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Maximizing Marriott Rewards for Family Travel

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Today, TPG contributor Jason Steele continues his series on family travel options in the most prevalent hotel brands with a look at Marriott Rewards.

Previously, we looked at several of the major hotel loyalty programs to evaluate how family friendly they are, including Starwood Preferred Guest, Hyatt Gold Passport, and Hilton HHonors. Today I want to look at the Marriott Rewards program, which offers more than 4,000 properties in over 80 countries. In fact, Marriott is one of the largest hotel chains in the world, and includes brands such as Ritz-Carlton, BVLGARI, JW Marriott, and Courtyard hotels.

Marriott's Kaua'i Beach Club, a Vacation Club resort.
Marriott’s Kaua’i Beach Club, a Vacation Club resort.

How Marriott Rewards can work for family travelers

1. Marriott has several brands that cater to families. While many families would love to stay at a Ritz-Carlton, it’s more likely that they”ll go for more reasonably priced properties. Thankfully, Marriott brands include a wide range of price-points such as  Springhill Suites, Fairfield Inn and Suites, and Residence Inn. Hotels that offer suites as standard rooms typically feature enough bedding for a whole family, while extended stay properties that have kitchen amenities help relieve the cost of having to eat out every meal.

2. There are lots of ways to earn Marriott Rewards points. The Marriott Rewards program is one of the oldest hotel loyalty programs, and there are now several ways for members to earn points either with Marriott or in the closely related Ritz-Carlton Rewards program. If you choose to earn points with Ritz-Carlton Rewards (you can’t have an account with both programs), Chase offers its Ritz-Carlton Rewards credit card that earns points at the same rate. In addition, Chase Ultimate Rewards points can also be transferred to either program, so long as you hold a Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold, or Ink Plus card.

Chase offers the Marriott Rewards Premier Visa Signature card, which features five points per dollar spent at Marriott properties, double points on airfare, car rentals, and at restaurants, and one point per dollar spent elsewhere. Finally, most Marriott brands offer 10 points per dollar spent at the hotel, for a total of 15 points per dollar when you use a co-branded credit card. This means that you don’t have to be a frequent business traveler to earn a lot of points.

3. Tots Travel Too program for babies. This innovative program offers parents of toddlers some really nice amenities, for free! Benefits include baby-proof rooms with outlet covers and night lights, free use of travel cribs, and disposable bibs for breakfast areas. And watch out Lufthansa First Class, Marriott also offers a rubber bath toy that you can take home. Unfortunately, this program is only offered at Courtyard, Fairfield, Springhill, Residence, and Towne Place brand hotels.

You don't have to visit the Lufthansa First Class lounge to offer your child a free bath toy.
Marriott’s ‘Tots Travel Too’ program makes hotel stays easier for toddlers AND parents.

4. Reasonably priced upgrades with points. Families often need larger rooms to accommodate everyone, so it’s nice to be able to use points for upgrades, so long as the price is reasonable. Room upgrades for paid or award stays are just 5,000 points per night with Marriott, although you might have to use two or more upgrade rewards per night. In the context of the Marriott Rewards award chart, this is actually fairly reasonable.

5. Kids programs at some properties. Although there is no organized kids program across the entire brand, some hotels do seem to have compelling kids programs. For example, the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort in Florida has a nice looking kids club, as does the Laguna Cliffs Resort and Spa in California.

6. Ability to specify cribs and rollaway beds when making reservations. Guests can request cribs and rollaway beds when booking their room. Although these requests are not guaranteed, most other hotel programs require customers to contact properties individually.

It's nice that you can request additional bedding, but it isn't guaranteed.
It’s nice that you can request additional bedding, but it isn’t guaranteed.

Where Marriott Rewards fails families

1. No blackout dates? It’s true that Marriott Rewards doesn’t have specific dates when hotels won’t accept points for award nights, but it’s pretty meaningless. I find many instances where standard rooms are available, but award rooms are not, due to limitations on the number of rooms made available for awards. This restricted availability ends up serving as de facto blackout dates.

This is akin to an airline program that has no published blackout dates, but severely limits award seat availability. This policy can be a big problem for families who must travel on school breaks and other times during peak seasons. In contrast, competitors such as Starwood, Hyatt, and Hilton have no blackout dates or capacity restrictions, and allow award bookings for any available standard room.

2. Costly award nights favor business travelers. Awards at top tier hotels in Marriott Rewards cost as much as 45,000 points, and even mid-tier properties require two to three times as many points as comparable Hyatt and Starwood properties. At the same time, Marriott offers a at least 15 points per dollar to those who pay with the Marriott Rewards credit card, which offers only one point per dollar spent on most purchases. This policy makes it very easy for frequent business travelers to earn free nights mostly through credit card use, but difficult for occasional leisure travelers to do the same .

3. Numerous restrictions on elite benefits. Marriott does offer some competitive benefits for those with Gold status,  but they come with severe restrictions that affect families. The breakfast benefit is for members and one guest only, and excludes the resorts that families are likely to stay at.

Is it me, or do these benefits come with some many asterisks and special characters that it almost seems to be written in hieroglyphics?
Is it me, or do these benefits come with so many exclusions in the form of asterisks and special characters that it almost seems to be written in hieroglyphics?

Conclusions

Marriott’s program has a few important strengths, but it’s tough to recommend this program to most families who aren’t frequent travelers racking up miles with paid stays. On the other hand, business travelers who earn points rapidly can find value when it comes time to take a family vacation.

Have you had good (or bad) experiences with Marriott Rewards when traveling with your family? Please share your stories and insights in the comments below!

If you’re interested in learning more about family travel strategies, Jason Steele and other gurus will be speaking at the Family Travel for Real Life seminar on August 23, 2014 in Sterling, VA (near IAD). Check the link for more details.

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