Marriott and SPG Merger Masterpost for Disney Travelers

Updated July 17, 2018 with Ritz Card changes.

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.

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

Finally, Marriott has announced the new rates for the Swan and Dolphin (and all their other hotels), and they aren't good. More on that below.

What Hasn't Changed, And When Things Will Change

As of June 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 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.

Swan & Dolphin Redemptions Are Getting Crushed

This is a huge blow to Disney travelers. On June 28, Marriott released their new award chart. While about 70% of hotels are going to cost less than they did before, the Swan and Dolphin are going to cost more, moving from 36,000 points up to 50,000.

You'll Need 50,000 Points To Book The Swan Or Dolphin

The Swan and Dolphin are now going to cost 50,000 Marriott points (per night) each beginning in August. That's up from 30,000 for the Dolphin (though it did move up to 36,000 in May 2018) and 36,000 for the Swan. This is a huge blow, but one that we unfortunately began expecting the more we looked into the merger. While we had hoped they'd be placed in the 35,000 points bucket, we also wrote that such a scenario was perhaps too good to be true, and we were right.

This Isn't Just About Your Bottom Line

The 50,000 point cost really stings because five Marriott/SPG credit cards will be offering annual free nights at hotels up to 35,000 points per night. At 50,000 points, the Swan and Dolphin won't be able to enjoy those free nights. Again, this just seemed obvious when we looked at the details of the program, as we wrote:

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.

While we hoped Marriott would deal with this in some other ways by limiting the certificate, they obviously recognized that 30% or so of their hotels were potential issues in this regard (Swan and Dolphin among them) and decided just to up the price.

Before We Move On...You Can Still Act Now!!

We're still seeing space at the old rates if you book now. The merger is still expected to be completed in August, and until then the existing rates should stay available. Until then, the Swan and Dolphin will cost 12,000 Starpoints or 36,000 Marriott points per night.

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

Yes, the 50,000 point requirement per night is annoying and will price these hotels out of most of the free night certificates, but there are going to be plenty of new cards (with signup bonuses!), and that means new ways to earn Swan and Dolphin stays.

We're not going to break down the details of every card here. Do keep in mind that 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 Card

Changes have come to the Ritz-Carlton Rewards credit card that make it worth knowing for Disney fans. Here's how the card will look following the August 26 changes:

  • $450 annual fee
  • $300 air travel credit
  • Unknown Signup Bonus (currently two free Ritz nights)
  • 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
  • Three annual upgrades to club level on Ritz Carlton stays (restrictions apply)

So yea, it looks a lot like the Amex Starwood Preferred Guest Luxury Card. We have this card and will keep it. The $450 annual fee is offset by the $300 air travel credit, which we frequently use toward baggage fees.

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.

In the 50,000 points per night bracket, you're looking at 200,000 points for five nights at the Swan and Dolphin.

The Future of Swan and Dolphin Travel Hacking

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. Still, it would be one free night every year. It won't post until your anniversary, so you'll have to wait a year to earn it.

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

We'll be taking more time to break this down in the coming weeks, and should have everything updated by the time the merger is complete in August.

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