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Starwood Amex: Why you should get a hotel credit card

SmarterTravel

You may not spend much time in hotels, let alone properties owned by Starwood, but if you’re a savvy frequent flyer, you should consider getting a Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card. A little-known secret among the miles- and points-earning credit cards, the Starwood Amex has almost everything an air traveler could wish for in a credit card: a low annual fee, a 25 percent Starpoints-to-miles bonus, and numerous airlines to which you can transfer your earnings.

Why is this such a good deal, when airline-affiliated cards are typically expensive and stingy with their benefits? The truth is that most travelers are more interested in frequent flyer programs than hotel loyalty programs, and justifiably gravitate toward the credit cards affiliated with their airline of choice. Hotel-affiliated credit cards have to go above and beyond the normal perks to convince travelers to add them to their wallets. When they offer special benefits, frequent flyers can really luck out, as in the case of the Starwood Amex.

The triple whammy of perks

Lower fees

The Starwood Amex hits prospective members hard with its array of benefits. The first thing everyone asks about credit cards is “what’s the annual fee?” and it’s here that Starwood rates especially well. The first year of membership is free, with an annual fee of just $30 for each subsequent year. Compared to most airline-affiliated cards, which impose fees of $45 to $85 from day one, Starwood’s deal is a steal.

In addition, you’ll receive up to 6,000 bonus points in your first year of your membership, a signup bonus that’s competitive with those offered by airline cards. And you’ll quickly make back the $30 annual fee in your second year, with all the frequent flyer miles you’ll earn.

Conversion bonuses

The biggest draw of the Starwood Amex is its conversion bonus. You need a minimum of 2,500 Starpoints if you wish to make a transfer (or 1,500 for Gold members and none for Platinum members), but if you convert 20,000 points to miles, Starwood adds a 5,000-point bonus to your transfer. Your 20,000 points has just grown into 25,000 miles, enough for a free domestic award on most airlines. If you always transfer your points in this way, your earning ratio becomes 1.25 miles for every dollar spent, a 25 percent better rate than most airline cards offer.

If you never stay at Sheraton or Westin—both Starwood hotels—but use the Starwood Amex as your primary charge card, you can still be rolling in miles in no time.

Greater flexibility

The third big draw of this card is its multitude of conversion options, based on the many airlines which are Starwood program partners. You can convert your Starpoints into airline miles with over 30 carriers, including all of the major U.S. airlines, most at a rate of one hotel point to one airline mile.

Because you earn one point for every dollar spent, you will ultimately earn one mile per dollar spent, the same as with most airline-affiliated cards—but you get the flexibility of choosing which airline to convert to each time you make a transfer. (Starpoints convert to United miles at a two-to-one ratio, making the card less valuable for flyers whose primary program is Mileage Plus.)

Concerned about the financial future of your favorite airline? Leave your points in your Starwood account until you need an award ticket, and then transfer them into the airline program you think is best to use for that flight. You can opt for the airline that is more financially stable, has more flights to your destination, or has cheaper or more available award seats.

One caveat about this deal: Starwood points do expire after 12 months if you have no earning activity at a Starwood property. So if you plan on leaving points in your account for longer than a year (which you’ll probably need to do to get the conversion bonus, unless you charge thousands of dollars to your card), you’ll need to spend at least $10 on your hotel stay, hotel restaurant meal, room service, or in-room phone call; purchases at hotel shops and parking costs do not count, unless advertised otherwise. If you never stay at a hotel, you can just have a meal at your local Starwood property for $10 and factor in that cost as part of your annual fee. Even at $40 in your second year, the card is still a good deal.

Get even more miles for hotel stays

If you really want to maximize the miles you get from this credit card, you can stay at Starwood-affiliated hotels and pay with your Starwood Amex. First, you’ll earn three points for every dollar you charge to your card for stays at Starwood’s more than 750 hotels and resorts. In addition, Starwood’s hotel program, Starwood Preferred Guest, gives its members two points per dollar spent at its properties. When you combine the two, you’re effectively earning five points per dollar spent, speeding you on your way to free nights or flights.

More miles on hotel stays:

Search for bonus offers from Starwood or other hotel groups with our Mile Finder.

Another benefit of earning points with Starwood is that frequent travelers can get multiple pieces of their vacation for free. For example, once you’ve transferred points into the miles you need for an award ticket, save some extra Starpoints for a free hotel stay and get both the air and hotel pieces of your vacation without spending a cent.

Or, take advantage of Starwood’s “Nights & Flights” awards; you can redeem 60,000 Starpoints for 50,000 miles and five free nights at a Category 3 hotel or resort. (Considering the conversion bonus, 50,000 miles normally costs you 40,000 points, so you’ll save 15,000 points with this deal; one free night usually costs 7,000 points.) You can also take advantage of the 50 percent off award for a future Starwood stay that you’ll receive when you sign up for the credit card.

Starwood also stands out from its competing hotel groups in that it does not impose blackout dates or availability restrictions on award stays. If a room is open, you can book it with points. The cheapest award stay is only 2,000 points, and there’s also a cash-and-points option if you’re short on points but don’t want to pay full price.

To Starwood or not to Starwood

If you compare the Starwood Amex to the American Express Preferred Rewards Green Card, the only thing you’re losing out on is double miles for everyday purchases. With a $110 annual fee, the Preferred Rewards card is at least $80 more expensive, and only allows conversion to 11 airlines, among which giants American and United are notably missing. Plus, there’s no conversion bonus. From this perspective, the Starwood Amex is the better choice for travelers who want an American Express card that will earn them miles.

To sum up, the Starwood Amex could be a good choice for you if you fit into one or more of the following categories:

  • You want to earn as many miles as you can, mainly from credit card charges
  • You want to protect your miles against airline bankruptcies, or you want the flexibility of not committing to a specific airline program
  • You don’t want to pay a lot for a mileage-earning credit card
  • You’re a frequent flyer who also makes several hotel stays each year

Ultimately, you may decide that you do want double miles on everyday purchases, or that you’d rather use an airline-affiliated credit card to get extra miles for all the flights you book. But if it’s flexibility you’re after, think outside the box and use a hotel card to earn you airline miles.

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