Too many free-night certificates and nowhere to go; how hotel programs can respond
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This may seem obvious coming from someone who works at The Points Guy, but I love to travel, especially internationally. My wife and I criss-crossed the globe for years before our daughter was born, and since then, she's tagged along — and visited her 20th country just before turning five.
Of course, this hobby is temporarily on hold.
Like many of you, I've been forced to cancel multiple trips due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and with a limited list of countries open to Americans, I won't be rescheduling those any time soon. Living in a state (Florida) that has become a massive hot spot for COVID-19 means that even domestic travel is a tough sell. This dearth of trips has created an interesting surplus: free-night hotel certificates.
Here's where I currently stand — and how hotel programs could offer additional flexibility for travelers like me.
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Overview of free-night certificates
Most hotel programs provide a number of ways for their members to earn free-night certificates. With some, it comes with elite status — like a free night through Marriott's Choice Benefits for reaching 75 nights. Others provide them via milestone bonuses — such as Hyatt's Brand Explorer award, which is earned after a member visits five different brands under the World of Hyatt umbrella.
New cardholders of the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card enjoy a free weekend-night certificate upon approval and another every year upon account renewal. You can also earn another when you spend $60,000 on your card in a calendar year. The information for the Hilton Aspire Amex card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
You can also earn a free weekend-night certificate if you hold the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card or The Hilton Honors American Express Business Card and spend $15,000 in eligible purchases on your card in a calendar year. The business card also awards a second after you spend $60,000 on your card in a calendar year.
Coronavirus updates: Hilton has extended the validity of most certificates. Any from last year that were unexpired as of March 11, 2020 as well as those issued through April 30 of this year are now good through Aug. 31, 2021. Any new ones issued from May 1 through Dec. 31, 2020 are now good for a full two years. Finally, all unexpired certificates (as well as new ones through Dec. 31) are now valid any night of the week — not just Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
Cardholders of the IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card enjoy a free-night certificate valid on stays up to 40,000 points each year upon account renewal. In addition, if you have the IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card (no longer available to new applicants), you'll enjoy the same free-night certificate benefit.
Coronavirus update: Existing certificates that were set to expire on (or after) March 1, 2020 will now be valid through Dec. 31, 2020. In addition, all new certificates issued in 2020 will be valid for 18 months — rather than the standard 12 months.
Cardholders of the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card as well as those who hold the Ritz-Carlton Rewards Card (no longer available to new applicants) will enjoy an annual free-night certificate each year after your card renewal month, valid for a stay up to 50,000 points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program (certain hotels have resort fees). In addition, those who hold the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card from Chase or the Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card will enjoy an annual free-night certificate valid for stays up to 35,000 points.
Coronavirus update: Free-night awards set to expire in 2020 can be used through Jan. 31, 2021.
The World of Hyatt
Holders of The World of Hyatt Credit Card enjoy a free-night certificate valid at Category 1-4 hotels each year they renew their card (the same perk is offered on the old Hyatt credit card, which is no longer available to new applicants). In addition, cardholders can earn a second Category 1-4 certificate by spending $15,000 in their cardmembership year — though this only applies to the new version of the card, not the old one.
Coronavirus updates: All Hyatt free-night certificates set to expire between March 1, 2020 and Dec. 1, 2020, have been extended through Dec. 31, 2021.
I currently have credit cards with all four of the above programs, and I'm sitting on unused free-night certificates with three of them (note that this includes those I've attached to a reservation but am unlikely to keep due to ongoing travel restrictions).
- Hilton Honors: I upgraded to the Hilton Aspire card last summer, so I got a free-night certificate then and another in December when my card renewed. Both are currently attached to a reservation for a college football game this fall — a trip that's almost certainly not going to happen. I will then earn another in early December when my card renews.
- Marriott Bonvoy: I currently have two active, 50k certificates from my Ritz-Carlton card — one set to expire on Jan. 31, 2021, and the other on July 27, 2021. I will earn another up to 50k free night from my Bonvoy Brilliant card in August, and I have an up to 35k certificate from my Bonvoy Business Amex attached to a fall reservation that is also at major risk of being canceled (I decided to keep the business card open when Marriott announced that personal and business cardholders can stack elite-night credits each year).
- World of Hyatt: I have a Category 1-4 certificate associated with a fall reservation at risk of being canceled, and I'll earn another in September.
In other words, by the middle of fall (and assuming my existing trips are, in fact, canceled). I will have a total of eight available, free-night certificates — with expiration dates ranging from Jan. 31, 2021 to Dec. 31, 2021. That's more than a week's worth of stays!
I understand that I'm likely the exception rather than the norm, as carrying multiple premium travel rewards cards may not be very common. That said, there are a few things that I'd love to see hotel programs do in light of the ongoing pandemic and continued travel restrictions.
Extend expiration dates ... again
It's fairly clear that the coronavirus isn't going anywhere, any time soon. While vaccine development continues, it's entirely plausible (even probable) that travel restrictions will remain into 2021.
As a result, it's time to consider another extension of the various travel certificates that airlines and hotels offer — including free-night awards.
There are a couple of hotel programs most in need of additional extensions. Marriott, for example, has only extended older certificates through Jan. 31, 2021 — which gave me an additional six months to use last year's 50k one from my Ritz-Carlton card but doesn't help those issued this year. My newest one, which just arrived on July 27, has just one year of validity:
IHG is another example, as it's only extended expiration through Dec. 31, 2020. As a result, if your card renewal came in November or December of 2019, you were given mere weeks of additional validity.
Members who earn certificates are clearly engaged with the program, via a cobranded card or through actual stay activity. Providing added flexibility for these awards is a simple way to reward these loyal travelers.
Allow conversions to points
Another option for hotels to consider is to allow one-time conversions to points. For ones with a published, maximum redemption amount, this would be simple: Either use that number or "discount" it slightly. Some members may prefer 25,000 Marriott points or 30,000 IHG points over a certificate with a ticking expiration clock.
There's even a precedent for this exact strategy. In March, TPG Editor-at-Large Zach Honig successfully converted his expiring Hyatt certificate (valid at Category 1-4 properties, so up to 15,000 points per night) into 10,000 Hyatt points. Sure, that may have sacrificed some potential value if he would otherwise be using it for a higher-end category property. Nevertheless, 10,000 Hyatt points are inherently more flexible than a certificate, since they can be put toward any redemption.
Hilton's certificates are a bit harder here, as they aren't capped by redemption amount, but restricted by night of the week instead (under normal circumstances ... as noted above, many are currently eligible for use on any night). While the Hilton Honors program has one property that prices at 120,000 points per night, a more common maximum award rate is 95,000 points — so allowing conversions to 50,000 or 60,000 points could be attractive.
Allow combinations for higher-tier properties
Instead of going entirely away from a certificate, how about allowing members to combine these awards for better redemptions? For example, two Marriott certificates — one at 35k and the other at 50k — could translate into a single free night at a Category 8 property. Rather than restricting a Hilton certificate to a standard room, maybe you could use two of them to lock in a suite.
It would be great for this to extend to a combination of certificates and points as well. For example, let's say you wanted to use an IHG award night at a property that would set you back 50,000 points. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn't be an option — since it exceeds the 40,000-point cap. But how great would it be to use points to make up the difference? Combine the certificate with 10,000 points and you have a very happy member.
Remove expiration dates entirely
The final option out there is to remove expiration dates entirely. Now, I'm not suggesting that programs make this change in perpetuity. Instead, why not say that all certificates issued (or set to expire) in 2020 are now valid for any date into the future? Sure, award charts may change, but providing maximum flexibility would essentially tell members, "Hey, we know you're not traveling right now, but we want you to be able to use your certificate when you feel comfortable hitting the road again — whenever that might be."
There's no question that all of the above solutions require investment in IT resources along with a clear plan for communication (both internally and externally). That said, members will remember which programs stood tall during this pandemic, and getting rid of expiration dates for free-night certificates would certainly be memorable.
I can't wait to hit the road again, but for now, I'm stuck with a ton of free-night certificates — not to mention hundreds of thousands of points and miles across multiple programs (as a result of canceled trips and temporary spending bonuses). Under the current policies, there's virtually no way that I'll be able to use all of awards before their respective expiration dates, and I'm sure I'm not the only one in this situation.
As a result, it would be great to see one (or more) of the above suggestions take effect before the end of the year.
Until that happens, you may be left planning a shorter road-trip or looking at a less-exciting use of these certificates — think London, Kentucky instead of London, United Kingdom or Rome, New York instead of Rome, Italy.