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For several years now, my wife and I have both held a Southwest Companion Pass, which offers us tremendous value for travel with each other and with our entire family. When my pass expired at the end of the 2016, I decided to earn a new one by redeeming for a Marriott Hotel + Air Package that includes Southwest points. These were one of the hotel point transfers that Southwest decided wouldn’t be eligible for the Companion Pass this year, but it later extended the eligibility through March of 2017.

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Last year, we covered how to earn the Companion Pass for 90,000 Starpoints through Marriott’s Hotel + Air Package option, and in today’s post, I want to show you how I was able to maximize the package redemption to get even more value.

Marriott Hotel + Air Basics

The Marriott Rewards program has never been known for offering exceptionally great value, and Marriott Rewards points are worth just 0.9 cents each according to TPG’s valuations. But one of the better values in the program has always been the Hotel + Air Packages, which include a seven-night award stay in a hotel plus a lump sum of frequent flyer miles in one of dozens of different airline programs.

There are five different types of Hotel + Air packages, and each has a different set of rates and choices of airline programs in which you’ll get miles or points. One of the most valuable options is Hotel + Air Package 3, which offers up to 120,000 points in Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program. This lets you reach the 110,000 points needed to earn a Southwest Companion Pass, which is valid until the end of the following calendar year.

The packages that offer Southwest points start at 200,000 Marriott Rewards points for seven nights in a Category 1-5 hotel and 50,000 Southwest points. Prices go as high as 540,000 Marriott points for seven nights in a Tier 4-5 Ritz-Carlton property and 120,000 Southwest points. You don’t have to choose or reserve your hotel stay when you purchase your package, and you can redeem additional points later to upgrade your package’s hotel category, but not to increase the amount of airline points or miles you receive.

Earning Marriott Rewards Points

Chase offers both a personal and a business version of its Marriott co-branded card. The personal version, the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card, currently offers new applicants 75,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 within three months of account opening. It offers 5x points at Marriott and Starwood properties; 2x points on spending at restaurants, airlines and car rental agencies; and 1 point per dollar spent elsewhere. There’s an $85 annual fee for this card which is currently waived for the first year and no foreign transaction fees. The Marriott Rewards Premier Business Credit Card has a nearly identical offer, but without the bonus points for adding an authorized user.

In 2016, Marriott completed its merger with Starwood Hotels and immediately began allowing transfers of Starpoints to the Marriott Rewards program at a 1:3 ratio. If you want to earn Starpoints quickly, you could also open the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express and/or the Starwood Preferred Guest® Business Credit Card from American Express. Currently, the personal version offers 75,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in the first three months. The business version is offering 100,000 bonus points after you spend $5,000 in the first three months. Offer ends 10/31/18. Each card has a $95 annual fee that’s waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.

Finally, Marriott is a 1:1 transfer partner of the Chase Ultimate Rewards program. But since it has one of the lowest values per point of all the program’s partners, this shouldn’t be the first option you turn to if you need to acquire Marriott points, except perhaps to top off your account in a pinch.

How I Maximized My Hotel + Air Package

I leveraged the package to book a stay at the SpringHill Suites New York Midtown Manhattan/Fifth Avenue. Image courtesy of Marriott.

I had to pull from multiple sources to come up with 360,000 Marriott Points for this package. Thankfully, transferring Starpoints to Marriott points is instantaneous. Marriott also allows you to combine points from your spouse or domestic partner in order to book an award, including the packages. I used both of these strategies to come up with the required amount of points.

After calling Marriott to book the award, I requested to redeem my free nights right away, although I could have chosen to wait as well. My points were deposited in my Southwest account within 24 hours, and I was immediately eligible to add a companion to all of my future reservations.

You can get excellent value from the least-expensive package option that allows you to earn the Southwest Companion Pass, even if you never use the free hotel nights. However, you can earn incredible value when you are able to book and utilize seven nights at one of the more mid-range or high-end hotels offered. As Marriott is one of the largest hotel chains in the world, you’ll usually find a property that suits your needs. Sadly, though, Marriott does impose capacity controls on award night stays, unlike the Starwood Preferred Guest program.

I redeemed 360,000 Marriott Rewards points for a package that included 120,000 Southwest points and a seven-night stay at a Category 8 hotel. I then used the package to book a week at the SpringHill Suites New York Midtown Manhattan/Fifth Avenue for a family vacation this summer. Marriott has dozens of properties in New York City, and this one has an excellent location and free breakfast. Better yet, our family of five can fit in a standard room with two queen beds, which is very rare for a New York hotel.

This award would normally cost 240,000 Marriott points. But I paid an additional 120,000 Marriott points to receive 120,000 Southwest Companion points that are (until the end of March) Companion Pass-eligible.

The award nights alone currently sell for $3,162 including taxes and fees (there are no taxes imposed on award nights). We recently valued the Southwest Companion Pass at $3,000 by itself, and I would conservatively value the pass and the 120,000 points together at twice the value of the points by themselves. Therefore, I would value the points and the pass at $3,600, using TPG’s current valuation of Southwest points at 1.5 cents each. This assumes that I spend the 120,000 points and add a companion, even though I could gain additional value from the Companion Pass on every booking I make through the end of 2018. The combined total value of this package, including the hotel, the Rapid Rewards points and the Companion Pass, is an amazing $6,762.

This means that I’m getting 1.88 cents in value per Marriott point redeemed, or 5.64 cents per Starpoint. This is more than double TPG’s valuation for either currency! Needless to say, I have no regrets.

Selecting the Right Hotel + Air Package for Your Needs

1. Try to find a great use for the free nights — If I had booked the least-expensive package to earn a Companion Pass, I would have spent 270,000 Marriott points to receive seven nights in a Category 1-5 hotel. Even if I didn’t use the hotel, I would have still gotten 1.33 cents in value for each of my Marriott points, assuming a value of $3,600 for 120,000 Southwest points and a Companion Pass. This isn’t bad, but I’m glad I received 1.88 cents in value and am looking forward to our family vacation in New York City.

2. Always book the packages with 120,000 points or miles, if possible — As you can see from the table earlier in the post, there’s a 1:1 ratio of Marriott points required as you go down the row toward packages that award more Southwest points. Since Southwest points are significantly more valuable than Marriott points, you can leverage this exchange rate by purchasing as many points as possible. I would do this even if I didn’t need all the points for the Companion Pass.

3. Pool your points — I was able to pool points with my wife, using both our Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest accounts. Starwood even allows you to pool points with household members, not just your spouse or domestic partner.

4. Book your hotel stay as soon as you can — Unlike Hilton, Hyatt, Starwood and Wyndham, Marriott doesn’t promise award nights in any unsold standard room. If you need to use your award nights at a popular vacation destination or during peak travel periods, it’s best to book any available award space you find as soon as possible. To use your package, all seven nights need to be available as award stays.

Have you booked a Marriott Hotel + Air package to earn a Southwest Companion Pass? What was your experience?

Featured image courtesy of Scott Olson via Getty Images.

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