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Travel Credit Card Review: Starwood Preferred Guest

Do you like to travel? Then you probably like earning credit card benefits that allow you to travel more. From award flights to free hotel stays, there are quite a few options when it comes to credit cards with travel perks.

About a decade ago, Starwood Preferred Guest— the popular frequent traveler program of Starwood Hotels and Resorts — joined forces with American Express to launch it's Starwood Preferred Guest credit card. In addition to points already earned with each Starwood hotel stay, consumers could now rack up additional Starpoints at a faster clip.

Most expensive hotel in the world

The Starwood Preferred Guest credit card by American Express, also known as the SPG AmEx or SPG card, allows cardholders to earn points toward free stays at hotels and resorts within the extensive Starwood portfolio. The welcome bonus offer gives cardholders an extra 25,000 Starpoints when they ring up at least $3,000 in purchases within the first three months of getting the card.

What can 25,000 Starpoints get you? They add up to two free nights (hello, weekend getaway!) at a category four hotel (there are seven categories of hotels and resorts within the Starwood portfolio throughout the world). In the U.S. alone, there are 210 category four hotels to choose from, including properties within the Westin, Aloft, Element, Sheraton, and Four Points brands.

Your points can stretch further if you choose a more affordable hotel in a lower category; on the other hand, you'll need more points to book a more luxurious stay. That's one of the things consumers love about Starwood: its hotel portfolio runs the gamut between affordable to family friendly to high-end exclusive.

While there are other travel credit cards out there, the SPG AmEx card is even more attractive thanks to Starwood's merger with Marriott. So if you were reluctant to open a hotel credit card because of having to stay exclusively with one hotel chain, you've got more options now.

The types of cardholders who would benefit the most from the SPG card are frequent travelers, those who are loyal to the Starwood (and now Marriott) brand, and those who wish to use everyday purchases to boost travel benefits.

6 things you should know about the Starwood Preferred

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    Guest American Express card: Couple the card with your Starwood Preferred Membership to earn up to 5 points per dollar on qualified purchases.

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    Everyday purchases on your SPG AmEx will earn you one point for every dollar you spend.

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    Your Starpoints will not expire as long as your SPG card is active. If you stop using your card, you risk losing your points after a certain point.

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    The 2016 Starwood/Marriott merger means that you can use Starpoints at hotels in the Marriott portfolio — though you can't earn Starpoints in the Marriott reward universe at this time.

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    You can transfer your Starpoints to over 30 frequent flyer programs, most of which are at a 1-to-1 point ratio.

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    You must book your hotel stays through the Starwood hotel website in order to use your points. Transactions made on third-party sites like Expedia will NOT get you any Starpoints.

For fans of Starwood hotels, the SPG American Express card is an easy choice. Not only can you earn points when you book Starwood hotels and make onsite purchases, but you can also accumulate points toward your next vacation when you make everyday purchases with your card.

Keep reading for an in-depth review of the Starwood Preferred Guest credit card. We'll help you decide whether this card is right for your budget and your travel needs.

Strengths

Starwood preferred guest credit card strengths

When you couple the SPG AmEx card with the SPG loyalty program itself, you've got yourself a winning strategy for earning travel points. Here are a few reasons SPG cardholders love their card:

One of the best travel rewards cards out there

Rewards more than make up for the modest annual fee. Rich M, a commenter on WalletHub, is a big fan of the SPG American Express card: "One of the best travel rewards cards out there," he wrote. "Excellent sign-up bonus and absolutely spectacular rewards program when redeemed for flights or Starwood hotel properties…The small annual fee is nothing in comparison to what you'll earn by using this at Starwood resorts."

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Frequent travelers love it. According to Jason Steele, who writes about credit cards for WiseBread, sings the praises of the card: "Since I learned how to use credit card rewards to travel the world, the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express has been my favorite product, hands down."

Use points flexible. Whether you book Starwood hotels with your points or transfer them to airline miles, you've got options. The MileCards blog notes, however, that it's easier to use SPG points toward hotel stays than it is for booking flights. After all, it's easier to book one or two hotel rooms for a family of four than it is to reserve four seats on the same awards flight.

Weaknesses

Starwood preferred guest credit card's weaknesses

With 11 hotel brands to choose from in the SPG portfolio, users will be hard pressed not to find a hotel that suits their needs. However, budget-conscious travelers may follow the bargain instead of their loyalty, regardless of whether they have an SPG credit card.

An unclear future for the SPG program. Even with the Marriott merger, you won't get extra points when you use your SPG card to book stays within the Marriott portfolio. Of course, you can transfer SPG points to Marriott, and while there is talk about merging the two programs, it looks like there won't be a definitive answer on this topic until next year.

The Million Mile Secrets blog notes a potential deal-breaker for United or Southwest fans: If you belong to a frequent flyer program with either airline, thanks (or rather, no thanks) to the 2:1 ratio of Starpoints to United or Southwest points. However, the not-so-secretive team does have a workaround, if you've got some patience—transfer your StarPoints to Marriott points, then switch those to United for a better deal.

Budget travelers beware. Kelly Dilworth wrote on the CreditCards.com blog that the SPG card is definitely not a good choice for budget travelers. Dilworth says that in order to make the most of earning points, travelers need to stay at the high-end Starwood properties — something that's definitely not in the cards for budget travelers.

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There are more flexible options. The Upgraded Points blog notes that other cards have more flexibility with using points than the SPG card. In particular, you have to book directly through the hotel website in order to get the points. This means that you may have to give up other coupon codes in order to use your points.

Regular SPG membership isn't much different. Nick Ewen of The Points Guy notes that as you advance in status as an SPG member, you are granted the same benefits of the SPG card, regardless of whether you have one.

Limited acceptance, especially internationally. Compared to Visa and Mastercard, Amex is notorious for its high processing fees, and thus limited acceptance amongst retailers.

Competition

Starwood Preferred Guest credit card's competition

If you are a Starwood loyalist, then it's easy to see past the competition of other hotel reward credit cards, like those for Hyatt, Marriott, and Ritz-Carlton. Again, it remains to be seen what will happen if and when Marriott and Starwood merge their programs.

Even though the $95 fee is a fraction of other annual fees (Chase Sapphire Reserve and American Express Platinum charge $450 after the first year), it is still too much for many cardholders.

Not a fan of heights?

One commenter named Josh noted his frustration with the SPG credit card on The Points Guy: "I still don't understand why they don't let their branded cardholders enjoy automatic Gold status. Hyatt's card gives me Platinum status. I get Gold status through my AmEx Platinum card. I don't see a reason to sign up for this card without that perk unless there was a particularly lucrative sign-on bonus."

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The Good point, Josh! While the SPG card gives you a bump toward the next level status each year, you start off at the same status level as people without the card. While the card does advance you toward the next level of SPG status, it does not give you any free annual stays, as other hotel cards do. The lack of this particular perk was enough for Credit Card Forum to give the card four instead of five stars.

Credit Donkey also noted that there is no automatic elite status granted to cardholders, which is a perk sorely missing from this card.

It's also worth noting that while 1,300 Starwood properties seem like a lot, it's just a drop in the bucket compared to the IHG portfolio, which offers more than 4,000 worldwide properties. (In fact, the IHG card by Chase has a much better sign-on bonus and a much lower annual fee—just $49, which is waived the first year.)

Chase Sapphire Preferred is the big competitor in the field of travel credit cards. You earn 2 points on all travel and restaurant purchases, so you can really rack up points to be used for any hotel or airline without blackout dates.

Additionally, there are plenty of cash-back cards with no annual fee. If you're diligent about saving for a vacation, you can use your cash back to travel.

Consumer Complaints

Biggest consumer complaints

There are a few drawbacks to the SPG credit card:

Not all airlines offer a 1-to-1 point ratio. SPG cardholders lose out if they are active members of Southwest or United's frequent flyer programs. With a 2-to-1 point ratio, you'll have to earn twice the amount of SPG points if you want to transfer them for flights on either airline.

The annual fee is $95. Hands down, this is one of the biggest consumer complaints about the card. However, if you travel frequently and truly make the most out of your card benefits, the $95 fee per year is basically a wash. In fact, one cardholder named Matt posted this comment on the Frugal Travel Guy: "I've gotten value from the Boingo internet access as well."

Points are credited only after each billing cycle ends. This means that if you plan on using points to pay for that vacation, you'll need to plan far in advance. If you're more of a spontaneous traveler, this card might not be the best match for your needs, but you could get lucky.

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On The Points Guy blog, vbscript2 left this comment about points posting to your account: "I'm pretty sure there have been cases where I've gotten a sign-up bonus within a day or two of hitting the spending requirement with AmEx, even when the statement closing was still weeks away. It is kind of funny, though, that AmEx posts SPG and Delta award point much faster than it posts its own award points."

AmEx isn't accepted everywhere. While more than one million additional retail outlets signed on in 2016 to accept AmEx, the card still isn't as widespread as Visa or MasterCard becauseAmerican Express charges merchants higher transaction fees.

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The Washington Post covered this topic previously, and one commenter named thanx had this to say: "I always had excellent service from Amex, but in the course of my last several trips overseas I found that merchants would accept it only if pressed. Several refused it altogether, accepting only Visa or MC. This is all due to Amex's higher merchant fees: something the company would do well to reconsider."

The easy fix is to keep a secondary card handy, especially when you travel. If you're looking to whittle down your credit options to just one card in your wallet, though, this might not be the right one for you.

History & About the Card

History of Starwood Preferred Guest credit card

While the SPG credit card debuted over a decade ago, Starwood itself got its start in 1991 as a real estate holding company called Starwood Capital Partners based in Chicago. The company branched out into hotels in 1993 and owned 30 properties by the following year.

Currently, Starwood has 11 brands in over 100 countries, including St. Regis, The Luxury Hotels, W Hotels, Westin, Sheraton, Le Meridien, Tribute Portfolio, Design Hotels, Aloft, Four Points, and element.

All told, there are 2,111 hotels representing the Starwood brand throughout the world: 927 in North America (over 700 in the U.S.), 634 in Asia-Pacific, 71 in Central and South America, 308 in Europe, 98 in the Middle East, and 15 in the Caribbean.

Starwood merged with Marriott in 2016 for an even heftier portfolio of resorts and hotel properties. Currently, you cannot use your SPG card to accumulate points for a Marriott reward, though you can use your Starpoints for Marriott stays.

More news about the potential merger of the two loyalty programs will likely be announced some time in 2018.

What does the card offer consumers?

What Starwood Preferred Guest credit card sells and does

The Starwood Preferred Guest program was ranked #11 on U.S. News and World Report's list of Best Hotel Rewards Programs. In addition to earning points, the program offers a 5th-night free promotion, so your wallet will let you linger longer on vacation. Like other loyalty programs, it's not necessary to have a branded credit card to earn points, but the SPG card will certainly help you add points more quickly.

If you've steered clear of American Express charge cards in the past, know that the SPG card is a credit card — which means you can carry a balance from month to month. Of course, you have to deal with paying interest on that balance, just like any other credit card, but the SPG card offers a variable interest rate (16.24-20.24%) on purchases depending on your credit worthiness.

To access all the perks of the SPG credit card, cardholders pay an annual fee of $95, which is waived for the first year.

If you're looking to initiate a balance transfer with the opening of the AmEx SPG card, you might want to reconsider. There are no 0% transfer offers — in fact, you'll not only pay a balance transfer fee (either $5 or 3%, whichever is greater), but you'll pay the same interest rate as you would on purchases.

Cash advances come at a hefty 26.24%. As mentioned earlier, while you can carry a balance, we advise paying at least the minimum payment on time every month — otherwise, AmEx will charge you a whopping 29.9% penalty APR.

What do people love the most?

Variety is the spice of life, and this is certainly true when it comes to booking a vacation. Frequent travelers like Starwood and the SPG program because there are affordable hotel options like Sheraton and Four Points, mid-range options like the W and Westin, and high-end choices like The St. Regis.

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One Wallethub commenter who goes by "trial" had this to say about her SPG card: "This is my most used card. Amex, in general, has awesome customer service and have been very secure by notifying me when they notice odd charges."

What do people hate about the company?

The biggest consumer gripe about the SPG card (and AmEx in general) is the annual fee. This complaint usually comes from occasional travelers, as frequent travelers usually accumulate enough travel benefits to offset the $95 annual fee.

The annual fee was raised a couple of years ago along with the removal of foreign transaction fees. For a travel card, this perk was a long time coming for many cardholders — but sullied by the $30 increase in the yearly fee.

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Even a loyal fan like Jim T faced a dilemma over keeping his card, which he explained in a review of The Points Guy: "The AMEX SPG credit card was my first travel card because of the point value, a relatively transparent point program, loyalty program flexibility, overall returns that could exceed 2% cash back cards, and upscale Starwood Hotels. I am saddened to be contemplating dropping the card in September."

Main Products & Services

The Starwood Preferred Guest credit card with American Express offers both a consumer card and a business card that help cardholders earn points with any Starwood hotel stay as well as everyday purchases.

Consumer SPG card

Consumer SPG card

  • Earn Starpoints. Earn up to 5 Starpoints for every $1 spent on purchases at Starwood properties. Thanks to a merger with Marriott, you can also earn 2 Starpoints® for every dollar spent at Marriott properties.
  • Earn free nights. Trade your points in for free stays at over 1,300 hotels in over 100 countries. You can book, but some hotels may charge service or hotel and resort fees.
  • Complimentary Wi-Fi. Get free in-room Wi-Fi at participating Starwood hotels. You can also enroll in the Boingo American Express Preferred Plan to get unlimited internet access on up to four devices at over a million hotspots worldwide.
  • No foreign transaction fees. The SPG card doesn't charge any foreign transaction fees when you swipe your card abroad. (Traveler tip: Choose the local currency if given the option at the point of transaction. Otherwise, you will be charged a dynamic currency conversion fee, which can set you back some serious cash.)
  • Purchase protection. Protect eligible purchase from accidental damage or theft for up to 90 days from the purchase date. (Exclusions apply, so be sure to read the fine print.)
  • Achieve Elite status faster. Each year that you are a card member, you'll get credit for five nights and two stays toward SPG Elite status. (Gold status is 20 more nights away and Platinum status is 45 more nights away, both to be earned within the calendar year.) Keep in mind that a night means one night spent at a hotel, while a stay means the time span between check in and check out (which could mean multiple nights).
  • 24/7 customer service. You can speak with a representative whenever you have questions about your card and/or travel benefits.
  • Variable APR based on credit worthiness. Expect between 16.24 and 20.24% APR on purchases, unless you pay off your balance in full each month. (Note that there is a high penalty APR should you miss a payment.)

Business card

Business card

The Business SPG card offers all of the perks mentioned above for consumers, plus access to the Sheraton Club Room. The APR for the business card is 16.24, 18.24, or 20.24 % based on your credit worthiness.

MasterCard and Visa take the cake when it comes to being able to use your card virtually everywhere, but American Express is still widely accepted. In fact, in 2016 alone, over a million more retailers signed on to accept American Express, so you have more chances to use your card and rack up SPG points on everyday purchases.

Both cards uphold American Express' famous slogan, "Membership has its privileges." Here's what it's like to be a cardholder:

Benefits

Reward travel. There's a good chance that you're already an SPG member if you've signed up for the AmEx card. Now, you can use your card for everyday purchases and earn points toward your next vacation.

Shopping. Everyday purchases accrue one Starpoint per every dollar, so shop 'til you drop — then go on vacation.

Entertainment. American Express is known for its entertainment perks, like exclusive concert pre-sales and premium seats at Broadway shows. Sign up for the SPG card and you're in!

No foreign transaction fees. None! Be sure to pack your SPG card when you travel abroad!

Fees

Cost of membership. The annual fee is $95 (waived the first year). There are plenty of cards with no annual fee, and there are others with fees nearly five times this (Chase Sapphire Preferred and American Express Platinum come to mind.)

Sign up bonus. There are low or 0% introductory rates with the SPG card, but there is that nifty 25,000 point bonus when you spend $3,000 over three months. It equates to 2 nights free at select Starwood hotels. Here's an idea: Use your new card to book a vacation and you can score points toward another one!

The Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan in Japan

APR rate. Your rate on purchases and balance transfers will vary depending on your credit worthiness. Expect between 16.24 and 20.24% — but of course, there's no interest charged when you pay your card in full.

Late fees. Late or returned payments get hit with a fee up to $38. Better pay off your balance as soon as possible, otherwise, you'll get penalized with a 29.9% interest rate on any new charges to your card.

Redeeming points

You might have signed up initially for the hotel perks, but your Starpoints can be redeemed for a variety of travel and entertainment options.

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Hotels. Book free rooms and get upgrades through the Starwood site.

Flights. Transfer points to more than 30 airline programs — no blackout dates apply.

SPG Moments. Get the VIP treatment at concerts, games, restaurants, and more.

Donate to charity. Trade your Starpoints in to support people doing good in the world.

Share with family members. Want to pool your points for a family vacation? You can combine Starpoints into one account for easier redemption.

Travel perks abound

This card is all about travel. If you're into traveling, this card will encourage you to do it even more.

If you're choosing a credit card in the hopes of catching the travel bug, then the SPG card is also a good one — especially since you've got free stays available as soon as you hit the $3,000 spend threshold three months out of the gate.

While the initial draw of the card is staying at the Starwood properties themselves, another attractive perk is the ability to transfer points to airline miles. With some exceptions (more on that later), Starpoints can be transferred to dozens of popular frequent flyer miles at a 1-to-1 point ratio.

Want to impress that special someone?

But don't just transfer all your points at once to secure that award flight. Ross Frasier of Credit Donkey offers a clever hack for transferring Starpoints to miles: Transfer miles ONLY in 20,000 increments to make the most of that 5,000 point bump.

For example, if you've got 75,000 points, transfer 20,000 three times (that's 60,000 points) so that you get 15,000 bonus points. Unless you're leaving soon and need those extra 15,000 points, leave them in your account and build them back up to 20,000 so you can transfer again and get the 5,000 point bonus.

Airline miles are a great benefit, but it does take the time to complete the point transfer, though. Pedro Pla, who writes about travel rewards, notes that transferred points take 8-12 weeks to hit your account. Pla's workaround? Just plan your vacation early so that the points are available for you to use.

The value of Starpoints and the SPG card

The credit-savvy folks at Dr. Credit Card place the value of Starpoints at about two to three cents per point. But don't bank on that value for too long. Investment Zen blogger Eric Rosenberg says that the Marriott merger might not bode well for SPG members, so if Starpoints gets absorbed by the Marriott program (Rosenberg thinks it's likely), those points will be far less valuable.

Sarah Silber at The Points Guy wants those on the fence about applying to consider the following lesser-known SPG card perks:

  • Complimentary Boingo hotspots
  • Premium Wi-Fi onsite at Starwood properties
  • Sheraton Club Access (SPG Business Card only)
  • SPG Gold Status when you spend $30,000 in a calendar year
  • Travel protection
  • AmEx cardholder-only events, plus ticket pre-sales and premium seats to concerts and Broadway shows

Website, Apps, and Digital Services

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You can access your American Express account (including multiple cards) using the newly designed dashboard on the AmEx website or the American Express app, available from both iTunes and Google Play.

Paper credit card statements are a bit passé these days, so cardholders use website and app to stay on top of their points and credit card usage in real time. The app is great for on the go, while the site allows for a more in-depth user experience. You can access AmEx customer service through either the app or the website.

Traveling with a four-legged friend? Visit the Fairmont in San Francisco

On SiteJabber, there are mixed reviews regarding AmEx's customer service and website experience. Nathaniel B. loves American Express: "Great card company. Customer service could not be more [helpful]. They never try and sell you anything like other companies. No matter the time or day they are always there to help you out."

Vladimir S., however, doesn't share the AmEx love: "On the last day decided to cash in my rewards - guess what? - the site is not working!!! What do you get from the reps - WELL TRAINED PROFUSED APOLOGY and "0" result and you spend another 30 min on the phone."

Interested in Starwood Preferred Guest credit card?

It's easy to apply online for a Starwood Preferred Guest credit card, and you'll know if you're approved in under a minute. Keep in mind that your credit score will take a temporary but negative hit when you open a new card — it's not advisable to open one if you've got an open mortgage application.

Here's one more thing to think about before you apply: Make sure you'll be able to hit the $3000 spend threshold in the next three months for that 25,000 Starpoint bonus.

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But don't go into debt for that freebie! See what your monthly bills you can switch to your new AmEx for the time being so that you can nab that bonus while staying within your budget.

For example, if you use the SPG card to pay for your monthly car insurance and gas, you could easily spend $200 in the blink of an eye. Add a couple of trips to the grocery store, and you're well on your way to your bonus.

Word of caution here: It's never advised to take out and rack up debt on a credit card just to get a sign-up bonus. Only use a card that you can afford to pay off on a monthly basis, then it's like you're getting a free personal loan each month!

How to close your account for your Starwood Preferred Guest card

If you've decided to take a hiatus from traveling or find that sticking solely with Starwood properties is cramping your style, you can close your SPG card by calling up the customer service on the back of your card.

Before you do, though, it makes sense to either use all of your points or transfers them to airline miles. A quick review of the AmEx website or a call to customer service should clear up the stipulations for using your points. Be sure to read the fine print, though—your points will expire if you let your AmEx card go inactive for more than 12 months.

FAQ

Q: What credit score do I need to get approved for a Starwood Preferred Guest credit card?

You do need a good credit score to be eligible for the SPG AmEx. The average credit scoreneeded for the card is 743, with 657 as the typical low score for eligibility.

Q: What's the annual fee?

The annual fee, which is waived for the first year, is $95.

Q: Can I carry a balance?

Yes. Unlike American Express charge cards, where you face stiff penalties if you don't pay off the balance in full each month, the SPG AmEx is a credit card. You can carry a balance that is subject to interest, but no penalties for keeping a balance.

Q: What's the APR?

The APR on the Starwood Preferred Guest credit card is 16.24% to 20.24%, depending on your credit worthiness.

Q: Can I do a balance transfer?

Yes, with the same APR as above. The fee is $5 or 3% of the total amount you wish to transfer, whichever is greater.

The Verdict

The verdict on the Starwood Preferred Guest credit card

Frequent travelers will benefit from this card. Those who aspire to travel more can actually do so if they make this their card for everyday purchases. If you check in often at Starwood properties or belong to a frequent flyer program other than Southwest or United, then don't hesitate to apply for this card. The $95 annual fee will pale in comparison to your total savings year after year.

Starwood allows for much latitude with your budget by including both affordable and luxurious offerings. However, if you jump from hotel brand to hotel brand in search of the best travel bargain, then you should probably find another card with more flexible travel perks or a cash-back bonus instead.

On the flip side, if you've bumped up your travel budget to include pricier boutique hotels independent of any credit card or rewards program, you might be happier with a more flexible travel card, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which also carries a $95 annual fee.

Want an out-of-this-world hotel view?

If you are a fan of the Starwood portfolio of hotels, then this card is a no-brainer. Even with the Marriott merger, we're optimistic that both hotel heavyweights will do the right thing by their loyal customers.

If you want a card without an annual fee, there are other options. But if you are willing to overlook an annual fee in light of all of the travel perks you'll get, then the SPG card is worthy of your consideration. Apply and start packing — you've got a vacation to enjoy!

Do you use the Starwood Preferred Guest credit card? How has the card worked out for you? Any great tips (or nightmares) to share with the rest of us? Let us know in the comments below.


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