Maximizing redemptions with the Marriott Bonvoy program
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with Marriott program changes. It was originally published on Feb. 2, 2019.
Marriott’s acquisition of SPG to become the world’s largest hotel chain was an anxiety-inducing event for many award travelers. The old SPG program had been a fan favorite thanks to low award rates, a generous credit card program and valuable airline transfer options. While the merger itself was fraught with technical problems, we can safely say that many of our worst fears never came to fruition. The airline transfer program was kept intact, and the new award chart is, at the very least, fair.
While there are still a number of bugs left to be worked out, luxury brands like Ritz-Carlton and St. Regis provide no shortage of options for getting a great value out of your points. Today we’ll take a look at some of your options for maximizing your next Marriott award redemption.
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Marriott’s award chart
We’re now almost a year and a half into the Marriott Bonvoy program, and all the major changes have been implemented. This includes the introduction of Category 8 pricing (after a nice window when top-tier hotels were available at much cheaper Category 7 pricing) and peak and off-peak award rates. Across Marriott’s 7,000 or so hotels around the world, I think the eight-tier award chart is actually quite fair. While there are some obvious Category 8 properties like the St. Regis Maldives that are priced appropriately, you’ll also find a number of steals in lower categories, including the category 5 JW Marriott Shanghai Tomorrow Square.
So given all of that, what are some of the best ways to maximize your Marriott points?
Fifth night free
One of the simplest ways to make the most of your Marriott redemptions is by taking advantage of the fifth night free on award stays. This discount will automatically apply when booking stays of five nights or more online, though it only covers standard rooms. It also only covers a night of “equal or lesser value,” so if the first four nights of your stay are priced at standard or off-peak pricing and the fifth is peak, you wouldn’t earn the fifth night free.
You can earn the fifth night free more than once on a single award stay. Take the W Maldives, a property that has phenomenal award availability. How good, you ask? If you wanted to book a 25-night stay in September, you could do that. This hotel is currently a Category 8, meaning it costs 85,000 points a night. With a 25-night stay, you’d earn five fifth nights free (say that five times fast), and you can see that reflected in the award cost.
Your stay costs the equivalent of 20 nights, which comes out to 1,505,000 Marriott points after accounting for some fluctuation due to peak and off-peak pricing.
Of course you can use this feature at just about any Marriott hotel where you can find five consecutive nights of award space, and this is an easy way to automatically boost your redemption value by 25% whether you’re staying at a luxurious and exclusive Maldivian resort or a Sheraton in a major city. This also means that you should never really be booking a four-night award stay with Marriott. Assuming the hotel you’re staying at has award space for five nights, and the fifth night is free, why not extend your trip by one day? At the very least, that extra night might help you qualify for the next tier of Marriott elite status.
You can also combine this feature with the next strategy for getting great value from your Marriott points …
Cash + Points
Given how many great options there are for redeeming Marriott points, it can be tricky to figure out when to use them for hotel stays and when to pay cash instead. TPG values Marriott points at 0.8 cents each, which is a great baseline to use, but given how much hotel rates fluctuate on different days of the week and in different months of the year, you might end up with part of your stay above that valuation and part below.
Thankfully, Marriott lets you customize your stay and choose which nights to pay cash for and which to book as award nights, a feature that TPG Editor Nick Ewen included in his list of reasons why he’s sticking with Marriott this year. For stays of two nights or longer, when you search for award rates, you should see a button to “Customize Cash + Points” under the award rates tab. If you click on it, you’ll be able to compare the paid and award rate for each night of your stay.
In the example below, you can see a four-night stay at the JW Marriott Chicago, a Category 5 hotel that costs 35,000 points a night under standard pricing and 40,000 a night with peak pricing.
Based on TPG’s valuation of Marriott points, the first three nights represent great award redemptions. 40,000 points are worth about $320, so using them to book a $607 and $538 night is steal. Same with the third night, where 35,000 points (worth $280) are a much better choice than paying $381 cash. However, the rate dips on the last night making cash more attractive than points.
As mentioned above, you can even stack this feature with the fifth-night-free discount, though you must use points for at least five of those nights with points. The award nights don’t even have to be consecutive. For example, you can book a seven-night stay that starts with three award nights, then has two cash nights, and then finishes with another two award nights. This will still give you one of the five award nights for free.
The Marriott portfolio has a number of unbelievable hotels, including some of the most over-the-top, luxurious properties in the world. These include a number of Ritz-Carlton and St. Regis properties, some hotels that are all-suite, and other dreamy destinations like the Al Maha Resort in the desert outside of Dubai.
While SPG used to have a separate award chart for these incredible properties, Marriott made the generous decision to fold them into the regular award chart as Category 8, requiring 85,000 points for a standard room.
Unfortunately, a number of these destinations are highly seasonal, meaning that these properties — which include hotels like the St. Regis Maldives and St. Regis Bora Bora — will show up with peak pricing more often than not. As a reminder, here’s how Category 8 pricing looks with peak and off-peak rates:
- Off-peak: 70,000 points (worth $560 based on TPG’s valuations)
- Standard: 85,000 points ($680)
- Peak: 100,000 points ($800)
Even at peak pricing, many of these properties are an incredible deal, as they often sell for well over $800 per night. Award reservations at Al Maha are practically all-inclusive, as they include three meals and two desert activities a day (alcohol costs extra). When you compare that to a $1,600+ nightly cash rate, 100,000 points doesn’t look that bad.
And of course there’s the St. Regis Maldives, one of the most iconic and desirable points hotels in the world. While just saying ‘Maldives’ conjures to mind images of overwater villas, award reservations at the St. Regis actually book into a garden villa. During peak seasons these rooms sell for $2,500 a night or more. Even if you’re paying the peak rate of 100,000 points a night, you’d be getting about 2.5 cents per Marriott point, more than triple TPG’s valuation.
Focus on (category) 5
While it’s hard to argue with the over-the-top luxury of a hotel in the Maldives, I find myself getting the most consistent value out of Category 5 properties. This is good news, as most of the free night certificates you can earn with Marriott credit cards like the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card are worth up to 35,000 points, which means up to a Category 5 hotel under standard (but not peak) pricing.
Category 5 is a perfect mix of reasonably-priced luxury properties, or quality hotels in otherwise expensive markets. In some big cities like Chicago, you have as many as a dozen different options to choose from when deciding how to redeem your free nights. In the last two years I’ve enjoyed stays at the following Category 5 properties, and whether I opted to redeem my points or use a free night certificate, I felt I got a pretty outsized value:
- St. Regis Beijing
- W Chicago Lakeshore & W Chicago City Center
- Sheraton Grand Sydney Hyde Park
- W Atlanta Buckhead
- JW Marriott Shanghai Tomorrow Square
- The Mira Moon Hong Kong
- The Maxwell NYC
Whenever I’m traveling to a new city I focus on Category 5 first, and I’m rarely disappointed.
One great way to tie together all of these strategies is by taking advantage of Marriott’s Points Advance option. Note that this feature was significantly devalued with the introduction of peak and off-peak pricing, so make sure to get up to speed on the changes before you try and use it again.
As the name suggests, Points Advance allows you to book an award reservation even if you don’t have enough points in your account. You’ll receive a confirmation number and have until 14 days before arrival to earn the remaining balance of points and actually pay for the reservation.
If you forget to order the certificates and have enough points in your account seven days out, Marriott will automatically complete your reservation for you. However, I’d strongly encourage you to earn the points at least two weeks before arrival, as the program’s terms and conditions includes the following verbiage:
“if a Member does not have sufficient Points to pay for an Award Redemption with Points fourteen (14) days or less from Member’s arrival date, Member will forfeit the Award Redemption part of the reservation. The Award Redemption may be canceled by the Loyalty Program or the Participating Property and the reservation will be converted to a cash reservation at the best available rate.”
I certainly wouldn’t like to see a reservation at 60,000 points per night suddenly convert into one at $1,500+ per night, so again, I’d recommend that you finalize the reservation as soon as possible.
Putting together an international award trip requires a lot of moving pieces to line up correctly, but using Points Advance can take the stress out of it. Are you eyeing a trip to New York this summer? You can lock in award space now at The Maxwell, a solid Category 5 hotel with a great location. This property normally costs 35,000 points a night, but one of the nights for this stay is off-peak leading to a final price of only 100,000 points (instead of 105,000).
Unfortunately, Points Advance only locks in your award space, not the rate you’ll pay. If all three nights of this stay go up to peak pricing before you earn enough points, you’ll be on the hook for the full 120,000 points. Of course the other two nights could drop to off-peak giving you a further discount, but remember that you aren’t locking in the rate when you book this way.
Also keep in mind that each hotel has a slightly different penalty-free cancellation policy. I’ve seen anywhere from one day before arrival to 30 days. Marriott now limits you to three active Points Advance reservations at a time, and while there’s very little risk to making a reservation far in advance you’ll always want to mark that cancellation deadline on your calendar.
While most people weren’t over-the-moon ecstatic with Marriott’s integration of SPG, in many ways our worst fears never materialized. Marriott’s new award chart has a good amount of value in it, especially when you consider the high-end legacy SPG properties and brands that have been integrated. No matter what hotel you’re considering, you can take advantage of the strategies described above to get even more value out of your Marriott award redemptions.
Featured photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.
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