SPG vs. Amex, Chase, and Citi transferable points programs. Which is best?

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In a recent post, I compared each of the major credit card transferable points programs: Amex Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and Citi ThankYou Rewards.  There I found that each program has certain areas where they are strongest: In my opinion, Citi is best for paying for travel with points and for sharing points; Amex is best for premium international airline mile awards; and Chase is best for non-travel rewards, economy airline mile rewards and hotel rewards.  Overall, I declared that if I had to pick just one it would be Chase Ultimate Rewards.  For details, see: Membership Rewards vs. Ultimate Rewards vs. ThankYou Rewards. Which is best?

That’s great, but what about SPG?  The Starwood Preferred Guest rewards program offers many of the same benefits as the bank-run transferable points programs listed above.  SPG is not run by a bank, though.  You do not need particular credit cards to earn or redeem SPG points.  It is a hotel program.  SPG is the loyalty program for Starwood Hotels & Resorts which includes hotel brands such as Sheraton, Westin, W, St. Regis, and more.  Unlike any other hotel rewards program, SPG allows point transfers to airline programs at a favorable rate.  SPG points transfer to most airline programs at a one to one ratio: one SPG point becomes one airline mile.  It get’s better, though: if you transfer 20,000 SPG points at once, you get a 5,000 mile bonus.  20,000 SPG points become 25,000 airline miles.

SPG vs

While you don’t need a credit card to earn SPG points, you can earn points with the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest credit card.  The card offers 1 point per dollar for everyday spend and 2 points per dollar at SPG properties.  Compared to traditional airline credit cards, the SPG card offers a better earning rate.  Even though you would earn 1 point per dollar, either way, the SPG card effectively earns 1.25 miles per dollar thanks to its 20K to 25K transfer ratio.  Plus, it gives you the flexibility to transfer to many different airline programs.

So, the SPG credit card clearly offers better earnings than most airline branded credit cards, but how does it do when measured against Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards, and ThankYou Rewards?  Let’s compare…

Best earning rate

Recently, I published a series of posts showing how to make use of multiple credit cards in order to average more points per dollar from everyday spend.  By using the right cards in the right situations it may be possible to average more than 2 points per dollar in any one of these programs.  Please see:

All three bank programs offer far better point earning options than the SPG credit card.  Even for everyday, non-bonus, spend, the Amex EveryDay Preferred card beats out SPG’s 1.25 miles per dollar by offering 1.5 points per dollar (when you use the EveryDay Preferred card at least 30 times per billing cycle).

Outside of credit card spend, SPG offers a few additional ways to earn points:

Of these, only the Refer a Friend program requires the SPG credit card.  It’s great that there are a number of ways to earn SPG points, but hotel stays and SPG partnerships are not differentiators compared to Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, and ThankYou Rewards.  The reason is that you can earn both.  Suppose, for example, you decide Amex Membership Rewards is the best program to earn points in through credit card spend.  Even then, you would be crazy not to earn SPG points from Starwood hotel stays, Delta Crossover Rewards, etc.

Overall best earning rate: Amex Membership Rewards

Best for non-travel rewards

If you want to use points to get stuff, then your best bet is almost always to redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards for cash and then look for the best deal you can find to buy that stuff outright.  Use an online shopping portal to get a rebate, use discount codes, price match, etc.

There is one type of not-necessarily-travel reward, though, that may be worth pursuing: SPG Moments.  SPG offers tickets to special events: sports events, concerts, shows, and more in exchange for SPG points. Often, the number of points required is very reasonable and often results in excellent per point value.  Even better, some of these experiences are things you would never get to do otherwise: backstage passes, opportunities to meet stars, etc.

While I haven’t had the opportunity yet to use SPG Moments, here are a few write-ups from other blogs:

Based on these write-ups, I’m going to go out on a limb and declare SPG the winner in this category.

Overall best for non-travel rewards: SPG

Best for pay with points rewards

Amex, Chase, and Citi’s bank points programs let you buy airfare and other travel with points.  SPG does too through their SPG Flights program  There are a couple of big advantages to buying airfare through a pay with points program.  For one, you never have to worry about whether or not award flights are available.  In general, if a flight can be purchased with cash, then it can be paid for with points too.  Another advantage is that you can earn airline miles and elite credits when flying on point-purchased fares.  The same is not true of flights booked with airline miles.

A big disadvantage of paying with points is that you generally can’t get outsized value for your points.  Each point is usually worth a fixed amount towards travel.  With most banks, each point is worth exactly 1 cent each towards travel.  Chase offers up to 1.25 cents per point value towards travel; Amex offers up to 1.43 cents per point towards airfare (with a single selected airline); and Citi offers up to 1.6 cents per point towards airfare (with flights on AA).

Let’s look at SPG’s Flights program:

Ticket Prices SPG Points Required Max cents per point value
Up to $150 10,000 1.50
$150-$215 15,000 1.43
$215-$280 20,000 1.40
$280-$345 25,000 1.38
$345-$410 30,000 1.37
$410-$475 35,000 1.36
$475-$540 40,000 1.35

As you can see above, it’s theoretically possible to get up to 1.5 cents per point value when paying with SPG points for airfare, but only if you find airfare at the top of the first bracket: $149.99.  If the actual airfare is just a bit less than the top of the bracket, then the per point value drops quickly.  For example, when I modeled the per point value with the assumption that airfare would be just $25 less than the top of each bracket, the maximum per point value dropped to 1.3 cents per point.

Overall, SPG offers decent per point value when paying with points, but you can do better with other programs.

Best overall pay with points value: Citi ThankYou Rewards

Best for airline mile rewards

SPG offers a huge list of 1 to 1 transfer partners (plus, they give an extra 5,000 miles when you transfer 20,000 points at a time): AeroMexico, Aeroplan/Air Canada, Air Berlin, Air China Companion, Air France KLM , Flying Blue, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, Alitalia MilleMiglia, All Nippon Airways (ANA) Mileage Club, American Airlines AAdvantage, Asiana Airlines, British Airways Executive Club, Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines’ Sky Pearl Club, Delta Air Lines SkyMiles, Emirates Skywards, Etihad Airways, Gol Smiles, Hainan Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Japan Airlines (JAL) Mileage Bank, Lufthansa Miles and More, Qatar Airways, Saudi Arabian Airlines Alfursan, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, Thai Airways International Royal Orchid Plus, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, Virgin Australia Velocity.

There are also a few transfer partners that are not 1 to 1:

  • Air New Zealand: 65 SPG points becomes 1 Air New Zealand point
  • LAN: 2 SPG points becomes 3 LAN kilometers
  • United: 2 SPG points becomes 1 United mile

Among the partners listed above, here are a few particularly noteworthy transfer partners that are not available through Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards, or ThankYou Rewards:

  • Alaska Airlines: Book one way awards, with stop-overs, on valuable partners such as Emirates and Cathay Pacific.
  • American Airlines: One of the best remaining award charts, mostly without fuel surcharges (watch out for British Airways flights, though!). Best miles for booking Etihad Apartments.
  • Japan Airlines: Distance based OneWorld award chart offers excellent value for certain routes
  • Lufthansa: Lufthansa offers great value for some partner redemptions. One example: fly United domestic first class for only 35,000 miles round trip.  Also, Lufthansa has stopped providing first class award space to their partners on most Lufthansa flights, so the only way to book first class awards on Lufthansa’s own flights is often to use Lufthansa miles (you will be hit with very steep fuel surcharges, though).

One huge downside to SPG point transfers is that they can take up to a week to process.  The bank transferable points programs, meanwhile, usually transfer instantly or within a day (sometimes longer if initiated on a weekend) depending upon the program points are being transferred to.

Despite the slow point transfers, SPGs support for Alaska, American, Japan Airlines, and Lufthansa set it apart.  With these partners, I think that SPG is even better than Amex Membership Rewards for premium international airline mile rewards.  For economy rewards, though, I still prefer Chase thanks to their support for Southwest and United (at a full 1 to 1 transfer ratio).

Best for economy airline mile rewards: Chase Ultimate Rewards

Best for premium international airline mile rewards: SPG

Best for hotel point rewards

Wandering Aramean offers a hotel search tool called Hotel Hustle which compares hotel paid rates to award prices and therefore helps to find the best points deal when booking a hotel.  He also takes the data from the search results and compiles statistics showing mean, median, minimum, and maximum observed point values for each hotel chain.  As of June 1 2015, he shows the following results:

Loyalty Program Average (Mean) Median Min Max
Club Carlson 0.439 0.386 0.125 9.223
Choice Preferred 0.763 0.733 0.012 16.916
Hilton HHonors 0.479 0.440 0.005 17.470
Hyatt Gold Passport 1.988 1.962 0.297 10.825
IHG Rewards Club 0.661 0.624 0.140 6.702
Marriott Rewards 0.841 0.776 0.057 6.667
Starwood Preferred Guest 2.145 1.940 0.490 15.000
Wyndham Rewards 0.656 0.594 0.023 12.488

If you look at just the median values, above, you can see that both Hyatt and SPG offer approximately 2 cents per point value.  The next highest value hotel chain is Marriott where the median value is less than 1 cent per point.  The others offer even less value per point, on average.  At the low and high end, though, SPG does even better than Hyatt.  One way of interpreting this data is this: on average you are likely to get similar value from SPG or Hyatt points, but the worst case redemptions are worse with Hyatt and the best case redemptions are better with SPG.

SPG has a few other advantages over Hyatt as well:

  • SPG has far more properties
  • SPG counts award stays towards elite status requirements (Hyatt counts points + cash awards, but not full point awards)

Even though I love Chase Ultimate Rewards for its ability to transfer points to Hyatt, I have to give the edge to SPG here.

Best for hotel point rewards: SPG

Best for sharing points

An important consideration with almost any rewards program is whether there are options for sharing points across multiple accounts. I covered the rules, by program, in “A quick guide to transferable points programs.” Here they are again:

  • Amex Membership Rewards: US cardholders cannot move their Membership Rewards points to other accounts. However, it is possible to transfer points to another person’s frequent flyer program if the recipient is an authorized user on your Membership Rewards credit card account.
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards: Chase allows cardholders to freely move points from/to their spouse or significant other living at the same address. The recipient must also have a Chase credit card that earns Ultimate Rewards points.
  • Citi ThankYou Rewards: Citi allows ThankYou members to move points to anyone’s ThankYou account, but points will expire 90 days after transfer.
  • Starwood Preferred Guest: Starwood allows you to freely move points to others in your same householdFound here.

Citi has, by far, the most flexible sharing options.

Best for sharing points: Citi ThankYou Rewards

Conclusion

When compared to bank run transferable points programs, SPG does amazingly well.  In the 8 categories presented above, I declared SPG best in 3 of them:

  • Best for non-travel rewards
  • Best for premium international airline mile rewards
  • Best for hotel point rewards

And, SPG compares favorably in 4 other categories as well, even if I didn’t consider them best:

  • Pay with points value
  • Economy airline mile rewards
  • Sharing points

Unfortunately, in one very important area, SPG doesn’t compare at all: earning rate.  For almost all spend, the SPG credit card earns only 1 point per dollar.  Credit cards that earn points in other programs, meanwhile, have useful category bonuses ranging from 2 to 5 points per dollar.  In fact, in my previous series on Best Credit Card Combos, I showed that it was possible to average more than 2 points per dollar with any of the three bank programs:

In conclusion, SPG offers a terrific program.  With respect to redeeming points, SPG measures up extremely well against Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards, and ThankYou Rewards.  That said, SPG’s credit card earning rate is poor compared to what is possible with other programs.  Overall, I expect that most people will get more value putting spend on a combination of cards as discussed in the Best credit card combos posts rather than earning only 1 point per dollar with SPG.

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