- The appropriate program for you depends on your travel patterns, the number of nights you intend to stay and how much you value flexibility in redemption
- It pays to learn a bit more about the perks and reach of the different programs. Refer to the infographic below to learn more
- My preferred program is Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) for its low cost redemptions in South East Asia, generous airline transfer options, great customer service and easy to use BRG
Hotel loyalty programs are not for everyone. If your aim is always getting the cheapest possible hotel (or even the cheapest possible hotel within a certain star category), loyalty programs aren’t for you. if your like trying out quaint little B&Bs, or snazzy boutique hotels, loyalty programs aren’t for you either. If you prefer booking through OTAs like Expedia, Hotels.com and Zuji, loyalty programs aren’t for you.
Loyalty programs require exactly that- loyalty. This means choosing to stay at the dilapidated Sheraton Casablanca while on business trips because those points will help you earn a room at the W Maldives. It means paying a bit more for the Westin Bangkok because those nights will help you renew your status for that year- with the upgrades, free breakfast and preferred treatment it implies.
So if you’re on board with all this, consider the following questions
- Which region of the world am I most likely to travel for business? For leisure?
- Am I likely to stay sufficient nights to get top tier status? Or only mid-tier? Or none at all?
- Do I want to just redeem my points for hotel stays? Or do I value the ability to redeem other items?
The first question is relevant because different chains have different geographical strengths. Starwood is excellent in the Asia Pacific region, but weaker outside the major cities in the USA. Hilton has an excellent presence in Tier 2 and 3 cities in the USA through its Hampton Inn brand, but few locations in Africa.
The second question is relevant because different programs reward different tiers differently. Hilton Gold is arguably the best mid-tier status to have, but Starwood Platinum comfortably defeats Hilton Diamond at the highest tier.
The third question is relevant because different programs offer different cash-out abilities. Starwood and Hilton allow you to cash out your points for gift cards and vouchers with rental car providers, Amazon etc, whereas Accor is relatively more restrictive in what you can do with your points.
Loyalty programs compared
The amazing folks over at travelisfree have saved me a lot of trouble with this awesome infographic. I’m not sure I could summarise it better myself. The only caveat I’d add is that it SPG’s top category properties appear to be so expensive because their top category, Category 7, requires 30,000-35,000 points normally. But a lot of these properties are all suites, which means the point requirement is doubled to 60,000-70,000 points. This is limited to a handful of properties, but they’re also the ones you most want to visit.
Also, if you’re from Singapore you can ignore the part about credit cards at the bottom because none of these are accessible to us (boo).
My preferred program
I’m hesitant to make a recommendation here because unlike miles building credit cards where there’s an objective best strategy to build miles, the best loyalty program for you really depends on your own travel patterns and objectives.
Therefore I’m not going to call this my “recommendation” but rather my own “preferred program”. I make no secret of the fact that I’m a big Starwood fan. Although not the largest chain (~1,200 properties vs Hilton’s ~4,100 and Marriott’s ~3,800), Starwood’s loyalty program has unmatched treatment for elite members. Even if you’re not an elite member, the basic program is an attractive way to earn and use points.
Let’s cover some highlights
Reasonable redemptions in popular Singapore getaway destinations
Hilton did a spectacular devaluation of its HHonors program a year or so ago where it gutted the rewards chart and introduced new award categories. In some cases, the cost of a hotel went up from 50,000 points to 95,000 points, a devaluation of almost 100%.
Some say Starwood is overdue for a devaluation, but no changes in award categories have been announced for the upcoming year. Starwood has quite a few Category 1 and 2 properties (3,000 and 4,000 points per night) in destinations popular with Singapore travelers, such as
- Four Points Penang (Category 1)
- Four Points Kuching (Category 1)
- Aloft Kuala Lumpur (Category 2)
- Aloft Bangkok Sukhumvit (Category 2)
- Four Points by Sheraton Bangkok (Category 2)
- Sheraton Hanoi (Category 2)
- Four Points by Sheraton Bali (Category 2- opening July 15)
- Four Points by Sheraton Langkawi Resort (Category 2)
- Le Meridien Angkor (Category 2)
To make things sweeter- the rate for Category 1 and 2 properties is further discounted by 1,000 points during the weekends- the time that most Singaporeans use for weekend getaways. Saving 2 nights hotel in these places can easily be a S$200 value.
Partnerships with Uber, Delta, Emirates and Total Rewards
Through these partnerships you can earn bonus starpoints with your spend elsewhere
- SPG members earn 1 Starpoint per US$1 spent with Uber (read my article on the tieup here)
- SPG members earn 1 Starpoint for every US$1 spent with Delta and Emirates, and elite SPG members enjoy perks when flying Delta and Emirates eg free checked baggage, priority check-in and boarding
- SPG members earn 2 Starpoints with every US$1 spent in Caesar’s hotels (extensive presence in Las Vegas)
A Best Rate Guarantee Policy that actually works
BRG claims are an awesome way to enjoy the lower rates offered by OTAs while still earning loyalty points and stay credit. I’ve written an article explaining how to file a BRG claim.
Unfortunately many other chains have BRG claims in theory only. IHG is a particularly egregious offender – I’ve lost count of the number of times their customer service rejected a BRG claim I filed for the most inane of reasons (including that
It feels like other chains train their customer service reps to look for any reason to reject a BRG claim. And because other chains require you to make a reservation with them BEFORE filing the claim, if you’re trying to BRG a non-refundable rate on an OTA you’ll need to book a similar non-refundable rate with the chain. If that claim fails, you’re out of luck.
Starwood allows you to make a BRG claim without having a confirmed reservation at a Starwood hotel- just show them that the rates they’re offering are higher than those offered by 3rd parties
EDIT: Starwood has changed their BRG policy to require a reservation beforehand. But you can still BRG a refundable Starwood.com rate against a non-refundable rate elsewhere. Confused? Read this
Generous airline mile transfer options
Starwood is a points transfer partner with Singapore Airlines and about 30 other airlines, offering a 1:1 transfer rate (for most airlines including SQ). If you transfer 20,000 points at one go, you get a 25% bonus, or 25,000 miles transferred to your account.
I generally discourage transferring Starpoints to SQ miles because Starpoints are much harder to earn in Singapore than SQ miles (there’s no co-branded SPG credit card in Singapore, for example), but if you’re just short of miles you need for an award ticket this may be a viable option
Great customer service
What I really like about Starwood is that they give a damn about customer service. There are numerous ways to contact them, and they’re all very fast to reply. There are dedicated Starwood lurkers on Flyertalk (a forum type environment), you can tweet them, you can talk to an agent on livechat on their website, you can enter your local number on their website and get an instant callback.
What’s more impressive is that they take ownership of and solve issues very quickly. The Sheraton Sao Paulo once charged me for internet (which I get free as a platinum member) which I only saw on my bill post- checkout. A quick message to the Starwood lurker and they had it sorted out within 12 hours. Very impressive.
Ability to earn points and credit for up to 3 rooms per night
When you’re travelling with friends/family and book rooms for them, Starwood allows you to accumulate points and stay credit for up to 3 rooms per night. Hilton only allows a maximum of 2; Hyatt allows 3 but only grants stay credit for 1 room.
Of course, SPG isn’t perfect as a program. One of my biggest peeves about SPG is how expensie their topmost aspirational properties are to redeem. SPG’s highest award category is category 7, which takes 30,000-35,000 points to redeem. However, some of these properties (eg W Retreat Koh Samui, W Retreat Maldives) brand themselves as all suite properties (because they’re all villas). Suite require double the number of points as a basic room, so this translates into 60,000-70,000 points per night, which is outright ridiculous.
Starwood’s merger with Marriott also raises some disturbing potential issues. Read more about those here.