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

by on August 18, 2013 · 26 comments

in American Express, Club Carlson, Starwood, Sunday Reader Questions, US Bank, Video Blog Post

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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.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • lovethosemiles

    Starwood points are hard to accumulate so I do not know how you ever have enough to transfer in 20,000 point increments to get 25,000 miles so this option is almost useless for most of us.

  • Grant

    Agreed, I have around 28K SPG and would never transfer a majority of those points to miles. Unless you have a ton of SPG points, the option doesn’t seem like the best option.

  • Mike

    foreign exchange fees really limit the value of the cards.

  • Vincent

    I have read countless reviews of the SPG cards and am still missing something regarding their valuations. The benefits of other cards are absolutely apparent. The ability to transfer spg points to miles is pretty weak. So 30,000 point signing bonus would earn one night in a top property. The 85,000 point signing bonus for Club Carlson would earn two nights at a category 6 hotel with enough points left for 2 nights at a category 4 hotel. After using the bonus points though it seems that Club Carlson is even better because points accrue so quickly. I do not have either card and was actually turned down for the club Carlson card (too many inquiries).

  • phil

    Yes, the SPG card is really overrated unless you stay in Cat. 1 or 2 properties.

  • Nguyen

    @Vincent – I believe that we can get more than two nights with 85K bonus. If I understand the program correctly, we can book first two nights (second night free), pay for the third night, and then book the last two nights (again second night free). Thus, we can get 5 nights for the price of one. Thanks.

  • Vincent

    The top level hotel for Club carlson are 50,000 points per night. With the credit card this would be two consecutive nights for 50k points. The remaining points could get us two more nights. 2 nights in the top hotels and 2 nights in a mid class, just for signing up. Compare this to 1 night at an SPG hotel for the spg Amex.

  • Vincent

    I agree it would be a great card if there were many category 1 options. Category 1 hotels are only 3k points. Getting 10 stays for one credit card would be amazing. Hotels can be found cheap everywhere so valuing based on rack rates is not super informative. However with the slow accrual rate of points they seem greatly overvalued in the blog world. Here is a different way of looking at these valuations.

  • Krysia

    Thanks for this article. I am never going to spend $30k a year on a credit card, so I was wondering if I should cancel my Starwood card before the annual fee kicks in. I am leaning towards a cancellation because you can only earn 1 point per dollar on all purchases. I can earn a lot more points with my Hilton Amex.

  • John Graziano

    The US Bank Club Carlson card is actually one of the most difficult to obtain. USB is very fickle when it comes to recent inquiries.

  • Rob

    I agree with this valuation as how you value the point should be all about personal utility, as anyone that took Economics class should understand. Getting 6 cents per dollar at the high end property is only relevant if you were willing to pay the $800 rack rate in the first place. As # of nights is more important in my personal utility evaluation than perceived $ value of the stays, it’s more relevant how many category 1 & 2 are available in locations I want to travel.

  • Seth

    Its not just about pure points earned. Sure you can rack up tons of hilton points, but those points are virtually worthless given how many points it costs for a night at a decent hilton hotel.

  • joeypore

    “Starwood American Express Visa” <<<< lol. (0:18)

  • UAPhil

    Don’t build up a large stash of Club Carlson points – use them soon after earning them. Current benefits are unsustainable, and they have been known to devalue their program without notice.

    I find Starwood points extremely valuable for mid-range (category 2-5) hotel stays. A particular “sweet spot” is Cat 5 stays in New York or London – with 5th night free, you get 5 nights at a reasonable hotel for 48,000 points. At a typical value of 2.2 cents/point, that’s about $210/night – a much better value than you can usually get paying cash rates or with other loyalty programs.

    Also, when Starwood devalues (by increasing some hotels from Cat 5 to Cat 6, for example) they usually give several weeks advance notice. SPG is much more “trustworthy” than Club Carlson, so I am very comfortable carrying a large SPG points balance.

  • Graydon

    I’m not sure I follow your comment about transferring points to miles with SPG. Transferring 20K nets you 25K miles and that’s not too weak in my opinion. I carry both cards – business versions and put a lot of spend on them both. The Club Carlson is a new card to me but I sure seem to be racking up points for future travel to Europe where the redemptions seem to be better.

  • LiberaceLikesObama

    Stole my thoughts. This is becoming an obvious pyramid and CC should be devaluating very soon once they audit the amount of money they have been paying to each hotel.

  • Vicky C

    Does anybody have an idea of when the Club Carlson offer may end? I already have Gold status for this year and wonder if I should wait until the end of the year to apply so I can get the status for next year?

  • Steve

    FWIW, the top level Club Carlson hotels are 75k, not 50k.

  • Steve

    Anybody have any experience with the Club Carlson card where two people, i.e., a couple, both have it and use the “last night free” bonus to do 2 two-night awards back-to-back to get 4 nights for the price of 2? Or even do it again, so they get 8 nights for the price of 4? They’d make four bookings and alternate the person booking… I wonder if the hotel would make them check out and go to a new room each time, or could they let the desk know they wanted to keep the room as they went along and be allowed?

  • Steve

    Agreed. On the other hand, the Marriott card has no FTFs, but that wouldn’t be my choice card for real/everyday spending.

  • Puppydog

    Couldn’t agree more.

  • Steve

    Never mind, there appears to be a glitch in their system in which they are showing 75k rates.

  • GL

    Yes, my wife and I just did 4 nights in London (back-to-back with 2 nights under my card/name and 2 nights under hers), then did 4 more nights in Paris, doing the same thing. It worked perfectly and was AMAZING!

  • Mr. Cool

    in your opinion please… my carlson personal account annual fee is coming due in 1 month. i just opened the carlson business also. worth keeping the personal anyway? thanks

  • James

    Does that work for authorized users? or do you to have completely seperate accounts?

  • Matt

    I’m not sure that’s always the case. I recently got approved for the Premier Rewards Visa Signature last week and had 11 inquiries and a number of recently opened accounts. I already had a Cash+ card and a Gold Checking account with them, so that may have helped. Nonetheless, inquiries aren’t always the deal killer.

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