The Amex Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card (Amex SPG) has been a favourite in the US for quite some time – but its lustre has been fading as the competition have upped their game.
The popularity of the card has always centred around two things:
- You can convert any Starpoints you earn, by using the card, into miles or points in just about every major airlines’ frequent flyer programe at a 1:1 ratio (there are a few exceptions). On top of this, for every 20,000 Starpoints you transfer, SPG will add a 5,000 point bonus giving you an effective transfer ratio of 1:1.25 – which is very, very good!
- The annual fee, at $65, is one of the lowest annual fees for a major points earning card.
There have, however, always been a few issues with this card:
The biggest issue has been the earning rate. Starwood’s Starpoints aren’t easy to accumulate, even if you’re staying at their hotels.
There are no category bonuses (so no bonus points on dining, travel or any other kind of spend) and the card only earns 2 Starpoints per $ spent at SPG hotels and just 1 Starpoint per $ spent everywhere else. When you compare this to a few other major cards this starts to look miserly.
As if the low earning rate wasn’t bad enough, the card has always come with foreign transaction fees. If you choose to use it abroad you’ll incur a 2.7% fee on top of any spending that you do. When there are so many cards out there that don’t change the foreign transaction fee you’d have to be nuts to use this card when travelling.
This last issue has always annoyed me and has been the primary reason why my spend on this card has been so low over recent years. I do a lot of intentional travel and I have no inclination to give Amex (on any other card issuer) any more of my cash than I have to – so the card stays in my wallet. This gets quite amusing (well, it’s amusing to me) when I occasionally check in to a Starwood property and hand over my Marriott Rewards or IHG credit card (which don’t charge foreign transaction fees – thank you Chase!).
I’ve always though that it’s completely nonsensical for a global hotel chain’s credit card to come with foreign transaction fees but, somehow, Amex has always stuck it out.
But not any more.
To finally get to the point of this blog post, the Amex SPG (USA) credit card is getting a long-overdue overhaul and one of the biggest changes is that, as of 11 August 2015, the foreign transaction fees will be a thing of the past.
This is a serious Hallelujah moment!
All the changes that Amex have announced for the card will come into effect from 11 August 2015 and this is what they’re going to look like:
Bad news first – the annual fee will be increasing from $65 to $95.
Now the positive changes:
- As I already mentioned, the abhorrent foreign transaction fees will disappear.
- The card will come with a complimentary “Unlimited Boingo WiFi” plan
- Card holders will receive free access to premium internet connections (faster connections) when staying at Starwood properties.
If you hold the Business version of the SPG Amex Card you get one more new benefit:
- Amex SPG Business cardholders (and a guest) staying at a Sheraton property will have access to Sheraton Club Lounges.
Do these changes make up for the $30 increase in annual fee?
Removal of the Foreign Transaction Fee – this is great news and it’s about time.
It’s hard to put a value on this improvement because I don’t imagine for a moment that anyone with an ounce of sense ever used this card abroad – the benefits never outweighed the 2.7% fee. Nevertheless this is a serious improvement to the card and, for me, easily the most beneficial. I love Starpoints, I just haven’t been able to earn them quickly enough, but this improvement will see me getting a lot more use out of the card.
Unlimited Boingo Wifi – May be useful to some.
“SPG Credit Card Members will enjoy complimentary, unlimited Wi-Fi access when they enroll in the Boingo American Express Preferred Plan. Receive Wi-Fi access on up to four devices to more than 1,000,000 hotspots worldwide and pay no Wi-Fi roaming fees”
I already have this benefit on another Amex card and I don’t get much use out of it – I tend to surf/email from locations where I have free internet access anyway (hotels) and, in the places I travel too, you don’t have to go far to find a coffee shop with free internet access.
Having said that, clearly Boingo is of use to quite a few people as they’ve made a business out of it. And, if you head to their webpage, the plan that appears to match the one offered with the SPG card costs $59/month! (click image to enlarge).
So, if you happen to be a Boingo user, the SPG card could save you a small fortune. Well, $678/year if you’ve been using Boingo Global.
Faster Internet at Starwood properties – only good if you don’t have SPG status
Starwood Gold and Platinum members already get this benefit, so this will make absolutely no difference to them. If you’re not a Starwood “elite” it will be nice to see your webpages loading quicker but the value you get will depend on just how often you’re staying at Starwood properties.
I’d probably value a faster internet connection at around $5/night (that’s how much more I’d be prepared to pay at the hotel) so, by that measure, 6 nights would see me break even on the annual fee increase if I didn’t have Starwood elite status.
Sheraton Club Lounge Access (Business Card Only) – This is a very nice perk.
Starwood Platinum elites already get this but the rest of us mortals don’t, and that makes this a very nice perk for Amex SPG Business Card holders. Club access comes with free breakfast for you and your guest as well as free drinks and hors d’oeuvres in the evenings. The $30 annual fee increase could be offset in just one stay at a Sheraton and, with Starwood about to spend $100m bringing the Sheraton brand up to scratch, the lounges can only get better.
So, Should You Care?
If you have the regular SPG Amex card you’re only going to be ok with the annual fee increase if you travel and/or need wifi access in areas where you normally struggle to find it. I don’t mind holding on to the card, despite the fee increase, because I’ll get to use it on my travels but this may not be the case for everyone. Check your usage of the card and decide if you travel enough to warrant the increased cost.
If you have the business version of the card then you’ve done quite well. Even if you don’t travel abroad, the lounge access at Sheratons should offset the increase in annual fee within one to two nights. Paying the extra $30/year is as close to a no-brainer as it gets.
It would have been nice to see Amex throw in some bonus spending categories but that would have been a little too much to hope for. As it is I’m just happy to see the foreign transaction fee disappear – let’s hoe this is a sign that Amex will start rolling this out across more of its cards.