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American Express

How To Use SPG Cash & Points To Maximize Your Starpoints

As most of you know, I don’t really do Mattress Runs, rarely have Paid Nights at Hotels, and prefer to get Hotel Elite Status via Credit Cards and Status Matches. That being said, I get a lot of emails from FFU Readers asking if I have some secret to redeeming Hotel Points since it seems like I have a lot of free nights at Hotels.

For the average Hotel or Airline Credit Card, a “normal” Sign Up Bonus will either get you 1 Free Flight or 2 Free Nights in a Hotel. After you redeem your Sign Up Bonus, you normally have to spend an absurd amount ($25,000+) on your Credit Card to get another free Flight or Night.

To maximize the value of my Frequent Flyer Miles, I typically transfer them (if possible) to programs like Southwest, which have variable award pricing. For Hotels, I typically use Cash & Point options to extract the most “value” out of my Hotel Points.

Some people shun Cash & Point options because there is a small “co-pay” involved, thus making it not 100% free.

As much as I love traveling for free, I will easily settle for traveling cheaply! That is why I don’t mind paying $80 for a Friends & Family Rate at Radisson, even if I am not going to earn any Points on the stay.

While a few Hotel Programs like Marriott, Hilton, and Priority Club offer Cash & Points options, typically those options offer a terrible value.

The only exceptional Cash & Points program I have found is operated by Starwood (SPG). Although there has been some devaluation of their Cash & Points program, I still find it to be an exceptional value!

For anyone that has a SPG Card, I am sure you are very familiar with Cash & Points redemptions. However if you don’t have a SPG AMEX, I’d recommend getting one because the amount of money you can save with Cash & Points options at SPG Properties is fairly astonishing.

Link To Sign Up For The SPG AMEX

What Exactly Is Cash & Points?

Cash & Points is exactly as the name implies.

It is the ability to redeem a Hotel Award Stay by using a combination of Cash & Points.

So if a Free Night Award costs 12,000 Starpoints a night, instead of paying the full 12,000 Starpoints, you can opt to use a combination of Cash & Points and only pay 4,800 Starpoints + $90.

Given how difficult it can be to earn Starpoints (Credit Card & Hotel Stays are the primary ways) & how valuable Starpoints are if you want to transfer to Airlines, many people opt to use Cash & Points. Although there is a small bit you have to pay out of pocket, it is an easy way to “subsidize” the cost of staying at luxury hotels while not using all your Starpoints at once.

Black Out Dates

While there are no blackout dates for Free Nights in the SPG Program, meaning that if there is a open standard room at the Hotel, then you can use your SPG Points for a Free Night Award, that sadly does not apply to Cash & Points. 

Although in a perfect world, there would never be any black out dates for any Airline or Hotel Program, I have found like anything Frequent Flyer related, the farther out in advance you reserve, the better your chances of finding availability for Cash & Points.

For example in 2010, by booking in June 2010, I was able to use Cash & Points at the Westin Maui over the peak Christmas season. If I had waited until say September 2010, more than likely there would not have been any Cash & Points Availability.  

Also remember that Hotel Award Stays are not like Airline Awards, in that they are normally 100% refundable.

This means that if you think you need an Hotel Award, it is always better to book it.  If it turns out that you don’t need it, then you can always cancel and get your Points back for free.

How To Find Cash & Points Availability

1. Go To SPG.com

While you can visit each individual Hotel Brand’s website like Westin.com and Sheraton.com, I prefer SPG.com because it shows all SPG Properties when you search.

2. Enter Your Search Criteria

At SPG.com, simply enter your Destination and your dates and hit “Find Now”.

3. Check Your Results

Typically the more popular the property, the more likely you will have to manually search for Cash & Points dates.

After your results come up, look through all the Properties listed and find the Property that you would like to stay at. 

I typically cross reference the Properties that come up with TripAdvisor.com, so as to make sure the Property is as good as it looks in the photos.

In this case, the Westin Chicago River North did not have Cash & Points options for the dates I selected.

4. Check Cash & Points Calendar

For the exact dates I selected, there was no Cash & Points availability. 

So I went ahead and pulled up the Cash & Point Availability Calendar for the Property by click on the “Show Calendar” button (in the Screenshot below it says “Hide Calendar”).

Once the Calendar expands, simply click on the “SPG Cash & Points” button and it will show you all the available dates for Cash & Points at that Property.

If your dates are flexible, then simply pick the dates that work for you.

If your dates are set in stone, then you may want to check out another SPG Property in the area and see if they have any Cash & Points options available.

Although in this example, the co-pay is $90, the regular room rate is still $299, so you are still getting a steal.

After you pick your dates, simply hit continue, enter your SPG login information, and check out. 

Real Examples Of Cash & Points

Now that you know how to search and book Cash & Points options, it is now time to have a little fun and see just how much money Cash & Points can save you.

Before we jump into this, we first have to set a value of what Starpoints are worth so we have a baseline to figure out if we are getting a good deal or not with our Cash & Point redemptions.

According to SPG.com, you can buy 1,000 Starpoints for $35, thus each Starpoint is worth 3.5 Cents.

Since I’d never pay that much to buy Starpoints, I’ll just go with Lucky’s valuation of 2.2 Cents per a Starpoint.

However to every person, the value is different depending on what you are looking to achieve out of your Starpoints.

Some people prefer to get extreme value out of their Starpoints by primarily redeeming their Starpoints at luxury properties. Whereas others like myself primarily look at Hotels as a place to sleep, thus at the end of the day I am more concerned about saving money than I am about what amenities the Hotel offers.  

Again this is all based on personal preference, so don’t put to much weight in making sure you absolutely receive a value of over 2.2 cents per a Starpoint when you redeem for an Award Stay or you might just drive yourself crazy!

Example 1 – Airport Hotels

Although not many people stay at Airport Hotels for fun, there are times you might need one. 

In my case, when I take International Flights that connect in other U.S Cities, I never take my chances flying out of O’Hare. This is even 1000% more true in the Winter time. 

Therefore it makes more sense for me to fly out of O’Hare the night before my main International Flight from New York or wherever, stay at a JFK Airport Hotel for the night, and not have to worry that my Chicago flight might get delayed or canceled due to snow.

Typically Airport Hotels are fairly cheaper than Downtown Hotels, but you still might want to save a few bucks and redeem Points or go with Cash & Points.

For my example, I just searched for SPG Properties near O’Hare and found a Westin with a nightly room rate of $189, Free Night from 7,000 Starpoints, and Cash & Points from 2,800 Starpoints + $45.

Breakdown

Nightly Rate: $189

Free Night Award: 7,000 Starpoints

Free Night Award Value: $189 / 7,000 = 2.7 Cents

Cash & Points Value: $189 – $45 co-pay / 2,800 = 5.1 Cents

So based on Lucky’s valuation of 2.2 Cents, simply by paying a $45 co-pay, you have essentially doubled the value of your Starpoints!

Example 2 – Downtown Hotels

9/10 times that I have redeemed my Starpoints, it has been at Downtown Hotels. This is primarily due to the fact that if I am on vacation visiting a City, I want to be in a good location (ie. not at an Airport Hotel), but at the same time I don’t really want to pay $250 a night or more.

The great thing about Starwood is that they have quite a few luxury brands that fall into this Category (like Westin, Sheraton, etc), so there isn’t really an issue finding Cash & Points availability.

At random, I just typed in Boston and found this Westin property in the heart of downtown Boston.

The room rate is $233, a Free Night is 12,000 Starpoints, and Cash & Points is 4,800 + $90 co-pay.

Breakdown

Nightly Rate: $233

Free Night Award: 12,000 Starpoints

Free Night Award Value: $233 / 12,000 = 1.9 Cents

Cash & Points Value: $233 – $90 co-pay / 4,800 = 3.5 cents

Although the “value” of using Starpoints at this hotel is not as high as the example above, sometimes it is important to put it in “real dollars” and not solely concentrate on the “value” portion. 

So if you stayed 5 nights at this property, your options would be to pay $1,165 ($233 x 5), or 48,000 Starpoints (12,000 x 4 since 5th night is free), or 24,000 Starpoints + $450.

Although a case can be made to just use 48,000 Starpoints and not pay anything, I think most people would agree that paying $450 out of pocket for 5 nights is far better than paying $1,165!

Example 3 – Luxury Properties

Although the only luxury SPG Properties I have stayed at are the St. Regis Washington D.C and Westin Resort in Maui, I have read more than a few of Lucky’s awesome Trip Reports.

If your goal is to use maximize the value of each Starpoint, then Luxury Properties are the way to do it.

I randomly selected a Starwood Property in Mauritius, off the Coast of Africa. 

Yes, you are reading that correctly, the room rate is $670 Euros a night or $875 USD.

Breakdown

Nightly Rate: $875 USD

Free Night Award: 20,000 Starpoints

Free Night Award Value: $875 / 20,000 = 4.3 Cents

Cash & Points Value: $875 – $150 co-pay / 8,000 = 9.0 Cents

To put this in perspective, if you compete the minimum spend on the SPG AMEX, you can earn 25,000 Starpoints. If you decided to spend 24,000 Starpoints (8,000 a night) on 3 Nights here using Cash & Points, at a minimum you would save over $2,175!

I can’t think of any other product in the world that can save you $2,175 right off the bat!

Also did I mention that the Annual Fee on the SPG Card is waived for the 1st year…

Recap

Hopefully this little tutorial provided a good primer on how to find Cash & Point options and how valuable Cash & Points can be.

If you are still on the fence about getting the SPG AMEX, I highly suggest going to SPG.com, typing in the location of your next destination and seeing just how much the room rate is compared to the Cash & Point options. I bet the results will surprise you!

As always, if you have any questions, feel free to email me or leave a comment.

-Parag

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Best Cards To Have While Traveling

Chip & Signature

Prior to my trip to Madrid and Istanbul last week, I had heard that AMEX Platinum Cardholders were eligible to get a Chip & Signature Platinum Card for free.

For those of you not familiar with Chip & Signature (or EMV) technology, it is a variation on Chip & Pin technology. Basically when they run your Chip & Pin Credit Card, you have to enter a Pin (similar to what we have to do for a Debit Card). With the Chip & Signature, you just have to sign (no Pin).

In the US, we don’t really use Chip & Pin or Chip & Signature Cards, but abroad Chip & Pin is used almost exclusively.

While most Restaurants and Hotels abroad will allow you to use a regular US Credit Card, many of the automated kiosks at the Train Stations, etc, will only take Cards that have Chips. 

In Montreal, I could not get my Chase INK Bold to work at any of the Train or Bike Stations and it was horrible.

When I saw that AMEX Platinum Cardholders could get a Chip & Signature Card for free, I jumped on it and simply called AMEX to request one. AMEX was great and overnighted me the new Card.

None of my other Cards have Chip & Signature technology, so I was excited to try out my new AMEX Platinum in Europe.

Overall, I was EXTREMELY HAPPY to have a Chip & Signature Card because I had ZERO issues using it at the automated kiosks at the Train Stations in London or Madrid.

At the kiosks, I just popped in my AMEX, and even though you are suppose to enter a Pin, it worked without issue.

It was also useful to have at Restaurants, since the Waiters were far more accustomed to running Chip Cards than having to physically swipe the US Cards.

If you don’t have a Chip & Signature Card, it isn’t the end of the World (unless you don’t have any Cash and are at a Train Station), but it is a nice feature to have.

If you have a AMEX Platinum Card, I’d strongly suggest getting the new Chip & Signature Card since it is free.

Chase Sapphire Preferred

While I did have my AMEX Platinum and Chase INK Bold with me during my trip, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t really maximizing my Points earned while traveling because I didn’t have a Chase Sapphire Preferred!

Once upon a time, I did have a Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa but downgraded it to the free Chase Sapphire Card when the Annual Fee came due.

If you haven’t had a Chase Sapphire Preferred before, I highly suggest getting one.

Link to Chase Sapphire Preferred

The reason for this is simple.

On my last trip, I concluded that 95% of my purchases were either related to Food, Lodging, or Transportation!

All of those categories earn 2x Ultimate Rewards with the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

While my INK Bold earned me 2x at Hotels, we spent quite a bit at Restaurants and on London Cabs, etc and it would have been nice to earn 2x UR on those purchases too.

While the difference between 1x or 2x on your purchases may not sound earth shattering, you do have to factor in that Ultimate Rewards Points are some of the most valuable “Points” out there.

The Chase Sapphire also has a whole host of other features, like no Foreign Transaction Fees, that make it extremely worthwhile to have while traveling. A full breakdown of the Card can be found here,

As I said earlier, I already had the Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa, so after I apply for the Hyatt Card this month, the next Chase Card I get will be the Chase Sapphire Preferred Mastercard.

Even though both the Visa & Mastercard Sapphire Preferred Cards are issued by Chase, apparently the Visa & Mastercard distinction qualifies them as “different Cards”, so you can get the 40,000 Point Sign Up Bonus again without issue!

More information on how to get the Mastercard version of the Chase Sapphire Preferred can be found here.

Hopefully this will work out perfectly because my Chase INK Bold’s Annual Fee will be coming due around April, so I will downgrade that Card and get another Chase Sapphire Preferred in the process!

Recap

Although you don’t have to get an AMEX Platinum (there are other Chase Cards that have the same Chip & Signature technology), if you are traveling abroad, I’d highly recommend getting at least 1 Credit Card that doesn’t have Foreign Transaction Fees AND also has Chip and Signature technology.

While the majority of foreign retailers will accept your regular U.S Credit Card, I have found myself in situations where my Credit Card wouldn’t work because it didn’t have a Chip and I couldn’t get any cash out of the ATM. Let me just tell you that it isn’t a fun experience!

Even if you don’t plan on using your Chip & Pin Card as your “everyday” Card while traveling, it is always good to have it as a back-up option in the event that you need it.

In a perfect World, the Chase Sapphire Preferred would come with Chip & Signature technology, but at this current time that is not an option!

In the mean time, as a consolation prize, feel free to sign up for another Chase Sapphire Preferred Mastercard to get another 40,000 Ultimate Rewards Points!

-Parag

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Credit Card Concierge Services

As most of you know, when you get a new Credit Card, it comes with a whole host of papers that describe the Disclosures and Card Benefits.

Like most people, I don’t ever take the time to read those additional Card Benefits because I am primarily interested in the Miles.

Well apparently there are some useful benefits like the Concierge Service that I never would have thought to use in a million years.

Tim Ferris of 4 Hour Work Week fame, did an extensive “test” of the limits of Credit Card Concierge Services, and the results are pretty hilarious like getting enough nacho cheese to fill a bath tub, information on going to Space, answers to the USA Today Crossword Puzzle, etc.

AMEX Platinum Concierge

Our friend Ashley came to Chicago for New Years. She stayed 3 nights at Park Hyatt Chicago, which is amazing by the way! 2 nights were free from the Chase Hyatt Card and 1 night was paid. Since 1 night was paid, I gave her a Suite Upgrade thanks to my Hyatt Platinum Status from SMD4, and she was allowed to stay all 3 nights in the Suite which was awesome!

Anyways, apparently in rushing to pack that Morning, she forgot to pack some New Years clothes. Since she was only here for a few days, instead of wasting time shopping for clothes, she had the brilliant idea of calling the AMEX Platinum Concierge line.

I personally have never used it before, so I was curious to see how it worked.

Although the Requests below were put in to the AMEX Platinum Concierge Line, almost all Travel Credit Cards (your Card should say Visa Signature, World Mastercard, etc) comes with this Concierge benefit. So feel free to try it out!

Request 1

For the first request, my Friend called the AMEX Platinum Concierge and told them about the clothing situation.

Believe it or not, the Concierge said Ashley could describe to them what she wanted, they would look for something, call Ashley back and describe what they found, and then have the Store walk it over to the Hotel……..all for FREE (except for the Clothes obviously).

After an hour or so, the Concierge called back and described over the Phone what they had selected from Saks Fifth Avenue. Whatever they had picked out sounded fine, so my Friend agreed and had them charge it to her AMEX Platinum. Since the Store was right down the Street from the Hotel, they said someone from Saks would bring it over to the Hotel by 7PM. They would either bring it up to the Room or if we weren’t there, then leave it with the Park Hyatt Concierge.

We ended up all going out to eat for Dinner, so when we returned to the Room around 7PM, someone from Saks delivered the bag.

My friend ended up not liking anything that the Concierge picked out, primarily because most of the stuff did not look anything like what the Concierge had described over the Phone. In my opinion, it would have been useful if they had emailed some photos of what they had selected, but oh well. Since Saks has a Return Policy, it wasn’t a big deal.

Request 2

For New Years Eve instead of going to a Hotel Party or Bar Party, a group of 15 of us went to a Concert.

I posted photos on Facebook, but basically it was awesome.

We ended up going to another Friend’s house to pre-game and in all the excitement we forgot to grab the Concert Tickets from the Hotel Room. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue and we would just just cab it back to the Hotel and grab the tickets, however since it was New Years, Cabs were in high demand and were nowhere to be found.

In any other situation we would have been screwed, but Ashley once again had the brilliant idea of calling the AMEX Platinum Concierge.

I was skeptical that this would work since they were Hard Tickets and they were locked inside the Hotel Room, but figured we had nothing to lose.

To my surprise, she called the AMEX Concierge and they said it was not a problem and they could take care of it.

The 2 options were:

1. Have a Courier go to the Hotel, get the Tickets from the Room by having Hyatt Staff let them in, and then  bring the Tickets to the Venue. The Concierge said this was the more expensive option and would cost around $100, which isn’t surprising since it was 10PM on New Years Eve.

2. Call Ticketmaster and have them re-issue the tickets electronically and then pick up the Tickets at Will Call. Cost: FREE!

Obviously, we opted for Option 2 since that was infinitely easier and was FREE! The best part is that instead of having to call Ticketmaster ourselves and waste valuable minutes not pre-gaming, we gave the AMEX Concierge all the info and they took care of it.

When we got to the Venue, we just went to Will Call and the Tickets were there waiting for us! AMAZING!

Recap

Although the 2 examples above are both vastly different, they show how useful your Credit Card’s FREE Concierge Service can be.

I would have never thought to use the Concierge Service for the above two problems, but both times the Concierge was happy to oblige.

After seeing the AMEX Concierge put to use, I really started to question what painstakingly slow tasks have I been doing that I could have the AMEX Concierge do for me. For example, just this week with Alitalia, I spent basically an entire day trying to get them to re-book my tickets.

I realized the main reason I have never called any of my Credit Cards Concierge Services with a request is because I always assume I can do it faster and I feel bad having someone else do my “dirty work” for free.

However the more I think about it, especially with the AMEX Platinum Card, I am paying $450 a year for the benefits of having the Card, so why shouldn’t I use it right?

Also the Concierge Line is great if you need any Restaurant Recommendations or Reservations at hard to get into places.

I think for my upcoming Las Vegas, Madrid / Istanbul, and Austin trips, I am going to call up AMEX and ask them to put together a list of must see attractions.

If you have any stories about your experiences with your Credit Card Concierge, please feel free to leave a comment!

-Parag

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