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One of the biggest stories of 2018 was the integration of Marriott, SPG and Ritz-Carlton into a single, unified program. The merger was a long-time coming, but sadly things did not go as smoothly as everyone would’ve liked. The immediate aftermath of the August 18 changeover was messy, but issues persisted well into the fall. Even today, we here at TPG continue to get reports of problems that members have encountered, even as the program gets set for a few additional transitions (including the now-confirmed and almost universally-derided new name).
Today I want to go through our top ten complaints we’ve heard over the last several months and continue to hear today and provide some helpful suggestions for how Marriott can fix them. Failing that, I’ll suggest what steps you can take to get Marriott Rewards working for you again.
(Editor’s note: The list that follows is not comprehensive, nor is it meant to reflect what all members are seeing. We acknowledge that many members haven’t encountered many or any of these problems. That being said, we’ve received reports of each one from multiple TPG readers and have even encountered many in our own interactions with Marriott, so it’s clear that there are still issues left from the integration.)
1. Poor customer service
Any loyalty program needs to provide solid customer service to its members, and by many accounts, this is the biggest area where Marriott failed during the integration. The emails and comments we’ve received document numerous cases of members being provided inaccurate information or simply receiving no responses. Emails have gone into the oblivion. Social media channels, previously a source of quick responses from SPG, have gone dark. TPG Senior Writer JT Genter was even told two flat-out lies by an “elite service supervisor” just last week. According to her:
- He can’t have both a Ritz-Carlton card and a Starwood Preferred Guest® Business Credit Card from American Express.
- A member can’t have the same mailing address as another member (sorry families!).
To make this worse, the failures extend to the program’s most elite travelers: top-tier Platinum Premier Elites with ambassadors. One member reported an initial email and 40-minute phone call with his ambassador, followed by a whole lot of nothing. Multiple emails went unanswered, and a final message to the generic ambassador address resulted in a response after 48 hours, hardly indicative of elite-level support for someone who claimed to spend $27k last year.
How to fix: Customer service is a complicated endeavor, but there needs to be a systematic and substantial investment in processes, procedures and staff training to ensure that members feel valued. It’s inexcusable to be given straight-up wrong information by any customer service agent, but when that’s apparently a supervisor, that hints at a serious problem.
There’s another related angle to this one that bears separate mention …
2. Long hold times
Waiting on hold with an airline or hotel program generally isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but the Marriott integration has taken this to new depths. With emails going unanswered and social media accounts silent, many members have taken to calling customer service in an effort to resolve ongoing problems. This hasn’t been successful.
As an example, here’s a brief timeline of JT’s call with customer service from Wednesday Jan. 2 where he tried to sort out why his Platinum status from the Ritz-Carlton card had disappeared with the changeover from 2018 to 2019:
- 25 minutes to get an agent
- Another 30 minutes for the agent to research the problem
- 2 hours 15 minutes to get the aforementioned supervisor (who provided incorrect information)
- Another 30 minutes for her to research the problem
Compare this to his phone call to Chase immediately thereafter (once Marriott realized the issue lay with the issuer of the card). The conversation lasted a total of 8 minutes and included profuse apologies, a note to the escalation team to investigate and a promise to call back later that day. The difference is mind-boggling.
How to fix: This is another example of a place where the program simply has to invest cold, hard cash. Back in September, our Marriott contacts confirmed that call center staffs were being expanded by adding “60 newly-trained Loyalty Care associates per week” though reports like JT’s indicate that problems persist. Increasing the number of call center reps is one piece; these new hires must also have the training to research and then address problems quickly (rather than forcing members to stay on hold for multiple hours).
If you’re getting frustrated with long hold times, don’t be afraid to turn to an international call center. I used this strategy in the early hours of the merger to book both the St. Regis Maldives and Al Maha while US-based agents were still locked out of the award reservation system. I never had to wait on hold for more than 5 minutes, and the agents I spoke to were both competent and polite, which is unfortunately a rarity these days. My go-to is the SPG Malaysia call center, which can be reached by dialing 60 3 2688 8080.
3. IT problems
Another huge headache during the integration has been IT issues. From reservations disappearing to problems combining accounts, the early days were fraught with difficulties, but these remained well into the fall. In October, TPG‘s own Summer Hull had to fight (figuratively speaking) to get 84,000 points back on award stays she had cancelled. In early November, a reader reported that multiple reservations made after the Aug. 18 integration with his Marriott number had disappeared, and a phone rep was equally as puzzled. The reservations pulled up with their confirmation numbers but somehow weren’t linked to his account (despite booking them while logged in).
While many of the early problems have been fixed at this point, the recent migration of legacy SPG properties to Marriott’s reservation system brought with it a whole new set of technological challenges. We’re even still seeing the Choice Benefit website down, forcing Marriott to push back the deadline for its most loyal guests to select their desired perks. It might be a while longer until the world’s largest hotel chain is operating 100% bug free.
How to fix: Marriott is aware of most of the IT issues at this point, but if you spot a problem it can’t hurt to let them know so they can get an IT team assigned to fix it. Given how slow Marriott has been answering emails, your bet bet might be to call customer service directly (especially a foreign call center, as noted above) and ask them to open a case. This way your issue will be addressed specifically, and if you’ve really been inconvenienced you can even ask the agent to grant you courtesy points for the time you’ve wasted on the issue. I had to make several calls last week when a hotel I’d booked using Points Advance kept auto-billing my account (several months before the reservation, mind you) and after the third call, the agent I spoke to gave me 10,000 Marriott points for my trouble.
4. Ongoing account errors
Not only has Marriott struggled to deliver full functionality for its merged app and website, but we’ve received many reports of individual accounts still showing incorrect point balances, elite status, or stay history. Some errors will be glaringly obvious, but unless you carefully documented your legacy Marriott and SPG account details before the merger, it might be difficult to spot smaller mistakes. Even if your account is showing data incorrectly, there’s a good chance Marriott has access to the old records that support your claim.
As an example, I have an upcoming stay booked at Al Maha Resort in Dubai, and when Marriott changed the terms of award bookings at this property to exclude food and activities (a change that was then reversed), the terms of my upcoming stay were updated as well. When I called Marriott to make sure I hadn’t lost out on three days of free food and activities, they confirmed that the back-end reservation system showed the original terms I booked under. While this is just one example, it makes me optimistic that Marriott’s record keeping is much better than the merger would suggest.
How to fix: Marriott has unfortunately put the burden on individuals to spot account mistakes. If you believe your account is still not correct, you’ll need to contact Marriott to resolve the issue. Again, expect a case number to be opened and a resolution to be sent to you within a few days (or weeks, depending on how complex the issue is). While you should stay on top of your account information to make sure everything is accurate, you should also differentiate between urgent requests and those that can wait. Unless it directly impacts impending travel, you may want to hold off and see if the problem is resolved on its own.
5. Incorrect pricing on ‘Points Advance’ reservations
This has been one of the most frustrating problems, as many people intelligently utilized Marriott’s Points Advance booking feature to lock in lower award rates at properties that were going up in pricing after the merger, only to find that their reservations are now showing the new elevated prices. While this should also be a quick fix based on the date your reservation was created, I’ve seen varying data points suggesting that many people can’t get their reservations repriced correctly. Unfortunately, it appears that many Marriott agents don’t have the power to fix this problem, even if they can confirm that there is a mistake.
How to fix: Marriott is running out of good will quickly, and this type of confusion is a big reason why. Given the number of people and reservations this applies to, a clear and fair solution is absolutely required. Think about what happens when members book a paid stay. If the rate for the room they booked suddenly jumps $20, they don’t suddenly see that reflected on their reservations, even if they haven’t paid a cent. Why should award stays be treated differently?
Even if the Marriott system can’t be adjusted to prevent this, and even if it won’t let agents manually change the amount of points required on a Points Advance stay, they should be instructed to credit people’s accounts with points to offset the price difference (potentially with some additional points as a courtesy).
If you have a pre-August 18 reservation that’s reflecting the new award rates, print your original confirmation email with the correct amount, just in case the program tries to charge you the higher price.
6. Worthless blackout dates policy
Overall Marriott did a good job publicizing the details of the merger and answering our burning questions, even about some niche and underrated elements of the program. The new Marriott Bonvoy seemed to take some great things from both legacy programs, but one element that has remained disparate is the way properties implement blackout dates for award stays. Put bluntly, the policy for legacy Marriott hotels is worthless, as properties under these 16 brands can cap the number of standard rooms they make available for award bookings. For roughly four months, from August 18 through mid-December, the program’s terms and conditions were updated with more consumer-friendly language, though a Marriott spokesperson indicates that there’s been no policy change in terms of how properties handle blackout dates since the integration.
How to fix: I’d love to see Marriott bring back the temporary language from the terms and conditions and make it permanent, forcing all properties to make standard rooms available for awards when they’re available for cash. After all, doesn’t peak and off-peak pricing remove the need for a property to block awards on high-demand dates? An individual hotel will soon be able to charge more points for awards during those times. This shift wouldn’t make the program industry-leading; it would simply bring it in line with Hilton Honors and World of Hyatt, two of the other popular programs for award travelers.
If Marriott wants to engender loyalty from disillusioned members, this would go a long way towards doing so.
7. Elite night credits for multiple rooms
Some of the biggest losers in the merger were legacy SPG Platinum elites, who saw many of their favorite perks devalued. Among these was the ability to earn elite night credits for multiple rooms on the same reservation. While Marriott was clear that this policy was changing, many users were still surprised to see their elite night balances growing more slowly than they had in the past.
How to fix: SPG was always a bit of an outlier in this regard, so while I don’t expect Marriott to fully capitulate here, a goodwill gesture would go a long way to retaining some of its most valuable customers. One great solution, regardless of this specific issue, would be to give all legacy SPG elites another year of complimentary status, no matter how much elite qualifying activity they have this year. This would give them another 12 months to adapt to the new program, and might soothe any feathers that were ruffled in the merger.
8. Decreased earning rate on SPG Amex cards
The Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express and Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card from American Express used to be no-brainers for non-bonus everyday spending thanks to the outrageously powerful earning rate of 1 Starpoint per dollar spent (3 Marriott points/dollar in the new system). SPG’s plethora of airline transfer partners made these cards card attractive value propositions even to those who didn’t stay in SPG hotels frequently. During the merger, the cards received a 33% haircut and now earn 2x Marriott points per dollar spent, a return of 1.8% based on TPG’s valuations. There are a ton of ways to guarantee a better return than this, even by opting for the simple Citi® Double Cash Card.
How to fix: More and more issuers are releasing new or updated versions of their credit cards (see: increased earning rates and added perks for the American Express® Gold Card). Competition for non-bonus spending is thus heating up, and Marriott needs to do something to retain cobranded credit card customers. While much of this is decided by the issuers (Chase and Amex) and not Marriott itself, a great gesture would be to waive annual fees for existing cardholders or offer elevated retention bonuses for one year to smooth the transition.
If you have an SPG Amex set for renewal in 2019, I’d be sure to call and express your displeasure with this devaluation. If there’s enough of an impact to the cards’ bottom lines, we’d likely see additional changes to stem the bleeding.
9. Marriott website/app
If you’ve managed to stomach all the other merger related problems and continued to stay loyal to Marriott, it can be incredibly frustrating to open up the Marriott website or app and find that you aren’t able to complete a hotel reservation. There have been a number of on and off problems here, including the inability to search for hotels, inaccurate prices showing on the search page (vs. the price seen at checkout) and the inability to complete both points and cash bookings. We’ve also heard from several SPG loyalists who much preferred its websites, including the ability to quickly compare multiple rates and filter by price.
How to fix: Obviously this issue is of the utmost importance to Marriott, as the bulk of its revenue is generated from hotel bookings. Whenever I’ve encountered a problem, I’ve taken a screenshot of the issue, including any incorrect or unbookable rates I’ve seen on the site. While you can bet that Marriott is working overtime to smooth out the high-level issues here, I would love to see them honor the rates they display to customers, even if they were displayed in error.
And if you’re longing for the SPG site, speak up and tell Marriott what improvements you’d like to see in its booking platform.
10. Withholding elite benefits
This is another problem that existed long before the merger, with many Marriott properties either refusing to serve elites free breakfast or withholding Platinum suite upgrades. It should come as no surprise that Marriott hasn’t done anything to fix this, instead focusing on the multitude of new issues created by the merger. That being said, there’s no excuse for allowing individual hotels to weasel out and not reward elites for their continued loyalty. Even if the problem isn’t incredibly widespread, each time it happens it devalues the brand standards and gives long time loyal travelers one more reason to look to Hyatt or Hilton instead.
How to fix: It’s clear that some Marriott properties are not happy with the merger either, and a number have even left the program. For those that choose to stay, Marriott needs to put its foot down and seriously enforce its brand standards across a sprawling global portfolio. This might mean making some concessions and working with hotels to address their concerns and keep them happy, but it’s clear that something needs to be done.
If you come across a hotel that isn’t honoring the published terms for your given tier of elite status, invoke Marriott’s Elite Benefits Guarantee (section 4.1.d. in the program’s terms and conditions).
I try to be understanding about the IT bugs that have come along with the Marriott merger, as combining two very different program and integrating billions of pieces of data are sure to create some problems. What bothers me more is the lack of customer service and a perceived feeling of indifference towards fixing these problems (or is it just me?). In some cases, your only option is to look to Marriott to find an answer, escalating your issue to a supervisor as necessary. In other cases, there are steps you can take to help yourself, such as keeping meticulous records and utilizing alternative avenues of communication (such as foreign call centers) when you need help.
When all else fails, consider looking elsewhere. With Hilton offering status matches through March 2020 and Hyatt expanding its global footprint through acquisitions and new partnerships, now could be a good time to jump to a new program.
Featured photo by Shutterstock.com
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