5 things to do now before Marriott's new award categories take effect this week
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We're now just a few days away from a major shift in Marriott's award chart, as the program's annual category changes are set to take effect on Wednesday Mar. 4, 2020. While some shifts are expected each year, the 2020 adjustments are widespread and almost entirely negative. Nearly one-third of Marriott's 7,200+ properties are changing categories, with a total of 22% moving up, and just 7% moving down.
Our calculations show that the average award night cost across the entire portfolio will be going up roughly 6%, with a notable increase in how many properties occupy the top end of the award chart.
With time running out before these changes take effect, there are some important action items you should take now. Here's a run-down of five things you need to do before Mar. 4 to minimize the impact of the devaluation.
Book properties going up — now
As noted above, a large proportion of the properties changing award categories are moving up in price: 1,686 of them, to be exact.
As you'd expect, there are a lot of luxurious properties on this list that currently make for a great use of Marriott points. If you have plans to visit any of these locations between now and early 2021, do your absolute best to finalize your plans and lock in these awards ASAP, since the current (lower) prices will remain in effect for awards booked and confirmed prior to that date. If you then need to make any changes to these awards after Mar. 4 — like adding a night or changing your dates — you will almost certainly be subject to the new award rates.
Here are a few gems that you should consider booking now:
This is especially true for those properties that are eligible for free-night certificates from Marriott's slate of cobranded credit cards. For example, holders of the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card or the Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card receive an annual certificate after card renewal month, valid for a free night at properties costing 35,000 points or less — up to Category 5 (excluding peak nights). Unfortunately, 216 of these properties are shifting to Category 6 next year, while only 15 are moving down from Category 6, giving you a net loss of 201 options.
Top properties to book now with these 35k certificates include:
- Westin Snowmass
- Sheraton Kauai Resort
- Renaissance Aruba Resort
- The St. Regis Abu Dhabi
- Le Méridien Vienna
It's a similar story for the annual certificate on the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card, which is valid for a free night costing up to 50,000 points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program (certain hotels have resort fees). Ninety-five properties that currently fall into Category 6 are shifting to Category 7, while only nine are moving down to Category 6 from 7 — a net loss of 86. This impacts properties such as the New York Marriott Marquis and the Bodrum EDITION.
Note that off-peak dates for Category 7 properties will still be in the range of these 50k certificates, though you may find that you'd sometimes be better off paying cash for those lower-demand travel times.
Confirm existing Points Advance reservations
Marriott's Points Advance functionality used to be incredibly useful. When you were short on points, you could book an award stay for a future date and then earn the remaining points to cover the full redemption at least 14 days before arrival. This not only confirmed the room; it also locked in the award rate, making you immune to future price adjustments.
Unfortunately, that all changed with the introduction of peak and off-peak pricing. While these reservations still confirm the room inventory (which can be nice on high-demand dates), your award price isn't locked in until you have enough points to finalize the reservation and attach a certificate. Marriott has confirmed to TPG that this month's category changes will follow the same approach: Points Advance reservations at properties going up in price will automatically adjust to the higher award rate unless you've actually redeemed the required points prior to Wednesday.
If you have a Points Advance reservation at one or more of these properties and have earned (or will earn) enough points before Mar. 4, 2020, you should absolutely confirm the stay before that date. Otherwise, you'll likely find yourself in need of even more points for the same room.
There are a number of ways to quickly earn Marriott points, including transfers from Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards. Just note that our tests found that Chase transfers to Marriott could take nearly two days to process, so if you plan on going that route, make the transfer today (Amex points should transfer instantly).
Also don't overlook the ability to share up to 100,000 points per year with another member for free. If there's no other way for you to earn enough points to cover your Points Advance reservation before Mar. 4, see if any friends or family members will "loan" you points. He/she can transfer you up to 100,000 points for you to confirm your reservation, and then you can pay those points back at a later date, once you've earned them.
Book new Points Advance reservations
Hear me out on this one, since it's a bit convoluted. As noted above, Points Advance reservations are subject to price changes until the moment you redeem points to cover the stay. These fluctuations could be due to shifting peak/off-peak dates or due to category changes, but one thing's for sure: Your Points Advance award rate isn't finalized until the points are deducted from your account. This is why it's critical to confirm your Points Advance stay now for properties moving to a higher category.
However, if you're looking to visit a property that is dropping to a lower category come Mar. 4, such as the W Aspen, I'd recommend booking a Points Advance reservation now.
You may be wondering the rationale for this, especially since it directly contradicts what Marriott is recommending on its own category-change page (emphasis mine):
"Rest assured, if your favorite hotel is moving to a higher category, you can save points by booking at the current redemption rate before the changes go into effect. If it’s moving to a lower category, you might want to wait until the changes take effect."
Why should you book these stays now? Well, there's essentially no downside to doing so, and there's a lot of upside.
As noted previously, there's not a lot to love about these category changes, but it's entirely plausible that properties dropping to lower categories will see a bit of a run on award bookings for some dates in the days after Mar. 4. This could limit the number of standard rooms available using points at these locations, as multiple members will rush to book award stays at lower rates.
However, if you've made a Points Advance reservation at a property moving to a lower category, you've confirmed the room inventory now and can still benefit from the soon-to-be-lower award price later. As soon as the category changes take effect, your reservation should shift to the new rate — at which point you could confirm the stay with fewer points than your original booking.
(Note: Marriott used to allow you to hold a room on a Points Advance reservations even when you had enough points in your account to cover the stay, but that's been changed. There's a workaround, though. If you currently have enough points for a property dropping in price, book a refundable award stay at another hotel, then book the Points Advance reservation once your points appear depleted, then cancel the other stay and get your points back. Just be sure this reservation isn't at a property changing categories, or else there may be a mismatch between your initial reservation and what you get refunded.)
The only possible downside to this strategy is if Mar. 4 brings a major change to the given property's peak and off-peak calendar. This is highly unlikely and — from my calculation — only applies to the 9 properties dropping from Category 7 to Category 6, but in the interest of thoroughness, I want to cover it.
Let's say that you book a two-night, off-peak award stay at one of these properties. Right now, you'd need to spend just 50,000 points per night. However, if both of those dates shift to peak pricing once the property drops to Category 6, your reservation will actually require more points as of Mar. 4 — 20,000 more to be exact.
Keep in mind that this is the only instance when the lower category's peak pricing is higher than the higher category's off-peak pricing. With any other tier, a shift from off-peak to peak pricing will (at worst) result in the same number of points needed for the reservation, while any other shift (off-peak to standard, standard to peak, etc.) will result in a lower redemption rate.
Consider your credit cards
You should also think hard about the current Marriott credit cards in your wallet and decide whether these changes warrant any immediate action. Before Mar. 4, I would argue that the free-night certificates from these cards provide enough value (by themselves) to justify keeping them, year after year. However, with net losses to the list of available properties for these certificates, that is worth another look. There are still thousands of properties where you can use those certificates, but if your favorites become out of reach consider whether the certificates still hold enough value for you.
Here's why this is timely: Both Chase and American Express typically offer a 30-day "grace period" after you renew your card and incur an annual fee to cancel (or downgrade) a card. Once that 30-day window is up, you're no longer able to request a refund.
If these changes really impact your plans and your annual fee(s) for renewal won't post until later in the year, there's no need to rush to do anything now. Continue using the card(s) as you have before, and evaluate whether it makes sense to keep it (or them) later on.
Explore airline transfer partners
If this was your final straw and you're throwing in the towel on getting solid value from your Marriott points for hotel stays, consider looking at the program's airline transfer partners.
Generally speaking, you get the most value from hotel loyalty programs by redeeming points for free nights. However, Marriott Bonvoy has over 40 airline partners, and the vast majority give you 1 mile for every 3 Marriott points you transfer, plus a 5,000-mile bonus when you transfer 60,000 points. You can also leverage the RewardsPlus partnership between Marriott and United to enjoy an additional 10% bonus when you transfer Marriott points to United Mileage Plus.
This isn't always a great option, but there are times when it makes sense to transfer Marriott points to airlines, including:
- 87,000 Marriott points = 34,000 Iberia Avios, good for a one-way, business-class flight to Madrid (MAD) from New York-JFK, Boston (BOS) or Chicago-O'Hare (ORD) on off-peak dates
- 120,000 Marriott points = 50,000 Alaska miles, good for a one-way, business-class flight on Cathay Pacific from the U.S. to Asia
- 60,000 Marriott points = 25,000 Japan Airlines miles, good for a one-way, economy-class flight from the U.S. to Japan
By familiarizing yourself with these transfer options now, you'll be better equipped to initiate one after Mar. 4 if that works best for you.
There's little to love (or even like) about Marriott's 2020 category changes, as nearly a quarter of the program's portfolio will be shifting to a higher award category while only 7% is moving down. With the adjustments set to take effect on Mar. 4, 2020, you only have a few days left to take action. Make sure to consider all of the above strategies to minimize the impact of Wednesday's changes and ensure you can still get some value from your Marriott points.