My SPG Amex Free Night Conundrum

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With the loyalty programs of Marriott and Starwood having recently been merged, we’ve also seen some changes made to Starwood’s co-branded American Express cards, the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express and Starwood Preferred Guest® Business Credit Card from American Express.

While the points earning structures of these cards have been worsened, there’s one great new benefit. Both of these cards now offer a free night award on your account anniversary every year, valid at a property retailing for up to 35,000 points.

I recently wrote about how to actually redeem these certificates. I have both of these cards, and I’m lucky that both certificates have already posted to my account thanks to my account anniversary date.

That brings me to a situation I constantly find myself in with other hotel credit cards, which I’m now also facing with the SPG Amex cards. I’m curious how you guys approach this.

How do you properly maximize a free night certificate?

There are several hotel credit cards that offer free night certificates on account anniversaries, and some hotel loyalty programs (like World of Hyatt) even offer free night certificates for achieving certain status, or completing certain tasks.

I’m obsessed with maximizing the value of things, and that’s a real problem when it comes to these certificates. I always want to maximize the value as much as possible, to the point that I end up redeeming these in a scramble last minute before they expire.

Three ways to approach redeeming these certificates

The way I view it, there are three general ways to approach redeeming these certificates issued with credit cards:

  • Redeem for any stay that costs at least $95; these cards have $95 annual fees, so assuming you redeem for a stay that would cost you more than $95 (after factoring in the points you’re forgoing by redeeming rather than booking a paid stay) you’re coming out ahead
  • Redeem for a stay that would otherwise cost as many points as possible; if your alternative is redeeming points for a stay, then you’ll want to use these certificates for a property that would otherwise cost as many points as possible (ideally 35,000)
  • Redeeming for a stay that would otherwise cost as much cash as possible; if your alternative is paying cash for a stay, then you’ll want to use these certificates for a property that would otherwise cost as much cash as possible

All of the above options sound easy enough to do the math on. The real challenge here is deciding what you think the maximum value you’ll get out of a stay is. In other words, if I redeemed this certificate for a stay that would cost $200 I’d be happy. But what if I otherwise have a stay that would cost $300 before the certificate expires? I’d be kicking myself for not having redeemed the certificate there.

Some real life examples

Let me give an example of four upcoming reservations I am thinking of making, all for one night stays (these are stays I’m actually planning on making, so this isn’t a theoretical example). I’m trying to decide the best strategy to take. For context:

  • I have nearly three million Marriott points
  • Despite that, I still value them at 0.7-0.9 cents each, so I don’t redeem them just because I can, but rather only when I think it’s a good deal
  • I have two anniversary free night certificates that were recently issued to me, expiring next August

So the first reservation I need to make is at the JW Marriott Quito. I could:

  • Pay $180 in cash (though it’s $222 once you factor in taxes and fees)
  • Redeem 22,500 points
  • Redeem a free night certificate

The second reservation I’m looking at is at the Marriott Kigali. I could:

  • Pay $221 in cash (though it’s $273 once you factor in taxes and fees)
  • Redeem 16,000 points
  • Redeem a free night certificate

The next stay I’m looking at is at the Aloft London Excel (I’m flying into London City Airport, so this seems like a convenient option). I could:

  • Pay $256 in cash
  • Redeem 25,000 points
  • Redeem a free night certificate

Lastly, I am looking at staying at the Four Points by Sheraton Nairobi Airport, where I could:

  • Pay $176 in cash
  • Redeem 17,500 points
  • Redeem a free night certificate

In looking at these four stays:

  • In all four circumstances redeeming points would be be a moderately good value (in the case of the Marriott Kigali it’s an exceptional value)
  • If I view this in terms of the opportunity cost of points, redeeming the free night certificates at the JW Marriott Quito or Aloft London Excel would be the best option, though in no case am I getting anywhere close to maximizing the 35,000 point limit
  • If I view this in terms of the opportunity cost of cash, redeeming at the Aloft London Excel and Marriott Kigali would be the best options
  • All of this assumes that I want to redeem two certificates now, rather than waiting for potentially better options, since they’re valid for another 11 months

Bottom line

I don’t actually have a conclusion here as to what I’m going to do. However, my general approach is that I think I need to hoard these certificates less and just redeem them when I see a good opportunity, rather than trying so hard to optimize, to the point that the certificates end up near their expiration date.

With that in mind, in terms of a redemption amount that “feels good,” I tend to think that if I redeem for a stay that would cost $190+ (more than double the annual fee), I’m very happy with that.

In the above situation I think I’ll redeem free night certificates at the JW Marriott Quito and Aloft London Excel, redeem points at the Marriott Kigali (since it’s that good of a deal), and probably pay cash at the Four Points by Sheraton Nairobi, just to balance things out a bit.

What’s your approach to redeeming these types of certificates? Do you have the same hoarding/points maximizing issue I have?

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Comments

  1. I’m surprised you don’t also have the old 25k Chase Marriott certificates? I would use a 25k Chase Marriott certificate on some of those but not a 35k AmEx Marriott certificate. I’d save the 35k certificate for something at a higher price range, say $300, and that is actually a 35k hotel.

    I’m using mine in Portland ME where hotels are $275-$300 and I get the $300 Courtyard for the 35k certificate.

    Versus the 25k certificates are hard to use so they are going for Richmond VA downtown Residence Inn that might be wroth $180, but I use the first certificates a day or so prior to its expiration. Honestly that’s sort of a bad deal because in Richmond I’d be happy at a suburban hotel that is low cost, but it still gets me a value above the annual fee even if I would not be booking a $180 suburban hotel.

  2. I dunno – these all seem like unoptimal uses of the certificates. In most cases, using points is a better value, or the rate itself isn’t high enough to consider using points or a certificate. And you are in many cases giving up 10,000 points or more

    The best way to get value out of hotel certificates, IMO, is to plan to use them ahead of time at specific hotels. You have two 35,000 point certs – I would use them, in combination with another 35,000 points, to book a long weekend stay at a desirable hotel. Study the Marriott portfolio, identify 35,000 point hotels and put together a list that interests you and suits your travel patterns.

    This is how I am approaching the Hilton free weekend night certs – I have properties in mind that cost 80,000 to 95,000 points and plan to use the certs at those.

  3. This article is so relatable for my wife and I. We’re each sitting on a certificate from IHG, which is our last “no holds barred” free hotel night. Normally, we try and do a weekend at a high end Intercontinental, but have not had the opportunity. The certificates expire in February/April and due to unforeseen events, it’s going to be difficult to get away in the next few months.

    It pains me to think we may have to use them at a local Holiday Inn.

  4. @ Anthony — All the points you make are great. I think the problem for my own travel patterns is that I’ve used that logic in the past, and it just hasn’t worked out great for me. I think the problem for me is that I find a lot of value in high end hotels and low end hotels with redeeming points, but I just don’t find much value in the middle.

    In other words, I’m not sure I’d realistically stay at a 35,000 point per night hotel over the next year that would otherwise retail for more than the value I’m getting here, and I fear that if I wait I’ll end up having it expire.

    My other issue with the concept of a long weekend is that my stays are usually two or fewer nights or four or more nights. That’s because with the Citi Prestige fourth night free weekend I usually extend any three night stay I’d otherwise make, if the numbers work out.

  5. I used mine to book for a hotel near Times Square on New Year’s Eve… 35,000 points and about $1K cash. Perfect solution to my dilemma! 🙂

  6. Lucky,

    You make good points as well. As McFadden says, a great use of these certificates is at basic Courtyards and such in North American cities where it may cost $300 a night or whatever due to high local demand, and it doesn’t seem like you have a lot of those kinds of stays (I have a lot of them). Even so, of the four you mentioned, I would only redeem the certificate at the aloft – i’d use points in Kigali and cash elsewhere

  7. Please please please don’t stay in a US branded hotel in Nairobi and Kigali. You’re missing an essential part of the experience by not staying in an African brand. And I’m saying that as someone who has worked for Marriott/SPG brands…

  8. How do you have 20 suite upgrade nights ? I thought the max was 10 ? I’m waiting for my SPG free night to show up in my account still (9/1/18 paid anniversary).
    Great job, love your site!

  9. List up all the 35k/night properties, pick the best ones and use your certificates there. For the $200/night properties, better to pay with cash.

  10. I agree with all of your conclusions. The one thing I don’t understand is why you would pay cash in Nairobi. That’s a redemption for which you would be getting three cents per Starpoint! Why not?

  11. Get ready for very hard beds in Africa if you go with a local hotel. Redeeming points is definitely a good idea if you like a softer mattress.

  12. “…I think I need to hoard these certificates less and just redeem them when I see a good opportunity, rather than trying so hard to optimize, to the point that the certificates end up near their expiration date.” BINGO!!!!

    You’re going to stress yourself out from trying to “optimize.” Optimization is subjective. Are you really optimizing the certificate to it’s max potential!?” I agree, taking the numbers into consideration, you’re optimizing but does the Aloft really cost ~$300/nt. REALLY!? It’s like Vegas, the Luxor goes for $500 one night and then the next night goes for $35. I know London is expensive but that’s ridiculous. Don’t stress! Find the most expensive hotel and cash it in for the night you want. Done!

  13. @ Stvr — On the surface it seems like a worthwhile redemption, given it’s almost exactly one cent per Marriott point. But I’m forgoing 23.5 points per dollar spent by redeeming points rather than paying (17.5 points per dollar for being a Platinum Premier, plus 6 points per dollar by not paying with the SPG Amex). Since I value those points at ~0.8 cents each, that’s the equivalent of an 18% discount. So to me that makes the redemption just about breakeven at best. Probably should still redeem points, but…

  14. @ Grant Anderson — I hae 10 for this year (none of which I’ve redeemed — oops!) plus 10 for next year, since I’ve already requalified.

  15. You have 11 months and travel every week. There will be better redemptions in the future. I’m sure you won’t let them lapse.

  16. @ DC-PHLyer — While I’m booked to actually stay in Nairobi longer on a separate trip, for this particular trip I quite literally have 12 hour overnights, so these do seem like the best options.

  17. @Lucky – when exactly were your anniversary dates? Mine has been exactly 2 months and my nights have not posted yet, I’m hoping I don’t have to wait the full 12 weeks…

  18. @ Tom — August 1 was the cutoff date, so unfortunately you’re stuck waiting. My anniversaries were both in August.

  19. At 3 million Marriott points, I would probably be more aggressive at burning that balance if you truly DO value the points at .7-.9 cpp (in other words you are truly indifferent to having cash or points at that valuation).

    Those Marriott points are worth $20-30k in cash right now. Marriott just merged and it’s the honeymoon right now. It’s unlikely the points will be more highly valued in a year or two than now. Cash can be used for investments that offer more than inflation rate returns. Presumably your business generates points as you go along.

    So I would burn certificates or points for ALL those stays… as long as the return is over the valuation of the points. If you can’t do that I would argue you don’t actually value the points at what you say you do, because you are optimizing at hoarding them and spending cash instead of at the alleged valuation, and you actually value the points at what you are willing to spend them at. 😉

  20. I know what you value Marriott, IHG, etc. at… maybe an interesting blog post would be “at what rate do I spend points”?

    I bet it is at a higher rate than your valuation. 😉

  21. With 3 million points in the bank, why not use them before they are devalued to 2 million?
    This year I have spent almost a million points in places like Paris and San Francisco, even DC. The Paris Marriott has gone from 45,000 to 60,000 to perhaps 90,000 next year.

    I have 4 free nights as well and end up using them within 100 miles of home before they expire. Although I have now found decent 35,000 places in Europe whereas 25,000 free certs were difficult to use.

    I am beginning to find this valuation business vs paying cash a not very useful strategy any more. I am now going to use free nights, then points then cash.

    I have paid and will pay cash when I need to save points for a bigger event where I will need more than 1 room at a more expensive property.

  22. Should use points on all 4, especially the 2 that point levels are exceedingly low.

    You cannot turn your marriott points into cash but you can save cash by using those points especially redeeming at such low level.

    Assigning a “fixed value range” to any points and then using it as a yardstick to decide whether you should redeem the points, in most situations, are Fool’s game, especially when one has no reason to save points with such high balance. Sorry.

    You need a better way of analysis / rationalization on when to use the points.

    Since your FN cert is just issued, you have lots of chances to use them in coming 10 months given your travel pattern. No reason to use the FN Cert on those cheapo redemption.

  23. @ eponymous coward @ Norita — You both make valid points, and I would agree I should burn, burn, burn if the only way to redeem Marriott points was for hotel stays. And I also totally agree that Marriott points will eventually be devalued for hotel stays. The reason I maintain the “floor” value for Marriott points is because of the ability to convert them into airline miles.

    60,000 Marriott points can be converted into 25,000 airline miles. At a valuation of 0.7 cents per Marriott point, that’s like paying 1.68 cents per airline mile. At that rate I’d buy miles in many airline programs.

    I agree I still probably hoard too much, but if it weren’t for the opportunity to redeem that way, I’d much more frequently be redeeming Marriott points.

  24. There are some very good value 35K Marriott values out there. I would use mine at something like the Bodrum Edition or Domes Miramare or the Myconian Kyma: all 35K/night, but summer cash rates are north of EUR400. Excellent value. St. Regis Bangkok is also good value at certain times…

  25. Hi Lucky – Unless you have a specific reason to stay at the JWM in Quito, I think you’d be happier at the Sheraton there. It’s in a much better location – better part of town, easy access to dining and shopping. I got a great points redemption value there earlier this year (with SPG, not sure how it converted to its new MR category).

  26. @Lucky,
    I have both the old SPG personal (opened in 1/2017) & business (3/2018)–will I receive the annual free nights for each of them on my next anniversary in 1/2019 and 3/2019 since the Marriott/SPG’s merger completed in 8/2018? I don’t see any of the annual free nights in my account currently. Thanks!

  27. Waiting for my free night certificate to post and then like you, having to figure out where I want to use it. I will likely find a 35K property so I max out the points value and not worry so much about the dollar value of the free night.

  28. Which airline will you be flying to Ecuador? I recommend visiting Guayaquil city and the Galápagos Islands.

    Also, the JW Marriot Quito lags behind the Sheraton Quito in terms of service and location. Although if you weren’t looking for Starwood properties I’d also recommend the Swissotel.

  29. hi lucky,

    question about travel packages. are they transferable? if so, can another person (other than account holder, AH) be the primary guest since AH won’t be traveling with?

  30. @ Lucky

    1) I thought SPG AMEX free night was valued at 50k?

    2) I agree with using certificates for all where rate with taxes doubles AF except Kigali – points for that as points redemption so low to me.

  31. I would use the free night certificates at the most expensive paid rate properties at the earliest opportunity (ie. I’m CONFIRMED to go). Take the stress out of remembering the expiry date of the certificate and preserving cash, which I have preference over certificates/points.

  32. I just booked a room using a 25K certificate that would have cost $451 out of pocket. Saturday night peak season, worked out perfectly. But generally I just use them anywhere I’m getting more value than the annual fee, with the occasional big win like above.

  33. Wondering about current prospects for extending the expiration of the 35k nights , as well as the 7 night packages. In my case , the 7k packages were at the 30000 points level, so I believe I can downgrade them to 25k, and get some points back. Missing parts of my goals are to use them for a European four points next summer, or failing that perhaps as late as the end of October closer to home if I get sick again and don’t make it to Europe.

    So I think I need to downgrade them at the end of this month. Who do I call, what do I say, and what are my chances of getting 12 months from the time of my call (or email if that is better)?

    And how about extending my 35k certificates? In my case they were originally Starwood, and I would want to use them at Marriott legacy . Who do I call, what do I say to allow for bookings next summer a few months past their one year deadline?

    Thank you

  34. @Lucky:

    Yeah, I figured that might be a reason. 😉

    I would counter that you probably generate enough airline and transferrable points spend (plus fly enough paid F and J fares) such that needing to use Marriott to boost a mileage account balance instead of AMEX/UR/TY points isn’t something you should need to do TOO often at this point in your life (I’d wager money Marriott isn’t your only 7 digit balance starting with a crooked number). I mean, OK, maaaaaybe Alaska (since Marriott is one of the only way in there outside of their BofA card, Diners Club, or flying), but even there you have so many ways to credit good J/F fares to them a nice balance shouldn’t be too hard to maintain.

    I would still encourage you to look at how you spend miles/points and see if it differs notably from your valuation. I think it would be a good blog post.

    Personally, I try to burn my Alaska/Avianca/United frequent flyer accounts regularly for a nice overseas vacation every 12-24 months, the exceptions being Southwest (mostly) or Delta/BA (occasionally), which I will burn all the time for domestic flights where they match my needs, or the occasional reasonably high value (2-3 cpm) domestic flight where I prefer the cash. My hotel accounts generally get burned when I can find something 10% over approximate valuation or more, sometimes a bit less if I really could use the cash.

    I largely agree with your notional valuation of miles and points as a rule of thumb for “I am indifferent to cash of points at around that valuation”.

    I am also exceedingly happy that my Alaska MP account hasn’t been in 6 digits for some time now (it gets burned routinely), despite being a multi-year elite. 🙂

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