Are new benefits worth higher fee on SPG card?

Starwood room le meridien abu dhabiThe Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express (a CreditCardForum advertising partner) has long had a reputation for being a bargain: For a relatively low annual fee ($95), you could earn Starpoints toward free hotel stays – or transfer them to 30 airline partners. The card also throws in progress toward elite status.

On August 11, 2015, however, the annual fee will climb to $95, and cardholders will get some new benefits to consider. Is the card still worth applying for – or keeping?

Your decision will depend on your needs and travel habits, so we can’t answer that question for you — but we can give you a few things to mull over.

What’s changing?

The fee is increasing to $95 (waived the first year), and the following benefits will be added:

  • No more foreign transaction fees: The card used to charge a 2.7 percent fee for overseas purchases. This change makes sense for a travel card and has become a pattern for AmEx – it has also dropped foreign transaction fees on the Premier Rewards Gold card and Delta SkyMiles cards in the past couple years.
  • Complimentary Boingo Wi-Fi: Free Wi-Fi is still a relatively rare credit card perk. And the Boingo American Express Preferred plan is generous. You get unlimited access to Boingo hotspots (1,000,000 worldwide) on up to four devices. If you were to purchase a comparable plan from Boingo, it would cost $39 a month.
  • Complimentary premium in-room Internet: All guests enrolled Starwood Preferred Guest rewards program who booked through Starwood’s website already get free standard internet. The SPG card, however, will bump you up to higher-speed access, which normally would require Gold elite status (which requires 10 eligible stays or 25 eligible nights per year).
  • Sheraton Club Lounge access (For SPG Business Card holders): If you have the business version of the SPG card and booked an eligible rate, you can get into the Sheraton Club Lounges for no additional cost. Normally, you’d need Platinum status or have to use points to get in. Benefits of the lounge include complimentary breakfast, beverages and hors d’oeuvres.

Are the changes worth the higher fee?

This is a complicated question. Reward points have a dollar value you can calculate relatively easily, while the exact value of these new perks is hard to pin down.

To help your decision along, consider the following:

The value of the card, even without the changes: Starpoints fetch a decent value, compared to other hotel points (The Points Guy, for example, values them at 2.4 cents apiece). Then there are the airline transfer partners (more than 30) and the transfer bonus (5,000 Starpoints for every 20,000 points transferred). The Chase Sapphire Preferred, which charges a $95 annual fee (waived the first year), has barely a dozen transfer partners and no transfer bonus – although it has more flexible redemption options, including cash back. You could split hairs all day about this, but, considering the point value and sheer number of airline transfer partners, it’s conceivable that $95 a year isn’t excessive for the SPG card.

How much you’ll use the new perks: Boingo membership may technically be a $39/month value. However, it might not be worth that amount to you if you don’t spend much time in airports or are in an underserved area with few hotspots. Waived foreign transaction fees are worth only as much as you spend on items overseas. Faster in-room Internet and Sheraton lounge access (on the Business version of the card) are more about comfort and convenience than a dollar value.

On the other hand, $30 more a year could be a small price to pay for some nice-to-have perks that benefit frequent travelers and Starwood loyalists.

How often you stay with Starwood: This card is probably the most efficient way to accumulate Starpoints, as it offers 2 points per dollar on stays (in addition to what you’d earn through the Starwood rewards program) and 1 point per dollar on all other spending. True, you can also get Starpoints by transferring Membership Rewards points earned on any American Express card in the MR program, but the value is dismal (1,000 MR points to get 333 Starpoints).

A notable benefit this card does NOT offer (and what other hotel cards with lower annual fees do) is a free anniversary night. If Starwood is your chain of choice, though, Starpoints are a valuable currency – and this card lets you earn them faster.

The bottom line

It may no longer be possible to call this card an absolute steal, as it’s no longer on the lower end of the annual-fee spectrum for hotel cards. But it’s still a good value if you’re a frequent guest at Starwood properties, fly with its transfer partners and travel enough to make the most of the new benefits.

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