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Most loyalty programs require you to have the full number of points or miles in your account before you can book an award. Even with things like Amex’s Pay with Points rebate (available on select charge cards like The Business Platinum® Card from American Express) and Singapore’s waitlist option, you need the full amount to cover the entire redemption. This makes it somewhat difficult to plan for future trips, especially if you’re just beginning the accumulation phase of your points strategy and waiting for your a welcome bonus from a new travel rewards credit card to post.

Marriott is a unique exception here thanks to its valuable ‘Points Advance’ award booking option. However, the program just announced some significant changes set to kick in September 14, 2019, and these will dramatically limit the feature’s usefulness. Today we’ll walk through everything you need to know to use Points Advance, including how it can help you secure hard-to-get award stays and why you should consider making these reservations now.

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The Basics

As the name suggests, Points Advance allows you to book a Marriott award reservation even if you don’t have enough points in your account. It doesn’t matter if you’re short by 1 point or 100,000 points, it works the same way. You can confirm an award reservation as soon as your plans are finalized and then earn the remaining points you need before your stay begins. It’s essentially no different than booking a refundable paid stay; with most paid rates, you don’t actually need to spend the cash up-front, and the same holds true here.

In the past, you could even use Points Advance if you did have enough points in your account, but this loophole was changed (without warning) in April 2019.

It’s incredibly easy to use Points Advance. Simply log on to the Marriott website and search for hotels as if you were going to make an award booking. If you’re short on points, Marriott will still display the number of points required but will allow you to confirm the room if you don’t have enough to cover the entire stay, like this ten-night award trip at the Westin Maldives:

If you’re interested in booking a shorter five-night stay — and you have the points to cover it — Marriott’s platform won’t display this option:

From there, simply complete the reservation like normal and Marriott will give you a confirmation number.

Once your reservation is booked, you then need to earn enough points to cover the stay. Now it’s worth noting that there’s a slight discrepancy between the timeline you should follow for this. Your confirmation may indicate that you have until 15 days before check-in to log back into your account and pay for the award reservation:

However, here’s what section 3.6.a of the program’s terms and conditions say about this (emphasis mine):

“If a purchase of Points is not an option, or 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.”

Based on this verbiage, if you don’t have enough points in your account either two weeks or 15 days before your arrival, your reservation may be cancelled, though Marriott has told us that the individual properties should reach out to you first to discuss your options. Nevertheless, I would highly recommend making arrangements to earn enough points to then order your e-certificates at least 15 days before the start of your stay.

Finally, you should definitely pay attention to the penalty-free cancellation window, as it varies by hotel. I’ve made a few different Points Advance reservations for upcoming trips and have seen cancellation windows that range from one day before arrival to 30 days before.

Upcoming Changes

Unfortunately, this feature of the Marriott program is changing significantly as of September 14, 2019. This is when Marriott will implement peak and off-peak pricing at its 7,000+ properties around the world. The program will use an algorithm to determine when a property will have higher (peak) award rates and when it will offer lower (off-peak) prices, and it’ll adjust these dates roughly every month to take into account demand across the portfolio.

In the past, if a property’s award rate changed after you booked a Points Advance stay but before you actually redeemed points, you were effectively grandfathered in and paid the rate you originally booked — even if your online reservation showed the higher price. However, if you make a Points Advance reservation on or after September 14, you are no longer locking in the rate. You’ll be required to cover the award stay at the price in effect at the time you use points, not the time you book.

Here’s an example of how this would work. Let’s say that you booked a Category 8 property like the St. Regis Maldives for a five-night award stay using Points Advance. Your reservation was made on September 15, 2019 for a stay in mid-2020, and the property was charging standard rates (85,000 points per night) on all five nights of your trip. You’d thus need 340,000 points to cover the room — taking into account the program’s fifth-night-free perk — and would need to earn them at least 15 days before arrival.

Fast forward to the spring. You’ve earned the points and login to your account, only to find that one of Marriott’s monthly algorithmic changes has determined that the dates of your trip are now classified as “peak” dates. You suddenly need an extra 60,000 points to cover the reservation you booked months ago.

Now, it remains to be seen just how significant these monthly adjustments will be, and if you have a property that drops from standard to off-peak (or peak to standard), you could wind up using fewer points on a Points Advance reservation. And any reservation with Points Advance prior to September 14, 2019 will be honored at the rate in effect at the time of booking.

TIP: If you book a Points Advance reservation before the changes kick in, Marriott will not send you a confirmation email. To ensure you have documentation that “proves” the rate you booked, log in to your account, navigate to the My Trips section and click View/Modify to open the reservation. Click the Email link at the top to send yourself an email with the rate you booked.

The email won’t be pretty, but it’ll at least document the rate you initially booked in case a customer service agent isn’t able (or willing) to honor it.

Finally, Marriott is also asking members to only have three Points Advance reservations at one time, though it remains to be seen how strictly this will be enforced.

Why You Should Use Points Advance

Despite these changes, there is still one major benefit to making a Points Advance reservation: locking in award availability during busy travel times. As an example, the St. Regis in Washington, DC has award availability over July 4th weekend next year, and if I don’t have enough points in my account, Points Advance would let me reserve that space while I decide if I’ll be going home to spend the weekend with my family.

If I hold off on booking the room, there’s no guarantee that it’ll be there in a month, a week or even by tomorrow.

However, you’ll need to be aware that the aforementioned changes mean that you’re just reserving the room, not confirming the rate. As a Category 7 property, the St. Regis in Washington would require 70,000 points per night on peak travel dates — and it’s a highly likely that a holiday weekend would fall into that band. As a result, you’ll want to make your Points Advance reservation before September 14, 2019. If you wait until on or after that date, you’ll be subjected to whatever price is in effect at the time you’ve earned enough points and redeem them to cover the stay.

Boosting Your Marriott Balance

If you do utilize the Points Advance feature, there are no shortage of ways to earn the extra Marriott points needed to cover your reservation. In addition to earning points through actual stays, you can also transfer points from both Chase Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards at a 1:1 rate — though given how highly we value those currencies, I’d only recommend doing this to make up a minuscule shortfall. Marriott also allows you to freely transfer up to 100,000 points per calendar year between any two accounts that have each been open for 60 days or longer, so if a friend or family member is feeling generous, that’s a quick (and free) way to earn a large number of points.

Finally, the combined program offers a number of different cobranded credit cards, and three currently have large welcome bonuses:

Just note that Chase and Amex did make it more challenging to earn these welcome bonuses shortly after the integration, so be sure you’re eligible for an offer before applying.

Bottom Line

Marriott’s Points Advance feature is relatively unique in the world of travel rewards, giving you an opportunity to book an award stay when you’re short on points. This can be a great option during high-demand travel dates, though it’s unfortunately losing some significant utility as of September 14, 2019. You’re no longer locking in the rate for Points Advance reservations booked on or after that date, as you’ll need to pay the applicable peak and/or off-peak pricing in effect when you ultimately redeem points for the stay. This could result in using fewer points than you originally planned, but it could also result in higher rates. As a result, you’ll want to do your best to finalize your 2020 plans and make any Points Advance bookings now.

Featured photo courtesy of the Westin Maldives.

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.