When I logged into my Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) account today I noticed a special offer:
upgrade to Gold Preferred Guest® status after two eligible stays at SPG hotels by October 15, 2014.
The promotion is offered to “select” Starwood Preferred Guest members who register by August 31, 2014.
The Gold Preferred Guest status will be good through February 2016.
Certain exclusions apply: bookings made through third parties such as online travel agencies do not count, nor do award night booked with Starwood points or Cash & Points.
Normally, ten separate stays or 25 nights in a year are required to earn Gold status, so this is indeed a fast track.
Is SPG Gold Status Worth It?
Here are the benefits of Gold Status:
Three Starpoints for every dollar spent – a 50% bonus over basic membership.
4 p.m. late checkout.
An “enhanced” room at check-in, when available.
Your choice of a welcome gift: bonus Starpoints, complimentary in-room Internet access, or a free drink.
So far as I am able to gather, the “enhanced” room may be a room on a higher floor, but is not a suite.
The welcome gift is a choice of:
250 Starwood points (125 points at Aloft, Four Points and Element);
high speed internet access for the entire stay; or
a complimentary beverage at the restaurant/bar, maximum value of $15.
No Status, No Problem
I have a couple of hotel stays coming up but I am not going to go out of my way to stay at a Starwood hotel just to earn gold status. I can almost always get a cheaper rate going through Priceline or Hotwire, and I am unlikely to have enough paid stays at Starwood hotels in the next 18 months to make this deal worthwhile for me.
What about you? Is this a deal, or no deal?
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It was a perfectly nice hotel — exactly what you’d expect from a Sheraton. It offered nothing particularly noteworthy, except for the complimentary shuttle service which was outstanding.
I booked a “Cash & Points” stay. As a Category 3 Starwood hotel, the fixed Cash & Points rate is 3,500 points per night plus $55 (plus tax).
This four night holiday put a big dent in my SPG points balance.
Cash & Points stays do not earn Starwood (SPG) points. To replenish my account, I took advantage of a couple of promotions to earn a total of 2,500 points:
Make a Green Choice — 1,500 points
Local restaurant promo — 500 points
2x points using Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card to pay the cash portion of the bill — 500 points
Make a Green Choice
SPG’s environmental initiative — “Make a Green Choice” — aims to conserve water and energy. The Ann Arbor Sheraton offers guests the option to decline daily housekeeping service in exchange for 500 Starpoints per night (except day of departure). Since I was not sharing the room, I opted for the Starpoints.
Welcome SPG Members!
The hotel website indicated another welcome offer was in effect. You could earn 500 Starpoints by showing your SPG card and spending $25 in food and drink in the hotel restaurant.
* * *
Starpoints are the most difficult currency to accumulate. There are no bonus points categories, save for 2x points at Starwood hotels. Unlike most other points programs, there is not a shopping portal to earn extra points for shopping online.
I was pleased to get 2,500 points back for this stay — to go toward my next trip!
As Kermit once said, it’s not easy being green.
Do you participate in hotels’ environmental programs? Should hotels incentivize these programs by offering points in their loyalty programs?
I love to read those silly What’s in My Wallet blog posts. I guess it’s because before I got into points and miles, I would not have believed that you could open an insane number of rewards credit cards without ruining your credit.
It does raise some questions, though:
How could the banks keep extending you credit?
How many times can you earn big bonuses?
How do you remember which card to use for which purchases?
How could you possibly keep track of all those credit cards without missing a payment?
15 is My Limit on Schnitzengruben, I mean Credit Cards
I recently counted 14 credit cards in my wallet from five different banks. That is crazy! I don’t recommend that for anyone.
Miss a single payment and you will be socked with a $35 fee and a major ding to your credit score.
With fourteen active credit card accounts, it is taking too much of my time to track expenses and pay the bills. Let’s face it; my office is cluttered and my wallet barely closes.
I am looking to thin out my collection.
Rewards Credit Cards Aren’t for Everyone
Travel rewards credit cards aren’t for everybody.
First off, you need to have a stellar credit score to be eligible for the best offers.
Most people prefer to carry only one or two cards, to simplify things and minimize the hassle. There is merit to this approach, particularly if you are disorganized and don’t keep current with paying your bills.
A perfectly reasonable strategy is to earn free travel is to focus on one airline or one type of flexible rewards such as Chase Ultimate Rewards points or cash back travel cards like the Capitol One Venture Card, or the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®.
But if you have a credit score in the excellent range, and you pay your bills on time and in full every month, rewards credit cards can be incredibly lucrative.
Once you have experienced the large bonus offers for opening a new credit card, which can be worth $500 or more, it is easy to get sucked into to opening more and more accounts to earn free travel.
Know Your Credit Score
From personal experience, I have watched my credit score progressively improve the further along I got in this game. Barclay’s bank offers its credit card customers free access to their official FICO credit score once every three months.
My most recent FICO score is 837, with 14 open accounts, and five additional credit card accounts that I have closed in the past year or so.
That is because my credit line has increased dramatically with all these cards, and my monthly spending is just a small fraction of the available credit.
The banks appear willing to extend me credit well beyond my annual income. Be careful. Like with the mortgage crisis, a lot of people get in debt over their heads from credit cards and can’t make the payments, or end up paying exorbitant amounts of interest, at rate as high as 28 percent annually.
This much is clear: the banks are making plenty of money, but probably not from people like me.
Starting Out with Rewards Credit Cards: The Chase Freedom Card
When I started my environmental consulting business 15 years ago, I opened the Chase Freedom credit card in order to keep my business expenses separate from my personal expenses. Chase Freedom is a personal, not a business credit card but I was using it for business purposes. It carries no annual fee, and earns 5x rewards on select categories of spending. This is a card that I would highly recommend for someone just starting out. The points can be taken as cash back on your next statement, or used as Ultimate Rewards Points. Ultimate Rewards Points are quite flexible and can be transferred to many airline and hotel loyalty programs but you need to have one of the premium credit cards from Chase to enable transfers.
If you are just starting out with travel hacking, the Chase Freedom card is a great place to begin because you can earn cash back or travel rewards, depending on your needs. Because the card has no annual fee, you can keep it forever, thus increasing the length of your credit history over time. This card earns 1x points on all purchases, and 5x points on select categories, that vary each quarter on up to $1500 of purchases per quarter. Generally, the 5x points is good for gas purchases for six months of the year. This spring, the card offered 5x points on restaurants, and sometimes you can get 5x points on Amazon.com, Lowes, or Kohls.
Right now, Chase is offering a $100 bonus for new applications, but I have seen this bonus go as high as $200 after spending $500 on initial purchases within three months. From time to time there is an extra $25 incentive for adding an authorized user to your account. There are cards with bigger bonuses but they usually entail annual fees and larger initial spending requirements.
Pick a Card, Any Card!
Whenever I show anyone what credit cards are in my real wallet, they look at me like I am crazy. I often get looks as I fumble through my wallet looking for the card that earns bonus points at this store or that.
Because I run a small business, I am eligible to apply for business credit cards. This allow me to “double dip” on account bonuses. I travel for both business and personal reasons and must keep my expenses separate for tax purposes. I caution you that business cards can only be used for genuine business expenses and they lack some of the consumer protections of personal credit cards.
What’s in My Wallet?
Here’s a quick rundown of what is in my wallet and why, and which cards are candidates for culling.
Chase Rewards Credit Cards
Quicken Rewards,personal (authorized user): The credit card I’ve had the longest is the Quicken Card issued by Chase Bank. We opened this card over 15 years ago because at the time, it was the one of the few cards that allowed you to download your statements into the Quicken personal accounting software. The Quicken Rewards card pays cash back rewards and carries no annual fee. This cash back card pays 2x drugstores, restaurants, and office supply stores, and 1x points on other purchases. Redemptions for airline tickets can be worth up to 1.25 cents per point, but only if you redeem at the top of a price bracket, e.g. a $500 ticket for 40,000 points. This is a keeper.
Freedom,personal:I love the Chase Freedom card because I can earn 5x points on practical things like gas and restaurants and there is no annual fee. It is a keeper because it pads my Ultimate Rewards point balance, and contributes to the length of my credit history, which is a factor that improves my credit score.
Ink Plus,business: The Chase Ink Plus is my primary business credit card. When I opened the card, I earned 50K Ultimate Rewards points after spending $5,000 in 3 months. This card pays 5x points at office supply stores and on telecommunications and 2 points on gas stations and hotels. The points easily transfer to Amtrak, Southwest Airlines, and United — three of my preferred carriers. Chase offered me a fabulous retention offer which I declined, but I plan to keep the card open.
Ink Bold,business: This is a charge card, not a credit card. The differences is that balances must be paid off every month. I opened this card for my blog business in June 2014 when there was a special bonus offer of 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $5,000 in three months. This card has a $95 annual fee which is waived the first year. This card has the same bonus categories as the Ink Plus. The usual bonus is 50K points.
Southwest Rapid Rewards,business:I opened the Southwest Rapid Rewards card for the 50,000 mile bonus. That is an offer that rolls around every couple of months. Southwest claims that you can get two roundtrip flights for 50K miles, and that has been my experience. The Southwest Rapid Rewards card has a $69 annual fee that is not waived the first year. You get 3,000 bonus miles every subsequent year. Last year, I was offered an additional 3,000 points as a retention bonus, and this year I received this offer again! I highly recommend the Southwest Rapid Rewards card for budget domestic travelers because of the excellent availability of award tickets on Southwest Airlines.
United Mileage Plus Explorer,personal (authorized user): This is my husband’s card. He opened it because there was a targeted offer for 50,000 miles. The card carries an annual fee of $95 which is waived the first year. When the fee came due, he was offered a retention bonus of 15,000 miles which offset the annual fee, and then some.
Barclays Reward Credit Cards
Barclaycard Arrival™ World MasterCard®, personal: I have the no annual fee version of the Barclaycard Arrival. I opened it because of a targeted offer for 40,000 bonus miles and the ongoing benefits including 2x points on restaurant and travel spending. You get a ten percent rebate on your travel redemptions, so this card effectively pays 2.2 percent cash back. I love the access to my free credit score and the free TripIt Pro subscription. The card now pays a bonus of 20,000 miles for new applicants. This is another keeper.
The US Airways® Premier World MasterCard®, personal:I opened this card because it offered me 35,000 miles after making a single purchase. There is an $89 annual fee which is waived the first year. My version of the card awarded 10,000 bonus miles on your anniversary. It has a number of additional benefits such as one free checked bag for up to four family members, a free lounge pass, and 5,000 fewer miles needed for reward tickets. With this card, you can get 2 companion passes for $99 each, but there are lots of strings attached. I just received the 10,000 mile annual bonus. I called to cancel the card because I did not want to pay the annual fee. This card currently pays a 40,000 mile bonus after the first purchase, but does not offer the annual 10,000 bonus points. It has an $89 annual fee which is waived the first year.
US Airways Dividend Miles,business:I opened this card by “accident.” I had applied for a different version of the US Airways card, but was informed that that it was not possible to have two different personal cards. I was able to switch my application to this business card, and earn 25,000 Dividend Miles upon the first purchase. The annual fee of $89 is waived the first year.
I graduated from the University of Michigan, and haven’t been back to Ann Arbor in years. The winters there could be pretty harsh, but the summers were beautiful.
When I heard about the Ann Arbor Art Fair Do, I thought it would be a good opportunity to check out my old stomping grounds, see some good friends, take in the art fair, and hang with miles and points enthusiasts.
What is a Do?
When frequent flyers get together for an informal gathering, they call it a “do.” The Ann Arbor do is a relatively small gathering that features several guest speakers.
Who is Drew?
The guest speakers at the 2014 Ann Arbor Art Fair Do will be Drew who blogs at Travel is Free and his wife Carrie whose blog is Freakin Flyers. Drew and Carrie have been traveling long-term for practically nothing, and should have a lot of stories to share. Tahsir Ahsan, aka the Bengali Miles Guru, writes for Hack My Trip and will be speaking on rental cars and how to manufacture points and miles.
The “do” is an annual event organized by a guy who calls himself “Bikeguy” on the Flyertalk forum. As a relative newcomer to this hobby, I hope to pick up some tips and tricks from the veterans coming from around the Midwest and elsewhere.
What to Do in Ann Arbor
The big event of the week will be the Ann Arbor Art Fair, which is a street fair of juried artists and craftspeople near the campus of the University of Michigan. The event has grown in recent years to encompass four concurrent art fairs all over town. There will be entertainment as well as fine arts and crafts.
Since this trip is a “reunion” of sorts, I want to visit some of my favorite places on and off campus like the Dana building and the Inter-cooperative Council houses where I lived. I hear Lenny Bruce coop is long gone, but Robert Owen coop is still going strong. I also want to stop by Dominick’sItalian cafe, where I waitressed one summer.
I’ll be on the lookout for urban fairy doors in the downtown area, something that I find very intriguing. I’m looking forward to spending a day with my friends at Pickerel Lake, a small undeveloped lake about 20 miles from Ann Arbor.
Where to Stay in Ann Arbor
This is a miles and points conference and I am using points to get to Michigan. I have reservations on Southwest, where my nonstop flights price out at 6,500 Rapid Rewards points each way. Curiously, the nonstop flights on this route require fewer points than tickets involving plane changes.
I earned these points through a combination of flying Southwest, and making purchases on my Chase Southwest credit card. There is currently a promotion for the card which offers a 50,000 point bonus after spending $2,000 in the first three months, with an annual fee of $69. The Southwest credit card is an outstanding deal for budget domestic travelers, and award seat availability on Southwest is very good.
The Ann Arbor Art Fair draws several hundred thousand visitors so hotel rooms are at a premium. I used Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) points to book a room at the Sheraton Ann Arbor for the points and cash rate of 3,500 points and $55 per night. This hotel is located several miles from campus in hotel row near the Briarwood mall. There is an indoor/outdoor swimming pool, and they offer a shuttle for local transportation.
By using the points, I am saving about $100 per night. I earned these points by opening the Amex SPG credit card and making purchases on the card. Through the end of June, this card has a sign-up bonus of 30,000 points, after spending $5,000 in a six month period. The annual fee of $65 is waived the first year. If a friend refers you for the card, they will earn a 5,000 point bounty. (Let me know if you would like a referral.)
Frank Lloyd Wright House on VRBO
In looking for a place to stay for the weekend, I came across the Palmer House, a beautifully preserved house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, complete with all the original Wright furniture. The house sits on two acres overlooking the University of Michigan Arboretum.
Diversification is a good idea in the stock market, but it is a bad idea as far as frequent flyer programs go.
In order to maximize award travel, you need to concentrate your earning strategy on one or maybe two frequent flyer programs.
Miles and points have no value if they are not used. Zilch. So there is little value in gathering a few miles here and a few miles there unless you will have enough to redeem for an award ticket or hotel room.
Miles and Points Programs Are Loyalty Programs
Frequent flyer and hotel programs are loyalty programs so it stands to reason that they reward loyalty. If you spread your spending around, the less likely you are to accrue enough points in any one program to redeem an award, or to benefit from elite status. Now I am not one for elite status, but if you are doing a lot of traveling, and can arrange your travel to concentrate on a particular airline or hotel chain, you may accelerate your points earning as you move up the loyalty program ladder.
35,000 Miles Won’t Get Me Where I Want to Go
Let me give an example. Last year, I opened a The US Airways Premier World MasterCard® for a bonus of 35K miles. I thought this was a great deal because the miles were awarded after making my first purchase — there was no minimum spend requirement. Free miles, I thought. (The offer now is for $30K miles after your first purchase, with an annual fee of $89.)
US Airways fit into our family’s travel plans, because they had a lot of flights from Washington National (DCA) to Hartford (BDL). The US Airways card came with two $99 companion passes, so I thought it would be a good way for our family of three to save on travel expenses. Furthermore, it allowed award redemptions for 5,000 fewer points. (Economy awards on US Airways normally cost 25K miles, but if you have The US Airways Premier World MasterCard®, they cost only 20K miles.)
When it came time to book our travel, there was ready award availability at the “economy” level for flights from DC to Hartford.
As usual I’ve waited until the last minute to make reservations for our trip to New York City for Thanksgiving.
Hotel rooms are scarcer than hen’s teeth and the prices are sky high.
Every time I search online, the prices are even higher than they were just hours before.
There’s hardly any availability on Hotwire, unless you want to stay out at Laguardia or in Hoboken. I’ve given up on finding a room that will accomodate all three of us — our daughter will have to stay with her Aunt on the pull-out sofa.
Finding reasonably priced room in Chelsea, our preferred neighborhood, seems impossible. Modest properties like Four Points by Sheraton are charging nearly $300 a night — before taxes.
I almost hit the panic button recently when trying to book a flight home for our daughter.
Delta Airlines runs a nonstop route to Reagan National Airport (DCA) which is optimal for our travel needs. I am trying to spend down our modest stash of Delta Skymiles because our travel priorities will be changing come September.
I have 11,000 Skymiles in my account.
The preferred roundtrip flight was available for 40,000 miles.
I have some Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) Starpoints available, which can be transferred to Delta Skymiles. For each 20,000 Starpoints you transfer to Delta, SPG gives you a 5,000 point bonus. 25,000 additional Skymiles, still wasn’t enough to book the trip. I’d need to move 24,000 Starpoints over to Delta to cash in. (11K Skymiles + 20K Starpoints + 5K bonus points + 4K Starpoints = 40k points needed for a ticket).
I opened a boatload of travel rewards credit cards in 2012 — and now it’s time to pay the piper. For many rewards cards, the annual fee is waived the first year, but the fee is due in full on the one year anniversary.
I read about retention bonuses, and wanted to give it a try. If you call the number on the back of your card to say that you are considering canceling — because you are concerned about the annual fee coming due –the bank may offer you a variety of incentives to keep you as a customer. If you tell them you want to cancel the card because you no longer need it — they will probably just cancel it without offering any retention incentive.