I have been a big fan of Starwood. It has been an outstanding loyalty program for decades. While the quality of all of their properties has taken a hit in recent years, they still have some great hotels in Hawaii and in Europe. And, even in spite of routine devaluations of the Starwood loyalty program, Starwood still returns more loyalty value to program members than virtually any other hotel loyalty program (BestCashCow’s chart ranks only Hyatt points as worth more). As a result, the Starwood Card from American Express, available in both a personal and a business version, has offered great return on spend. For example, when redeeming points on stays of 5 nights (which Starwood gives at a cost of 4) at the Sheratons in Kauai or Kona, you can easily still get well over 3 cents a point in value, which if gained through a point per dollar of spend on the card, means you are getting more than a 3% return of your spend on the card.
Marriott brings a much bigger footprint, but each of its hotels is more unpleasant than the next, except for its Ritz-Carltons which are more gaudy than unpleasant. To boot, my loyalty has never been appreciated at Marriott. I once lived for 2 months at the Marriott Hamburg and did not even accumulate enough free points for one free night in that miserable hotel. (Admittedly, I am not an expert on the Marriott program since I still have not earned a single free night anywhere, but with 15 hotel categories and with some hotels being 80,000, 90,000 or 100,000 points a night, I think I know more than enough).
Now that Marriott is completing its acquisition of Starwood, I have a feeling that my past loyalty to Starwood isn’t going to be appreciated so much anymore, and I know the value in all of my hoarded points is going away. Whereas a free night at even the nicest Starwood hotels is pretty much capped at 35,000 points, 35,000 Marriott points does not even get me that night at the Marriott Hamburg. When Marriott combines these programs, it is not going to lower the point values of their existing properties. I see the points required for any Starwood hotel stay going higher, much higher and soon.
While Marriott has committed not to merge the programs for a year or two, they have not committed not to devalue the Starwood program nor have they committed not to start stripping out the most salient redemption features immediately. I am betting that the 12,000-point redemptions at the category 5 Sheratons in Kauai or Kona will be first on the chopping block. Either the categories will go higher, or the points required for a free stay will. I am also betting that the 5th night free on all 5 night redemptions at Starwood hotels will disappear before the program is merged, as will the ability to transfer 20,000 points to many airlines for 25,000 airline miles (including American and Delta, but not United where the values as lower).
I make this determination first based on how poor the Marriott loyalty program is, but also on the fact that every time a hospitality company’s brand has been acquired, the best features of its loyalty program have been gutted within months, and often before the programs are officially merged. American gutted all of the nicest benefits in the TWA, America West and US Air programs while they were still being run as independent programs in order to begin to conform to their program, and United and Delta did the same with Continental and Northwest, respectively.
What should you do with you cache of SPG miles? First, plan 550 days (about 18 months) out as Starwood lets you lock in reward reservations that far in advance. Go ahead and apply your points for redemptions for a couple of 5 night stays with your family that you know you will likely take in places like Kauai, Paris (where the Westin and W are both 12,000 points a night and in category 5) and Madrid (where the Palace is 12,000 points and in category 5). In the worst case, these reservations can ordinarily be cancelled or changed with just a couple of days advance notice and the points returned to your account. Second, transfer the rest of your points in 20,000 point increments to some of the airlines that still have more rewarding programs, like American or British Airways, for 25,000 points with Starwood’s 25% bonus (note that these transfers, unlike advanced bookings, cannot be reversed).
While Starwood’s program already is not what it used to be, but you can be certain Marriott will remove the few value loopholes that are still there. Take advance of these while you can.