Thursday, April 9, 2015

Room Upgrades - Points

In about two weeks, my parents and I will be off on our Spring Break in Cancun, Mexico.

I know NYC is starting to warm up, but after this long winter where we didn't get to go away, my father's long overdue for some sunburns.

In my father's annual pursuit to achieve Starwood Platinum status (50 nights or 25 stays every calendar year), we're planning to stay 5 nights at the Westin Lagunamar Ocean Resort in Cancun using our beloved SPG points. As a Category 5 property, the hotel charges 12,000 SPG points per award night.

Since anyone can get the 5th night free on any award stay, we're only paying 48,000 SPG points (4 nights x 12,000 pts/night) for our stay. Given the cash rates were $247 per night, that was a solid redemption of 2.5 cents/SPG point.

For that rate, we were booked into a Studio Villa (400 Square Feet, balcony and kitchenette with two-burner cooktop, microwave oven, dishwasher, coffee maker, toaster, blender and compact refrigerator).

However, the property is one of Starwood's Vacation Network (timeshare) properties. Recall we went through a pretty detailed analysis of the Starwood timeshare proposition in August 2013. But this post isn't about rehashing those details. I only bring it up because Vacation Ownership properties, such as the Westin Lagunamar do not have to comply with requirements of offering the standard Starwood Platinum benefits. For example, there was no guaranteed late check out or complimentary room upgrades.

Given that we're planning to spend a lot of time in the resort, having the additional space of a 1 bedroom suite would be of huge value to my small family.

Here's an example floorplan of a 2-bedroom villa at these timeshares "vacation ownership" properties. The 2-bedroom is actually a studio (red) connected to a 1 bedroom (blue). So while we'd be perfectly fine in the studio, we thought it couldn't hurt to ask in advance if we might get a complimentary upgrade to the 1-bedroom.

So my father emailed the Westin:

"Dear Westin Lagunamar 

I wanted to express our excitement about visiting this property on April XX. While I have been a Starwood Platinum for several years, this is our first time visiting the Westin Lagunamar Ocean Resort. 

 We typically do not stay for extended periods of time, but wanted to make the most of our stay and was hoping that given the Spring Break crowds are finishing this week, if there might be an opportunity for a complimentary villa upgrade to a 1 or 2 bedroom villa to make this stay extra special for us. Looking forward to our visit in a few weeks. Gracias!"

But as we anticipated, we received a polite response declining our request and managing our expectations.

"Dear Mr. Songer: 

Thank you for contact us and your preference. As a villa property, we are unable to offer select SPG® elite member benefits including free upgrades, Suite Night Awards, late check-outs and Your24 and we do not have and executive lounge, but we have an owners lounge open 7:00 am to 9:00 pm daily basis where you can get access and find coffee, tea, water, computer, printer, 2 TV screens, some books and magazines, also, you can enjoy free internet access and you can choose between 500 starpoints additional for your stay or Continental Breakfast for you and 1 of your guest. 

Please feel free to contact us for any further assistance."

So with the advance free upgrade off the table, my family had a few choices.

First, we could just cross our fingers and hope the Westin Lagunamar front desk agent took pity on my adorable little face when we checked in that first day...


we could try to actually secure the upgrade in advance by paying.

So my father called Starwood reservations (not the Lagunamar property itself) and spoke with a reservation agent. She confirmed that we could book directly into a 1 bedroom suite for 5 nights for just an additional 10,000 SPG points...aka 2,000 SPG points a night.


So our regular nightly rate was 9,600 SPG points per night for 5 nights. For a 20% premium, we could upgrade from (a) a standard 400 square foot studio villa to (b) a huge 740 square foot 1-bedroom villa with a 6 person indoor dining table, 4 person outdoor table and a washer/dryer in the villa!

Interestingly enough, the cash price difference between the studio and 1 bedroom on the Starwood website was about $51/night. So our 2,000 SPG upcharge had an implied redemption value of 2.5 cents/point.

That sounded pretty good and was at the exact break-even point where my father would choose between points and cash. In other words, we would have been happy to pay either 2,000 SPG points or $51 in cash for the ability to secure the room upgrade for 5 nights.

And given how easy it is to manufacture 2,000 SPG points (buying a few $500 reload cards with total fees of $15.80), we were looking at a very cheap way to upgrade.

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