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Comparing Travel Credit Cards: Starwood American Express vs. Chase Sapphire Preferred

August 2, 2016
Credit Cards, Travel Credit Cards
Comparing Travel Credit Cards: Starwood American Express vs. Chase Sapphire Preferred
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We adhere to strict standards of editorial integrity. Some of the products we feature are from our partners. Here’s how we make money.

This page is out of date

With Marriott combining the Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest loyalty programs, this page is out of date. See our details pages for the Marriott Rewards® Premier Plus Credit Card and the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express for updated offers on these cards.

It’s the classic question for people who like to carry a travel credit card: Should you go with a general travel card with rewards that can be used just about anywhere, or a co-branded card that gives you more rewards but limits them to just one hotel chain or airline?

That’s the backdrop for comparing two of our favorite cards: the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express.

If you want an all-purpose travel card

The Nerds recommend the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card all the time. It offers 2 points per $1 spent on travel and dining out and 1 point per $1 on everything else.

NerdWallet values Chase Ultimate Rewards Points at 1 cent apiece if redeemed for cash or 1.25 cents for travel. That means travel and dining purchases will net you rewards worth 2 to 2.5 cents per $1 spent.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card has a very juicy sign-up bonus: Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.

It has an $0 for the first year, then $95. And like any travel card worth its salt, it doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, making it a good one to use during overseas travel.

Although the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card isn’t co-branded, it lets you transfer your rewards points to several airlines and hotel chains. But you get the 1.25-cents-per-point maximum value only when you redeem points for travel by booking directly through Chase.

» MORE: Full review of the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

If you frequently stay at Starwood hotels

At first glance, the rewards offered by the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express don’t seem quite as good as the ones offered by the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, because there are no bonuses for restaurant spending. That means you’ll only get a higher rewards rate when you’re traveling. You’ll earn up to 5 Starpoints per dollar on purchases at participating SPG hotels, 2 Starpoints per dollar at Marriott Rewards properties, and 1 Starpoint per dollar on all other purchases.

But once again, the magic is in the value of the points. The Nerds value Starpoints at 2.3 cents each. Even purchases that earn only 1 Starpoint per dollar pay you a rewards rate of 2.3%.

To get the full 5 Starpoints per dollar on stays at Starwood hotels — including Westin, Sheraton, and W Hotels — you need to achieve elite status, earned with a minimum of 25 nightly stays. To get this card’s maximum benefits, you need to be a frequent hotel guest.

Like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express has a very attractive sign-up bonus: Earn 75,000 Bonus Points after you use your new Card to make $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months. Terms Apply.

The two cards’ annual fees are also comparable. The Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express’s annual fee is $0 for the first year, then $95. There are no foreign transaction fees.

You can also transfer Starpoints to other rewards programs. In fact, the transfer options for frequent flyer programs are much broader than those offered by the Chase Ultimate Rewards program.

» MORE: See the full list of transfer partners in our Starpoints review

Which one is better for you?

The right choice really comes down to how frequently you stay at Starwood hotels. There’s no question that the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express is a great deal for frequent travelers who like Starwood’s properties, which skew toward the higher end. If your airline of choice is a transfer partner, you have even more options for redeeming the points. But there’s talk of a merger with Marriott, leaving some question about the future of the program.

If you don’t mind booking your travel through Chase’s tool and want a higher rewards rate on your restaurant spending, even when you’re not on the road, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card might be a better option.

Both cards offer excellent rewards and large sign-up bonuses in exchange for reasonable annual fees. No matter which you choose, you really can’t go wrong if you use the card as intended.

Virginia C. McGuire is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: virginia@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @vcmcguire.