An Inside Look at Starwood Vacation Ownership

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Update: The offers mentioned below for the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Cards from American Express has expired. View the current offers here – personal, business.

Timeshares can often be a topic of scorn, humor or even horror – especially if aggressive sales people constantly hound you with calls or hard pitches for seminars during your vacation. However, timeshares – or even just going and listening to a presentation – can also open up a new world of affordable vacation options and even earn you valuable points and miles at the same time. In this new series, I’ll be covering the timeshare options from the major chains starting with Starwood and including an inside look at its Vacation Network program from the perspective of a customer who just bought into it.

Starwood Vacation Network is a collection of 19 properties primarily located across the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean where you can buy into one property and be able to stay there a week or a few weeks each year.

Owners of a villa resort timeshare can exchange a week in their Home Resort for a reservation in any of the 19 villa resorts in the collection without paying an additional fee (booking up to eight months to a week in advance your desired trip on a first come, first serve basis), or even convert your week into Starpoints to use on award nights at other properties.

Sheraton
The Sheraton Desert Oasis in Scottsdale, AZ, is one of the 19 locations in the Villa Collection.

The 19 locations in the Villa Collection are below, and to become an owner you have to contact their sales team.

Arizona: 

California: 

Colorado: 

Florida:

Hawaii:

South Carolina:

Caribbean:

Mexico:

Breakdown of the Starwood Vacation Network Program

However, you don’t have to stay at your own resort or even any of the 19 Villa Resorts to take advantage of your timeshare ownership. The Starwood Vacation Network incorporates Starwood’s 1,100+ hotels and resorts in all nine Starwood brands in conjunction with the Starwood Preferred Guest program.

Breakdown of the Starwood Vacation Network.
Breakdown of the Starwood Vacation Network.

As an owner, you automatically get Gold Preferred Status in the Starwood Preferred Guest program with the following perks when staying at Starwood hotels:

  • 3 Starpoints for every eligible dollar spent
  • Late 4 p.m. check-out, when available
  • Welcome gift at check-in
  • Dedicated customer service telephone line
  • Enhanced or upgraded room, when available

The Friendship Rewards program also awards owners with bonuses of 20,000 Starpoints or 400 Resort Credits when they refer someone who then becomes an owner.

Staroptions …rpoints
The difference between StarOptions and Starpoints.

Owners earn StarOptions, which are similar to Starpoints but different. StarOptions can be used to experience a different villa resort, change your villa size, change your season or enjoy a flexible length of stay. Whereas Starpoints are your more conventional rewards program, which you can redeem for free nights, flights on partner airlines or other special offers.

Starwood Vacation Rental
Starwood Vacation Rental Elite Ownership Privileges.

Elite status ownership offers even more privileges such as extended banking periods, a Starpoints conversion fee waiver (when you want to exchange your week for points), and the earning of bonus Starpoints. An Elite Owner is someone who has purchased multiple Starwood units from a resort, entitling them to additional perks. These units must have been purchased from the developer, or requalified, to count toward elite status.

Level 4 and 5 Elite Owners don’t have to pay the $99 conversion fee when converting their week to Starpoints, and they can convert as late as October 1 for the year. For full details of the perks of Elite Ownership, click here.

Owners also get discounts from Starwood travel partners, including:

  • Travelocity Partner Network
  • TripInsured
  • Signature Cruises operated by CruisesOnly
  • GolfNow
  • Luggage Forward
  • Avis
  • Hawaiian Airlines
VROB
Booking a vacation rental through a site like VRBO can be more cost-effective and flexible than buying a timeshare.

Starwood Vacation Owners Tell Me About The Program

I wanted to get an understanding the owner-experience more, so I talked to several Starwood Vacation Owners about their experiences buying into the program and the perks it confers.

Starwood Vacation Ownership Locations.
Starwood Vacation Ownership Locations.

According to the owners I talked to, Starwood offers many different packages depending on how often and at what level you want to travel. Packages are sold in “weeks” and the total number of StarOptions awarded each year coincides with a 7-day stay at a resort.  Some resorts are in higher categories (like those in Hawaii) and can require up to double the StarOptions than other resorts do for the same week.

Plan costs vary – and there is room to negotiate – but just based on the anecdotal evidence, it sounds like plans average around $15,000 for one week and include either 44,000 StarOptions to be used at your home resort – the equivalent of about a one-bedroom condo at most resorts – or can be converted into 26,000 Starpoints to be used at any Starwood hotel.

Starwood Vacation Network offers financing, and you can even pay the entire amount on a credit card – though I contacted American Express and was told that if you use your Starwood Amex, you will not receive the 2X points per $1 you normally would on Starwood charges since Vacation Network charges don’t count.

The Westin Ka'anapali Ocean Villas.
The Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Villas.

Like the buy-in, annual fees vary and owners pay a yearly ownership association fee that tends to be around $800-$1,000 per year, though that depends what resort you bought into and what size package/condo you bought.

The Westin Lagunamar Resort in Cancun is TPG reader Sean's home resort.
The Westin Lagunamar Resort in Cancun is the Mexico SVN resort.

There are also sign-up bonuses to entice new owners, and one of the people I talked to received 80,000 bonus Starpoints for buying in (which also translates into 100,000 airline miles thanks to SPG’s 25% bonus on 20,000-point transfers), as well as the opportunity to buy two more packages of 80,000 points for $1,500 each. That breaks down to a rate of about 1.875 cents per point – and is something I might consider since I can often get much higher values from my Starpoints.

One owner also reported receiving a one-time welcome gift of a free 7-day, 6-night stay at their home resort to use within a year of buying into the program in addition to the StarOption points they received to redeem for their annual week at the resort – so essentially they got two weeks for the price of one the first year.
When it comes to the flexibility of redeeming their StarOptions at other resorts, the people I spoke with all basically concurred that one of the reasons they bought into Starwood Vacation Network was that it is not like a traditional timeshare and that they are able to stay at pretty much any resort they choose for as many days as they’d like up to the number of weeks they have bought. Not only that, but thanks to the fact that their ownership is noted on their guest profiles and they have lifetime Gold status, many report that they are extremely satisfied with the treatment they get at Starwood and are given preferential services and upgrades when they travel.
Also in terms of flexibility, Starwood will let owners bank their weeks from one year to the next so that they can then redeem two weeks in a single year or possibly trade up to a higher category resort and use their week their instead.

Westin Lagunamar Ocean Villas.
The Westin Lagunamar Ocean Villas.

My Thoughts
Personally, I don’t own any timeshares nor have any desire to at this time. I usually can get a good deal booking a hotel directly or through a lucrative points redemption. When it comes to Starwood, if you are looking for some quick easy SPG points, both the Starwood Amex Personal or Business card are offering 25,000 bonus SPG points after spending $5,000 in the first three months for a total of 50,000 SPG points.

Before you consider a timeshare, I would encourage you to check out sites like VRBO.com or Home Exchange. With a timeshare you will have to pay the annual maintenance fee, which could end up being more than renting a place for one week (after all, in the case of some of Starwood’s packages, you could be paying well over $1,000 a year just in maintenance fees), so that’s something to consider. If you are still convinced a timeshare is for you, do your research and look for some resale options since you can sometimes get them for 50% off what would cost to buy directly from Starwood.

Do you own any Starwood timeshares or any other ones? What has your experience been with them?

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