Marriott and SPG Merger Masterpost for Disney Travelers

Between now and August, we expect an ongoing flow of news related to the Marriott Rewards and SPG merger. Because Starwood operates two hotels at Walt Disney World, the Swan and the Dolphin, this merger is of particular interest to Disney travelers.

Prior to the merger, the Swan and Dolphin were relatively attractive targets for travel hacking your trip to Walt Disney World. While they did charge resort fees, to which we are adamantly opposed, they also offered relatively impressive redemption rates when using SPG Starpoints. There were times when you could easily get five nights at the Dolphin just by earning a signup bonus on the SPG Amex card.

 The merger of SPG and Marriott Rewards is bringing lots of news for Walt Disney World travelers. We break down what you need to know about the new program!

Since Marriott acquired Starwood, the situation has only improved. As the rewards programs had not yet merged, the situation remained relatively unchanged. The improvement was in the additional ability to transfer Marriott points to SPG Starpoints at a 3:1 ratio. This made earning free nights (except for pesky resort fees) at the Swan and Dolphin even easier.

Now, the Marriott Rewards program and the SPG program are actually merging. The merger is targeted to be completed in August. Currently all indications are this will be, on balance, an acceptable switch for most consumers. As Disney World travelers, though, we're concerned primarily with how just two properties, the Swan and Dolphin, are impacted.

Before we go on, we should clarify that there are other Marriott properties at Walt Disney World, including the SpringHill Suites Orlando Lake Buena Vista and Courtyard Orlando Lake Buena Vista. We're not going much into those now because they will properly be the focus of a separate post down the road. The Swan and Dolphin, with their placement only a short distance from Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and the Boardwalk are obviously worthy of the primary focus of this post.

This post is intended to serve as an ongoing resource between now and August to keep tabs on how the SPG / Marriott Rewards merger is developing. Once August rolls around and the details are finalized and public, we'll be able to update all of our individual pieces of content (card reviews, hacks, etc.).

First, we're going to quickly cover what has changed and what hasn't changed before moving on to the meat of the post, which covers how the merger is developing in a larger sense...

What Has Changed Already...

We've had a few changes already. The SPG Amex (personal and business has had its signup bonus brought down from 25,000 Starpoints to a $200 statement credit. At this point, we advise against getting this card until the bonus is more reasonable.

Second, Marriott has replaced the Marriott Rewards Premier credit card with the Marriott Rewards Premier Plus credit card. The new card has a higher annual fee and improved perks, which we discuss below.

Finally, American Express has announced a new SPG Luxury card, which we again discuss in more detail below.

What Hasn't Changed, And When Things Will Change

As of May 13, 2018, you still earn Marriott points with Marriott cards and SPG Starpoints with SPG cards. You can still transfer these points between programs (3 Marriott points = 1 Starpoint). And you can still only book Marriott hotels with Marriott points and Starwood hotels with Starpoints.

The nightly rates for the hotels in both chains are currently unchanged.

Sometime between now and the end of August, Marriott will announce where all hotels will be priced (in points per night) under the new program. So far they have only told us about a handful of hotels. As you will see, this is actually the announcement we're most anticipating.

Sometime in August, at a date to be specified, your Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, and SPG accounts will be merged, and you'll get 3 points in the new Marriott Rewards program for every one Starpoint you had (the other two programs will convert at a 1:1 ratio).

Sometime in August, presumably at the same date, the new rates will be implemented and you'll be able to book all Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, and Starwood hotels with points through a single system.

Okay. Buried in there is the one big thing we don't know...

We Don't Know How Many Points The Swan And Dolphin Will Cost

This is the biggie. So far, Marriott has only shared the new rates of a handful of hotels. For the most part, it looks like these properties, including some Starwood properties, are being priced at roughly the same amount of points they were before the merger.

The Cautiously Optimistic Case...

Unfortunately, the Swan and Dolphin don't fit neatly into Marriott's new baskets. Prior to the merger of the programs, you needed 10,000 Starpoints or 30,000 Marriott points per night at the Dolphin. You moreover needed 12,000 Starpoints or 36,000 Marriott points per night for the Swan.

Based on the new chart and that small sample size of rates we've seen so far, we might expect the Swan and Dolphin to each cost 35,000 points per night.

If that's the case, it's really great news for Disney travel hackers. It's great to be able to book at 35,000 points instead of 50,000 points, obviously. But the bigger reason why this is a big deal is because five Marriott/SPG credit cards will be offering annual free nights at hotels up to 35,000 points per night.

Too Good To Be True?

If the Swan and Dolphin are in fact priced at 35,000 points per night, then we'll have five credit cards that offer annual free nights at the Swan and Dolphin. This would be amazing.

But this definitely looks like it falls under the "too good to be true" category. If Marriott is giving the hotels a close review, I wouldn't be surprised to see these pushed up into the 50,000 per night bucket.

This would be a huge devaluation for Disney travelers, but there's an obvious reason it might happen, and that's that the overwhelming majority of people who stay at the Swan and Dolphin stay for multiple nights, including five or more nights. Moreover, many come annually or every two to three years.

With free night certificates for 35,000 point nights being handed out for low annual fees of $95, which we discuss more below, it's hard to see Marriott putting themselves into a trap where this hack is just so easy. Yes, someone could use those certificates for any hotel at the 35,000 points threshold. But, without being able to see the actual data, we'd guess there's no single hotel in the Starwood portfolio with the mix of longer stays AND repeat visitors that Swan and Dolphin have.

Marriott Can Address This a Few Ways

It's always possible Marriott will restrict the usage of multiple free night certificates on a single stay, but this isn't something that is commonly done. Then again, having four cards offering free nights isn't a common occurrence. If this doesn't happen immediately, it could happen down the road. It could even be a restriction that applies only to certain hotels.

Another escape route we might see is a restriction on holding multiple of these cards. This gets messy though. Most issuers don't restrict holding both a business and personal card, so you'd still probably be able to get at least two Amex cards and two Chase cards. This isn't likely to be the route Marriott/Chase/Amex take if they think the number of certificates is a problem.

If we're balancing our hopes and pessimistic expectations, we'd think that putting them in the 35,000 points per night bucket while coming up with some sort of restriction on the free nights is a reasonable expectation. But we won't be surprised if they just put the hotels in the 50,000 points bucket.

We Don't Totally Know What Sort of Signup Bonuses to Expect

Credit card signup bonuses are the most cost effective way to earn free hotel stays (except for those pesky resort fees). You sign up for a new card, spend a certain amount in a certain timeframe, and get a buttload of bonus points. It's a very beatable system when good offers are around.

The SPG Amex is currently offering a signup bonus of up to $200 in statement credits. This is awful and certainly won't last. The SPG business Amex offers a similar bonus.

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It's not entirely clear why these bonuses dropped from their standard offering of 25,000 Starpoints, but obviously something about the merger put them on hold. So far, we have no indication when they'll be brought back to reasonable offers. These two cards themselves are sticking around, though.

The Marriott Premier Business card continues to offer 75,000 points for $3000 spend in three months. The old Marriott Premier card doesn't appear to have an ongoing offer (in light of the new card we discuss next).

The new Chase Marriott Premier Plus card will offer 100,000 points for $5000 spend in three months. This is a good offering, in line with the better offerings we saw on the SPG Amex cards in the past.

There Are More Cards Than Ever To Use For Swan and Dolphin Stays

We're not going to break down the details of every card here. More cards means more signup bonuses, which we already discussed above. It also means more opportunities for Disney travelers to earn points they can use to stay at the Swan and Dolphin. Finally, cards that offer routes to elite status offer the chance to get upgrades and special treatment at the Swan and Dolphin.

We'll briefly cover these cards one-by-one, updating this post as we learn more about them. We're not providing all of the details of these cards, just the ones most relevant to our readers. 

Chase Marriott Premier Plus Card

The details of this new card, which replaced the old Marriott Premier card, as we know them so far, are:

  • $95 annual fee
  • Offers 100,000 bonus points for $5000 spend in first three months
  • Earns 2X point per dollar spent and 6X point per dollar spent at Marriott hotels
  • Offers a free night (up to 35,000 points) every cardmember anniversary (not first year!)
  • Comes with Silver status and shorter path to Gold status

Chase Marriott Premier Business Card

This is an old card that will be sticking around. We don't know what will change, but currently, the card offers:

  • $99 annual fee waived first year
  • 75,000 bonus points for $3000 spend in first three months
  • Earns up to 2X point per dollar spent in some categories and 5X point per dollar spent at Marriott hotels
  • Free night (up to category 5) every cardmember anniversary (not first year!)
  • Comes with Silver status and shorter path to Gold status

Amex Starwood Preferred Guest Personal Card

This is the card we currently hold and are fans of. Amex has said it will remain, with the following details:

  • $95 annual fee (waived first year)
  • Unknown future signup bonus (currently up to $200 statement credit)
  • Earns 2X point per dollar spent and 6X point per dollar spent at Marriott hotels
  • Free night (up to 35,000 points) every cardmember anniversary (not first year!)
  • Comes with Silver status and shorter path to Gold status

Amex Starwood Preferred Guest Business Card

The details of this card will be largely similar to the personal card, with some higher earning rates in certain categories. Most readers can treat it as a chance to get a second personal card.

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Amex Starwood Preferred Guest Luxury Card

This is the second new card on our list, and the most expensive. Here's what you'll get with the new Amex SPG Luxury Card:

  • $450 annual fee
  • $300 credit toward Marriott purchases
  • Unknown signup bonus
  • Earns 6X points at Marriott, 2X points on most purchases, and 3X points on some categories
  • Free night (up to 50,000 points) every cardmember anniversary (not first year!)
  • Comes with Gold status and can get Platinum status with $75,000 annual spend

Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Cards

We're just including this card here for the sake of completeness. It's a $450 annual fee card with a $300 annual air travel credit (not applicable to airlines tickets). Unless it gets a free night, the Amex SPG Luxury card is probably the more appealing card for most people. Currently, the unique perk of this card is its offering of three club level upgrades at Ritz-Carlton properties annually.

Fifth Night Free Is Sticking Around

According to very reliable source The Points Guy, you will continue to get your fifth night free when booking four nights with points.

This wouldn't apply to using your annual free nights. That is, you can't get the four cards with free nights and use those every year and get a fifth night free.

Rather you'd use this perk when you have enough points (perhaps from signup bonuses) to book four nights using points. You'd then get the fifth night free.

The only restriction we know so far is that your fifth night must be at the same or lesser rate as your first four. No using the points for four off-peak nights and then getting a peak night for free.

If the Swan and Dolphin get prices at 35,000 per night, you're looking at 140,000 points for five nights at either of those hotels. If they wind up priced in the higher bracket at 50,000 points per night, you're looking at 200,000 points for five nights at either of these hotels.

The Future of Swan and Dolphin Travel Hacking

Obviously if the Swan and Dolphin get put in that 35,000 per night, we're in an awesome situation. Assuming the five cards offer signup bonuses of 50,000 to 100,000 points, we're probably looking at

  • 10 to 15 free nights from the signup bonuses for all five cards (combined)
  • 1 free night for every card you or a partner holds (between $95 and $450 annual fee)

It would be worth getting at least all four sub-$100 cards just to have four nights at the Swan and Dolphin for under $100 per night (plus resort fees). This obviously only works if the free nights can be combined, which we don't have any reason to doubt yet.

If the cards wind up in the 50,000 points per night bracket, things are much worse. The free night from the SPG Amex Luxury card is the only one that works at 50,000 points per night, and that card is a tougher proposition for most people.

Furthermore, the signup bonuses for all five cards combined would probably only get you five to eight or nine free nights. That's definitely not nothing, but it's not as appealing when you add in the annual fees.

Regardless, we're obviously sitting on a big question mark right now. 35,000 points per night versus 50,000 points per night is a huge difference. Until that question gets answered, these hacks are going to be hanging in the balance!

Do you have any questions about the ongoing merger? We'd love to answer them and update our guide!