Starwood will increase price of free nights

How do you devalue a travel loyalty program?

The airlines have added fees and reduced award availability. And while they've generally avoided increasing the prices for the most popular award—a domestic coach ticket, still widely offered for 25,000 miles—prices for other awards have been steadily increasing.

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The hotel programs have taken a slightly different approach: category creep.

Category creep is the tendency of the programs to reclassify hotels over time into ever-higher categories, requiring more and more points for a free room night. Such award-price inflation causes the value of hotel points to deteriorate.

There are the occasional downgrades as well, but most of the changes are from lower to higher categories, resulting in an increase in the average number of points required for a free night.

Starwood is the latest to announce a flurry of category increases, scheduled to take effect March 4.

By my count, there are about 235 changes. Of those, just 14 are downgrades; the rest are hotels being bumped to a higher category.

A recent Starwood news release puts the number of hotels operating under the Starwood banner at "approximately 890." That means that almost 25 percent of the hotels participating in the Preferred Guest program will charge more points for award stays. If Starwood were to increase 25 percent of its award prices every year ... well, we'll leave that distressing scenario to the imaginations of members of the Starwood program.

Award bookings made before the March 4 cutover date can be made at the current levels. So if you're planning an award stay at an affected property, there's still time to lock in the lower rate.

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