alternatively, you can choose five nights at a category 4 hotel + 50,000 frequent flyer miles, for 70,000 Starpoints – rather than 80,000 if done separately.
Nights and Flights redemptions only apply to category 3 and category 4 hotels.
SPG Flights allows you to use your Starpoints to book flights on over 150 partner airlines directly, in a very similar way to when you book a flight normally using money. The number of Starpoints required for a flight depends on how much the cash cost of the flight is, but generally you will only get about 0.8p-1p worth of value from each of your Starpoints. This is pretty terrible rate for cashing in Starpoints and I wouldn’t recommend it, but if you have millions of Starpoints from business travel or something, it might be something to consider.
You can find out more, and take a look at the SPG Flights Starpoint Chart here.
UK credit card partnerships
As well as earning Starpoints on the Amex SPG credit card, you can also transfer Amex Membership Rewards (MR) points to SPG at a rate of 2 MR points = 1 Starpoint.
I try to get at least 1p of value from my MR points, and (conservatively) value Starpoints at 1.5p, so this isn’t something I would generally recommend, but there are definitely situations when it can make sense. For example, if you had just under 20,000 Starpoints and wanted to transfer them to a frequent flyer programme, it would obviously make sense to first send over some MR points, so that you have the full 20,000 Starpoints and therefore get the bonus 5,000 frequent flyer miles when you transfer.
Buying and transferring points
You can buy up to 20,000 Starpoints each year, at a rate of $0.035 (about 2.3p) per Starpoint. This is not something I would contemplate or advise, except in very specific circumstances.
Far more interesting, is the ability to transfer Starpoints for free to any member who has the same address on their account as you (addresses must match for at least 30 days before you transfer). This is a fantastic benefit, as it makes saving up for expensive redemptions much easier, and getting together blocks of 20,000 a lot quicker too (in order to get the 5,000 bonus, if transferring to a frequent flyer scheme). It also means that you can transfer your miles into the frequent flyer account of anyone in your household (just transfer your miles into their SPG account first, then over to their frequent flyer account), which is a great way of topping up miles they might already have.
- Loyalty is rewarded with meaningful benefits (particularly at platinum level)
- Number of points required is usually quite good value for most hotels (at least for categories 1-5)
- The flexibility of Starpoints is unparallelled amongst major hotel loyalty programmes
- Having a UK credit card and being an Amex Membership Rewards transfer partner, means that getting Starpoints in the UK is easier than it might first seem
- Lack of hotels in the UK (and much of the rest of the world, outside the US)
- Promotions are rarely as generous as other hotel chains
- Starwood have some fantastic hotels, and being able to use points for them is great in theory, but their highest categories require a huge amount of points