The Marriott-SPG Merger Paves Way For Australians To Get United MileagePlus Via Amex MR: 38k Amex = 25k United


OK this is an eco-tourism blog so I don’t keep up with all the issues regarding elite status and 5 star hotels.  I prefer smaller independent hotels & eco-lodges.  But what I do need is airline miles to get to those amazing birding hotspots preferably through ordinary everyday spending.

The most popular program in Australia is American Express Membership Rewards and most Aussies in The Hobby are familiar with 40,000 Amex MR = 20,000 SPG = 25,000 AA or other SPG partner airline miles.  You can earn up to 3x MR per AUD (Amex Edge supermarket spend) which equates to 1.5 SPG per AUD.  Normal un-bonused spend gets 1 MR per AUD which equates to .5 SPG per AUD.

There is usually a lucrative promo in August or September to get 20% bonus when transferring to AA so you end up with 40,000 Amex = 20,000 SPG = 30,000 AA.


The one elusive program for Aussies has always been United MileagePlus as the SPG ratio is 2:1 rather than 1:1 plus bonus 5000 for transferring 20,000 SPG points.

Since the Marriott-SPG merger went through yesterday, they have released details of how to link your Marriott & SPG accounts.  You can transfer back and forth at the rate of 1 SPG = 3 Marriott.

The sweet spot for airline miles collectors is the preferred rates Marriott has with United Airlines.  (HT: Dan’s Deals for this section).


As you can see from the image, you can exchange 56,000 Marriott for 25,000 United MileagePlus.

With the new merger, that means that you can now transfer 38,000 Amex MR to 19,000 SPG which will get you 57,000 Marriott; that you can transfer into 25,000 United Mileage Plus with 1000 Marriott left over.


Don’t forget that you can also transfer Australian Amex MR to Singapore Krisflyer at 1:1 but SQ does have pretty hefty YQ “fuel” surcharges whereas United doesn’t have this surcharge.  So if you are after a Star Alliance award, you need to weigh up your options on the SQ and UA award charts and see if the cheaper transfer rate directly to SQ is better or if you would rather spend more Amex MR to save the “fuel” surcharges.


Amex 40,000 = 25,000 AA or other SPG partner in batches of 20k SPG

Amex 38,000 = 25,000 UA via SPG/Marriott

Amex 40,000 = 40,000 SQ (or VA, CX, MH, EK, EY).  But watch the surcharges!


We still don’t know how long Marriott will keep SPG as a separate program.  We also don’t know if the Australian Amex MR will partner with Marriott if/when SPG disappears.  Conventional wisdom says the full integration of SPG to Marriott should happen around 2018 and we would be given fair notice so we can do any last transfers required.

Breaking News – Marriott To Acquire Starwood

You may be wondering why people reading an eco-tourism blog care about luxury hotel chain mergers?  In this case, it’s not about the hotels or the elite status.  It’s concern over what will happen to the highly valuable transfer to airline miles with the 5k bonus if you transfer 20k SPG that has me worried.

The deal is expected to close in mid-2016, the companies said.

Forewarned is forearmed.  Full story here.  Worst case scenario is that the SPG program goes away and is absorbed into Marriott Rewards and we lose the transfer option – at those rates anyway.

We have time so no need to rush into anything but if you have been counting on SPG to get the miles you need for a specific trip you may have to prioritize those miles.  I know just this year I had to use the SPG option to top up LAN for a one-off redemption to the Galapagos.

For Aussies (unless you are a dual citizen and can get USA credit cards), if SPG goes away, so does our chance to get miles in AAdvantage, British Airways and Flying Blue.  That’s just from my list of Top 8 Airline Miles programs.

The Sky Didn’t Fall After All

This is a follow-up to my post from the other day.  After much speculation in FlyerTalk over the mysterious tweet from United, the cat has been let out of the bag.  It’s a partnership with Marriott Hotels.  A big yawn for me personally as they don’t have many hotels in destinations frequented by eco-tourists.  I would have preferred a partnership with IHG hotels as they have a much larger global network.  At least there were no devalutions though I didn’t think there would be.  The people who rushed to burn their UA miles must be feeling pretty foolish.  Here’s the details of the new program.

Two global travel leaders, one great experience.

Enjoy RewardsPlus from MileagePlus and Marriott Rewards


We appreciate your loyalty to United® – and now your MileagePlus Premier® recognition and benefits just got better. Together MileagePlus® and Marriott Rewards® bring you RewardsPlus, a new program with enhanced benefits.

Premier Gold, Premier Platinum, Premier 1K® and Global ServicesSM members can now register for RewardsPlus and enjoy complimentary Marriott Rewards Gold Elite status and benefits. Also, all Premier members will be able to convert MileagePlus award miles into Marriott Rewards points at an exceptional rate, and all MileagePlus members will be able to enjoy greater value when they convert Marriott Rewards points into MileagePlus miles.

Marriott Rewards Members: Learn more about RewardsPlus benefits for Marriott Rewards Members.

Marriott Rewards Gold Elite status gives you:*

  • Lounge access and breakfast at select Marriott locations
  • Room upgrades
  • Complimentary Internet access
  • Priority late check-out
  • 25% bonus points and much more

Enhanced miles and points benefits coming soon:

  • Premier members can convert miles into Marriott Rewards points at a 1:1 ratio
  • Enjoy a 20% discount when you convert Marriott Rewards points into MileagePlus miles
  • Book the trip of a lifetime and receive 10% more miles when you convert to a Marriott Rewards Travel Package, a bonus of up to 12,000 miles

Hotel Point Earning Credit Cards USA Edition And Best Uses for Eco-Travelers

This is a continuation of the Mileage Earning Credit Card post.  General advice for Americans about credit cards can be found there.



Generally speaking, hotel point earning credit cards will be less valuable for eco-travelers than for mainstream tourists looking for elite status and 5 star accommodations.  The eco-lodges we are seeking won’t be affiliated with any of these programs.  There are a couple of good uses of hotel points.

  • Stays at gateway hotels in your departure city or the gateway city from where you will travel on to the rainforest, savannah or other habitat.
  • Hotel points can be converted into airline miles to top up your accounts so you can get a free ticket faster and signup bonuses really speed this along.

Here are my recommendations:

1.  Club Carlson Visa (blogged about here):  Issued by US Bank, several versions so choose the one that suits you best and you could get at least 2 free nights at any Club Carlson hotel.  My main interest in this card is the 50k after any first spend and second award night free so I will probably go for the Visa Signature in my next app-o-rama.  They have fairly decent transfer rates to airline miles and you can choose from 20 airline programs.  The best ones for eco-travelers are AA, BA, DL, UA and US.

2,000 points 250 miles
50,000 points 8,000 miles
100,000 points 18,000 miles

2. Priority Club Visa:   Issued by Chase, signup bonus is currently 60k after $1000 spend.  Historically, it’s gone as high as 80k with no minimum spend but all the Chase cards seem to have at least a $1000 in 3 month spend these days.  Annual fee of $49 is waived the first year but you get a free night certificate each year starting on your first anniversary so this card is well worth keeping.  I’m into my 3rd year with this card and have redeemed my free night at hotels that range between $160 and $230 a night.  Transfer rates to airlines are a flat 10k PC = 2k airline miles and their partners include AA, BA, DL, QF, SQ, US, UA, and DJ.

3.  SPG American Express:  Issued by American Express, signup bonus is usually 25k of which you get 10k after first spend and 15k after spending $5000 within 6 months.  They occasionally have specials where you get a total of 30k of which 20k requires the 5k spend.  Annual fee $65, waived first year.  Best values are Cash and Points redemptions which give a huge savings on regular hotel rates with fewer points than an outright free night redemption.  SPG has an amazing transfer program which is usually 1 SPG = 1 airline mile but if you transfer 20k, you get a bonus of 5k.  LOTS of partners but best ones for eco-travelers are AA, BA, DL, SQ and US.  In this case, UA is not a good option as the rate is only 2 SPG = 1 UA.

4.  Hilton Honors (several cards):  Hilton has cards issued by Citibank and Amex.  The Citicards have free night certificates or 40k sign up bonus and come in $95 annual fee/no annual fee versions.  The Amex cards give you 40k signup bonus  and come in $75 annual fee/no annual fee.  Minimum spends are between $750-$3000 in 3 months so you really need to compare all the cards on their site.  Transfer rates to airlines are very poor:  10k HH = 850 airline so only get  these cards if you want to use them for hotel rooms.

5.  Marriott Rewards Visa:  Reviewed by me and I can get you a nice bonus if you let me refer you to join Marriott Rewards.  See details on this post.  Issued by Chase, signup bonus 50k and one free night at Cat 1-4 after $1000 spend in 3 months.  Historical high 70k.  Annual fee $85 waived first year, and you receive an anniversary bonus of one free night stay at a Category
1-5 hotel every year.  Transfer rates to airlines is somewhat complicated so best to see it on their site.    AA is not a partner but eco-travelers may be interested in BA, UA, US, GOL (Brazil domestic flights), Avianca-Taca, LAN, Qantas.

6.  Hyatt Gold Passport Visa:  Issued by Chase, signup bonus is 2 free nights at any Hyatt worldwide after $1000 spend in 3 months.   People seem to find the best value in either Sydney or various European properties so limited usefulness to eco-travelers.  You get free night certificates, not points so you can’t use this signup bonus to transfer to airlines.

7.  Wyndham Rewards Visa:  Issued by Barclays, sign up bonus currently 16k, historical high 30k, no minimum spend, just “first purchase”.  Good transfer rates to airlines.  Wyndham properties are usually reasonably priced so I would just pay for hotels and transfer these points to an airline.  Rates are 8k Wyndham = 3200 airline, 17,500 Wyndham = 7000 airline, 30k Wyndham = 12k airline.  Best partners for eco-travelers:  AA, DL, UA, US.

8.  Choice Privileges Visa:  Issued by Barclays, sign up bonus 8k first spend, + 24k after using the card to pay for a stay at a Choice hotel.  No annual fee.  Transfers to airlines 5k Choice = 1k airline, partners include AA, DL, UA, US.

9.  Best Western MasterCard:  Issued by Barclays, signup bonus 16k after first spend, no annual fee.  Transfers to airlines 5k Choice = 1k airline, partners include AA, DL, US and Avianca LifeMiles.

I have put these credit cards in roughly the order of which I think they have value to eco-travelers.  People seeking elite status or stays at European and North American city properties would most likely prioritize cards in a different order.  If the SPG card didn’t have such a high spend requirement, I would have put it first but $5000 could be a challenge.  Please feel free to ask questions in the comments below.

Flexible Points Credit Cards

Best Marriott Hotels For Eco-Travelers And 2000 Free Points

Using hotel points strategically can save you a lot of money in gateway cities so it’s a good idea to study them carefully to see which programs can best suit your travel plans.  This week, let’s look at the Marriott chain.  They have 3840 hotels around the world.  If you are a business traveler, you may already be getting free points from you employer-paid trips.  Lucky Americans can get a LOT of free points with the Chase Marriott Visa Card (not an affiliate link, just information) and meeting planners can get 50,000 points by planning a meeting at a Marriott Hotel.

Award nights start at 6000 points for a “Pointsaver” at a Category 1 hotel (which are pretty rare).  Marriott has a referral program by which members can earn up to 50,000 points per year by referring others to the program.  You can only do this 5 times per year so only give your referrals to people whom you know are going to stay at a Marriott within a year.  I still have my 5 referrals for this year so I would be glad to refer new members,  just use the Contact Form to send me your email and I will send you an invitation.  Once you are a member, you will then be able to invite 5 people on your own account!

OK, so how do we find the best options for eco-travelers?  Let’s have a look at the hotel directory and see what places have a Marriott property.  Most birders will be drawn to tropical places in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australia.


AFRICA – Out of these 4 countries, Rwanda would possibly have some birding including a couple Poicephalus species but it’s much better known for the mountain gorillas……but keep an eye on the safety issues in Rwanda.

ASIA – India has some good possibilities.  From Bangalore you can get to Coorg where there are Malabar Parakeets and others, same goes for Kochi which is near Thattekad.   From Jaipur, you can get to Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary which has both endemic and migrating birds.  Indonesia is mostly resorts in Bali or city hotels that would do for gateway cities to other birding hot spots like West Papua and Seram.  You would pass through Manila to get to Palawan for Red-Vented Cockatoos or Subic Bay for Philippine Hanging Parrots.  Singapore has good birding in the Botanical Gardens which makes a nice detour from a shopping or business trip.  There are also good birding spots in Thailand and Malaysia.

AUSTRALIA AND PACIFIC ISLANDS – From Brisbane, you could make the long but worthwhile drive to Bowra Station or Lamington National Park which could also be accessed from Surfers Paradise.  From Melbourne, you could head up into the Dandenongs.

CARIBBEAN – Of these places, Aruba, Cayman Islands, Domincan Republic, Jamaica, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela all have good birding.

CENTRAL AMERICA – there are 6 Marriotts in Costa Rica and 5 in Panama.  As I wrote in the Carlson Hotel, Panama post, there is the Soberania NP and Metropolitan NP both in less than an hour’s drive from the city.  In Costa Rica, San Jose is the gateway to great birding destinations like Selva Verde, Arenal, Monteverde and Savegre.  Herradura is not too far from Carara NP, famous for Scarlet Macaws and Guanacaste also has great birding!

SOUTH AMERICA – all the Marriotts are in large gateway cities which will come in handy as the birding and ecotourism destinations are pretty far flung, requiring domestic flights or buses to reach.

The one thing for sure is that you can save a bundle if you use hotel points in the right places but you do have to be a good planner and maximize any other hotel stays you may have with business or family trips to save points for your big eco-adventure!