Marriott Travel Packages are getting more expensive (also maybe more valuable)

I saw Spencer Howard post on Twitter a seemingly-official (or at least well-spoofed) document listing the new prices of Marriott Hotel + Air packages when the combined Marriott, Starwood, and Ritz-Carlton program goes into effect on August 1.

Let's talk about it.

Marriott Hotel + Air packages today

Today, Marriott Hotel + Air packages offer a discount of roughly 24 to 38% when redeeming Marriott Rewards points for 7 consecutive nights and a variable number of miles transferred to one of their partner airlines:

  • The smallest package offers 7 nights at a Category 1-5 property (worth up to 150,000 Marriott Rewards points since the 5th night is free in any case) and 50,000 miles, worth 120,000 Marriott Rewards points (since that amount can be converted into 40,000 Starpoints and transferred to many of the same airline partners, although the Starwood transfer ratio to United is much worse), but costs just 200,000 points, a 26% discount.
  • What seems to be the most popular package among travel hackers offers the same 150,000-point, 7-night stay plus 120,000 miles, worth 288,000 Marriott Rewards points using the same calculation above, but costs just 270,000 points, a 38% discount (giving rise to the odd situation discussed here).
  • Finally, the largest package offers a 7-night Tier 5 Ritz-Carlton stay, worth 420,000 Marriott Rewards points, plus the same 288,000-point mile transfer, but costs just 540,000 points, a 24% discount.

Again, these calculations are based on the current Hotel + Air award chart.

Marriott Hotel + Air packages after August 1, 2018

Now let's apply the same logic to the Hotel + Air chart Spencer posted for redemptions after August 1, 2018.

  • At the low end, you can redeem 255,000 points for a 7-night Category 4 stay plus 50,000 miles, which would otherwise cost 270,000 Marriott Rewards points: 150,000 points for the 7-night stay, and 120,000 points for the mileage transfer, a mere 5.6% discount.
  • The same stay certificate plus 100,000 miles costs 330,000 points, raising the discount to 15.4%.
  • At the high end, a 7-night Category 8 stay (starting in 2019) plus 50,000 miles costs 675,000 points and is worth 630,000 points, a 7% premium over making the two transactions separately!
  • Transferring 100,000 miles instead raises the value of the package to 750,000, which is, in fact, what the most expensive package costs.

This pattern repeats itself for the other packages as well: discounts are small or negative at the 50,000-point redemption level, and range from 5% to 15% at the 100,000-point level.

Marriott Hotel + Air Packages after January 1, 2019

While losing an opportunity to book hotel stays and buy airline miles with a 38% discount is unambiguously a devaluation, I think the explanation is not what will happen in August, but what will happen next January, when Off-Peak and Peak pricing goes into effect. These 7-night stays make no sense at almost category property during Off-Peak periods (an Off-Peak Category 6 redemption would cost just 360,000 points booked separately, but Marriott charges 415,000 points!).

But during peak periods, the discount can be noticeable even at Category 8 properties, where a 50,000-point package will cost 675,000 points but is worth 720,000 points (6.3% discount) and a 100,000-point package costs 750,000 points but is worth 840,000 points (10.7% discount). Note also that these Category 8 properties will include Starwood's current top-end properties in addition to Marriott's.

And if you book a Peak Category 4 hotel with a 100,000-point package, the discount rises to 21.4%, which is at least in the same ballpark as the existing packages.

However, these are still much lower discounts than those offered by the current Hotel + Air packages, so you should certainly book any packages you're interested in before the August 1 changes go into effect. There's been a lot of speculation about how unredeemed stay certificates will be treated after August 1, but given the discounts currently available I think it's largely irrelevant: getting back any points at all from unredeemed certificates will make them an even better deal, and updated points-based certificates would still be able to be used at the much larger joint Marriott-Starwood hotel footprint.

Not too many Ultimate Rewards points angles

Since I get any Marriott Rewards points I need through Ultimate Rewards transfers, I'd like there to be some way to take advantage of Hotel + Air packages that way, but the fundamental problem is that Ultimate Rewards points can already be transferred to programs in each airline alliance, Southwest, and Hyatt at a 1:1 ratio, while Marriott Rewards points can only be transferred at a 3:1.25 ratio.

That means while Hotel + Air packages are good redemptions of Marriott Rewards points (improving their value over individual stay redemptions and individual airline transfers), they're bad redemptions of Ultimate Rewards points.

The exception is if you already have a large Marriott Rewards balance you're considering transferring to Starwood Preferred Guest in order to make an airline transfer. In that case, you should consider instead transferring over Ultimate Rewards points in order to redeem a Hotel + Air Package. For example, 240,000 Marriott Rewards points are worth 80,000 Starpoints, which can be redeemed for 100,000 miles. But transferring 10,000 Ultimate Rewards points over to Marriott will allow you to receive the same number of miles (or more in the case of United MileagePlus), but also a 7-night Category 1-5 certificate.

No matter what Marriott decides to do with those certificates on August 1, it's virtually guaranteed to be worth more than 10,000 Ultimate Rewards points.

Hotel benefits by length of stay

The other day I was looking at hotels for an upcoming weekend trip with flexible dates. I settled on a convenient Hilton property, and was immediately annoyed that I only really needed 4 nights, even though the fifth award night would be free. I vented on Twitter and Milenomics contributor Robert Dwyer pointed out that if I had a Citi Prestige card I'd be sitting pretty with that card's fourth-night-free benefit.

That got me to thinking about the connection between length of stay and optimal booking options.

One-night stays

One-night stays are great because they're opportunities to redeem free night certificates at chains where you don't otherwise have any points or status. For example:

  • Chase IHG Rewards Club Premier cards offer an anniversary free night certificate good at properties costing up to 40,000 points;
  • the new suite of Marriott and Starwood credit cards will offer anniversary free night certificates good at properties costing between 35,000 points and 50,000 points, depending on the card;
  • Chase Hyatt credit cards offer anniversary free night certificates good at category 1-4 properties (up to 15,000 points per night).
  • For stays within the United States, the US Bank Radisson Rewards ($50 annual fee) and Radisson Rewards Premier ($75 annual fee) cards offer up to three anniversary free night certificates valid only at Radisson Rewards properties in the United States when spending $10,000, $20,000, and $30,000 on the cards each cardmember year. If you're going to spend $30,000 on one of these cards my general feeling is that you may as well pay the extra $25 annual fee and get 75,000 additional points annually between the two additional points per dollar the Premier card earns and the 15,000 additional anniversary points.

For longer stays, I don't like free night certificates because they force you to overpay for the nights that aren't covered by the certificate, or move between properties during your trip. But for one-night stays they're ideal, and I often use them for things like airport properties before an early morning flight.

Another option for one-night stays, depending on the property, is booking through one of the luxury travel portals:

  • the Visa Signature Luxury Hotel Collection offers a package of benefits including free Wi-Fi, breakfast for two guests, and a $25 food and beverage credit. If the price is the same as through other booking channels, then on a one-night stay the food and beverage credit can handily offset things like resort fees (which would also be owed on award stays), while on longer stays, the resort fees continue to mount while the food and beverage credit can be used only once.
  • likewise American Express offers a Fine Hotels and Resorts booking channel to their Platinum cardholders, which offers a more generous $100 food, beverage, or spa credit at some properties. Just as above, on a one-night stay that credit naturally goes further than on longer stays.
  • Finally, you can use a Virtuoso travel agent like classictravel.com to secure similar benefits while booking with the card of your choice.

Two- and three-night stays

This is the real wheelhouse of hotel points and fixed-value points, especially if you're able to redeem cheap fixed-value points like US Bank Flexpoints against your stay (if the total cost is above $500), since you'll also earn points on the room rate you pay. If you'd otherwise pay cash, redeeming points is usually a good idea in this window, since easily-earned points like Hilton Honors, World of Hyatt, and (under certain circumstances) IHG Rewards Club points don't offer any advantages, and the resort fees at luxury properties eat up the potential value of the food and beverage credits discussed above.

Some third-night-free offers may also be available through American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts, but unless you've done your research in advance I wouldn't sign up for a Platinum card just in hopes of capitalizing on third-night-free offers.

Four-night stays

At the four-night mark, three additional opportunities open up:

  • fourth-night-free booking options through American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts. These are somewhat more common than third-night-free offers, so for four-night stays in cities served by Fine Hotels and Resorts this may be worth checking since the free night and on-property benefits may lower the total cost below any points redemption you'd otherwise consider.
  • the Citi Prestige fourth-night-free benefit allows you to book four-night stays while only paying the room rate on 3 nights (although taxes and fees are still owed on the fourth night).
  • the Chase IHG Rewards Club Premier card fourth-night free benefit on award stays, which means that otherwise-marginal redemptions may be worthwhile, if the free fourth award night boosts you well above your points' imputed redemption value.

Five-night stays

Presumably because their Top Men told them that virtually no one books five-night award stays, Hilton Honors, Marriott Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest all offer the fifth night free on awards stays (Hilton only in the case of elites, but if you're not a Hilton elite I don't know what to tell you).

Seven-night stays

Finally, if you actually have a seven-night stay with Marriott planned at a Category 5 or higher Marriott Rewards property, you should consider booking it with a Hotel + Air Package before August 1, 2018, in order to receive 120,000 or more airline miles alongside your hotel redemption.

Conclusion

I give most people the benefit of the doubt that they understand their travel needs better than I do, so I try not to tell people what they should or shouldn't do. The flip side of that is that you should take the time to assess your own travel needs and figure out which configuration of airline, hotel, and credit card programs works best for you.

For example, if you take the occasional five- or seven-night international trip, but are putting your manufactured spend on a Radisson Rewards credit card, that's not an indictment of the program, it's a mismatch between what you're doing and what you need to be doing to pay as little as possible for the trips you want to take.

Likewise, if your travel consists of taking the occasional road trip to Chicago, you may well want to be earning free night certificates and points you can redeem at the Radisson Blu Aqua, one of the few really great hotels in the Radisson Rewards program in the United States.

Transfer Starpoints to Amtrak Guest Rewards before August 1, 2018

For many years I was a booster of Chase Ultimate Rewards transfers to Amtrak Guest Rewards, due to their zone-based redemption system which made it possible to get 3 or more (possibly much more) cents per point when redeeming Amtrak Guest Rewards for transcontinental sleeper accommodations.

Unfortunately, in December, 2015, Ultimate Rewards points could no longer be transferred to Amtrak Guest Rewards, and in January, 2016, Amtrak moved from a zone-based to a fixed-value redemption scheme.

However, those fixed-value points are still quite valuable!

Refresher: the value of Amtrak Guest Rewards points

Amtrak Guest Rewards points are similar to Southwest Rapid Rewards points in that they have fixed values, but the value they're fixed at depends on the redemption in question. For example:

  • a coach seat on the Northeast Regional from Washington to Boston costs $79 or 3,830 points, for 2.06 cents per points;
  • a business class seat on the Acela Express between the same cities costs $138 or 7,176 points, for 1.92 cents per point;
  • a first class seat on the Acela Express costs $282 or 10,998 points, for 2.56 cents per point;
  • a coach seat between Chicago and Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief costs $142 or 6,107 points, for 2.33 cents per point;
  • a Superliner Roomette costs $794 or 27,393 points, for 2.9 cents per point;
  • a Family Bedroom costs $1,158 or 39,951 points, for 2.9 cents per point;
  • a Superliner Bedroom costs $1,606 or 55,407 points, for 2.9 cents per point.

Starpoints can be transferred to Amtrak Guest Rewards through July 31, 2018

Starwood has announced that transfers to Amtrak Guest Rewards will end with the introduction of the new Marriott Rewards program on August 1, 2018, although it's fair to speculate whether Marriott will arrive at their own accommodation with Amtrak after that date.

Amtrak redemptions are good and you should consider speculatively transferring points

Amtrak Guest Rewards points aren't very valuable if you want to do anything but take train trips, but if you do want to take train trips, they're quite valuable. Earning 2.9% in value on unbonused spend with the Starwood Preferred Guest credit card on unbonused spend puts it solidly up there with the most lucrative cashback credit cards.

If you have an upcoming trip you might consider buying points

I earn virtually all of my miles and points through manufactured spend, but I'm perfectly aware that periodic opportunities to pay cash for miles and points can offers discounts off cash rates under certain circumstances. As Frequent Miler explains, there's currently a Starwood Preferred Guest promotion to purchase points for 2.275 cents each, which would offer a discount of 21.6% off the long-haul Amtrak Guest Rewards redemptions I mentioned above.

That's not a huge discount in absolute travel hacking terms, but if you have an upcoming Amtrak trip planned and you'd otherwise pay cash for it, it would be silly not to instead pay 21.6% less for the same trip.

Speculatively transfer points skeptically

I like trains, so I'd happily transfer an almost unlimited number of Starpoints to Amtrak if I were certain they would maintain their current redemption system. Unfortunately, I'm certain they won't, and I wouldn't recommend anyone transfer Starpoints to Amtrak Guest Rewards for train trips they plan to take more than one or two years in the future.

Conclusion

The Starwood-Marriott merger has created a lot of one-time opportunities we'll all be talking about leading up to and after August 1, 2018. The opportunity to transfer Starpoints to Amtrak Guest Rewards is one that anyone with a large Starpoint balance and an interest in Amtrak travel should consider.

To my reader who mistyped his own e-mail address, Starwood edition

I recently received a question from a reader using the "Contact" page, but the reader seems to have mistyped their e-mail address, which I discovered only after writing my reply. Hopefully reader TF will stop by and find my answer here instead:

"If you have multiple millions of SPG points and tons of airline miles already then it’s not obvious that you should do anything.

"If there’s a particular airline currency you redeem more than any other, you might consider transferring your SPG points to Marriott and booking a bunch of Hotel + Air redemptions (90k SPG -> 132k United miles or 120k Alaska/Delta/American miles). It’s not clear how Amtrak transfers will work after August 1, so if you like taking Amtrak you can also get a good value transferring your SPG points to Amtrak (note that you don’t get the 5k bonus when transferring 20k points to Amtrak).

"However, it’s not like your points will vanish on August 1. If you have been earning your SPG points through hotel stays, well, you can redeem your new Marriott points for hotel stays going forward. A million SPG points will become 3 million Marriott points, which will be enough for 50 nights at any top-tier Marriott property in the world after August 1 (and a whole lot more nights than that at lower-tier properties).

"If you truly cannot imagine needing any more airline miles, and you truly can’t imagine needing any more Marriott/SPG hotel stays, then you could try to sell points or reservations to other people, or through a points broker. Even if you don’t need a stay or flights, perhaps you have friends or family members you could sell redemptions to at a discount, or be the cool aunt or uncle and send your nieces and nephews on an exotic vacation?

"Let me know if I can help with anything else.

"—FQF"

So, there you go TF.

I try to respond to everyone who leaves comments, e-mails me, or submits a contact form, but if you would like to ask a question in private and not have my answer blasted on the internet, be sure to use a working e-mail address.

Pro tip: an easy Amtrak Guest Rewards mistake to make

Amtrak Guest Rewards, the loyalty program for the United States' national passenger rail system, underwent a dual devaluation in 2015/2016 which made Amtrak Guest Rewards points much more difficult to earn (with the end of Chase Ultimate Rewards transfers) and somewhat less valuable (with the zone-based award chart replaced with a revenue-based redemption scheme).

As an Amtrak enthusiast, this was disappointing to me, since in just my first few years of travel hacking I had been able to redeem my Ultimate Rewards points for phenomenal value in bedrooms on long-haul routes like the Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, City of New Orleans, and Coast Starlight, not to mention saving hundreds or thousands of dollars on Northeast Regional trips.

Since the devaluation, Amtrak Guest Rewards points can still be very valuable for Amtrak redemptions, in my experience ranging from 1.71 to 2.9 cents each, depending on the route and class of service. The problem is that earning them has become so onerous that the program has lost even more value than the points themselves.

Three ways to earn Amtrak Guest Rewards points

The three easiest ways to earn Amtrak Guest Rewards points are:

  • The Bank of America Amtrak Guest Rewards World Mastercard, which earns 1 Amtrak Guest Rewards point per dollar spent on onbonused purchases.
  • The American Express Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card, which earns 1 Starpoint per dollar spent on unbonused purchases, which can be transferred 1:1 to Amtrak Guest Rewards.
  • And the American Express Hilton Honors Ascend Card, which earns 6 Honors points per dollar spent at (more expensive) supermarkets, which can be transferred to Amtrak Guest Rewards at a 10,000:1,500 ratio, or the equivalent of 0.9 Amtrak Guest Rewards points per dollar spent at bonused merchants.

The Starwood Preferred Guest option may be time-limited by the impending merger of that program with Marriott Rewards, but if you have a lot of Starwood Preferred Guest points you're anxious to get rid of, Amtrak Guest Rewards is worth considering as a pressure valve for those large balances.

The third option, the Hilton Honors Ascend Card, is not time-limited but the unfavorable transfer ratio and high cost of grocery store manufactured spend will likely turn most people off unless they're in particularly dire straits.

Don't forget: Starwood Preferred Guest transfers to Amtrak do not earn bonus points

In complete fairness to Starwood, they have always made clear in the description of the program itself that only "Transfer Air Miles" redemptions are eligible for a 5,000-Starpoint bonus when you transfer multiples of 20,000 Starpoints: "Transfer your Starpoints directly to miles with your frequent flyer program. Even better: We'll add 5,000 bonus Starpoints for every 20,000 you transfer at a time."

Meanwhile, "Rail Miles" redemptions read simply, "Transfer Starpoints to Amtrak Guest Rewards at a 1:1 ratio and get on the next train."

However, someone on the backend had the brilliant idea of using the same interface to order both redemptions. And, as you may have guessed by this point, they screwed it up:

So we find ourselves in this situation where the terms of the program clearly say one thing, but the implementation of the program clearly says something completely different. You can even reproduce the same effect by submitting a transfer of 80,000 Starpoints and be told 20,000 Bonus Starpoints will be added to the transfer.

But to be clear: this is not how the program actually works, and you will not receive the bonus Amtrak Guest Rewards points automatically when transferring multiples of 20,000 Starpoints to Amtrak.

Conclusion

I know folks who are rightly concerned about losing out when Starwood Preferred Guest irrevocably transitions into Marriott Rewards in August, and I think Amtrak Guest Rewards is a sensible place to stash at least some points, given their relatively high, relatively consistent value, even post-devaluation.

But this post is a warning not to go overboard on those transfers when you see Bonus Starpoints in the dialog box since you won't, actually, receive them.

At least, not automatically. What you can or can't convince Starwood's agents to do, as a one-time courtesy to you, is entirely between you and them.

How do you want to think about budgeting for your hotel stays?

I've written a series of posts about my preferred metric for evaluating hotel loyalty programs, which I call imputed redemption values. This is a straightforward metric that tells you if redeeming hotel rewards points gives you a better or worse deal than paying cash that you've manufactured on your most lucrative cashback-earning credit card.

For example, a 95,000-point Hilton Honors redemption would require $15,833 in bonused spend on a Surpass American Express card. If your most lucrative cashback card earns 2%, that gives you a breakeven point of $316 (since for prices above that, a points redemption will require less manufactured spend), if it's 2.105% cashback you have an imputed redemption value of $333, and if it's 2.625% your IRV is $415. 

This metric doesn't tell you what you should do with points you've already earned — I always prefer to redeem points before spending cash. But if your points redemptions come in consistently above your imputed redemption values (95,000 points for a $2,000 night), then you are well-advised to continue earning those points, while if you fall consistently short (95,000 points for a $95 night), you might consider moving away from those loyalty currencies and towards additional cashback, instead.

Yesterday Frequent Miler posted an interesting analysis of some data (with a followup here) from the Hilton Honors program showing, as I'd hypothesized last month, that the new program would see redemptions bunched more tightly around the 0.4 cent per point redemption level. He provides some important insight on different factors that might affect the ultimate value you receive; read the whole thing.

Such analyses are very useful, but it's also helpful to pull back occasionally and give some thought to more basic questions: what's the best way to save money on your hotel stays?

What programs allow you to earn the stays you want as cheaply as possible?

Bottom-tier stays

There are phenomenal values at the very bottom of several hotel loyalty charts:

  • If you have a US Bank Club Carlson credit card earning 5 points per dollar on all spend, you can earn a free night at any Category 1 property every time you spend $1,800. Even if your backup card earns 2.625% on unbonused spend, you're exceedingly unlikely to find a room for less than $47.25 per night — taxes alone are likely to be that much!
  • With an American Express Hilton Honors Surpass card you can earn 5,000 Honors points, which is, I believe, still technically the fewest points required for a Hilton award stay, after spending $833 at a bonused merchant. That's not a value that any other hotel loyalty program currently offers.

Mid-tier stays

If you're staying in a more expensive market, for example mid-sized or larger cities, there are a few options for getting reliably outsized value:

  • If you signed up for a Barclaycard Wyndham Rewards credit card back when the card still earned 2 Wyndham Rewards points for each dollar you spend, you can earn a free night at any of Wyndham's properties for every $7,500 you spend on the card — and Wyndham has a LOT of properties!
  • In my experience Hyatt offers consistently reasonable pricing for mid-tier stays. For example, while the Chase Marriott credit card's Category 1-5 annual award certificate has become worthless as desirable properties migrate up and out of Category 5, most of Hyatt's centrally located city properties still top out at Category 3 or 4, costing 12,000 to 15,000 points per night, and are eligible for the Chase Hyatt credit card's annual free night certificate. If you have a Chase Freedom Unlimited credit card earning 1.5 Ultimate Rewards point per dollar, and a premium Ultimate Rewards card that lets you transfer those points to World of Hyatt, these mid-tier properties have an imputed redemption value between $160 and $200, while nightly rates can be substantially higher.

Top-tier stays

At the most expensive properties, a travel hacker has a few options:

  • Hilton Honors currently tops out at 95,000 points per night (when standard room awards are available), allowing you to earn a free standard room award night for $15,833 in spend, or $12,667 on stays of exactly 5 nights, since the fifth night is still free on award stays;
  • World of Hyatt standard room redemptions top out at 30,000 points per night. If you choose to manufacture unbonused spend on a Chase Freedom Unlimited in order to transfer Ultimate Rewards points to World of Hyatt, such a top-tier redemption would require $20,000 in spend, with an imputed redemption value of between $400 and $525 per night, depending on your best cash back alternative.
  • Starwood Preferred Guest, and their new owner Marriott Rewards, seem like they should potentially offer some value, and indeed if you're committed to visiting one of their top-tier properties you should certainly redeem points instead of paying cash. If you're committed to visiting a top-tier, 45,000-point Marriott Rewards property, then manufacturing $15,000 in spend on a Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card and transferring the points to Marriott Rewards at a 1-to-3 ratio is clearly the cheapest way to pay for such a stay. However, for stay categories below top-tier Marriott Rewards stays I believe most travel hackers are likely to find more value elsewhere.

Conclusion

I have always thought it was a curious fact about travel that, when you do enough of it, transportation itself consumes a smaller and smaller portion of your travel budget. Of course you can make it more expensive by traveling in more expensive cabins, but the fact is a single night in a hotel can easily cost as much as a plane ticket!

I've never had any trouble finding miles, points, or cash to pay for flights; I spend much more time calibrating the points I earn for hotel stays than I do for my air travel.

Interesting Starwood and Marriott stacking opportunities

I was chatting yesterday with someone who has had a lot of success with Marriott recently, taking advantage of a number of opportunities that currently intersect due to the merger of the Marriott and Starwood hotel chains. While I don't generally think of Marriott Rewards as being a program that offers travel hackers much value, that may be less true today than it has been even in the recent past.

Here are a few ways you might be able to get above-average value from Marriott Rewards.

Transfer Starpoints to Marriott Rewards

While I mentioned this back in September in the context of Marriott Flight and Hotel packages, it's also true that you can simply transfer Starpoints to Marriott in order to book award stays.

Marriott award stays top out at 45,000 Marriott Rewards points (15,000 Starpoints) and Ritz-Carlton stays cost up to 70,000 Marriott Rewards points (23,333 Starpoints). The 5th award night is free for reservations with both Marriott Rewards and Ritz-Carlton.

That means the most expensive Ritz-Carlton property in the world requires just $23,333 in unbonused spend on the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express, or $18,667 in spend for stays of exactly 5 nights.

At the Tier 5 Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas, you'd pay 280,000 Marriott Rewards points for a stay that would otherwise cost $2,729 in cash (dates June 30 to July 5, 2017). At roughly 1 cent per point, that would give you a roughly 3% return on your unbonused Starwood Preferred Guest American Express purchases.

Note that Marriott is terrible about making award rates available, so this isn't as low-hanging a fruit as you might otherwise hope.

Match Starwood Preferred Guest Gold to Marriott Rewards Gold

Since the merger you've been able to link your Starwood Preferred Guest and Marriott Rewards accounts and take advantage of your highest status in either program. You can find the details here, but the most important takeaway is that Starwood Preferred Guest Gold status matches to Marriott Rewards Gold status.

You can get Starwood Preferred Guest Gold status by spending $30,000 on a Starwood Preferred Guest American Express, or simply by holding an American Express Platinum or Platinum Business card, both of which offer complimentary Starwood Preferred Guest Gold status.

Marriott Rewards Gold status, on the other hand, is somewhat harder to earn and somewhat more valuable, coming as it does with free continental breakfast at Marriott properties.

Maximize the Chase Ritz-Carlton Visa

I don't carry the Chase Ritz-Carlton Visa since I don't pay $450 annual fees, but it has a number of features that may offer genuine value: a $100 hotel credit every time you book a paid Ritz-Carlton stay of 2 or more nights and three lounge upgrades on paid stays annually.

Those can be combined, and if you're aggressive about maximizing both benefits then three paid 2-night stays, each with a $100 hotel credit and lounge upgrade, during lower-cost or off-peak periods could handily offset a big part of that $450 annual fee, especially if you're traveling with a large family.

Conclusion

It really does seem like, for now, the merger of Marriott and Starwood has given those with Starwood Preferred Guest American Express cards access to similar values as they're used to at Starwood properties in Marriott's much larger portfolio of hotels.

Personally, my Hilton Honors Diamond status and cheap and plentiful access to Hilton Honors points, as well as Hyatt Gold Passport Diamond status and cheap and plentiful access to Hyatt points through Ultimate Rewards, together mean that I have no interest in spinning up another hotel loyalty relationship. But if you're still deciding on an approach to hotel stays, it seems you could do worse than looking into the Marriott/Starwood relationship.

Transfer large blocks of Starpoints using Marriott Flight and Hotel Packages

Today Marriott closed its purchase of Starwood Hotels & Resorts and introduced point convertibility between the Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest programs. After linking your accounts, points are now transferrable between the two programs in either direction at a ratio of 3 Marriott Rewards points to 1 Starpoint.

Upon seeing this news, my first reaction was, "doesn't this make Marriott Flight and Hotel Packages astonishingly cheap?"

Well yes, yes it does.

Starwood's new 33%-46% transfer bonus

The math behind Marriott Rewards Flight and Hotel Packages normally works like this: if you book 7 Marriott Rewards nights at full price, you can transfer 50,000, 70,000, 100,000, or 120,000 points at a 1:1 ratio to a domestic airline (the ratio is different for many foreign carriers). If you choose United as your transfer airline, you receive a 10% bonus.

For example, 7 nights at a 25,000 Category 5 Marriott Rewards property would cost 150,000 points (since the 5th night is free). With a Flight and Hotel Package, you can instead spend 200,000, 220,000, 250,000, or 270,000 Marriott Rewards points and receive the difference in airline miles with Alaska, American, Delta, Air Canada, or British Airways, along with a few others.

Since Starpoints now transfer to Marriott Rewards at a 1:3 ratio, 270,000 Marriott Rewards points cost 90,000 Starpoints. 90,000 Starpoints, transferred directly to an airline partner, would yield 110,000 miles. Transferred first to Marriott Rewards, it yields 120,000 miles (132,000 United MileagePlus miles).

This is worth doing even if you don't plan to stay a single night with Marriott, as long as you have a use for the miles. If you are planning a 7-night stay somewhere anyway, then the value becomes virtually unbeatable.

This makes the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card great for unbonused spend

As long as this option persists, manufacturing unbonused spend with the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card will earn 1.33 to 1.46 miles per dollar spent with all the major US carriers, when Starpoints are transferred to Marriott Rewards in batches of 90,000.

While the Chase Freedom Unlimited earns a slightly higher 1.5 United MileagePlus mile or British Airways Avios, earning Starpoints instead gives you access to those currencies as well as Delta SkyMiles and American AAdvantage and Alaska Mileage Plan miles.

Obviously, the more of the 7 included Marriott hotel nights you use, the more value you'll get from this technique, but as shown above it's worth doing even if you don't use a single one of your included nights.

Note that you don't have to decide on a property and dates for your stay at the time of redemption — the award is deposited into your account, and can even be upgraded later if you decide to stay at a property in a category higher than the one you paid for.

Retiring to hotels: good idea, or great idea?

After a prominent miles-and-points blogger cast off the chains of the rental housing market I wrote a light-hearted piece about manufacturing enough spend to, with the help of the Club Carlson last-night-free benefit, spend 30 days in one of their Category 1 properties.

Since that benefit can no longer be used on new reservations, I thought I'd revisit the topic, but cast a wider net this time: how many points would be needed to live in each chain's cheapest properties year-round? In other words, should you retire to hotels?

Starwood Preferred Guest

As a rule I don't find Starwood Preferred Guest's co-branded American Express card to be a great way to manufacture points for hotel stays (it's great for manufacturing Alaska Mileage Plan and American AAdvantage miles). The exception is Category 1 and 2 hotels, where weekday nights cost 3,000 and 4,000 Starpoints and weekend nights cost 2,000 and 3,000 Starpoints, respectively.

That puts the weekly cost of a Category 1 stay at 19,000 Starpoints. Manufacturing those Starpoints has an opportunity cost of $380 — that's how much you'd earn using a 2% cash back card, instead. So what can we get for a little over $1,520 in monthly rent?

Well, there are a lot of Category 1 properties in China and India. Since we're retiring, beaches should be considered, like the Four Points by Sheraton Puntacana Village in the Dominican Republic, where $1,520 is little over a 50% discount for the dates I checked in September. The Sheraton Ambassador Hotel in Monterrey is "within walking distance of the city center." But the winner for me is the Sheraton Catania Hotel & Conference Center in Sicily, which actually looks extremely comfortable. It's a bit of a hike to the city center, but it's important to stay active in retirement.

Retirement savings: 912,000 Starpoints annually ($18,240 in imputed redemption value).

Hilton HHonors

Unlike Starwood Preferred Guest, Hilton HHonors their elites the fifth night free on all award stays — including Category 1 stays. That makes five-night stays at Category 1 properties cost just 20,000 HHonors points, or $3,333 in manufactured spend at gas stations or grocery stores.

With 5-night Category 1 redemptions having an imputed redemption value of $66, our monthly rent will be 120,000 HHonors points or $400 in foregone cash back. But what does that get us?

Hilton's Category 1 properties actually include a few Hiltons, like the Hilton Alexandria King's Ranch and Hilton Hurghada Resort, so if you're really committed to Peter Thomas Roth bath products those are options. In Poland you have your choice of the Hampton by Hilton Krakow and Hilton Garden Inn Rzeszow, while over the border in Russia you can stay at the Hilton Garden Inn Ufa Riverside or Hampton by Hilton Samara. Personally, I'm leaning towards the Hampton by Hilton Panama, which seems to have a pretty good location in downtown Panama City. $400 per month is a roughly 85% discount off retail for the dates I checked, and in fact on the dates I checked HHonors redemptions gave an astonishing 2.17 cents per HHonors point.

Retirement savings: 1,440,000 HHonors points annually ($4,800 in imputed redemption value).

Marriott Rewards

Marriott offers the fifth night free on all redemptions, even for non-elites, so five-night Category 1 stays cost 30,000 Marriott Rewards points.

Since Marriott Rewards points cost one cent each when purchased with flexible Ultimate Rewards points, but 2 cents each in foregone cash back when manufactured using a Marriott Rewards co-branded credit card, we're realistically looking at 180,000 Ultimate Rewards points per month, or $1,800 in monthly rent. Are there any properties that would make that redemption worthwhile?

The Courtyard Kazan Kremlin has a nice location right on Karl Marx Street, but $1,800 will rent you a lot of house in Kazan, and I suspect that's true of most of Marriott's Category 1 properties.

Retirement savings: 2,160,000 Marriott Rewards points annually ($21,600 in Ultimate Rewards points).

Hyatt Gold Passport

While Hyatt redemptions start at 5,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points, they don't offer a fifth night free, so it'll cost us 150,000 Ultimate Rewards points per month to live in a Category 1 property — a $1,500 value.

The Hyatt Regency Kuantan Resort in Malaysia looks superb, as does the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu, and neither is so isolated that you'd be stuck buying food in the hotel, plus Hyatt Diamond elites would receive free breakfast at either property. The Hyatt Regency Bali is currently being renovated, but when it reopens it should be beautiful — if it's still a Category 1 property!

Retirement savings: 1,800,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points annually ($18,000 in Ultimate Rewards points).

IHG Rewards

Here the situation is even bleaker, since Category 1 properties cost 10,000 IHG Rewards points per night, and there's no fifth night free benefit. Instead you can chase the 5,000-point PointsBreaks list around the world, in which case the math is the same as above, since IHG Rewards is also a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards.

The current PointsBreaks list includes gems like the Holiday Inn Andorra and Holiday Inn Trnava, in Slovakia.

Retirement savings: 3,600,000/1,800,000 IHG Rewards points annually ($36,000/$18,000 in Ultimate Rewards points).

Club Carlson

Category 1 Club Carlson nights cost 9,000 Gold Points, or $1,800 in manufactured spend per night. At a $36 nightly imputed redemption value, our monthly rent will be a little over $1,000. Not as bad as Marriott, Hyatt, or IHG, but also not great.

The Park Inn by Radisson Budapest (where I have a reservation next June) has a great location, and I've enjoyed all the Park Inns I've stayed at so far. There are two Radisson Blu properties, the Radisson Blu Resort, El Quseir in Egypt and Radisson Blu Hotel, Mersin in Turkey. Both are great deals at $36 per night. I like the Country Inn & Suites By Carlson, San Jose, Costa Rica, since it includes breakfast, but it's not terribly close to downtown San Jose.

Retirement savings: 3,240,000 Gold Points annually ($12,960 in imputed redemption value).

Choice Privileges

Choice Privileges hotels start at 6,000 points, which can theoretically be earned for as little as 2,000 Ultimate Rewards points if you're able to transfer Amtrak Guest Rewards points to Choice Privileges. At $20 per night we can figure $600 in monthly rent, the second-lowest value so far, after Hilton HHonors. To get that value month after month, however, you'd need to first rail run your Amtrak elite status up to Select Executive status, which allows you to transfer an unlimited number of Amtrak Guest Rewards points to their hotel partners.

Choice Privileges doesn't share a consolidated list of their properties by point cost, so it takes a little bit of work on AwardMapper to find 6000-point properties.

In Sweden, the Quality Inn Hotel Prince Philip offers a free buffet breakfast, and $600 is a steal in famously-expensive Scandinavia. The Clarion Suites Roatan at Pineapple Villas seems like a lovely resort in Honduras, although close-in availability was spotty for the dates I checked. Personally, I'd probably splurge the extra $200 monthly and move into the Clarion Congress Hotel Prague, an 8,000-point property.

Retirement savings: 2,160,000 Choice Privileges points ($7,200 in Ultimate Rewards points, with Amtrak Select Executive status).

Conclusion

This was a fun exercise, but there are a few problems which make it impractical to permanently retire to hotels, as opposed to moving into one for a month or two. First, you face the problem of award availability: at chains that don't guarantee standard room availability, you might be stuck paying cash for a hotel room if award availability suddenly dries up. Second, over the longer term you face the risk of devaluations: properties themselves can move up or down in award categories and new categories can be introduced, but rewards programs also sometimes go through wholesale devaluations, for example shifting to a revenue-based redemption model that would leave you stuck with much less valuable points.

Still, if I ever need to spend a month in Krakow, I know where I'll be spending it!

Starwood hotel category and cash and points changes now in effect

As mentioned in my hotel devaluation roundup last week and in Chapter 6 of the book, the changes to Starwood Preferred Guest's hotel categories and the devaluation of the cash and points award chart went into effect today.  I'll be updating the webpage shortly with my analysis of the new chart [edit 3/6/2013: updated].  In the meantime, you can check out the new award chart on Starwood's website, and use Starwood's tool to view Starwood hotels by award category.