Thinking about Starwood Preferred Guest

Since my American Express "old" Blue Cash card was closed late last year, I've carried just two American Express-issued credit cards: my trusty Hilton HHonors Surpass, and my ill-advised but so-far-irresistible Delta Business Platinum card.

An individual is allowed to carry up to four American Express-issued credit cards and four charge cards, so I have, in principle, two "slots" I can use for additional credit cards. Casting about, there are two obvious candidates: the Amex EveryDay Preferred, which gives (up to) 3 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent at gas stations and carries a $95 annual fee, and the Starwood Preferred Guest business or personal credit card, which has an annual fee going up to $95 on August 11, 2015 (the first year's annual fee is waived).

I've written about the EveryDay Preferred card before, so for now I want to focus on the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card.

Starpoints are expensive

Since the Starwood Preferred Guest card doesn't offer any bonus categories (besides Starwood stays themselves), any Starpoints earned with the card are by definition expensive: even if you displace only unbonused manufactured spending, you're buying one Starpoint for 2 or 2.22 cents, depending on your highest-earning card for unbonused spend.

Starpoints can be valuable for award stays

At the low end and the very high end, Starwood's award chart is intensely fair: a weekend night at a Category 1 hotel costs just 2,000 Starpoints (a $44 imputed redemption value!), and a 30,000-to-35,000-Starpoint night in a category 7 property, while having a steep $660-$770 imputed redemption value, may still offer a discount at an expensive property like the the St. Regis Princeville Resort on Kauai, where 30,000 Starpoints will get you a $992.34 room at the beginning of January:

For mid-tier award stays, unfortunately, Starwood are just too expensive: a 16,000-Starpoint stay, with its $352 imputed redemption value, will get you a night at the Westin Dublin, while just 50,000-60,000 HHonors ($185-$222 IRV) points can be redeemed for a night at the nearby Morrison, a DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel.

This is fundamentally the same problem I had with chasing Hyatt Diamond status.

Starpoints can be valuable for Cash & Points awards

If you earn your Starpoints exclusively through manufacturing spend on the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card, you are always better off redeeming them for Cash & Points awards than for award stays (except on stays of 5 or more nights at Category 3-7 properties, where the 5th night is free).

That's because Cash & Points awards allow you to "buy back" Starpoints at between 1.1 cents (for high-season, Category 5 stays) and 2 cents (for Category 1 stays), while each Starpoint you buy through unbonused, manufactured spend costs between 2 and 2.22 cents. Here's my quick guide to how much you're paying for Starpoints when you redeem for Cash & Points awards:

On stays of exactly 5 nights, the math changes, since each Starpoint is worth 1.25 Starpoints: in other words, you're buying Starpoints at 1.776 cents each, not 2.22 cents each (the proof of this is left to the reader). In that case, low-season Category 5-7 Cash & Points awards are no longer strictly superior to points-only award stays.

Starpoints are the only way to earn bonused Alaska and American miles

Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus miles are trivially easy to earn. You can earn SkyMiles with any flexible Membership Rewards-earning credit card, like the aforementioned Amex EveryDay Preferred, or 1.4 and 1.5 SkyMiles per dollar spent on the American Express Delta Platinum and Reserve co-branded cards, respectively. You can earn MileagePlus miles (and lots of them!) with a Chase Ink Plus card and any number of Chase Freedom cards.

But the Bank of America Alaska Airlines co-branded credit card earns just one Mileage Plan mile per dollar spent, as do the Barclaycard and Citi American AAdvantage co-branded cards.

The only way to earn more than one Mileage Plan or AAdvantage mile per dollar spent, let alone both, is with the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card, since Starpoints can be transferred to both Alaska Airlines and American at a 20,000:25,000 ratio, year-round.

While I wouldn't buy all my Mileage Plan miles or all my AAdvantage miles at 1.776 cents each, I'd conceivably buy some miles at 1.776 cents, for example to top up a high-value international business class award.


So that's where I am in thinking about my next American Express application.

There really are times when Starwood Preferred Guest properties offer the best possible value: I booked a stay at the Sheraton Memphis Downtown Hotel during a national fencing tournament for just 7,000 Starpoints per night, when the entire area around the convention center was sold out. That was a steal.

On the other hand, I get a tremendous amount of value from my Delta SkyMiles, and would certainly be able to get a lot of ongoing value from a card that earned 3 SkyMiles per dollar spent at gas stations.

What do my readers think? What considerations have I overlooked?