Earning Points for Free Hotel Stays

Westin Maui

In the early 1990’s, I signed up for Sheraton’s loyalty program. At the time, I paid $20 per year to upgrade my membership to their Gold level. As a result, I often received free upgrades and access to their Club lounges for free food and drinks. Sheraton was one of the first hotel chains acquired by Starwood, a hotel management company with over 1,500 properties in over 100 countries. In addition to Sheraton, Starwood brands include Westin, The Luxury Collection, Four Points, W Hotels, St. Regis, Le Méridien, Aloft and more. Since 2016 Starwood is a subsidiary of Marriott International following their merger. Starwood’s loyalty program is called Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG). As a member, you earn Starpoints on hotels stays and related spending. While many hotel chains offer similar loyalty programs, most of my personal experience is with Starwood so that’s what I’ll be covering in this post.

SPG Rewards

Earning Starpoints WITH HOTEL STAYS

To begin earning Starpoints, sign up for SPG membership. As a basic member, you earn two Starpoints per dollar spent at Starwood hotels. You earn more Starpoints as an elite member, Gold or Platinum (I’ll cover SPG Elite status is a future post). Whenever you book a room, and at check-in, give your SPG number to make sure you earn Starpoints from your stay. Note that you earn Starpoints on the basic room rate, not including taxes and other fees, such as the notorious resort fee. You also earn Starpoints spending at hotel restaurants and bars, so make sure you put your meal and drink charges on your room account.

Tip #1: I prefer booking my Starwood hotel reservations using the Starwood website (www.starwoodhotels.com) or their SPG phone app. This gives me easier management of my reservations. I can give more information to the hotel to improve the chance of room upgrades, early check-in or late check-out. Additionally, you may not always earn Starpoints or elite benefits when booking your room on a third-party travel site. One exception is that I use the Citi Prestige “4th Night Free” benefit by calling their “concierge” to make reservations of four or more nights. I give my SPG number to the concierge so they can contact the hotel to add it to the reservation.

Tip #2: I use SPG’s “Make a Green Choice” sustainability program to decline housekeeping services during stays. You earn up to 500 Starpoints for each day you opt out of housekeeping services. The hotels typically offer door hangers to show you are opting out of housekeeping services the following day. You can also “opt out” for your entire stay by setting a preference in the reservation on the Starwood site, or asking at check-in time.

Marriott Rewards

Marriott Rewards

Even a couple of years after their merger, Starwood and Marriott currently run separate loyalty programs. Marriott’s loyalty program is Marriott Rewards (clever name, right?). If you have a Marriott Rewards account already, you can link it to your SPG account to enable point transfers and to receive reciprocal elite status. Since I have SPG Platinum status, I was automatically matched to Marriott Platinum status when I linked my accounts. You transfer Rewards points to Starpoints at a ratio of 3:1. Thus if you have 30,000 Marriott Rewards points, you could transfer them to SPG for 10,000 Starpoints. Since you earn Rewards points from spending at Marriott properties and their airline, car rental and credit card partners, these are more ways to earn Starpoints. You can also transfer the other way, if you want to use Starpoints to book a free stay at a Marriott (or Ritz-Carlton) hotel.

TIP #3: Ritz-Carlton Rewards links to Marriott Rewards. As such, wherever I mention Marriott, you may also consider Ritz-Carlton too. Points earned at Ritz-Carlton hotels transfer to Starpoints at the same 3:1 ratio. In addition, Ritz-Carlton’s credit card partner, Chase, offers the Ritz-Carlton Rewards credit card. While the card has a high $450 annual fee, it comes with some great benefits if you like to stay at their luxury hotels, including two free nights at Tier 1-4 Ritz-Carlton hotel after spending $4,000 in the first three months from your account opening.

Earning STARPOINTS WITH Credit Cards

American Express
Amex SPG cards

Since I primarily stay at Starwood hotels, I earn Starpoints for rooms I pay for (up to three rooms per stay), plus spending at hotel restaurants and bars. However, I earn two more Starpoints per dollar using my American Express (Amex) SPG credit card to pay for the rooms. I also earn one Starpoint per dollar using my Amex SPG card to pay regular bills, grocery shopping, and more. You also earn Starpoints using Amex SPG cards to pay for stays at Marriott hotels. Amex offers two versions of their SPG card:

At the time of writing, Amex offers 25,000 bonus Starpoints after you spend $3,000 in the first three months. They also waive the $95 annual fee for the first year.  If you spend more than $30,000 in a calendar year, you are upgraded to SPG Gold elite level.

TIP #4: With each Amex SPG card you own, you earn an annual credit of five nights and two stays towards SPG elite status. For example, owning both Amex SPG cards, starts your elite earning year with 10 nights and 4 stays. These credits typically appear in your SPG account in early January. Therefore, to earn SPG Gold status you need only 15 more nights, or 6 stays, compared with the regular 25 nights or 10 stays in calendar year. To earn SPG Platinum status, you need either 40 more nights or 21 stays.

Amex Membership Rewards Logo

In addition to their SPG credit cards, Amex offers its own Membership Rewards cards. Membership Rewards points transfer to many airline and hotel loyalty programs, including SPG. Membership Rewards points transfer to SPG at a ratio of 1000:333.

Amex offers a few charge cards and credit cards that earn Membership Rewards. Charge card balances are paid off in full every month, but otherwise run similar to credit cards. Some examples are:

  • American Express Platinum Card – 60,000 bonus Membership Rewards points after spending 5,000 in the first three months. If you transfer the points to SPG, you will have enough Starpoints for a couple of free nights at an SPG category 4 hotel (10,000 Starpoints per night)
  • American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card – 25,000 bonus Membership Rewards points after spending $2,000 in the first three months. If you transfer the points to SPG you have enough Starpoints for one free night at an SPG category 3 hotel (7,000 Starpoints per night)
Chase

Chase Marriott Rewards

Chase Marriott Rewards

This card earns five points per dollar spent at Marriott and Starwood hotels, and two points per dollar spent on airline tickets, car rentals and restaurants. Chase offers 75,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 in the first three months. Chase waives the annual fee of $85 for the first year. Another useful benefit is one Free Night Stay at a Category 1-5 hotel each year after your account anniversary.

Chase Ultimate Rewards

You earn Ultimate Rewards points using one of the following cards:

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred – 50,000 bonus points with $4,000 spending in first three months, $0 intro annual fee, after that $95. This is a great starter credit card for anyone wishing to earn points for free travel with a variety of airlines and hotels
  • Chase Sapphire Reserve – 50,000 bonus points with $4,000 spending in first three months, $450 annual fee. This is a premium version of the Chase Sapphire Preferred  card and comes with a premium annual fee of $450. However, there are many ways to cut the real annual cost of this card, including the annual $300 annual travel credit, complimentary airport lounge access and more
  • Chase Ink Business Preferred Card – 80,000 bonus points with $5,000 spending in first three months, $95 annual fee

Ultimate Rewards points transfer to Marriott Rewards at a 1:1 ratio. From your Marriott account, transfer to Starpoints at a 3:1 ratio.

Earning Starpoints with Airline Flights

United Airlines

You earn bonus Starpoints when you register with SPG’s airline partners and buy flights. However, you must have SPG elite status to receive these bonuses.

  • Delta – one Starpoint per dollar spent on Delta flights. Plus, SPG Platinum members enjoy priority check-in and boarding, complimentary upgrades and first checked bag free
  • Emirates – one Starpoint per dollar spent on Emirates flights. SPG Platinum members enjoy priority check-in and boarding
  • China Eastern – one Starpoint for every four Eastern Miles with China Eastern flights. SPG Platinum members enjoy priority check-in, boarding and luggage handling; and access to China Eastern business-class lounges
  • United – while United is not a direct SPG partner, it is a partner of Marriott. As such, United and Marriott offer reciprocal benefits to their members via the RewardsPlus program. United’s MileagePlus elite members (Global Services, Premier 1K, Premier Platinum and Premier Gold) receive Marriott Gold status. Marriott Platinum elite members receive United Premier Silver status. I already have United Premier Gold and Marriott Platinum status so there is no extra elite benefit to me. However, the partnership does enable me to transfer up to 50,000 United MileagePlus miles per calendar year to my Marriott Rewards account at a 1:1 ratio. This isn’t the best conversion rate, but I occasionally use this path to top up my Marriott/SPG accounts when I’m running low on points for specific free hotel stays I want to book

 

Earning starpoints with Car Rentals

Hertz

Hertz – earn 200 Starpoints per rental. In addition, by registering with Hertz, SPG Platinum members are eligible for Hertz Gold Plus Rewards Five Star elite status.

Hertz Marriott-SPG Partnership

Five Star status offers upgrades and bonus points.

Hertz Gold Plus Rewards Benefits

Sixt Logo

Sixt – you earn 250 Starpoints for every rental. Members also earn 500 Starpoints for Sixt Limousine Service.

Earning Starpoints with Broadway Shows

With SPG’s Audience Rewards partnership, you earn up to 2,500 Starpoints per Broadway show ticket. Starpoints may also be redeemed for show tickets.

Earning Starpoints by Hosting Meetings or Events

Meeting Modern Conference Room

When you host a wedding reception or a business meeting at a Starwood hotel, you earn Starpoints for all your spending. You may also benefit from Starpoints earned for booking your guests’ rooms too.

Special SPG Promotions

SPG Great Weeks

Starwood promotes bonus offers and challenges throughout the year. Check for the most up-to-date offers on their web site. Occasionally, SPG sends out email notices of these extra earning opportunities although I have found this is not dependable. The current offer is for double Starpoints starting with your second stay, and 500 bonus Starpoints when your stay includes a weekend night. For most SPG offers, you must register using your SPG number and email.

Buying Starpoints

SPG Buy Starpoints

You can buy up to 30,000 Starpoints per calendar year. The regular price is 3.5 cents per Starpoint. However, SPG is currently offering 35% discount for 5,000 or more Starpoints. With the discount, the rate is more attractive at about 2.3 cents per Starpoint. If you decide to buy Starpoints, make sure to pay with an Amex SPG credit card to earn even more Starpoints!

Summary

While there are several ways to earn SPG Starpoints, I recommend starting by registering for the SPG program and applying for the Amex SPG credit card. After you earn the Amex SPG card signup bonus, you will be well on your way to free Starwood hotel stays. Check out the redemption cost for hotels and dates you want to book using either the Starwood web site or the SPG phone app. If needed, top up your account using airline mile transfers and earn bonus Starpoints from SPG partners. You’ll be amazed how quickly you can earn tens of thousands of Starpoints for a vacation stay home or abroad.

 

Spending Miles for Free Flights

In my earlier post I introduced a travel planning example for a trip to London. I discussed how to earn miles for an American airlines AAdvantage award from credit card signup bonuses from Barclaycard and Citi. Economy MileSAAver awards to the U.K. cost 30,000 (30K) miles per flight. I’m going to search for a roundtrip costing me 60K miles. During my research, using Google Flights, I found American offers non-stop flights from my local international airport (LAX) to London Heathrow (LHR).

Searching for Award Flights

First, I go to the American Airlines web site to search for available award seats. Let’s see how I do:

AAdvantage Award Search

I log into my AAdvantage account to check how many miles I have. This will also help me to save time booking an award. I sometimes select the Advanced Search link, just below the Search button, to add more airports to the search criteria. Also, there are options to set travel time preferences and class of travel.

Fortunately, I am searching for award travel ten months ahead of my travel dates and there are Economy MileSAAver awards available. Of course, some of the flights are with American’s partner airlines. To adjust my departure or return dates, I select from available dates in the table. Each date displays the price in miles for available award flight(s).

Selecting Travel Dates

AA Awards Select Dates

Selecting Flights

I click on the CONTINUE button at the bottom of the table to display a list of possible flights.

AA Select Flights

In fact, there are four pages of possible flight combinations (departure and return) due to partner flights and alternate airports. I deselect other airlines and airports to focus on American flights from LAX to LHR. The display shows two non-stop departure flights:

  • AA 108 departing at 6:10PM
  • AA 136 departing at 7:50PM

I select flight AA 108 since to get into London early enough for a power nap. Once refreshed, I like to seek out a pub for fish and chips and some cellar-temperature beer!

AA Select American Flights Only

At the time of writing, there are no award flights with American for non-stop service on October 15th. However, I have flexibility for my return date so I select October 16th to search for a non-stop flight. In this case I find a flight AA 109 departing LHR at 12:15PM.

Completing the Reservation

Next, I click on the CONTINUE button at below the flight list. The site asks me for passenger details – the default are the details saved in my American AAdvantage account. If I am spending miles for award flights for others, such as family members, I enter their details here. Once I have checked the passenger details, I click CONTINUE and select seats for each flight. I must still pay Taxes and Carrier-Imposed Fees of $188.61 for this award trip. I use a credit card that earns me a few more miles to numb the pain! There it is – spending miles earned from a credit card signup bonus for a free trip to London. How cool is that?

As the saying goes “wash, rinse, repeat”. The process is similar for other U.S. airlines so you can follow the outline above for United, Delta, Alaska, and others. International airlines have their own challenges and vary considerably in terms of ease (or lack of) of booking award travel. And, sometime, a higher bill for those dreaded Taxes and Carrier-Imposed Fees (did I mention British Airways?).

Until next time…fly free little birds!

Collecting Miles and Points for Free Travel – Part 1

In 1990, my wife and I moved from the U.K. to the U.S. with our two young children. I remember being asked by our travel agent what date she should use for our return trip. I said “never, it’s a one-way trip”! A high technology company hired me as a technical consultant in Silicon Valley. As part of my job, I traveled often – domestically at first and then, within a few years, internationally. My manager was well versed in the American Airlines AAdvantage travel awards program. He traveled much more than I did, living in Southern California and attending company and customer meetings across the U.S. As a result, he was an AAdvantage Platinum elite member. His generosity was outstanding and would treat me to First Class using upgrade coupons he received. With colleagues like this, I was in heaven – literally! He encouraged me to sign up for AAdvantage membership during a visit to the airline’s Admirals Club lounge in San José airport. I joined United’s MileagePlus program the same year. This is how I got started on a fun hobby my wife and I refer to as #upgrademylife.

So, after almost thirty years I should be a points millionaire by now, right? Well, collecting miles and points during the early nineties was tedious. I had to actually get on a plane and travel somewhere – what an inconvenience. There were airline credit cards available, but I had no one educating me how useful they were. I used my bank’s no-fee Visa card for business expenses and checks for everything else. It took a lot of time to collect enough miles to get free flights for all the family members. So, I just kept saving miles and not taking much interest in them. We eventually spent most of them on a trip to Disney World traveling first class with American.

In-flight View

One frequent flyer benefit when you travel a lot with one airline is you can earn elite status. Traveling as an elite flyer comes with benefits that you can use on every flight you take. These benefits may include priority check-in and boarding, upgrades, free checked bags, and free food and beverages. Also, you earn miles at an accelerated rate based on combinations of flight distance, ticket class and amount spent. Traveling for business, I regularly attained AAdvantage Platinum and Premier Gold elite status. This definitely improved my travel experience when flying. By the late 90’s, I had traveled enough with American to earn Million Miler status, and recently achieved United’s Million Miler stats too. I’ll discuss this aspect of airline awards programs in a future post.

Hotel Lobby

A related aspect of business travel was getting to stay at many hotels around the world. Hotel chains have their loyalty programs too. Each program comes with varying points earning and redemption rates. And, of course, multiple levels of elite status and related benefits. Unfortunately, during my early career I wasn’t able to focus my stays on just one or two chains. My corporate travel agent booked my business travel. I could only stay at specific hotels per place. So, it took a lot of trips to earn enough points to get a free hotel night. But, I remember you could buy Starwood Gold membership for $20 per year in the early 90’s. Today, that takes 25 nights or 10 stays in a calendar year to achieve. However, with improved planning, I have now achieved Starwood Preferred Guest Platinum status over the past few years. The benefits of this status include regular upgraded rooms, free breakfasts, and lots of bonus points.

Businessman Airport

Now if all the above sounds like a very bleak environment for collecting miles and points, it wasn’t really. Flying was a lot less stressful due to lower levels of security requirements. Another reason that it wasn’t the Dark Ages of Frequent Travel was that airline awards programs were simpler. It’s a more complex environment today, with airline award programs shifting to revenue-based models. Changes in the hotel industry, for example Marriott’s acquisition of Starwood, is causing uncertainty for loyal fans of their respective award programs. In addition, frequent devaluations within award charts are being announced regularly. Fortunately, there are many good strategies to improve your earning and redemption power to counter these changes.

Hotel Pool

So, you may ask, what is the point of all this nostalgic time travel? I want to give you a sense of my early experiences collecting miles and points. From this background, I will fast forward to today and share my experiences from the past few years. The environment for collecting miles and points for free travel has never been better. Financial and travel companies are in a heated battle for your business. They are willing to deliver rich rewards for your loyalty. In future posts, I’ll discuss how credit card sign up bonuses can supercharge your miles and points balances. Also, I’ll share with you some tips I’ve learned about smart use of credit cards for shopping and bill paying. In addition, I’ll cover how to use your airline, credit card and hotel miles and points effectively. Along the way, there will be reviews of places, hotels and restaurants that we visit. And, more…

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Please subscribe to my newsletter so you can keep updated on my posts about collecting miles and points. And, perhaps more importantly how to redeem them effectively for free or upgraded flights and hotels. I’ll also include reviews of the places where we visit, stay and eat.

So remember, #upgrademylife is the name of the game – play well my dear readers!