Which Card Is Better – The Club Carlson Visa or Starwood American Express?

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Update: The offers mentioned below for the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Cards from American Express have expired. View the current offers here – personalbusiness.

TPG follower Eric is weighing his hotel credit card options and wants to know:

“‪@thepointsguy‬ would you recommend the Starwood Preferred Guest 30,000 point American Express card or the Club Carlson 85,000 point Visa?

I think both these cards are really valuable, which is why I have both of them. The two cards have similar annual fees – the Starwood American Express has a $65 annual fee waived for the first year and the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card has a $75 annual fee.

Right now there is a limited-time offer until September 3, 2013 for the Starwood American Express where you can get 3o,000 points after spending $5,000 in the first 6 months. This offer may seem small compared to the 85,000 Gold points that you’ll receive after spending $2,500 on the Club Carlson Visa Signature card in the first 90 days, but the Starwood redemption levels are very different from those of Club Carlson. A top-tier night at a Starwood property would cost 20,000 to 30,000 points per night where if you were booking a top-tier award night using Club Carlson Gold points it would cost 50,000 points per night.

With the Club Carlson Visa there is a 85,000 point sign up offer and you will receive 45,000 points annually.
With the Club Carlson Visa there is a 85,000 point sign up offer and you will receive 45,000 points annually.

These cards are issued by different banks – Starwood by American Express and Club Carlson by US Bank. The cards also have different benefits that end up bringing you more value than their annual fees cost.

With the Club Carlson card, every year you renew your membership you get 40,000 Gold points which is enough to stay in a Category 4 hotel (38,000 points) that would cost more than $75 per night, such as the Park Inn Berlin Alexanderplatz not too far from where I’m staying in Berlin, where room rates are 100 EUR ($130) right now.

Speaking of elite status, the Club Carlson card also gives you automatic Gold status, which includes benefits like 2,000 bonus points for online booking, an in-room welcome gift, 72-hour room availability guarantee and a 50% bonus on earned points (bringing your hotel-spend earning potentially up to 40 points per dollar – 20 base points, 10 points with your elite bonus and another 10 points with the credit card).

While the Starwood American Express doesn’t give you free nights or automatic elite status, it does credit you with 2 stays or 5 nights toward elite status qualification every year, so that saves you from spending two more stays which would easily be $65, and if you spend $30,000 in a calendar year, you get automatic Gold status. You also earn 2 points per $1 spent on qualifying Starwood charges.

The Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Dublin
The Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Dublin

In terms of earning points when using your credit card, the Starwood American Express isn’t as lucrative since you only earn one point for every dollar spent on everyday expenses and 2 points per dollar spent at participating SPG hotels. Compare that to the Club Carlson card where you’re earning 10 points per dollar spent at Carlson properties and 5 points per dollar spent on every other expense. $5,000 in spending will get you you a free night at a top Radisson Blu around the world, but it would cost you $20,000 on the Starwood card.

However, when you really get down to it, what matters most when choosing a hotel credit card is where you tend to stay. In general, I think the perks of the Club Carlson card are more lucrative if you stay at a lot of Club Carlson properties. Starwood has a really big network in the US from the Four Points by Sheraton to W Hotels and St. Regis, but only about 1,200 properties total across the world. Club Carlson properties in the US are more sparse and there are only a few really nice Radisson Blu properties like the one in Chicago, which I think is fantastic.

With Starwood points, because of the high caliber of their hotels, you can often get 3, 4 or even more cents per point in value, especially with great redemption options like their Cash & Points.

Carlson has some great properties like the Radisson Blu 1919 in Reykjavik.
Carlson has some great properties like the Radisson Blu 1919 in Reykjavik.

Internationally I’ve stayed at some great Radisson Blu properties that turned out to be good value propositions because room rates can be high, like at the Radisson Blue Royal Hotel, Dublin which was lovely, and an awesome one in Iceland, the Radisson Blu 1919 right in the heart of Reykjavik, where room rates are around the $300 mark ($290 on some dates in August and September) but you can score a room for 44,000 Gold points.

In general I don’t think Club Carlson’s top-tier properties measure up to Starwood’s and I find I often get more value from my Starpoints, even though the lower earning rates can make Starpoints harder to rack up. So if you stay in places where Club Carlson has good coverage and room rates can be high, I actually think the Club Carlson card might be a better choice.

However, the best benefit of the Club Carlson card is that when you redeem Gold points for at least a two-night stay you get the last night free essentially saving you hundreds if not thousands of dollars – and basically benefiting you with half-price awards depending on how you maximize it – and that’s why the Club Carlson Visa might be a better overall option for you.

SPG's Airline Transfer Partners
SPG’s Airline Transfer Partners

The ace in the Starwood card’s hole, though, is the ability to transfer Starwood points to 31 different airline frequent programs at a 1:1 ratio for most, and a 5,000-point bonus when you make a transfer of 20,000 points – a 25% bonus.  But considering you’re only earning 1 point per dollar on the majority of your spend, unless you’re spending a ton of money on the card it doesn’t make too much sense to leverage that card only for airline transfers.

By contrast, while you can convert Club Carlson Gold points to airline miles with 25 different programs including American, British Airways, Delta, United and US Airways, this option was recently devalued and the conversion ratio is now 10 Gold points to 1 airline miles.

To put it another way, from the sign-up bonus on the Starwood card, you’d end up with 35,000 airline miles with American (for example) while the 85,000 Gold points from the Club Carlson Visa sign-up bonus would just net you 8,500 miles.

There is really no clear cut answer to tell you which card is better since there are great aspects of both cards. Each card has a lot of perks for different needs, but if you really know how to maximize its benefits including those free award nights and you plan to stay in a lot of Carlson properties, the Club Carlson Premier Visa could be your cards. However, since these cards come from two different issuers, I would just get both if you can swing it and meet the minimum spending requirement. I carry both myself and get tons of value from each, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t, too.

Maximize your rewards, points and cash back. Get a Personalized Recommendation Now