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Are new benefits - but a big fee hike - coming to the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant Amex?

Aug. 24, 2021
14 min read
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Among the four Marriott cobranded cards available to new applicants, none is as premium or perks-rich as the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card. So when a TPG reader forwarded us a targeted survey they received from Amex seeking input on possible changes to the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant and its benefits, it piqued our interest.

The reader who tipped us off will remain anonymous to protect their identity as this information was shared with them confidentially by American Express. Issuers like Amex send out surveys like this to small subsets of their cardholders and hold focus groups to gauge customer sentiment and to workshop potential card changes all the time. Usually, nothing major comes of them, and this is just one cardholder's experience, so we're not ascribing too much significance or certainty to it.

That said, considering the other major card refreshes that have occurred lately, including those of The Platinum Card® from American Express and both the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and the Chase Sapphire Reserve, it's interesting to ponder the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant ones our reader was polled on and ask, "What if?"

We reached out to both American Express and Marriott directly regarding this survey. The response from both was a terse: “We regularly engage in customer research on a variety of topics. This research may or may not lead to the introduction of new products or services.” Vague and noncommittal, as expected. But we can still speculate about what the ramifications of this potential card overhaul might be...if it ever actually comes to pass.

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(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

Surveyed changes to the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant

In its current form, the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant is a powerhouse travel rewards card. Its various benefits represent up to $1,000+ in value annually for cardholders. Even if you stay at Marriott properties just a couple of nights each year, you can save hundreds of dollars with very little effort.

The card is also currently offering new applicants can earn a 100,000 welcome bonus and one free night award after you use your new card to make $5,000 in eligible purchases within the first three months of card membership. Certain hotels have resort fees. TPG estimates Marriott points value to be 0.8 cents each, meaning the welcome offer alone is worth $800. Why mess with such a good thing?

Although Amex might not change the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant at all, here are screenshots from the survey sent to our anonymous reader. Some of these tweaks would be very exciting, while others would be downright frustrating.

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(Screenshot courtesy of anonymous TPG reader.)
(Screenshot courtesy of anonymous TPG reader.)

Our reader also disclosed some other shifts they were asked about, but that are not shown above. Let's examine all potential card changes and what they might mean.

Higher annual fee, same earning rates

First, the bad news. The Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant's current $450 annual fee (see rates and fees) could ascend to a teeth-gritting $650 per year. Keep this in mind when analyzing the hypothetical benefit changes and weighing their yearly value against this new potential price tag.

The card would continue to earn 6 points per dollar on purchases at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program, 3 points per dollar on dining at U.S. restaurants and on airfare purchased directly from airlines or through Amex Travel, and 1 point per dollar on all other eligible purchases.

Higher elite status

Several of the most dramatic proposed card changes revolve around Marriott elite status.

The Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant currently extends automatic Gold elite status (which normally requires staying 25 nights per calendar year) as well as 15 elite night credits per year. That is a standard among all Marriott credit cards, including those with no annual fee, and a helpful boost toward higher echelons if you already achieve Gold status through stays.

According to the charts above, Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant cardholders would instead receive complimentary Platinum elite status, which otherwise requires 50 elite night credits per year. They would also get 25 elite night credits each year, which means they could reach even higher Marriott status tiers more easily than ever. These 25 nights should stack with the 15 elite nights you'd earn by holding a Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card, as well. That's a potential 40 elite night credits each year without stepping foot in a Marriott hotel.

Alternatively, the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant may offer a benefit of "+1" status. According to our reader, that would essentially bump your status up one level from the one you achieved. For example, if you had Platinum status, the card could boost you up Titanium status, which normally requires 75 nights per year. Cardholders would supposedly even be able to spend their way to Titanium status by making $75,000 or more in eligible purchases with the card in a calendar year.

Improved free night awards

The Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant currently provides an annual free night certificate worth up to 50,000 points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program (certain hotels have resort fees), worth around $400 per our TPG valuations, each year after your card renewal month.

According to the survey questions, the redemption ceiling of this free night certificate may be raised to a much better 85,000 points. This is the standard (as opposed to peak and off-peak) rate for some of the most expensive Marriott hotels in the world in the chain's Category 8 designation, such as the ski-chic Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch in Colorado, where accommodations can cost over $1,000 per night.

You could potentially use your 85,000-point certificate for a ski vacation at the Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch. (Photo by Joseph Hostetler/The Points Guy)

Cardholders would perhaps also be eligible for an additional free night certificate worth up to 85,000 points by spending $50,000 on their card in a calendar year, it looks like.

New Annual Card Choice Award

From the above screenshots, it appears that cardholders could earn an "Annual Card Choice Award" for spending $50,000 on the card in a calendar year in addition to that second annual free night. This type of reward sounds similar to the ones Bonvoy members can choose from after achieving Platinum, Titanium and Ambassador status. Per our TPG reader, you would be able to choose:

  • 50,000 Marriott points
  • 40% discount on bedding
  • Gift set
  • Gift Gold status to friend
  • 15% off the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection

While not a mind-blowing list overall, the last perk, in particular, might save cardmembers hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars on a cruise.

$300 annual statement credit shifts from hotels to dining

One of the biggest advantages of the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant is its annual statement credit. Cardholders currently receive up to $300 in statement credits toward eligible purchases at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program (including room rates) each account year. If you spend $300 per year with Marriott, this effectively reduces the card's current annual fee to $150. You can use the credit over several transactions or all at once, which makes it flexibly and easy to maximize.

However, it appears that American Express might propose a change to this $300 credit. Cardmembers may instead receive up to $25 in statement credits per month toward purchases from U.S. restaurants.

While it would certainly be simple to spend $300 per year at U.S. restaurants instead of Marriott hotels, the fact that cardholders would have to keep track of their monthly spending and hit that $25 mark each time means putting in a lot more effort than simply racking up $300 in Marriott purchases over the course of a year and at their leisure. Whether that would be a positive or negative change will depend on how you prefer to use the $300 annual statement credit, though.

What the changes to the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant would mean

So what would all these speculative changes mean if (and it's a big if) they actually went into effect?

Consequences for cardmembers

The higher $650 annual fee is one of the steepest charges of any travel rewards card on the market, and certainly a strike against it. Subtract the $300 in annual food credits per year or Marriott statement credit, however, and you would effectively pay $350 per year for:

  • Free night certificate worth up to 85,000 points
  • 25 elite night credits
  • Automatic Platinum status
  • Priority Pass membership (enrollment required)
  • Another free night certificate and a choice of potentially valuable benefits after spending $50,000 per calendar year

If you could meet those spending requirements, these perks could potentially be worth thousands of dollars each year depending on how you used them. For example, you could use the 85,000-point free night certificate to book the St. Regis Maldives, where standard accommodations regularly cost over $1,200 per night. I booked the resort a couple years ago and was upgraded to an overwater villa due to my Platinum status. My status also provided free breakfast, which saved me more than $700 over the course of my five-night stay.

My overwater villa at the St. Regis Maldives (Photo by Joseph Hostetler/The Points Guy)

For Marriott Bonvoy

At first glance, it's hard to view these possible changes as anything more than a devaluation to Marriott elite status. From the unprecedented 25 elite night credits to the automatic Platinum status to the potential "+1 status bump," wouldn't it feel like every Bonvoy member would have elite status? And would that move disillusion some of Marriott's most dedicated customers and dilute the program -- or even warrant a new, higher elite status tier that they'd have to attain for meaningful benefits?

That's what our TPG reader and the other focus group volunteers were apparently concerned about. If this is the card of the future, it may be easier than ever to achieve top-tier Marriott elite status. But I'm not really sure that, if these moves were to be instituted, it would result in the hyperinflation of Marriott's status program.

The Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant's mammoth $650 annual fee might make the card appear far less accessible to the majority of Bonvoy members. Case in point: the consternation (both from TPG readers and the general public) surrounding the Amex Platinum Card's annual fee uptick to $695 (see rates and fees). Many consumers seem largely unwilling to pay $600+ for a rewards card -- even if the benefits could potentially save them threefold that amount each year.

For comparison's sake

American Express already fields another hotel cobranded card that offers similar perks to the ones proposed for the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant in this survey: The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card.

The information for the Hilton Aspire card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

The Hilton Aspire offers the following slate of benefits:

  • Hilton Honors (top-tier) Diamond status
  • Up to two weekend reward nights — Receive one weekend night at almost any Hilton property worldwide after opening your account and on your cardmember anniversary each year. Earn a second weekend night when you spend $60,000 on the card in a calendar year.
  • Up to $250 in Hilton resort statement credits per account year for incidentals charged to your card at participating Hilton resorts.
  • Up to $250 in airline incidental fee credits per calendar year.
  • Up to $100 Hilton on-property credit when you book at least a two-night paid stay at Waldorf Astoria or Conrad properties through HiltonHonors.com/aspirecard.
  • Unlimited Priority Pass lounge access for you and two guests.

Enrollment is required for select benefits.

It's almost as though the Hilton Aspire is a case study for how the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant would look if it were ever revamped according to this cardholder's questionnaire. Like the Aspire, the Brilliant would offer a higher status level automatically. While the advent of the Aspire a few years ago surely resulted in more Hilton Honors Diamond status, the program did not strip any major benefits away as a direct result, and there has not been a huge exodus of disgruntled top-tier elites from Hilton, so perhaps the same would be true with the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant.

The Aspire's annual free night is also one of the most generous travel rewards card benefits around, redeemable at nearly any Hilton Honors property around the world, though restricted to Friday-Sunday nights. If the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant upped its annual award night certificates' max value to 85,000 points, it would be more in line with the Aspire.

Finally, the Hilton Honors Aspire offers not one, but two annual statement credit benefits totaling $500 in potential value, one for airline incidental fees and another to use at Hilton Resorts, neither with any monthly restrictions. Those would certainly be easier to maximize compared to a new monthly restaurant credit with the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant.

The other major difference? The Hilton Aspire only charges a $450 annual fee (see rates and fees). So why would the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant need to raise its fee by $200 to justify the proposed changes that look a lot like those already offered by the Hilton Aspire? Of course, there would be some major differences, including those Marriott spending-based Annual Card Choice Awards, but is that enough to compensate?

If the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant's annual fee does go up, no matter the new perks that may be offered, you might just be better off switching to the Hilton Aspire and changing your loyalty over to Hilton Honors. After all, the Aspire would still offer hundreds of dollars in value to cardmembers each year plus automatic top-tier status with no hoops to jump through, all for a lower annual fee.

Bottom line

None of these card changes are chiseled in stone (or metal, as the case may be). But a quick crunch of the numbers shows that the potential new benefits may be valuable additions for even a casual Marriott customer...if they'd be willing to pay that higher annual fee up front.

A $650 annual fee would effectively be reduced to $350 due to annual restaurant credits worth up to $300. Leaving aside all the other existing and proposed Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant card benefits, would you pay $350 for a free night at any Marriott hotel in the world?

Some cardmembers might grapple with that decision. But I would likely find a way to get $1,000+ in value from an 85,000-point certificate. And if you can spend $50,000 per calendar year on the card, the additional 85,000-point certificate and an Annual Card Choice Award could sweeten the value proposition even further.

Still, none of this is likely to come to pass anytime soon. If it does, you can bet we'll be the first to tell you about it...and give you our take. In the meantime, let us know what you think of these surveyed changes and what they would mean for you as a Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant cardmember. Got another exclusive tip? Email us and if we end up turning it into a story, we'll send you a gift card.

For rates and fees of the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant, click here.
For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum, click here.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Aspire, click here.

Additional reporting by Eric Rosen.

Featured image by (Image courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton, Maldives Fari Islands)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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