There are many things that suck about travelling a lot for work, but one thing that doesn’t suck is that I just took a nine-day vacation in Europe (about which I might have more to say later) and paid for airfare and hotel not with cash, but with points accumulated in various rewards programs. For example, I stayed nearly 100 nights in Marriott hotels last year which entitles me to an untold treasure trove of perks and free stays that you can only imagine. Actually, I too can only imagine these rewards, because the Marriott Rewards program really sucks.
Consider, I average probably 1,200 points earned per night spent at a Marriott. But to spend one night in the heart of London, without being off in some outlying suburb that would require me to commute into the city for 45 minutes each morning, cost me 30,000 points. All Marriott hotels within the city of London were considered “Category 5″ or “Category 6″ based on location, so my 100 paid nights gets me something like 3-4 free nights. There are point-saver rates and such, but with restrictions and blackouts I wasn’t able to get them. I had the same problem last year when I tried to do Washington, D.C. on Marriott points.
You could get more Marriott points through a credit card that gives you 1 point per dollar spent, but considering that you’d have to spend nearly $30,000 to earn a free night worth $360, that’s not really much better than getting a 1% cash back card and choosing to spend the reward cash on a night at the Marriott.
I actually spent most of my time in London at a Starwood property. Starwood owns Westin, W, St. Regis, Sheraton, and I think a couple odd other chains. I was able to do this despite the fact that I didn’t spend too many paid nights in Starwood hotels last year.
There are two reasons I had enough Starwood points to finance most of my stay in London. Reason one is that I use the Starwood Preferred American Express Card, which also gives me a point per dollar spent, to pay for nearly everything in my life. And reason two is that Starwood points are worth at least three times as much as Marriott points, Hilton points, most airline points, and the cash rewards offered by cashback credit cards. With no blackout dates or restrictions, as well as easy to find and use special offers (check out points + cash) that can stretch your points out, you can do quite well. The worst case Starwood expenditure for a hotel in the same class as the aforementioned London Marriott (after for correcting for Marriott’s shameless “category inflation”) is 10,000 points. Using an easily available offer (that a very nice customer service rep pointed out to me while I was booking) I spent 5 nights at the Sheraton Park Lane for 40,000 points (I pay for all my work expenses on the card and get promptly reimbursed).
Remember, the Marriott charged me 30,000 points for 1 night. On the Starwood card I get an easily redeemed (even before special offers and free nights) 3.6% return vs. Marriott’s pain in the ass 1.2% return on their card. Northwest Airlines offers a card at a dollar a point as well. Getting to from LAX to NYC and back (with significant restrictions) would cost you 25,000 points, worth $378 at NWA.com for the exact same flights. That’s 1.5% of highly restricted return on investment that you may not be able to redeem if they go belly-up. United Airlines is much the same. Discover Card gives you greater flexibility but only 1% cash back. I haven’t seen any cashback cards that go over 2% except for certain types of purchases.
The other nice thing about the Starwood Preferred program is that the points are fully transferrable to airline miles on just about any airline (with a 25% bonus if you transfer 20,000 points), which makes airline rewards cards all but obsolete. And finally, Starwood hotels are generally very nice. One drawback is a $30 annual fee starting in the second year, but if you spend at least $3,000, those three Hamiltons will get you a night at the Westin LAX (Category 2, 3000 points). If you spend at least a few grand a year, and you take the occasional vacation, the Starwood Preferred American Express card really seems to offer the most bang for your buck.
Oh, and Marriott, you should be worried when super-duper Molybdenum-level members are steering people away from your rewards program.