Maximizing Starwood Cash & Points Awards

Sep 4, 2012

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Starwood Cash & Pointshas to be one of the best hotel redemption values out there, especially if you’re a little short on points but have some extra cash sitting around, and because you can use this option at over 1,000 Starwood properties all over the world. Even though you are spending some money, you’re generally still getting a ton of value out of your points and saving a lot more cash than you’re spending.

You can find all the category breakdowns here, but for reference:

Category 1: 1,200 Starpoints + $25 offered at Asia-Pacific, US and Canadian hotels only.
Category 2: 1,600 Starpoints + $30 offered at Asia-Pacific, US and Canadian hotels only
Category 3: 2,800 Starpoints + $45
Category 4: 4,000 Starpoints + $60
Category 5: 4,800 Starpoints + $90
Category 6: 8,000 Starpoints + $150
Category 7: 15,000 Starpoints + $275 (this is a relatively new redemption level)

The great thing about Cash & Points is that the cash value for each redemption level is pegged in dollars, and most taxes and fees are already included. In general you save yourself a big chunk of points by paying a small cash copay, though you don’t earn points on the cash portion paid.

For instance, for a Category 4 free night, instead of paying 10,000 points you can use 4,000 points and $60 – essentially “buying” those 6,000 points needed for a mere $60, or 1 cent a point which is extremely cheap for Starwood points since I value them much higher. As an added benefit, Cash & Points stays also count towards elite qualification. However, since you don’t earn Starpoints on the cash portion paid, you need to take the opportunity cost of points earned when deciding what the true value of the redemption is.

Key things to understand about these rewards:
-The fifth night free option does not apply to Cash & Points.
-The “no blackout” date rule does not apply – these are capacity controlled, though I’ve been able to book many Cash & Points awards by being persistent and flexible with my plans.
– There is a Cash & Points calendar, so you can search for dates that have availability. Just click the “Browse Dates/Rates” button on the search and select Cash & Points and you’ll be able to scan by month for Cash & Points availability.
– Often hotels don’t load Cash & Points availability for the entire next year. You’ll see in the example below that the entire months of January and February are blocked out. Clearly January-February is not a peak time for Le Meridien Paris – it’s just a matter of the hotel not loading the Cash & Points-specific inventory yet.

It’s not that you won’t be able to use Cash & Points for all of January and February, it’s that the inventory hasn’t been loaded into the booking system yet.

To see if Cash & Points makes sense for you, I always recommend doing a cost/benefit analysis. With Cash & Points I’d expect at least 3 cents per point in value. For example, let’s check out a high end and lower end example to see how this works.

At the Westin Paris Vendome, a Category 6 property, the lowest rate in October was 425 euros ($535). A free night would cost 20,000 Starpoints, or 8,000 Starpoints + $150 for Cash & Points.

If we used 20,000 points to save $535, we’d be getting 2.7 cents in value. If we used Cash & Points, we’d be paying $150 and using 8,000 Starpoints to cover the remaining $385, equating to a value of 4.8 cents per point.

Next, let’s check out a Category 4 property in the middle of the spectrum. For the same dates in October, a standard room at the Westin Resort & Spa Los Cabos would cost $159, or 10,000 Starpoints or 4,000 Starpoints + $60.

A free night redemption would net you a value of 1.59 cents per point. Not great. Using Cash & Points, however, your points would be worth 2.5 cents each. Much better – still not great and I’d consider just paying the room rate here since I know I can get more value out of my points elsewhere.

Finally, let’s have a quick look at a Category 2 property like the Aloft Phoenix Airport. A room in October would cost you $119, or 4,000 Starpoints or 1,600 Starpoints + $30.

So the free night redemption would give your points a value of just under 3 cents each while the Cash & Points option would wring 5.6 cents in value out of each point.

In these three cases, Cash & Points beat the all-point free-night redemptions, and though that’s not always the case, it usually has been in my experience over the years.

You can see why serious points enthusiasts love Starwood points – when it’s hard to get even 1 cent in value out of other kinds of points and miles sometimes, with Starpoints, you can easily get five or six times that amount if you search correctly.

Just one note, although you can now use Cash & Points for Category 7 hotels as well like the uber-luxe W Retreat & Spa Maldives or chi-chi city hotels like the Chatwal in New York or the W Opera Paris, many of these properties have limited participation in the Starwood Preferred Guest program, meaning it can be very difficult to find point redemptions let alone Cash & Points and many Cash & Points redemptions simply don’t glean the same value as C&P redemptions for hotels in other categories, so always do the math.

For me, the ability to pay a measly $150 for a world class hotel like the Westin Paris is the reason why I’m in the points game – it opens doors I’d never normally be able to walk through.

That’s why I just applied for both the personal and business versions of the Starwood American Express card while the current 30,000-point bonus is still live. Remember, it ends today, so if you’ve been thinking about getting into the Starwood game, now is a great time to apply for either or both of these cards!

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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