Book This, Not That: Marriott Category 8 Showdown
Back before the Marriott/Starwood merger was finalized, SPG had a special award chart for some of its top-tier properties that were too luxurious to fit anywhere on the standard chart. We're talking about the all-suite resorts like the St. Regis Maldives, the stuff that points dreams are made of.
However, shortly after we received details of the combined program's award chart, Marriott confirmed an incredibly generous decision: all hotels (including these high-end properties) would fit into the standard award chart, designating these aspirational resorts as Category 8 redemptions. Plus, Marriott priced these Category 8 hotels at the standard Category 7 rate of 60,000 points a night for bookings made before March 5, 2019.
Now, that Category 8 pricing has taken effect, standard award rooms have jumped to 85,000 points per night. And once peak/off-peak pricing is implemented later in 2019, these awards could climb as high as 100,000 points. Given the caliber of some of these properties, however, even those higher award rates could be worth it.
Then again, with ~60 hotels in Category 8, some may not be worth it. Today we'll play a game of "Book this, not that" to see which hotels can justify the lofty Category 8 award rates. It goes without saying that you really can't go horribly wrong by using points at any of these fantastic properties, but if you're paying top dollar (or top point, as the case may be), you better be getting the absolute best experience possible.
Pick Your Polynesian Paradise
Both of Marriott's properties in French Polynesia, the St. Regis Bora Bora and Le Meridien Bora Bora, are Category 8 hotels. This is the only Le Meridien to make the program's top award tier (and one of only about a dozen that are priced above Category 5), and it shouldn't surprise you that it has a tough time measuring up to the St. Regis.
You can check out Zach Honig's full review of the St. Regis Bora Bora here, but it comes with all the bells and whistles you'd expect from one of Marriott's most luxurious brands: complimentary butler service, spacious villas and high-end amenities. To make things even better, the hotel is in the process of renovating all of its villas to provide guests with the most modern and luxurious experience possible. Zach's reefside pool villa measured a whopping 2,700 square feet, even bigger than the overwater villa TPG was staying in!
How does that compare to the Le Meridien Bora Bora? Your standard award will book you into a beach bungalow that, at 538 square feet, is less than 20% the size of the standard award room at the St. Regis. The Le Meridien gives you plenty of options to upgrade your stay for a cash copay, but to upgrade to a pool beach villa (the comparable room type to what Zach got at the St. Regis), it would cost you about ~$375 per night and your villa would still only be a (comparably) miniscule 592 square feet.
While the copay for an overwater upgrade is cheaper at the Le Meridien than the St. Regis, you'll still wind up in a villa that's only one third the size.
Avoid Marriott's Most Unique Property
The Al Maha resort located about an hour outside of Dubai is by far the most unique luxury property in the Marriott portfolio. There's truly nothing to compare it to, although the closest option would be the Category 7 Ritz Carlton Ras Al Khaimah, Al Wadi Desert. TPG reviewed the property late last year, and in addition to the endless desert views offered from each of the hotels 42 private villas, he was blown away by one simple fact: award rates at the property were all-inclusive.
Guests were entitled to three meals a day, either in the hotel's restaurant or delivered as room service, as well as two daily activities from the following list:
- Nature walk
- Ghaf tree walk
- Horse riding
- Desert drive
- Wildlife drive
- Camel trek
- Sundowners (a desert drive towards the setting sun)
Not only was the food free (alcohol does cost extra); the resort doesn't skimp on the quality either. You can order the surf and turf every day and no one will blink an eye.
Unfortunately, Marriott recently updated the terms and conditions of award bookings at Al Maha to state that only the room is included; food and activities now cost extra. I booked a three-night award stay at Al Maha back in August (before this language was added), but even my reservation now shows the new "room only" disclaimer:
The Marriott agent with whom I spoke said that this change occurred during the December 11th IT migration, and awards booked under the old "full-board" rate would be honored that way. However, if you have an upcoming stay at Al Maha, I strongly suggest you check your reservation and reach out to Marriott/the hotel to confirm the details of your rate in writing prior to arrival.
From an accessibility standpoint, staying at Al Maha is like staying in the Maldives. You're entirely isolated from civilization and forced to eat and drink at the hotel. If you were to consume three meals a day and enjoy two daily activities, the cost for two people would add several hundred dollars a day to your stay. This completely ruins Al Maha's unique and competitive edge, and next time I'm planning a trip to Dubai I'll likely consider the Category 7 Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah, Al Wadi Desert instead.
I Love New York, But...
New York is home to four Category 8 hotels:
- The Gramercy Park Hotel, a member of Design Hotels
- St. Regis New York
- The Chatwal, a Luxury Collection hotel
- The Ritz-Carlton New York, Central Park
Location has to be an important deciding factor when a property in a city like New York, but as a Marriott Platinum Premier elite, there's another consideration that tops my list. Long before the merger with SPG, Marriott was actively working to keep the Ritz-Carlton brand exclusive, even from its top-tier elites. Marriott elites don't receive free breakfast at Ritz-Carlton hotels, and they can't use suite night awards there. Suite upgrades are restricted to Platinum Premier elites and above (meaning 50-night Platinum members won't get suite upgrades), and rooms with direct club level access are not included in the Platinum Premier upgrade benefit.
Compare that to the St. Regis, which I'd argue is the single best Marriott brand when it comes to elite status recognition. Here are the room types I can choose to apply my suite night award towards:
However, with 67 suites onsite, I'm confident I'll get an upgrade even if I don't confirm it in advance. A suite upgrade at a St. Regis hotel is like no other, as your personal butler will help you pack and unpack, wake you up with fresh (complimentary) coffee and make sure all your needs are taken care of during your stay. While it doesn't boast the same Central Park views as the Ritz-Carlton, these two hotels are less than five blocks away from each other, and it's an easy choice for me.
At the end of the day, Category 8 properties are expensive for a reason. Be it the location, brand or quality of the hotel, they all offer a phenomenal experience that gets even better if you can use your points for a room. The problem is that many of these hotels aren't 30% better than comparable Category 7 properties, even if they require a 30% premium when using your points. Unless you're going for a truly off-the-charts hotel like the St. Regis Maldives, you should consider all your options and not get too caught up in simply booking the most expensive award category.