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 contact 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 — plus 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.
Wow well done girl! Living in Canada I honestly haven’t looked into travel hacking, having slightly less options for credit cards & what not. I really need to stop slacking though & attempt to look into this more, those hotel rooms are absolutely gorgeous! x
I didn’t touch on that, but it’s true that most travel hacking offers are only open to Americans. If it makes you feel better, we have to deal with unfortunate America stereotypes when traveling abroad… so things kind of even out 😛
I almost hate to admit this, but before I updated Phil Handbook for Moon Publications I received a rec letter from Phil Tourism SF and it provided me with all hotels
If you hate to admit it, why have you mentioned it in so many comments on my blog? 😀 It’s definitely nice to reap the rewards of traveling for work, but I prefer to write about methods like this that are more accessible!
I am SO impressed! You go girl!!! These hotels are GORGEOUS!
Thanks Andi! You MUST be a serious elite status frequent flyer for all the flying you do!
Super informative post! I have to admit it seems a little intimidating to me and I’d be a bit worried about spending $5000 in six months if I wasn’t booking a big trip, but maybe I should spend some time thinking about it and looking into it! Do the points ever go away? Also, I’m curious how your experience was staying at these nice hotels when you’re doing the hostel backpacker thing?
Hey Amanda! I was definitely fretting about the 5,000 but look through your Mint.com/bank statements to see your spending history, it might be easier you think! It definitely helps if you have a big purchase like a flight or major electronic to help you get there.
As for mixing backpacking and nice hotel stays… I think you’re asking about balancing the two? It’s definitely funny to go from, for example, my house in Gili Trawangan which was basically a thatch-roof hut with no hot water and sporadic electricity to a five star hotel room, yes! But as I spend so much time backpacking, I definitely didn’t feel like I had backpacker FOMO or anything while staying in hotels. Obviously you don’t meet people like you would in a hostel, but everyone needs a break from that sometimes. And I do feel funny sometimes walking into these places with my flip flops and ratty backpacks but of course they are professionals and never make me feel out of place! Did that answer your question? Let me know!
Holy swanky digs, Batman! I tend to rack up a lot of points while at home, but it might be challenging while traveling… I also am not a fan of AMEX as it’s not accepted as many places as Visa or MC, but OMG is it ever worth a try after seeing your photos!
Ha, agreed Heather! I ran into the AMEX not being accepted problem a few times in Hawaii but I primarily use it for major online purchases like flights so thus far hasn’t been an issue! I do love Capital One more due to the foreign transaction fees, but if Capital One and AMEX went in a customer service cage fight, AMEX is winning every time. I always get off the phone with Capital One looking for items to stab myself with.
inspirational and practical, as uzj. i’ve always been intimidated by travel-hacking but your breakdown makes it seem accessible. i think i’m gonna go for the starwood. thanks girl 🙂
Do it Becky! Especially if you are heading to Southeast Asia, where the redemption value is insane!
That is impressive. I think American credit cards are way better in terms of earning flying miles or getting bonus points than British credit cards. The only thing I get as a bonus with my Barclays credit card is access to six airport lounges per year, which I have to say is pretty nice considering how many long-haul flights I do. You can’t argue with free champagne, food and wifi when everybody else is cramped out on uncomfortable chairs, having to eat overpriced sandwiches. 😉
I once gained access to an Iceland Air lounge somehow — not really sure what happened, to be honest — and it was AMAZING! I think I’m getting some free Admirals’ Club passes with the Citibank AA card I just was approved for, so I’m looking forward to some more of that in the future!
Like you, the whole travel hacking thing made me a little nervous and I totally didn’t think I’d be able to figure it out, or even if it would be beneficial to me.
I don’t think that anymore! Sign me up please!
Great post, love the photos and super easy to follow.
Glad this helped demystify the process, and good luck with the travel hacking!
Great travel Haxz0ring! Killer view from Aloft and I’m liking the look of the outdoor bar at Le Meridian too!
like Jacquie said, Canada gets screwed when it comes to points credit cards…. Air Miles or Aeroplan, take your pick!
That’s a bummer — I had heard that Americans got the best deals for credit cards and such but these comments confirm it!
These hotels are beautiful! Sadly the UK is pretty uninspiring when it come to credit card rewards-American cards definitely are streaks ahead. The Aloft looks great-what a view!
I have a few friends who splurged on the Aloft out of pocket at the end of their trip after seeing my photos 🙂 It’s about $100 a night normally — imagine getting that value in London or NYC! PS: I love mango stick rice!
How’d you get around to the different sites? Inter-asia flights and train?
Hey Philip! There were huge amounts of time between most of these stays, so I primarily traveled overland by train and bus and stayed in guesthouses, hostels, and with friends inbetween. I did fly on a cheap Nok Air flight between Bangkok and Chiang Rai, and of course had to fly to get to Bali!
Did Kepnes secretly write this?
Ha. I think most people who write about credit cards at least make money off of it. Wish I could say the same!
Sweet deal! Good on you. You guys (in the states) get some great rewards on credit cards 🙂
This post has made me realize that… and also how many international readers I have!
What a great breakdown! I’ve never used points for anything but am become more intrigued…
Give it a try Alana, but warning! It’s addictive 🙂
Thanks for writing this, Alex. I have the SPG AmEx for my business and recently got a personal one for the 30k point promotion. I’ll make sure to save my points for SE Asia or somewhere else that I can stretch them to the limit.
Nice! Yeah I’m pretty disappointed with the South and Central America offerings compared to what was available in Southeast Asia. They don’t even come close!
Don’t know how I missed this when it first was posted but all I can say this sure beats clipping coupons for the grocery store
🙂 You make me laugh, even through a screen.
That looks great, I definitely spend 5k over six months. I wonder if they offer it in Canada…
I totally do too 🙂 My only problem is that often where I’m traveling Credit Cards just aren’t accepted. So I had to be sure to rack up the spend minimum when I was in the US. Sadly it seems from other commenters that this offer is not available outside the US.
Very useful and impressive, though as you say only those with access to US cards can get the best benefits…
Such a shame! Hopefully some credit card executive somewhere will stumble upon posts like these and see the international demand and make some changes 🙂
Absolutely genius! you go girl ahaha I can imagine how good it felt to live those amazing 10 days in such beautiful hotels for 0$! You have definitely inspired me to look at some options as well… at the end of the day.. it is always good to get something in return right?
Exactly! If I’m spending big bucks, it eases the pain a little to know I’m getting something “free” in return!
Amazing tips, that’s a lot of savings on hotels and I absolutely agree, backpackers should treat themselves to first class hotels once in awhile 😉 I’m not sure though if these loyalty points programs are available in Asian countries. Thanks for sharing!
A lot of people have chimed in to say that programs like this seem to only be available in the US. That’s probably because US credit card companies have predatory lending practices and rely on people not being able to pay their bills on time… but that’s a post for another day 🙂
You’ve certainly done well with the hotel hacking and have stayed in some fabulous looking places.
Points accumulation is definitely the way to go. With my frequent flyer miles and frequent hotel stay loyalty cards I’ve often benefited to stay at places where my budget otherwise would not stretch.
Nice! Glad to hear from another points hacker 🙂 I’ve scored free flights so many times for this trip it actually pains me when I have to pay full price!
Amazing places to stay. Top of the line, high-end category.
And some of those are very cheap hotels (like the Le Meridien in Chiang Rai, which just gave me a result of about 80 USD/night), despite being so luxurious.
Yeah, I don’t know how that hotel is so affordable — it’s truly fabulous! However it is quite isolated so unless you want to journey out for meals you will end up spending quite a bit on food and drink.
Awesome stuff, as if Thailand could get any better! Currently building up my own credit history and then looking to open a few travel rewards cards. Cheers!
Good luck! Travel hacking is insanely addictive…
Oh I’m so jealous, those places look amazing!! I keep hearing these amazing travel hacking stories, but every time I dig deeper into how to do it myself, I come across what feels like a blaring neon sign stating USA ONLY!!. Australian banks just don’t seem to offer the same sort of deals. I’ve done the maths on rewards cards vs low fee cards, and always come away knowing that I’d have to spend at least $10,000 on the card just to make up rewards to the value of the original card fee itself! It just doesn’t seem to work here. 🙁
From what readers have shared on many of my posts, this seems to be true, I’m afraid 🙁 Hopefully other countries will catch on soon!
What a fantastic read. Cant believe you had 10 wonderful nights. Great tips. Thanks for sharing.
You’re so welcome Christine! This card definitely worked out for me 🙂 Hope it might for you too someday!
I absolutely love travel hacking, but don’t have a card for hotels at all. I have racked up a ton of Miles though on United and American which will pay for my next 3 or 4 major flights, which is cool. I’ll have to look into this card and start getting some free hotel stays.
I think that airline miles are pretty much where it’s at. That said, considering the amazing redemption values of this particular program in Southeast Asia, it was a no-brainer for me! But I probably won’t be pursuing hotel specific cards in the future.