This article originally appeared on Travel + Leisure.
When Marriott (MAR) completed its merger with Starwood in September, it announced that the Starwood Preferred Guest loyalty program wouldn’t be going away. Instead, members of both the Marriott Rewards and SPG programs are now able to link accounts and match elite status, as well as transfer points between programs at a 3:1 ratio; or 3 Marriott Rewards points for every 1 SPG Starpoint.
At first I was suspicious that this would result in a devaluing of my points. But to my delightful shock: nothing was being taken away. I actually was able to gain more by being able to earn and redeem points at over 5,700 hotels around the world — the combined number of properties managed by the newly merged company.
As much as I loved the SPG program, there had been glaring gaps in its global hotel footprint. The new Marriott’s combined 30 brands now give me even more options to earn and redeem my SPG points. While there are still some worries that negative changes may come down the road, the program changes thus far were all purely positive. There are some downsides: an influx of elite members in both programs may make it harder to get upgrades, but those concerns pale in comparison to the huge upside of being able to instantly transfer back and forth at a reasonable ratio between the programs.
There are no reasons to not link your accounts, especially if you have elite status. I have Starwood Platinum status, so immediately I got Marriott Platinum (which normally requires 75 nights), but more importantly, since Marriott and United have a program called RewardsPlus, my new Marriott Platinum status also qualifies me for United Silver Elite status.
Note: Even though you get elite status in both programs, you can only credit nights to either Marriott or SPG, and the company has said it does not plan to combine its programs in the near future. So if you stay 60 nights at Marriott and 15 nights at SPG you’ll only qualify for Marriott Gold, since Platinum requires 75 nights credited to Marriott. You also cannot credit a Marriott stay to SPG or vice versa, which is an important consideration if you’re tempted to try out your newfound elite status.
Once your accounts are linked you can transfer between the programs for free as many times as you’d like. When it comes to redeeming points for free nights, Marriott has nine categories of hotels (which cost between 7,500 and 45,000 points per night) whereas SPG has seven, requiring 2,000 to 35,000 points per night. Since SPG has fewer categories, it’s hard to match them up evenly but, in general, Starwood offers better value at lower end hotels and Marriott offers the better value for top tier properties. For example, a free weekend night at a Category 1 Starwood Hotel is just 2,000 Starpoints (or 6,000 Marriott Rewards points) versus 10,000 Marriott Rewards points for a similar Marriott Category 2 hotel.
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On the higher end, Marriott’s Ritz-Carlton properties require 70,000 Marriott Rewards points per night versus SPG’s luxury brands (such as the St. Regis or Luxury Collection hotels), which require 30,000 to 35,000 SPG points (or 90,000 to 115,000 Marriott Rewards points).
The differences aren’t huge, so when you’re deciding to use points to stay at comparable Marriott and SPG properties, do the math and look at them using the both points currencies, then choose the one that has the best conversion value.
But the best value in maximizing transfers can be found by redeeming points for either of the program’s specialty redemptions.
Buy a Vacation Package to Get a Hotel Stay and Airline Miles
Marriott has Hotel & Air packages that include seven nights of hotel accommodation and also a deposit of airline miles into your frequent flyer account. The cost of the package depends on the category of hotel and amount of airline miles you want.
Marriott has enhanced rates with United where you get more miles versus other airlines, and United miles can be extremely valuable — especially for international first and business class awards. For example, for 250,000 Marriott Rewards points (or 83,333 SPG Starpoints) you can stay for seven nights at the Marriott Lisbon hotel and also get 110,000 United miles. United typically charges 115,000 miles for round trip business class awards from the US to Europe, so even if you value the hotel at $125 per night, you’re getting $875 in hotel plus $2,500 (or more) in value if you can redeem for a business class round trip ticket. SPG has a terrible transfer ratio to United, where two SPG points equals one United mile, so for 83,333 Starwood, you wouldn’t even have enough miles for a coach round trip ticket — and no hotel!
Another hidden gem with Hotel + Air packages is with Southwest Airlines, which counts hotel points towards Companion Pass Qualification. The Southwest Companion Pass gives nearly two years of free travel for a companion — even when you’re using points. It’s one of the best airline perks in existence and you need to either fly 100 flights a year or accrue 110,000 Companion Pass Qualifying miles in a year — and Marriott’s Hotel + Air packages count.
For 270,000 Marriott Rewards points (90,000 SPG) you can get seven nights in a category 1-5 hotel and 120,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards points, which alone will qualify you for the Companion Pass, and you can use those points for Southwest flights. The best time of year to do these packages is in January, because once you hit 110,000 Companion Pass Qualifying points in your account, you get the pass for the rest of the year you qualify and the entire next year. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?
Transfer Your SPG Starpoints Into Airline Miles
SPG has 36 airline transfers partners and most of them transfer at lucrative 1:1.25 ratio for every 20,000 points transferred. For example, 20,000 SPG Starpoints (or 60,000 Marriott) equals 25,000 American Airlines miles. If you transfer directly from Marriott, a whopping 140,000 points would only net you 50,000 American miles.
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Which partner is the best? It all depends, but I recommend looking into foreign frequent flyer programs. I have recently gotten huge value from first class redemptions on Korean Airlines and Singapore Airlines.
Cash In Your Starpoints for SPG Moments
SPG Moments are experiences that are offered via auction or fixed price that give great access to concerts, sporting and special events. Some of my best redemptions using SPG points have been at Madison Square Garden, where SPG has a luxury box that offers mid-court/rink seats and VIP service, including full meals and beer/wine. One of my favorite uses of points was taking my dad to see his favorite team, the New York Knicks, for 45,000 SPG points (135,000 Marriott). We got two VIP box seats — a retail value in the thousands.
Marriott and Starwood both have strong loyalty programs and all signs point to it staying that way in the near future. However, no good deal lasts forever and some of these redemption sweet spots may be tweaked or could possibly disappear altogether in the future. Until then, identify the best ways to maximize your points and most importantly: use them! Points lose value over time as the market gets flooded and hotel rates increase. The only way to ensure you get value from your points is to put them to use smartly before your loyalty program of choice has a chance to move the goal post even further.
Brian Kelly, founder of The Points Guy, shares his strategies for getting the most out of your points and miles.