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While many loyalty programs make it easy to redeem your points and miles, others make it unnecessarily difficult. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen looks at how some hotels circumvent their own policies to impede award redemptions, and explains what you can do about it.
In the points and miles game, knowledge is power. Maximizing your rewards often requires you to read between the lines of marketing material put out by airline and hotel loyalty programs. Sometimes you’ll find benefits that sound great, but are overstated, misrepresented, or even non-existent. I actually encountered this very phenomenon last month when trying to book an award stay with Hyatt.
One of the most common examples is the claim of “No Blackout Dates” put forth by many hotel programs when you redeem for award nights. What exactly does no blackout dates mean? Do hotel chains actually follow through with these policies? In this post, I’ll look at which programs truly allow you to redeem points on any date, and call out those programs that aren’t living up to their own hype.
Before we get into the meat of this post, I want to clarify a few general things about these policies:
- Generally speaking, “No blackout dates” tends to apply only to available standard rooms. If a standard room typically costs 30,000 points per night, but is completely sold out for your desired date(s), you will not be able to “force” a hotel to book you into a suite for those same 30,000 points by citing the blackout date policy.
- When it comes to room upgrades using points, the “no blackout dates” policy tends to go out the window, as most hotels can restrict those rooms as they see fit.
- Standard rooms are typically defined by each hotel, so even if you think a room should be considered standard, it may not be. However, standard rooms should not vary from date-to-date. In other words, a hotel can’t claim that a King room is standard on Thursday nights, but only twin rooms are standard on Friday nights.
I’ll go through each of the major hotel programs one by one to answer the following questions:
- Does the hotel have a “no blackout dates” policy?
- How is that policy marketed?
- How is the policy described in the program’s Terms & Conditions?
- Is it legitimate?
I’ll then go through some tips and strategies for taking these programs to task (like I did with my aforementioned Hyatt experience) when reality doesn’t align with policy. Hopefully this will help you plan your travels and make the most of your hard-earned points!
Club Carlson does have a “no blackout dates” policy, described as follows on the company website:
“As a Club CarlsonSM member, you can redeem your Gold Points® for free Award Nights at more than 1,000 Carlson Rezidor hotels worldwide – with no blackout dates on standard rooms.”
Unfortunately, the T&C of the program are not very explicit when it comes to redeeming Gold Points, indicating that award nights are “subject to availability” and “apply to standard room with standard occupancy.” In fact, searching for the word “blackout” on the entire page yields zero results!
While this lack of specificity may be unintentional, it does appear that certain properties very deliberately restrict award reservations. One city where you’ll encounter this phenomenon is Paris, where two of the four Radisson Blu properties near the city center have exactly ZERO award rooms available through the end of 2015.
Take the Radisson Blu Le Metropolitan Hotel, which has views of the Eiffel Tower. According to the hotel’s website, there are five room types, with “Classic Rooms” as the lowest category. Yet, even when the hotel has these rooms available for paid stays, there’s no award inventory.
The same issue pops up with the Radisson Blu Le Dokhan’s Hotel, Paris Trocadero. This property too has “Classic Rooms” as the lowest category, yet award inventory is nonexistent for 2015. Sure, there are days when these rooms appear to be sold out, but many other dates have Classic Rooms at the Best Available Rate.
Like Club Carlson, Hilton HHonors also offers a no blackout dates policy, described as follows on the website:
“Use your HHonors Points to book any room, anytime, anywhere — at over 4,200 locations in 93 countries, with no blackout dates.”
At face value, this is absolutely accurate. Ever since Hilton introduced the Premium Room Rewards option in 2011, you can book every room at a hotel using points, though many of the non-standard rooms come at an exorbitant redemption cost.
This policy is also reflected in the program’s T&C, which indicate that “Reward stays are not subject to blackout dates or capacity controls.” Of course, the standard rooms are “defined by each hotel and subject to availability,” but based on this language, if a standard room is available on a paid rate, it should also be available on points.
Fortunately, it appears that Hilton HHonors is light years ahead of Club Carlson when it comes to implementing this policy. For an extreme example, the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel New York City – Times Square is a prime location for New Year’s Eve celebrations, and believe it or not, room rates for that night start at a whopping $4,999!
However, because the property defines those rooms as “standard” accommodations, you can still redeem points for them.
When standard rooms are sold out, you’ll only find Premium Room Rewards when searching for availability. Sticking with the New Year’s Eve theme, the Hilton Sydney currently has no “Hilton Guest Rooms” available for the night of December 31, 2015. As a result, you would need A LOT of points to stay there, as a “Hilton Guest Room Plus” is defined by the property as a premium room.
Hyatt Gold Passport
As I wrote about last month, Hyatt Gold Passport also has a “no blackout dates” policy, described as follows on the website:
“Enjoy free nights at Hyatt with as few as 5,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points and no blackout dates.”
The T&C of the program go into greater detail, indicating that an award night can be booked “when standard rooms are available at the Hyatt Daily Rate” (emphasis mine). Of course, these standard rooms “are defined by each hotel” but “are not subject to blackout dates.”
Even though I had to “force” award availability at the Park Hyatt in Paris, the Hyatt Gold Passport program is generally good about following this policy. Even top-tier properties on high-demand dates display award availability (like the new Park Hyatt New York on New Year’s Eve and the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek over Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend). Though revenue rates approach or even surpass $1,000 per night, you can book standard rooms using points because they’re available at the Hyatt Daily Rate.
Like the other chains, IHG Rewards prominently lists “no blackout dates” as a benefit of the program. Unfortunately, digging into the program’s T&C reveals the following stipulation around nights booked with points:
“There are no blackout dates for Reward Nights, however, room inventory is limited and subject to prior sale.”
In other words, a hotel isn’t allowed to black out an entire date, but it can restrict award room inventory. Unlike Club Carlson, Hilton, and Hyatt, just because a standard IHG room is available doesn’t mean it can be booked using points.
Fortunately, most IHG properties appear to be good at making rooms available. I checked several random dates throughout 2015 for each of the properties highlighted in TPG Contributor Lane Nieset’s post about 7 Incredible IHG Hotels, and each one had availability.
That being said, it’s disheartening that the program allows properties to restrict award inventory. “No blackout dates” with IHG Rewards truly is marketing spin!
Marriott (unfortunately) fits in the same category as IHG Rewards. While Marriott advertises a “no blackout dates” policy, the FAQ page includes the following:
“Hotels have standard rooms available for redemptions every day. Blackout dates traditionally refer to a limited number of dates on which a hotel could choose not to accept redemptions. With our “No Blackout Dates” policy, hotels will no longer have blackout dates for redemptions. Hotels may limit the number of standard rooms available for redemption on a limited number of days.”
There are also some select properties that don’t even comply with this ambiguous policy:
- Boscolo Hotels, Autograph Collection
- Camelback Inn, A JW Marriott Resort & Spa (Scottsdale, AZ)
- Marriott Vacation club (all locations)
- Rome Marriott Grand Hotel Flora (Rome, Italy)
- Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa
- Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa
However, like IHG, most hotels in the Marriott portfolio are pretty good about opening up award availability. That said, having the flexibility to restrict (or eliminate) award inventory is dangerous, as an individual property can decide when it’s worth it to allow award bookings.
Starwood Preferred Guest
Like all of the other programs, SPG also has a “No blackout dates” policy, described on the Starwood website as follows:
“Blackout blinds, maybe. Blackout dates, never. If we have a room, it’s yours.”
The T&C do indicate that this policy applies to “Free Night Awards in standard rooms only (as defined by each property),” and go on to say that “Starwood Preferred Guest does not limit the number of standard rooms available for Free Night Awards.” This language is unambiguous: if a standard room is available, you should be able to book it using your Starpoints.
In my experience, SPG is very good about observing this policy. I have never personally encountered an instance when a hotel was bookable for paid rates but not for points (except when standard rooms are sold out). For example, here are the search results for a one-night stay in Munich, Germany right around Oktoberfest:
Notice that the Sheraton Munich Westpark Hotel and Four Points by Sheraton Munich Olympiapark do not have standard awards available. However, the paid rates at both properties are for Executive Rooms; Superior Rooms (defined as the standard room for award purposes at both hotels) are sold out.
How can you avoid this phenomenon?
If you’re trying to redeem your hotel points for an award stay and you’re struggling to find availability, there are a few ways to avoid falling into the black hole of these policies (no pun intended):
- Contact customer service or the individual property. As I explained with my Hyatt fiasco, if a hotel has a standard room available for cash but not points, the first thing you should do is call or e-mail. I’ve read reports of individual properties releasing award rooms after being contacted by a prospective guest, and I was able to get Hyatt Gold Passport to “force” the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendome to open up availability. You would have a much better chance of this working with Club Carlson, Hilton, Hyatt, and SPG, but it never hurts to try with IHG and Marriott!
- Continue checking availability. Like airlines, hotels regularly update rates and award availability. Even if a room isn’t initially bookable on points, other guests may cancel reservations and open up award inventory. This can even happen at the last minute; some hotels hold blocks of rooms for conferences, weddings, or other group events, and release them back into inventory when they aren’t sold.
- Vote with your wallet. If you miss out on an award stay with IHG Rewards or Marriott Rewards because the property played games with inventory, consider switching to another chain! My post on hotel status matches can be a great first step, and if you do make a change, let IHG or Marriott know why you left. The only way these two programs will add teeth to their “no blackout dates” policies is if they stand to gain revenue.
Unfortunately, the “no blackout dates” policies at the major hotel chains vary significantly, so it’s up to you as informed consumers to call out the various programs when they aren’t complying with their own T&C.
What experiences have you had with hotel blackout dates? There’s no telling how much longer these cards will be around and available for new applications because of the Marriott takeover, so now might just be the perfect time to apply. Apart from hotel redemptions, you can transfer Starpoints to over 30 airline partners, and now also transfer points from Starwood to Marriott Rewards at a 1:3 ratio, opening up even more redemption options.
There’s no telling how much longer these cards will be around and available for new applications because of the Marriott takeover, so now might just be the perfect time to apply. Apart from hotel redemptions, you can transfer Starpoints to over 30 airline partners, and now also transfer points from Starwood to Marriott Rewards at a 1:3 ratio, opening up even more redemption options.