Flexible free night certificates from Marriott and IHG are coming — but it’s not all good news
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There are perks aplenty on cobranded hotel credit cards, including automatic elite status and elevated earning rates on stays.
But perhaps the single most lucrative benefit is the annual free night certificate included with select hotel cards. Certificates work differently for each of the major hotel chains, but for most travelers, they can provide outsized value that offsets a card’s annual fee.
When changes to this perk occur, cardholders should take notice. In the coming weeks, both Marriott and IHG will make major adjustments to their certificates, providing flexibility to top off a redemption with additional points.
While this is certainly a positive on the surface, look a bit deeper and you may realize it isn’t all good news. Potential devaluations are on the horizon, and perhaps most significant is the launch of dynamic award pricing from Marriott.
Let’s take a closer look at why flexible free night certificates may not be all that they’re cracked up to be.
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First, what’s changing?
Late last year, Marriott announced the long-rumored (and much-dreaded) news that dynamic award pricing would be coming in March 2022. But there was a small glimmer of seemingly good news as well.
Bonvoy members will be able to upgrade Free Night Awards with up to 15,000 points from their accounts. For example, under this new policy, the up to 35,000-point annual Free Night Award certificates from the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card will be redeemable for award nights that cost up to 50,000 points (as long as the member has enough points in his or her account to cover the difference).
IHG announced earlier this year that members will have the ability to top off the card’s annual reward night certificate on the IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card and upcoming IHG Premier Business Card.
These certificates are currently limited since they have a 40,000-point ceiling. With IHG’s upcoming changes (also in March), you can top off with as many points as you need, meaning the chain’s entire roster of properties can be redeemed with a certificate (provided you have the additional points).
Dynamic award pricing may mean higher redemption rates
Free night certificate flexibility may not be a good thing if we see an overall increase in award pricing.
At an undisclosed date in March, we will see the introduction of Marriott’s version of dynamic award pricing. For Marriott, the ability to top off certificates with additional points is going to be even more important when pricing can change on a daily basis. The majority of properties will stay within current off-peak and peak pricing bands through 2022, but that is subject to change next year.
IHG has had dynamic award pricing since 2020. But this year, it is making wholesale (and yet to be fully announced) changes to its loyalty program. Therefore, flexibility with the 40,000-point reward night on the IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card (and business card) may become even more crucial.
Flexibility is only a positive if we don’t see dramatic increases in award pricing. But at the very least, it does soften the blow of a seemingly negative consumer change. Only time will tell how these changes really play out.
Hilton allows you to use certificates at any property
In some ways, Marriott and IHG seem like they’re playing catch up to Hilton.
Hilton has had dynamic pricing to some extent since 2013, and Hilton’s free night certificates can be redeemed across the entire portfolio — including top-tier brands like Conrad, Waldorf Astoria and LXR (all without resort fees).
The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card provides one free weekend night award with your new card and every year after renewal. When redeeming Hilton’s free weekend night award certificates, the sky is the limit.
There is no category cap. So, you can redeem your free night at some genuinely exceptional Hilton properties as long as there is standard award availability and your stay falls on the weekend. Plus, Hilton made many weekend night certificates valid on weekday nights in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Unfortunately, neither Marriott nor IHG will provide nearly as flexible a certificate as Hilton. (Granted, the Aspire carries a $450 annual fee (see rates and fees) while Marriott and IHG have cards under $100 per year and still offer certificates of some kind.)
The information for the Hilton Aspire Amex has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Hyatt has more value and lower redemption rates
Hyatt continues to be a standout program in terms of value, with a published award chart and, in general, lower points pricing than its competitors.
First, you don’t pay resort fees at Hyatt (similar to Hilton) when staying on a free night award, unlike Marriott and IHG.
So while the World of Hyatt Credit Card seems like it has a fairly limited free night award each year after your cardmember anniversary — it’s only applicable at a Category 1-4 hotel — there are many ways to still get outsized value.
There are even some higher-tier Hyatt brands where you can use a Category 1-4 award, including Hyatt Regency, Hyatt Centric, Park Hyatt, Grand Hyatt and Andaz. That includes some solid Hyatt Category 1-4 properties in the U.S., as well as some properties that would be good for a family vacation.
For example, TPG points and miles editor Andrew Kunesh recently redeemed a Category 1-4 award night at the Confidante Miami Beach. The same night would have otherwise cost well over $450, providing a great deal.
These great deals are possible largely because World of Hyatt has kept standard award charts and made free night certificates available at all hotels in a select number of award chart categories. This makes it easier to get outsized value, as the points cost of a free night doesn’t affect your ability to redeem a free night certificate.
While we like loyalty programs making things more flexible for members, there is also the ever-present potential of looming devaluations.
Both Marriott and IHG will change their free night certificates for the better. At face value, there is no doubt that’s good news. Just know that it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be in the grand scheme of things, as award nights could get more expensive as the programs change.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Aspire card, click here.
Featured photo of Ritz-Carlton Fari Islands by Chris Dong/The Points Guy.
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