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3 reasons I want to splurge on this aspirational hotel redemption — and 4 reasons I may pass

March 18, 2021
13 min read
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From the Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi to the Park Hyatt Sydney, you can use hotel points to unlock many excellent hotels. One of the aspirational hotels high-up on many award travelers' lists is Marriott's Al Maha, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa outside of Dubai.

TPG contributor Ethan Steinberg went so far as to say Al Maha Resort is the best value Marriott award redemption. TPG's Ariana Arghandewal listed an upcoming trip to Al Maha as one of the reasons she finally caved and got the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card. And something was compelling about watching TPG's Zach Griff and Zach Honig call into a TPG employee video meeting while riding camels at Al Maha.

But, Al Maha isn't simply a TPG favorite. It was the fourth most-redeemed for Marriott property in the Middle East and Africa region in 2019. As such, it's clear that many award travelers believe the Al Maha experience is worth redeeming a substantial amount of Marriott Bonvoy points for.

However, I'm not so sure. So, today I'll discuss my debate about whether to redeem Marriott Bonvoy points to stay at the aspirational Al Maha resort later this year.

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Staying at Al Maha with Marriott points

(Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy)

Al Maha is a Marriott Bonvoy Category 8 property. As such, for an award stay at Al Maha, you'd need to redeem Marriott Bonvoy points at the following rates:

  • Off-peak dates: 70,000 points per night (worth $560 based on TPG's valuations)
  • Standard dates: 85,000 points per night (worth $680)
  • Peak dates: 100,000 points per night (worth $800)

That's a lot of points per night. Although award stays book into the base category room type, this room type is an 807 square foot stand-alone Bedouin suite with a private pool and deck. Plus, award stays are full board. In particular, each award night comes with breakfast, lunch, dinner and two selected desert activities for two adults.

Paid rates at Al Maha currently range from $1,274 to $2,947 per night, including taxes and fees. So redeeming Marriott Bonvoy points is the way to go, unless someone else pays for your stay. Granted, you can also book Al Maha through Amex's Fine Hotels and Resorts program for extra perks. But, especially given the all-inclusive nature of Al Maha and my Platinum Elite status with Marriott, booking an Al Maha stay through Amex's Fine Hotels and Resorts program wouldn't provide enough incremental value to justify using cash instead of points.

Related: Hotel review: Al Maha, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort and Spa, Dubai

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Reasons to book an Al Maha award stay

There are three primary reasons I want to redeem Marriott Bonvoy points to stay at Al Maha for later this year. In this section, I'll discuss these three reasons.

Unique all-inclusive experience

In-room dining on the patio at Al Maha (Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy)

Al Maha isn't the only resort where you can use points to book an all-inclusive rate. For example, I once redeemed Choice Privileges points to stay at an all-inclusive resort for a month. And I've wanted to stay at the all-inclusive Hilton Sharks Bay Resort in Egypt on points for a few years now.

But, the type of all-inclusive experience you get at Al Maha is on a different level. In particular, each award night at Al Maha includes breakfast, lunch, dinner and two desert activities for two adults. You can typically choose from various activities, including a dune drive, camel trekking, a nature walk, a desert safari and falconry.

Unless you want alcoholic drinks or spa treatments, you probably won't incur additional costs besides tips during your stay. Plus, unlike when staying at resorts in Bora Bora or the Maldives, you won't need to pay expensive transfer fees since you can easily take a taxi from Dubai.

Related: 11 incredible all-inclusives for people who hate all-inclusives

It will likely never be a better deal

Sundowners at Al Maha (Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy)

Frankly, Al Maha will likely never cost fewer points than it does now. Until March 5, 2019, Marriott Bonvoy Category 8 properties cost 60,000 points. So, I really should have booked a stay at Al Maha when I could've done so for 60,000 points per night. But I didn't. So now I'll need to pay higher award rates if I want to try out Al Maha.

Sure, Marriot may offer a promotion that temporarily decreases the award night cost for Al Maha. It's also possible Marriott might put Al Maha on its PointSavers list. Al Maha could even drop a category. But, Al Maha could also stop offering all-inclusive stays on points. Or Marriott could create a Category 9 and move Al Maha up to it.

In short, we don't know what the future holds. But we do know points and miles are a terrible long-term investment. As such, I'm assuming Al Maha will never be a better deal than now.

Related: 11 ways earning and burning points and miles could change in 2021

Fear of missing out

A villa at Al Maha (Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy)

Let's be honest. One of my reasons for wanting to book Al Maha now is that I'm afraid that I'll miss the opportunity to stay at Al Maha and get the all-inclusive experience on points if I wait. After all, Marriott could stop offering all-inclusive Al Maha stays on points. Or Al Maha could leave the Marriott Bonvoy program.

So, my best option may be to find a few consecutive nights with off-peak pricing. Sadly, finding even two consecutive off-peak nights is rare. Currently, there are only nine dates on which I could check in for two consecutive off-peak nights. These dates will change as Marriott updates which dates are off-peak, standard and peak for this property. But for now, you could check in on the following 2021 dates for a two-night off-peak award stay that would cost 140,000 Marriott Bonvoy points: July 4 and Aug. 8, 15, 22, 23, 24, 29, 30 and 31.

Granted, July and August are two of the hottest months in Dubai. But if you have an open schedule, you may want to plan a trip around dates that offer off-peak pricing. Booking a trip based on off-peak award availability might sound unreasonable to some travelers. But on a two-night stay, booking off-peak nights would save you 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points over booking peak nights. And based on TPG's valuations, these points are worth $480.

Related: How to get to Dubai with points and miles

Arguments for passing on an Al Maha award stay

There are also four primary reasons I may pass on Al Maha. In this section, I'll discuss these reasons.

That's a lot of Marriott Bonvoy points

(Photo by Hsein Kazma/The Points Guy)

Some of the value and allure of points and miles is that you can unlock experiences you wouldn't (or couldn't) pay for with cash. But, even assuming I find off-peak pricing on dates that work for my trip to Dubai this fall, I'd still need to pay 70,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night.

However, for the dates I'm set to be in Dubai this fall, I'd currently need to pay 85,000 or 100,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night. Based on TPG's valuations, 85,000 points are worth $680 and 100,000 points are worth $800. And frankly, I have sticker shock from that high cost. After all, it's far more than I've ever paid for an award night.

My closest comparable award stay is when I stayed for two nights at the InterContinental Bora Bora Thalasso using two uncapped IHG credit card anniversary nights. I also used two 60,000-point Marriott certificates last year in Japan for back-to-back St. Regis and Ritz-Carleton stays. But these redemptions were less painful to make since I was maximizing free night certificates instead of redeeming points I could use for other redemptions.

Related: 17 ways to earn lots of Marriott Bonvoy points

Other ways I could use these points

Dune drive at Al Maha (Photo by Hsein Kazma/The Points Guy)

For several airlines, Marriott Bonvoy is the only major transferrable currency you can transfer to make a redemption. As such, Marriott Bonvoy points can be a valuable commodity. Toward this point, TPG's Andrew Kunesh is actively earning more Marriott Bonvoy points during the pandemic.

But, I typically struggle to justify transferring Marriott points to airlines because I enjoy redeeming for hotels. However, I usually like to maximize the number of nights I can get from my Marriott Bonvoy points. For example, assuming I stay in five-night increments, I could get between 10 and 21 nights from 85,000 Marriott points at Marriott Bonvoy Category 1 hotels.

Likewise, I could stay between six and 10 nights at one of my favorite Marriott hotels, the Category 2 Protea Hotel Kruger Gate, just outside South Africa's Kruger National Park, using 85,000 Marriott points. So, it doesn't sit well with me to give up this many nights at low-category Marriott Bonvoy properties for just one night at Al Maha.

Related: 5 ways to maximize Marriott Bonvoy award night redemptions

I could book similar experiences for less

Camel riding at Al Maha (Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy)

I'm a budget traveler who typically redeems for low-category hotels. So, it's strange and slightly uncomfortable to seriously consider redeeming points for any Marriott Category 8 hotel stay. As such, I did some quick research to see whether I could get some of the same experiences I'd get at Al Maha for less. I found a few reasonable alternates that might work depending on what appeals to you about the Al Maha experience.

First off, Marriott has two other desert-based properties in the United Arab Emirates:

  • The Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah, Al Wadi Desert (Category 7, 60,000 or 70,000 points per night for my dates)
  • Al Wathba, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa, Abu Dhabi (Category 6, 50,000 or 60,000 points per night for my dates)

But, neither of these Marriott Bonvoy properties offers all-inclusive award nights. So, by the time you consider dining and activity costs, you might be better off booking an Al Maha award. And although awards at the Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah book into an impressive villa with desert views, awards at Al Wathba book into a traditional room. So, neither of these other Marriott properties is a suitable replacement (at least for me) for Al Maha.

Alternatively, I could book activities or camping in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (which is where Al Maha is located) on my own. As such, I could stay in Dubai at one of the many Category 3 Marriott hotels or one of the three Category 1 World of Hyatt properties and then book one or more desert activities independently. For example, I could book a morning safari with Arabian Adventures from $115 per person or an overnight desert safari with Platinum Heritage from $271 per person. However, these experiences may not be comparable to what I'd get at Al Maha.

Related: 10 high-end redemptions I can’t wait to make when travel resumes

Restrictive cancellation policy

A villa at Al Maha outside Dubai (Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy)

Finally, Al Maha has a pretty restrictive cancellation policy. In particular, award stays only allow free cancellation until 30 days before arrival. And even paid rates typically only allow free cancellation until 14 days before arrival.

With uncertainty around travel requirements during the coronavirus pandemic, this type of cancellation policy may be the primary argument for passing on Al Maha right now. After all, I'd want to be able to cancel -- or at least move -- my stay for little or no penalty if travel restrictions at my origin, destination or stopover point change (or I happen to test positive for COVID-19) shortly before my stay.

Related: Which Marriott Bonvoy credit card is right for you?

Bottom line

Marriott's Al Maha, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa, outside Dubai is popular with points and miles enthusiasts. So part of my desire to redeem Marriott Bonvoy points for a stay at Al Maha is undoubtedly rooted in reading about the property many times. And my urgency is likely connected to watching hotels increase in points cost and airlines scrap products I wanted to fly.

But is it worth it? And will I go through with redeeming Marriott Bonvoy points for an Al Maha stay? Although I've booked many paid Marriott Bonvoy stays recently, I'm not quite ready to book my Al Maha stay. After all, the cancellation policy is far too restrictive for me. So, if I book, it will be a last-minute redemption once I'm in Dubai this fall.

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.