My Year Using SPG Amex
Credit card travel hacking. Have you heard of it? Despite the moniker, it has nothing to do with gaining illegal access to someone else’s funds and using them to fund a yachting trip. Rather, it’s a totally legal way to game the travel industry to travel better, smarter, and longer.
While I was long intimidated by this game of gaining miles, striving for elite statuses and chasing credit card bonuses, for the past year I decided to throw my own boarding pass in the ring and see what I could do.
My primary credit card is my Capital One Venture, and I am still very loyal to that program (free flight to Hawaii, hello!) and whenever possible I fly within the One World alliance in order to build my points balance there, which has finally begun to pay off (free flight to Peru, hello!) However, I had never before applied for a credit card simply for the sign up bonus. Then I went to the New York Times Travel Show and won 10,000 Starwood Preferred Guest Points at a seminar with Brian Kelley, The Points Guy. I used them for a blowout long weekend at the Four Points Bangkok, and I was hooked.
As soon as I got home, I applied for the SPG AMEX. Once a year they run a promotion — it’s going on now until September 3rd, so hurry! — with an unbelievable bonus. You receive 10,000 points with your first purchase, and another 20,000 if you spent $5,000 within the first six months. Additionally, you earn 5 points per dollar spent at Starwood properties and two points per dollar spent elsewhere. I signed up around one year ago today, and this post is my experience with the program.
I actually find credit cards difficult to use when I’m traveling outside the US due to my destinations and travel style (good luck finding a three dollar per night guesthouse in Chiang Rai willing to take an AMEX) so I was worried about meeting the spend minimum. Thankfully, my card arrived right before I headed to Hawaii, and knowing I was helping earn those bonus points definitely made the prices there easier to swallow! Then, I purchased both my sister and I’s flights to Thailand on the card, and boom. I had my points.
One downside to the AMEX is that it carries a foreign transaction fee, so once I hit Southeast Asia in December I basically put it to the bottom of my bag. And then the redeeming began. This card was especially perfect for me as Starwood properties in Southeast Asia are absolutely fantastic and for very reasonable point values. Here’s a look at how I used my bonus points for luxurious hotel stays to break up my normal budget backpacking throughout the past six months.
The Aloft Bangkok
3,000 points per night
3 nights // 9,000 points total
My sister and I checked in here after spending two weeks in Koh Tao renting a room with sporadic water and heinous internet. For me, that’s kind of par for the course but Olivia is a girl that really appreciates the finer things in life. So she shed a few happiness tears over the rooftop infinity pool, the hot showers followed by fluffy white robes and the super high tech gym. I was particularly grateful for the fast and free wireless.
Not only is The Aloft Bangkok a crazy cheap point value, it’s also smack in the heart of Bangkok’s hippest street — Sukhumvit Soi 11. The in-house nightclub, Levels, was actually our favorite of the many hotspots on the road, like Bed Supperclub and QBar, which we received free passes to courtesy of Aloft. It’s only a ten minute stroll to the Nana BTS station, but the hotel’s own tuk tuk will shuttle you there for free anytime. To boot, they have really reasonable deals like 95 baht breakfast sandwiches and 100 baht happy hour cocktails by the pool. Suffice it to say we were devastated to miss the hotel’s famous weekend special, where you pay 500 baht for an all you can drink from 9pm-midnight.
The Le Meridian Chiang Rai
1,600 points + $30 per night
3 nights // 4,800 points + $90 total
This property is widely regarded to be one of the best values in the entire SPG program. I don’t know why or how it’s considered only a Category 2 hotel, but I don’t care. I loved Le Meridian Chiang Rai, and it’s probably my favorite SPG property I stayed at this year (with the Sheraton Bali being a close second.) It was the perfect way to end my time with my sister in Thailand.
The resort is quite isolated, though there is a free shuttle several times per day into Chiang Rai town. Our first two nights we headed there for dinner and to get massages and peruse the famed night markets. During the day we stuck to the resort and enjoyed our enormous room and balcony, worked out in the gym, and lounged around the beautiful pool and grounds of the hotel.
As breakfast isn’t included in award stays we stocked up on fruit and yogurt in town and kept them in the mini bar. We ate lunch at the resort each day which was in the $5-10 range (and earned me 5 points to the dollar!) On our last day and night we didn’t want to leave the grounds of the resort at all, and so Olivia treated me to dinner at Favola, the hotel’s fantastic riverside Italian restaurant.
Normally the Le Meridian Ching Rai clocks in at 4,000 points per night, but as my sister and I were sharing the room we each chipped in $15 a night so that I could use less than half as many points. The only downside to this hotel was that they charged a ridiculous fee for WiFi in the room, but it wasn’t so bad as there were so many comfortable nooks to relax and work in throughout the property, where it was free. And one fun bonus? I was able to earn 500 points by forgoing a room clean one day.
Le Meridian Chiang Mai
4,500 points for Club Level
2 nights // 9,000 points
Originally I wasn’t too fussed about staying at the Le Meridian Chiang Mai. Nothing about the property grabbed me, and to be honest it looks a little tired from the outside. But then the guy I was seeing at the time and I both got food poisoning in Mae Hong Son and we really needed somewhere comfortable to recover.
When I went online to book, I got a message to call for availability. Reservations told me that the usual 4,000 point per night rooms were sold out but that I could reserve at the Club Level, which would cost 4,500 points per night, but give us free WiFi, free breakfast, a room on the Club Level and access to the Club Lounge. Um, yes please!
The view from our room was stunning, as was the one from the hotel’s infinity pool. Sadly we couldn’t partake in the Club Lounge’s free happy hours as we weren’t feeling up to it, but the breakfast tasted like heaven. While this location doesn’t have as much character as the other properties I stayed at, it was just what I needed that weekend to get my strength back for a long journey South.
Sheraton Kuta Beach
11,000 points per night for Ocean View
2 nights // 22,000 points
With my time in Southeast Asia coming to an end for now, I decided to use up the rest of my points on a blowout weekend at a Category 4 hotel (my first upgrade from a Category 2!) After my experience booking the Le Meridian Chiang Mai over the phone, I called to do the same with the Sheraton Kuta Beach. Though rooms start at 10,000 points per night, over the phone I paid 11,000 to receive a room upgrade to Ocean View and breakfast.
Unfortunately when we arrived to check in there was a major dispute over whether or not breakfast was included, with a manager insisting that breakfast was never ever ever available when booking with SPG points (uh, call the Le Meridian then, lady). They ended up honoring what I had been promised over the phone, but not without a long and unpleasant back and forth.
It was worth the trouble, as Anders and I truly loved this place. Our room was spacious and chic and our balcony overlooked a beautiful garden and indeed, the ocean. While the hotel is smack in the heart of infamous Kuta Beach, it was like an oasis from the chaos below. Even the gym had an ocean view! Mostly we spent our time lounging by the infinity pool, recovering from the gluttony we experienced at breakfast. This was hands down the best buffet breakfast I’ve ever had, with, among other things, a mix and match fresh juice bar, hand rolled sushi, gourmet omelets on demand and a gelato station. Totally worth fighting for.
In total, I spent 44,800 points on ten nights at beautiful properties around Southeast Asia (not including my initial stay at the Four Points). And I didn’t spend a penny — well, not more than I would have anyway on a different credit card. These stays would have added up to roughly $1,500 had I paid out of pocket for them. Of course, I wouldn’t have done that — my typical accommodation is a friends’ couch, a cute hostel or guesthouse, or a rented bungalow. But I really loved these intermittent splurges.
To wrap things up, I have a few additional notes about my first year with the card.
• While points are best earned domestically (the 2.7% foreign transaction fee gets a major thumbs down) they are best redeemed internationally. In Bangkok, it costs 4,000 points to stay in a hip and trendy downtown Four Points with a rooftop pool and oversize sunken tubs in the room. In Sacramento, it costs 7,000 points to stay at a mediocre-reviewed airport hotel by the same brand. Southeast Asia in particular seems to be a hotspot for hip and well designed hotels in the Starwood family. I’m heading to South America next and I haven’t been wowed with their offerings there.
• I have not been impressed with the customer service at SPG. Twice, I’ve been given incorrect information over the phone — one leading to breakfastgate at the Sheraton, the other regarding a promotion that according to various sources I both did and did not qualify for. These inconsistencies were frustrating and I had to spent three months hunting down points that were promised to me (in writing!) in compensation for the promotion misunderstanding. On the other hand, AMEX has always been a dream to deal with when I need to them.
• It is possible to redeem Starpoints on over 350 airlines with SPG Flights, but as I already earn airline rewards via other outlets I decided to use this card solely to treat myself and others to fancy hotels. Supposedly though you can transfer points to over 31 different airline frequent flyer programs sans fees, surcharges, or penalties — a 25 percent bonus for every 20,000 points you transfer.
• Duh — always pay your credit card bill on time. I set up automatic bill pay and I haven’t paid a late fee once. Hence I don’t have much comment on APR rates and all that mumbo jumbo.
• The $65 fee for this card is waived in the first year. If I were continuing to travel in Southeast Asia in the upcoming year, I would fork over the fee. But considering the destinations I am heading in the next twelve months, I am pretty sure I am going to cancel unless I can convince them to waive the fee. I have good credit and no plans to buy a house or car anytime soon so I am not worried about the reflection on my credit score.
Ready to get yourself some SPG points? Don’t delay, this offer ends September 3rd — Sign up here!
Have you tried travel hacking? What has your experience been?
Note that I am NOT an affiliate of Starwood or America Express, I am simply sharing my personal experience with this program.