Beginner’s guide to Marriott Bonvoy
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Editor’s note: At TPG, our top priority is providing our readers with the information needed to make educated decisions about travel and rewards-earning strategy. This is not the best time to travel, domestically or internationally, as airlines have cut major parts of their route networks. But we are sharing this information to provide value for future travel once coronavirus concerns have subsided.
With a whopping 32 brands in its portfolio and well over 7,000 properties around the globe, Marriott is by far the largest of the major hotel corporations. In addition to hotel redemptions, the Marriott Bonvoy program is also one of the best ways to earn frequent flyer miles with various airlines, including a number of niche and valuable transfer partners.
Today we’re going to take a look at everything you need to know to start earning and burning points with Marriott.
What is Marriott Bonvoy?
While Marriott has been around for many years, it wasn’t always the world’s largest hotel company. It cemented that title when it acquired Starwood Hotels and the Starwood Preferred Guest program back in 2015, bringing together some of the world’s most unique and luxurious hotel brands (like St. Regis, Ritz Carlton, W Hotels and JW Marriott) all under the same roof.
Every merger has winners and losers, and now that we’ve had a few years to analyze this deal, the consensus is that legacy Marriott customers came out ahead, with new airline transfer partners and a great new block of luxury hotels to earn and redeem points at, while SPG loyalists saw their beloved program devalued a bit when Marriott took over.
Since the merger closed there have been even more changes, first with Marriott combining the two separate loyalty programs into one and subsequently relaunching it under the Marriott Bonvoy branding. It wasn’t until September 2019, four years after the merger closed, that Marriott finally introduced peak and off-peak pricing, a quasi-dynamic pricing system that causes the award rates at hotels to fluctuate based on demand.
Earning points on hotel stays
The simplest way to rack up Marriott points is by staying at Marriott properties, though you’ll usually need to book directly with Marriott as opposed to with a third-party travel agency to make sure your points post correctly. If you’re not currently a member of the Marriott Bonvoy program, you can even register for a promotion to earn a free night certificate worth up to 25,000 points after completing your first two paid stays. Once you’ve joined Bonvoy, you’ll earn points at the following rates:
- General member: 10 points per dollar
- Silve elite: 11 points per dollar
- Gold elite: 12.5 points per dollar
- Platinum elite: 15 points per dollar
- Titanium elite: 17.5 points per dollar
- Ambassador elite: 17.5 points per dollar
TPG values Marriott points at 0.8 cents each, meaning you’re looking at anywhere from an 8 to 14% return depending on your elite status. You’ll usually earn points on your entire hotel folio, meaning that if you order room service or get a drink at the bar or a spa treatment and charge it to your room, it will help you rack up those bonus points even faster.
Marriott credit cards
Outside of staying at a hotel, the fastest way to earn Marriott points is by spending on a cobranded credit card. While you can transfer points from both Chase Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards to Marriott at a 1:1 ratio, this usually represents a pretty poor redemption value and is not a good idea unless you’re just short on the points you need for a specific award.
Before the merger, Marriott had its cobranded credit cards issued by Chase while SPG had its issued by Amex. Now, Marriott continues to work with both banks to target slightly different market segments. A number of legacy cards were closed to new applicants during or shortly after the merger, but you can still apply for the following Marriott Bonvoy credit cards:
|CREDIT CARD||BONUS||ANNUAL FEE||BONUS VALUE*||UNIQUE PERKS|
|Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card||Earn 75,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first three months of account opening. Terms apply.||$450 (see rates and fees)||$600||Annual award night worth up to 50,000 points, $300 annual travel credit at Marriott properties, instant Gold Marriott elite status with the ability to earn Platinum with $75,000 in annual spending on the card. Terms apply.|
|Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card||Earn 75,000 Marriott points after you spend $3,000 in purchases in the first three months. Terms apply.||$125 (see rates and fees)||$600||Annual award night worth up to 35,000 points. Earn a second free night worth up to 35,000 points by spending $60,000 in a calendar year on your card. Immediate Silver status, ability to earn Gold status with $35,000 in annual spending on the card. Terms apply.|
|Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card||Limited time offer- Earn 100,000 Bonus Points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.||$95||$800||Annual award night worth up to 35,000 points. Immediate Silver status, ability to earn Gold status with $35,000 in annual spending on the card.|
|Marriott Bonvoy Bold™ Credit Card||Earn 50,000 Marriott points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening.||N/A||$400||Marriott Bonvoy Silver status thanks to the 15 elite night credits awarded by the card.|
|The Platinum Card® from American Express||Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards points after you after you use your new card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first three months. Terms Apply.||$550 (see rates and fees)||$1,200||Marriott and Hilton Gold status; up to $200 in annual airline fee credits; up to $200 in annual Uber credits; access to Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts; access to American Express global lounge collection. Terms apply.|
*Bonus valuation based on TPG valuation and not provided by issuers
You’ll see right away a lot of similarities between the various offerings. With the exception of the Marriott Bonvoy Bold Credit Card, the weakest option in Marriott’s credit card lineup, all the credit cards earn the same 6x points per dollar at Marriott hotels (a 4.8% return based on TPG’s valuations) and 2x on everyday spending (1.6% return), though some cards also include other bonus categories.
All cards except the Bonvoy Bold also include an anniversary free night worth up to 35,000 points, though the premium Bonvoy Brilliant extends it to 50,000 points. TPG values 35,000 Marriott points at $280, meaning that these cards more than pay for their modest annual fees with the free night alone, without even looking at the other perks. Of course it’s certainly possible to get more than $280 worth of value from these 35,000 point free nights, which roughly map to a Category 1 to 5 hotel, though it excludes Category 5 hotels under peak pricing. In the past, I’ve been able to use my free-night certificates for some amazing-value redemptions at the Sheraton Grand Sydney and the Mira Moon Hong Kong to name a few. Note that you can earn a second 35,000-point free night certificate by spending $60,000 a year on the Bonvoy Business Amex card.
The Bonvoy Brilliant is an even more compelling card, and one of my favorite premium credit cards in my wallet. In exchange for a $450 annual fee (see rates and fees) you get a $300 annual Marriott property credit, good on room rates as well as incidentals like dining and spa charges, which drops your out-of-pocket cost to $150 a year. You also get a 50,000-point free-night certificate and automatic Marriott Gold elite status, making it easy to recoup your annual fee and then some year after year.
Marriott credit cards also give you quite a nice head start towards qualifying for elite status thanks to a recent policy change. It used to be that all Marriott cards offered 15 elite night credits each year towards elite status, but you were capped at one set of credits per Marriott account no matter how many credit cards you held. Marriott changed that policy this year to allow you to earn one set of 15 credits from having any personal Marriott credit card and another set of 15 credits from having any Marriott business card, meaning you can now get up to 30 elite night credits a year (60% of the way to Platinum status) without even setting foot in a hotel.
Lastly on the topic of Marriott credit cards is a discussion of eligibility, as you’ll have to navigate issuer-specific rules from Chase and Amex as well as broader restrictions that affect the entire family of Marriott cards.
If you’re applying for one of the Chase-issued Marriott cards (like the Bonvoy Bold or Bonvoy Boundless), your application will be restricted by the 5/24 rule, meaning if you’ve opened five or more cards in the last 24 months (across all issuers but excluding most business cards), Chase will automatically reject your application. Meanwhile if you’re applying for an Amex card you’ll have to deal with the “once per lifetime” bonus rule, which simply says if you’ve ever held the card you’re applying for in the past, your application will be rejected. This also applies to previous versions of the card, so if you opened the old “SPG Luxury Amex” you can’t now apply for its successor, the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant.
On top of this, Marriott has worked with Chase and Amex to limit applications across the two issuers. For example, the terms and conditions of the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card say the following:
“The bonus is not available to you if you:
- Are a current cardmember, or were a previous cardmember within the last 30 days, of Marriott Bonvoy American Express Card (also known as The Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express);
- Are a current or previous cardmember of either Marriott Bonvoy Business American Express Card (also known as The Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card from American Express) or Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express Card (also known as the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Luxury Card), and received a new cardmember bonus or upgrade bonus in the last 24 months; or
- Applied and were approved for Marriott Bonvoy BusinessTM American Express Card (also known as The Starwood Preferred Guest® Business Credit Card from American Express) or Marriott Bonvoy BrilliantTM American Express® Card (also known as the Starwood Preferred Guest® American Express Luxury Card) within the last 90 days.
To put that in English … according to the terms, you aren’t eligible for the welcome bonus on the Chase-issued personal Marriott card if you have what used to be known as the SPG small business card issued by Amex. It’s quite restrictive. So, you’ll have to clear several hurdles to make sure you’re eligible before applying for any of the Bonvoy credit cards, and you’ll always want to double check the fine print (and our handy guide to Marriott credit card eligibility) before you submit your application.
Marriott Bonvoy Elite status
The more of your life you spend on the road the more valuable it can be to have elite status, and enjoy perks like free breakfast, lounge access, suite upgrades, bonus points and more. For a detailed analysis make sure to check out TPG editor Nick Ewen’s ultimate guide to Marriott Bonvoy elite status, but for now here’s an overview of the benefits of the various tiers and how to go about earning them. Note that many of the perks like room upgrades, lounge access and free breakfast vary by brand, so this chart is only meant to show whether you’d be eligible for the benefit if you were staying at a participating property.
|Elite level||# of nights needed to earn||Bonus points||Upgrades||Lounge access/free breakfast||Other benefits|
|Silver||10||10%||N/A||No||Late checkout, elite reservation line|
|Gold||25||25%||Enhanced rooms (excluding suites)||No||Late checkout, elite reservation line, welcome amenity|
|Platinum||50||50%||Enhanced rooms including suites (though not at Ritz Carlton properties)||Yes||Late checkout, elite reservation line, welcome amenity, annual choice benefit after reaching 50 nights|
|Titanium||75||75%||Enhanced rooms including suites||Yes||Late checkout, elite reservation line, welcome amenity, annual choice benefit after reaching 50 nights and again at 75 nights, United Premier Silver status|
|Ambassador||100 + $20,000 in qualifying spending||75%||Enhanced rooms including suites||Yes||Late checkout, elite reservation line, welcome amenity, annual choice benefit after reaching 50 nights and again at 75 nights, United Premier Silver status, Ambassador service, Your24|
There’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s start with the earning side. If you hold any Marriott Bonvoy credit card you’ll automatically enjoy Silver elite status, though if you hold the premium Bonvoy Brilliant or The Platinum Card® from American Express you’ll get complimentary Gold status. However, you’d be much better off getting your Gold status by holding any combination of personal and business Marriott cards. That way instead of just being gifted the status, you’d have 30 elite nights meaning you could upgrade to Platinum with only 20 nights in an actual hotel. This change makes Marriott Platinum status more accessible than ever before, making the program more appealing to less frequent travelers who are still looking for upper-level elite perks.
While Gold status is certainly better than nothing, Platinum is where things start to get real. Suite upgrades and free breakfast/lounge access are some of the most sought after perks when it comes to elite status, but Marriott Platinum elites also get to select a Choice Benefit after staying 50 nights a year. I usually select either the 5 bonus elite night credits (to make it easier to qualify for Titanium status) or the 5 Suite Night Awards, which I’ve used to confirm in advance a two-terrace suite in Sydney or a three-bedroom duplex suite at the Westin Xi’an which was certainly more space than I needed.
Moving up from Platinum to Titanium unlocks a second Choice Benefit at 75 nights with slightly better options (I usually pick the free night certificate worth up to 40,000 points), a higher bonus multiplier and eligibility for suite upgrades at Ritz-Carlton hotels. Ambassador status is the only tier that has any revenue requirement, and unless you’re a business traveler frequenting more expensive cities, you’ll likely find it hard to hit the $20,000 spending mark. I’ve heard mixed reviews of the program anyway, as the quality seems to vary heavily based on which ambassador is assigned to you and many people don’t see much incremental benefit over Titanium status at all.
Redeeming Marriott points for hotel nights
Marriott’s award chart uses eight different categories, though with the introduction of peak and off-peak pricing late in 2019, the categories don’t matter as much now as the actual price. You see this reflected in the way Marriott describes free night certificates — instead of being valid at Category 1 to 5 properties, for example, they’re valid at hotels costing up to 35,000 points.
Redeeming points for free hotel nights is as simple as logging into your account, clicking the “use points” button and searching for available properties. If you’re taking a longer trip, you’ll definitely want to try and take advantage of Marriott’s fifth night free on award bookings (though note that Marriott now deducts the cheapest night, not the actual fifth night). Marriott will also let you switch between paying cash and points for different nights of a stay, though you will need to pay points for at least five nights to get a free night.
Marriott doesn’t have nearly as many properties in the lowest award categories, especially if you’re looking at bigger cities in the U.S. I find Categories 4 to 5 to represent a nice sweet spot, where you can get good quality properties and sometimes even luxury brands without breaking the bank.
On the upper end, while it may seem obscene to pay 100,000 points a night for a hotel, Marriott has some truly spectacular properties in its top category 8. Yes, you’ll find a number of “standard” luxury city hotels like the Ritz Carlton Hong Kong or the St. Regis New York, but you’ll also find a number of all-suite/villa hotels in truly exotic locales. Some of these properties, like the St. Regis Maldives and Al Maha resort outside Dubai are among the most aspirational hotels in the world, and the fact that you can book them for free using points is an astonishing coup.
Transferring Marriott points to airline partners
One of the best features that Marriott preserved from the old SPG program was the ability to transfer your hotel points into frequent flyer miles. With a whopping 43 different airline partners, including some very niche and unique options, Marriott is ostensibly a transferable points currency, just like Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Capital One miles (all of which are issued by a bank, not an airline or hotel).
Nearly all of Marriott’s transfer partners use a 3:1 ratio, with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 Marriott points transferred. This means that if you transferred exactly 60,000 Marriott points to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan you’d end up with 25,000 miles, giving you a maximum transfer ratio of 2.4:1. One notable exception is United MileagePlus, which offers a 10% bonus when converting Marriott points on top of the standard 5,000-mile bonus. You cam transfer up to 240,000 points a day, and while some programs transfer nearly instantly others can take up to a week.
While having more redemption options is almost always a good thing, it can make it difficult to decide whether to use your Marriott points primarily for hotels or for airline miles. My general rule of thumb is that I only transfer Marriott points to airlines if I’m able to leverage a unique and high-value partner like Alaska Airlines and get miles that are hard to earn elsewhere.
Unique features of the Marriott Bonvoy program
In addition to the size and diversity of its portfolio, there are a few unique features of the Marriott Bonvoy program that may make it an even better fit for your needs.
United RewardsPlus partnership
United and Marriott have a reciprocal partnership that allows both elites and general members to enjoy enhanced benefits when traveling. Here are the details:
- If you hold United Premier Gold status (or higher), you can enjoy complimentary Marriott Gold Elite status. This includes a 25% point bonus, upgrades to enhanced rooms and a welcome amenity upon check-in at participating brands.
- If you hold Marriott Bonvoy Titanium or Ambassador Elite status, you can enjoy complimentary United Premier Silver status through the RewardsPlus program, which comes with a 40% mileage bonus, access to Economy Plus/preferred seating at check-in and more.
You’ll need to link your accounts online to receive these benefits, and some users have reported needing to relink their accounts every year. Even if you don’t have elite status, you can still enjoy the 10% bonus when transferring Marriott points to United. Make sure to check out our complete guide to RewardsPlus for full details on maximizing this partnership.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever found the perfect award flights or hotel nights for your upcoming trip, but were just short on the points you needed to book? Marriott has an answer to this through its Points Advance booking option, though this program has been devalued significantly in the last year so make sure to pay close attention to the details here.
If you go to make a Marriott reservation and you don’t have enough points in your account to cover it, you’ll see a banner alerting you that you’re eligible to use Points Advance
Booking this way locks in your award inventory while you wait to earn points, but it doesn’t look in the exact rate. This means that if your hotel changes to peak or off-peak pricing, or even moves up or down a category in the award chart, you could end up owing more or fewer points. You have until 14 days before arrival to earn enough points to pay for your reservation (at whatever award rate the hotel is pricing at at that time) or you risk your reservation being canceled.
Points Advance is a great option when you’re not sure if you’re going to end up taking a certain trip, you’re debating between multiple hotels in the same city, or you’re saving up for an expensive and aspirational reward. It can give you peace of mind while you focus on building up your account balance, but remember that the rate can fluctuate and you might be on the hook for considerably more points than you planned for.
There are many different facets to the new Marriott Bonvoy loyalty program, from your standard hotel redemptions at thousands of properties around the globe to niche airline transfer partners and even a crossover partnership with United Airlines.
Hopefully this information will help you maximize your earning and burning on future Marriott stays.
Featured photo by AFP/Getty Images.
For the rates and fees of the Amex Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant, please click here
For the rates and fees of the Amex Marriott Bonvoy Business, please click here
For the rates and fees of the Amex Platinum, please click here
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