Starwood Hotels: My Starwood Strategy (5/5)

by Living Proof on July 11, 2014

in Travel Hacking

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The following is the last article of a five part series covering points earned for Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) hotels. The following was written by my brother, an avid travel hacker who has qualified for Platinum Elite Status in the SPG program.

Introduction

FI Fighter has asked me to share some of my Travel Hacking tips for hotels! I have extensive experience with staying in Starwood Properties: AloftElementFour PointsLe MeridienSheratonWestinWSt. Regis, and The Luxury Collection.

I’ll cover the following:

  1. Earning Starwood Points
  2. Redeeming Starwood Points
  3. The Value of a Starwood Point
  4. Starwood Elite Status
  5. My Starwood Strategy

My Starwood Strategy

Earning:

I’ve been buying $5,000 in gift cards for many months now. I use my SPG AMEX to pay for the gift cards, and then I use Bluebirds Bill Pay to send checks to my mortgage companies, and to AMEX. I’m fortunate enough to be able to buy the $5,000 in gift cards on one trip – which saves a lot of time. Then, it takes me 3 trips to Walmart (using the 9PM PST trick) to unload the gift cards to Bluebird.

My other strategy has been to sign up my family (or friends, roommates, etc. with the same household address) for both the SPG AMEX Personal and Business Credit Card. The sign up bonus is 25,000 Starpoints, and if they can get both cards, then that’s 50,000 Starpoints! Next, I add myself as an authorized user on their account, and wait for my new credit card to come in the mail. Then, I go buy gift cards and unload them at Walmart. Finally, once the points are in their SPG account, I can easily transfer the Starpoints to my account. Easy Starpoints for me, and my family members don’t have to lift a finger. Currently, I’ve signed up my brother, mom, and dad for both SPG AMEX Credit Cards!

The final way I earn Starpoints is to actually pay for hotel stays! Yikes! Am I crazy? Well, since I’m a SPG Platinum member, I get 5x on all spend at the hotel when I use my AMEX SPG credit card. And sometimes it just makes sense to pay by cash if I want to save my Starpoints for a more valuable redemption. In addition, everyone needs to eat, and if I was going to dine at the hotel restaurant anyways, then why not go ahead and pick up the extra 5x!

Also, every quarter, SPG announces quarterly promotions. They only apply to paid reservations, but can add some valuable Starpoints to your account. The promotions are typically an additional 2x-3x bonus on the cash paid.

Buying Starpoints at .6 cents, and at .1 cents

I can easily accumulate 60,000 Starpoints in a year with one Bluebird account. But, with two Bluebird accounts, I could reach 120,000 Starpoints, and be out of pocket $720. That’s 40 nights at a Category 1 hotel! Buying Starpoints at .6 cents ($720/120,000 Starpoints) is not a bad deal at all! For example, SPG sells Starpoints at 3.5 cents on their webpage. If you went this route, it would cost you $4,200 for the same 120,000 Starpoints!

However, with the Credit Card bonus that I have signed up for my family, that’s 6 credit cards in total, which amounts to 180,000 Starpoints! That is a lot of traveling for only $180 out of pocket!

  • 1 SPG Credit Card = 30,000 Starpoints (25,000 bonus + 5,000 minimum spend)
  • 60,000 Starpoints x 3 people = 180,000 Starpoints
  • $30 (to buy $5,000 in gift cards) x 6 credit cards = $180

Buying Starpoints at .1 cents ($180/180,000 Starpoints) is an amazing deal! Think about it, by opening 6 credit cards, you can afford 60 nights at a category 1 hotel! Where else can you spend $180 for 60 nights in a hotel????

I’m currently using my two Bluebird accounts to meet the minimum spend on the 6 new SPG AMEX credit cards! Once this is finished, I will go back to buying Starpoints at .6 cents.

Redeeming:

When traveling in North America, I focus on Category 4 and 5 hotels. These are usually Sheraton or Westin properties. I love Sheraton because of the Club Lounge access. However, depending on the hotel, breakfast is hit or miss. Sometimes they only serve Continental breakfast, and other times, they have HOT items like eggs, sausages, and potatoes. Still, free breakfast is free breakfast! Suite upgrades are also great when they happen, but if not, I usually get upgraded to a larger room with a better view. I tend to book Cash+Point redemption in North America so that I can stretch out my Starpoints. I’ve done enough bookings to know that I can get roughly 2.2 cents per Starpoint easily. Therefore, I value a Starpoint at 2.2 cents. However, I usually get much more value than this with the room upgrades and Platinum status perks.

When traveling in Asia, most of the hotels are Category 1, 2, and 3! These hotels are often larger and newer than the Category 4 and 5’s in the states! Since these are lower categories, I tend to book Free Nights and Fifth Free Night awards. Also, breakfast usually consists of a full spread of international dishes at the restaurant! And, I always get upgraded to a large Suite! It’s amazing the value you get in Asia. Less Starpoints, but more value. I’m going to enjoy early FI!

Platinum Elite Status:

I love free WiFi, 4:00pm late checkout, club lounge access, free breakfast, and Suite upgrades! I use to be a Gold member, but didn’t get much additional value out of it. Sometimes I got a slightly larger room, but I really wanted free breakfast and lounge access. When I first became Platinum, I noticed that during check-in, every agent tried hard to put me in a Suite. After my first Suite experience, I was completely hooked! There was no way I could ever go back! But how do I maintain Platinum elite status?

First, I have both the AMEX SPG Personal and Business credit card, which adds 10 nights to my account. Next, when I travel with friends and family, I insist to book rooms for them, and they can reimburse me later. They are typically happy with it, because my Platinum status gives them a bigger room, and other Platinum perks, like free breakfast! So by doing this, I add about 15 more nights to my account in a year, and I get 5x for booking their rooms!

Finally, I usually take two big vacations in a year, and that adds up to about 15 more nights. This leaves me with 10 more nights to qualify for Platinum. However, these nights usually take care of themselves during the year when small weekend trips pop up here and there.

There was only one time where I was one night away from qualifying at the end of the year. My solution? Do a mattress run!  I found the lowest category hotel in my area, and booked a one night stay with Starpoints. I was able to get my Platinum status renewed, and I didn’t even spend a night at the hotel!

Do what’s comfortable for you, but I do strongly feel that Platinum status increases the value of each Starpoint tremendously!

Conclusion

My hope is that you have enjoyed reading this five part series, and learned something useful from it! I had a lot of fun writing this up, and I hope it has opened your eyes on how affordable traveling can really be. This Travel Hacking game is constantly changing, but it’s a way for all of us to afford trips that would otherwise be unreachable. That’s the beauty of collecting these frequent flier miles and points – it allows us to have life experiences which we wouldn’t have been able to afford!

If you would like me to send referrals for the AMEX SPG Credit Cards, please shoot me an email, and I’ll send you a referral. In full disclosure, I earn 5,000 Starpoints for each approved referral. It’s not much, but hey, these Starpoints are valuable to me! Also, if anyone else would like to add their referrals in the comments section, feel free! Let’s all help each other to travel more =)

Thanks again for reading! And I’ll see you on an island Post FI!

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About the Author: Living Proof (14 Posts)

Living Proof is an avid real estate investor with a strong case of Wanderlust. He enjoys talking about his crazy lifestyle of collecting frequent flyer miles and hotel points. Within the next year, he hopes to declare early FI and to travel the world!


{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 FIHopefulNo Gravatar July 11, 2014 at 8:06 am

Thank you so much Living Proof and FI Fighter for this series.

I used to be a road warrior for work in the late 90s and travel hacking then was a lot simpler and less lucrative. I’m so glad you shared this information. The one expense that keeps me from traveling more is hotels, and with your help, I think I can now minimize that expense pretty easily.

Now my only concern is getting more time off until I reach FI so that I can enjoy 50 nights a year in the comfort of a Starwood hotel.

Thanks again, I really enjoyed reading this series.

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2 FIHopefulNo Gravatar July 11, 2014 at 8:22 am

Sorry, I forgot to add one question I had for this series….

I was just reading over the Starwood Amex credit card agreement document. In the section on “eligible purchases” for points earnings, it states that purchases of “prepaid credit cards or cash equivalents” are NOT eligible purchases. (and supposedly do not earn points)

Is this something new?

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3 FlyerMNo Gravatar July 11, 2014 at 8:52 am

@FIHopeful

When buying pre-paid gift cards using the methods Living Proof has outlined, the purchase shows up on your statement as having come from the merchant, and doesn’t identify the individual items you purchased.

As an example, if you buy a $200 Visa Gift Card from “a nationally known office supply store”, that purchase shows up on your AMEX statement as a regular purchase from that merchant. Amex wouldn’t know if you bought a printer or a gift card.

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4 Living ProofNo Gravatar July 11, 2014 at 3:28 pm

Hey FIHopeful,

FlyerM is correct! Personally, I’ve never had any issues buying gift cards and not having the purchases count towards the minimum spend requirement. Simon gift cards offer the lowest fees ($3) so I use them right now. Just start small, and once you have a system in place, everything will become second nature.

This process does take a bit of work driving to buy gift cards and then to Walmart, but the rewards are truly lucrative!

For example, being able to fly 1st class to anywhere in the world is something I could never afford to do without points/miles.

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5 MikeNo Gravatar July 11, 2014 at 8:58 pm

Thanks for sharing this series! Right now I’m racking up the airline miles, but the ‘skills’ transfer easily over to the hotel points game…looking forward to it.

Happy travels to all!

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6 SundeepNo Gravatar July 11, 2014 at 2:52 pm

Great step by step breakdown of your Starwoods travel hacking method. Although I would be more interested in airline points, the same general gift card to bluebird account method looks like it would be the same.

I did have one question. For someone who doesn’t have several mortgages they need to pay off every month and therefore do not get the rents to pay off the credit card used to buy the gift cards easily, would I be able to use the bluebird account to pay off the credit cards used to buy the gift cards in the first place?

Thanks for the info!

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7 Living ProofNo Gravatar July 11, 2014 at 3:40 pm

Hey Sundeep,

Yes, this entire Bluebird/Walmart can be used for any credit card. Currently, the AA 100k is the most lucrative deal out there. Airline miles are very lucrative, especially when redeeming for 1st class tickets! These retail for over $10,000 roundtrip.
http://www.fifighter.com/travel/travel-hacking/2013/07/how-to-fly-first-class-13000-value-for-free/

Also, YES, you could just buy the gift cards with a credit card, unload the gift cards to bluebird, and then use bluebird to payoff the credit card. One big circle. You would just be out of pocket $3 for each $500 gift card purchased.

I would mix in some small purchases like food, gas, and Starbucks just to avoid any money laundering suspicion from the bank.

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8 PPC IanNo Gravatar July 11, 2014 at 5:14 pm

FI Fighter: Long time reader of your blog. Really, really enjoy your writing. Wanted to thank you for the incredibly helpful information, and great lessons. I’m a fellow tech industry professional in the Bay Area, so enjoy the perspective of someone who works in a similar field. I don’t invest in real estate, but do enjoy reading about it. I’m a huge dividend enthusiast, and do have some real estate allocation via REITs.

I actually got into the points game thanks to the articles on your blog, so this latest series of posts has been very fun to read. Thanks for the helpful, practical tips!

Living Proof: Wonderful work on your guest posts. I really enjoyed reading a new one each day this week (provided great reading during my lunch break each day). I was wondering more about your story? Could you provide more background on your path in life? Are you a real estate investor like your brother, a tech professional, a full-time traveler? One thing that intrigued me by these posts is the amount of time you have to travel (really cool stuff).

Anyways, keep up the great work! Really enjoy this blog!

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9 Living ProofNo Gravatar July 11, 2014 at 11:15 pm

Hey PPC Ian!

Thanks for all the kind words! I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed reading each part of the 5 day series. I tried to break it up as best as I could, so I’m glad it was helpful for you. As for my story, I guess you can say I’m very “similar” to my brother. I’m an engineer by trade, but a real estate investor at heart! I wish I was a full time traveler, but that day will come soon, I hope 😉 Like you, I probably have the same amount of PTO time…..which is ~20 days a year. It certainly isn’t much, but I’ve accumulated a lot through the years, and now I’m finally taking the time to use them.

I’ve pretty much mastered the whole points/miles game in the last five years, and I hope to write articles which describe the tips I’ve learned first hand through the years. Lots of other travel blogs don’t really describe their own personal strategies, so I’m trying to change that up. I just hope to make people aware at how affordable traveling can be! I never want to hear someone say that “I can’t take this trip, it’s too expensive!”

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10 FI FighterNo Gravatar July 14, 2014 at 8:44 am

Thanks for the kind words Ian! Always great running into fellow high-tech workers who understand all too well the life of the grind 😉

All the best!

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11 JC @ Passive-Income-Pursuit.comNo Gravatar July 12, 2014 at 2:31 pm

For those that are looking another way to meet the minimum spend and are purchasing stocks, you can also use Loyal3 to purchase stocks on credit card for no fees. It’s a new alternative brokerage so there’s no telling how long it’ll last but it’s a really great idea.

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12 JC @ Passive-Income-Pursuit.comNo Gravatar July 12, 2014 at 2:51 pm

Also, thanks for the series. Travel hacking is definitely great and can really help you out for some of those crazy expensive trips that you’d never pay for by yourself.

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13 Living ProofNo Gravatar July 13, 2014 at 10:32 pm

Hey JC,

Yes! Flying 1st class and staying at 5 Star hotels never gets old =P

Just be careful with buying stock on credit card. It’s great to meet minimum spend, but don’t do it just to get miles/points, because you could potentially lose a lot more money if the stock drops……!

By using the gift card/bluebird method, you would only be out of pocket $6 for each $1000 purchased.

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14 JC @ Passive-Income-Pursuit.comNo Gravatar July 14, 2014 at 4:59 am

Guess I should have clarified. My comment was directed at those that are trying to build out a long term portfolio that they’ll hold through thick and thin. It’s another option to meet the min. spend if you’re planning on investing that capital anyways. Much like the GC/Bluebird method to meet the min. spend and then using the BB account to pay your mortgage or any other bills. Essentially just routing the money in the most advantageous way!

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15 FI FighterNo Gravatar July 14, 2014 at 8:43 am

Great tip JC!

Seems like a no brainer for dividend growth investors who want to take advantage of earning travel points/miles.

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16 Nicole JNo Gravatar July 13, 2014 at 7:55 pm

Great tips. Really enjoyed reading your posts. Could you please send Spg referrals to my email address. (For both personal and business) thank you 🙂

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17 Living ProofNo Gravatar September 10, 2014 at 11:29 am

Hi Nichole, sorry but I’m out of referrals….But I hope you were approved for the card/cards!

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18 PatNo Gravatar August 12, 2014 at 10:42 am

Hi LivingProof, excellent guide. I certainly applaud your detail personal strategies, outline cases, and back them up with hard numbers. Great read! Also, I would definitely appreciate an AMEX Starwood Points Credit Card referral. Thanks!

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19 Living ProofNo Gravatar September 10, 2014 at 11:28 am

Thanks for the kind words Pat! Unfortunately, I’m out of referrals, but I’m sure you already got the card/cards by now =)

I think the best way to illustrate the power of travel hacking is to give my personal strategies, so I’m glad it’s helpful.

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20 StevenNo Gravatar October 27, 2015 at 6:59 am

I’ve been researching trying to figure out how to utilize an AMEX card to pay mortgage and get points for it. I’m grateful to have found your site.

For the BLuebird option at Walmart, do you just buy the gift cards and transfer the money? Or put the money directly onto the Bluebird card?

second, how long does it take for a payment to reach from Bluebird to the Mortgage company?

Thank you.

Reply

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