IHG is about to get dethroned as the world’s largest hotel company (talk about Priceless Surprises – and not in a good way). I woke up to a flurry of tweets yesterday about SPG. By the tone of things, it wasn’t good. Literally the worst thing, outside of Delta buying out Alaska Airlines, has happened: Marriott is acquiring Starwood Hotels for $12.2 billion. This has generated a huge outcry among loyal SPG members who don’t want to lose their reasonable award chart and generous elite benefits. The two programs actually have a great deal in common and Marriott Rewards isn’t as terrible as everyone assumes. How do the two loyalty programs stack up against each other? Below is a breakdown of 9 key categories along with which program comes out on top in each one:
1. Credit Card Sign-up Bonuses – Marriott Rewards
When it comes to credit card sign-up bonuses, Marriott has an advantage over Starwood. That’s because there are just two Starwood Preferred Guest credit cards, both of them issued by American Express. This limits card sign-up bonuses to just one per lifetime. So once you’ve banked the sign-up bonus from the personal and business Starwood credit cards (with some exceptions), you can’t earn them again. Chase, which issues the three Marriott-branded credit cards, allows each sign-up bonus to be earned once every 24 months. When it comes to credit card sign-up bonuses alone, Marriott has the advantage because there are more credit cards to choose from and they are in fact churnable. Plus, Marriott is an Ultimate Rewards transfer partner, which gives you even more ways to acquire Marriott points (not that it’s a good use of points, except when you’re topping off an account).
2. Point Earning Opportunities – Marriott Rewards
Outside of rewards credit cards and loyalty program earnings, there are limited ways to earn Starpoints. There’s Starwood’s partnership with Uber, which allows members to earn bonus Starpoints on their Uber rides during qualifying stays. There are airline partnerships, which I’ll get into later, but otherwise earning options are limited with SPG.
Meanwhile, Marriott offers tons of options for stocking up on points. There’s the refer-a-friend program, which allows existing members to earn up to 50,000 points per year by referring others to the program (shameless plug: shoot me an email if you’d like me to refer you to Marriott Rewards). Marriott Rewards has a shopping portal and lots of partnerships with car rental companies and other merchants that offer additional opportunities to earn points. Marriott also offers discounted awards, which certainly helps make their inflated award chart a little less awful.
3. Earning Free Nights – Starwood Preferred Guest
The level of ease (or difficulty) when it comes to earning free nights from paid stays is pretty important when choosing a loyalty program. Marriott offers 2.5 – 10 points per $1 on hotel stays and a free night ranges between 6,000 – 45,000 points per night. It would take $600 – $18,000 worth of paid stays to earn a free night at Marriott.
Meanwhile, Starwood Preferred Guest pays out 2 points per $1 and free nights range between 2,000 – 35,000 points, which requires $1,000 – $17,000 worth of paid stays. The difference isn’t quite as massive as I had imagined. Yes, Starwood comes out ahead in this category, but the difference isn’t huge.
4. Hotel + Air Packages – Marriott Rewards
Both Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest offer hotel and air package awards. Starwood’s Nights & Flights is somewhat limited, since it’s only available at Category 3 and 4 hotels. A Category 3 Nights & Flights award gets you five nights and 50,000 airline miles for 60,000 Starpoints. A Category 4 Nights & Flights award includes five nights and 50,000 miles for 70,000 Starpoints.
Marriott Rewards’ Hotel + Air awards are a bit more complex, with just three currency options: United MileagePlus, British Airways Avios, and Southwest Rapid Rewards. Hotel + Air packages include seven nights and a variable number of airline miles and the number of points required depend on which hotel category you’re redeeming for. This gives you more options to choose from and it’s a good way to essentially transfer your Marriott points to airline miles at a favorable ratio. Factoring in the ease of earning Marriott points through credit card sign-up bonuses, Marriott’s Hotel + Air packages have an advantage over Starwood’s Nights & Flights.
5. Transferring Points – Marriott Rewards
Starwood Preferred Guest allows members to transfer points to others in their households free of charge. Meanwhile, Marriott Rewards allows point transfers between any members, though there is a $10 transaction fee which is waived for Gold and Platinum elite members.
6. Earning Elite Status – Starwood Preferred Guest
Marriott has three elite level tiers, while Starwood has just two:
- Silver after 10 nights
- Gold after 50 nights
- Platinum after 75 nights
Starwood Preferred Guest
- Gold Preferred after 10 stays/25 nights
- Platinum Preferred after 25 stays/50 nights
Starwood has a definite advantage here because it takes 25 – 50 fewer nights to earn top-tier status in the Starwood Preferred Guest program. The huge difference in award night requirements is one of the reasons people are so upset about the buy-out. On the plus side, both Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest count award nights towards elite status. Marriott enacted this policy on November 1, but it’s a positive step that puts both loyalty programs on the same level in at least one category.
7. Elite Membership Benefits – Starwood Preferred Guest
Starwood clearly has the advantage when it comes to earning elite status, but how do their elite benefits stack up against Marriott Rewards? Starwood Gold is pretty useless, the only distinctive benefit being 50% bonus points, a room upgrade upon availability and a welcome amenity. Marriott Rewards Silver members earn 20% bonus points along with a 10% discount on hotel gift shop purchases and weekend room rates at Courtyard and SpringHill Suites hotels. Marriott Silver members also get access to special elite-only award redemptions. It really depends on what you’re looking for. But I can see Marriott Silver being more useful than Starwood Preferred Guest Gold.
Top-tier Starwood Preferred Guest Platinum members get a 50% point bonus, room upgrades when available (including suites), club room access, as well as extra perks for staying 50, 75, and 100 nights each year. The most popular award for completing 50 nights is 10 suite night awards, which can be used to guarantee a suite upgrade for up to ten nights.
Meanwhile, the Marriott Gold elite level (which requires the same number of nights as SPG Platinum) gets members room upgrades upon availability (including suites), club lounge access or breakfast for two. Plus, Hertz #1 Gold membership and twentieth century “benefits” like free local fax and phone calls, plus discounted long distance calls. Marriott Rewards Platinum membership comes with slightly more substantial perks, like United MileagePlus Silver status and a guaranteed Platinum Arrival gift. It’s certainly not worth 25 extra nights. If it’s elite status you’re after, Starwood is definitely the better program.
8. Airline Partnerships – Tie
Both Marriott and Starwood have partnerships with airlines that offer reciprocal benefits to members. Marriott and United partnered up for RewardsPlus, which grants MileagePlus members with Premier Gold status or higher, Marriott Gold status. Marriott Platinum members get United Premier Silver status. Members also get slightly better value when transferring their points, though that’s barely worth mentioning.
Starwood on the other hand, has partnered with Delta SkyMiles and Emirates Skywards. Both partnerships allow members to earn points while flying with either airline, or miles when staying at Starwood hotels.
This is a category in which your travel preferences will determine which program offers better benefits. Personally, I’d go with MileagePlus since I don’t fly with Emirates or Delta much (or ever).
9. Lifetime Status – Starwood Preferred Guest
Both Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest offer Lifetime elite status. The requirements are as follows:
- Gold: 250 nights and five years of Gold status
- Platinum: 500 nights and 10 years of Platinum status
- Silver: 250 nights and 1.2 million points
- Gold: 500 nights and 1.6 million points
- Platinum: 750 nights and 2 million points
Earning lifetime elite status is currently easier with Starwood than Marriott. It’s worth noting that Marriott counts points earned through credit card spending towards the status point requirement. Still, the night requirements are lower for Starwood than Marriott and that’s what ultimately matters.
If in fact the Starwood Preferred Guest program is disbanded or severely devalued, one major loss would be the ability to transfer Starpoints to airline programs at a 1:1 value. Along with a 5,000 mile bonus for every 20,000 points transferred. Again, we don’t know what will happen. Marriott may keep Starwood Preferred Guest as a separate program, much like IHG has done with Kimpton so far. Or they’ll merge, remove the best features of both programs, and cause a post-Lakers game-style riot.
The way I see it, Marriott Rewards isn’t entirely terrible. In fact, as you can see above, it actually comes out ahead of Starwood in several categories. Here’s hoping the best features of each program are preserved post-acquisition.
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